Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Myths of Creation

Stephen Jay Gould has a story in Bully for Brontosaurus about Baseball. He talks about how Baseball slowly evolved from Americans playing informal games of stickball and cricket until things coalesced and the game slowly and gradually evolved (the point of Gould's story) into Baseball.

He compares this to the myth of the creation of baseball as a single event by a single man, Abner Doubleday, and shows why the myth has more appeal and staying power than the evolutionary reality. We like things to happen all at once. Gradual randomness is just... icky.

For myself, I tend to like gradual randomness. It conforms to the way I think. If someone says to me "and then one afternoon Abner Doubleday drew a diamond in the dirt and started explaining something called the infield fly rule.." I'm rolling my eyes and wondering how the remote wound up on Fox News. Isn't Charlie Rose on anywhere anymore?

But I came across a story the other day that blew me away in that it is one small group completely changing the face of popular culture. Forever. In this case we're talking about one of my favorite musical genre: Bluegrass.

Bluegrass seems particularly ill-suited (to me) for a "creation myth". This is a form of music that combines traditional standards (what you might call "Mountain Porch" music), blues, ragtime and jazz. Sounds like something that should just sort of come together.

But according to some reading I've been done, you get to thank one guy for it: Bill Monroe. He put together a band in the mid-40's called the Blue Grass Boys consisting of banjo player Earl Scruggs, singer/guitarist Lester Flatts, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist player Howard Watts.

The way the banjo was played was very different than what had been the standard. It wasn't played like a guitar, but picked with three fingers in what is today known as "Scruggs Style" banjo playing.

If you hear dueling banjos, then you know what I mean.

Over time other instruments have been added to the mix, especially the dobro and mandolin but the core instrumentation was set right then and there.

In the late 40's the Stanley Brothers began recording "in the style of the Blue Grass Boys" and what was just the style of Bill Monroe's band had become a musical genre.

When Flatt and Scruggs leave and form their own band, in Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers you have the 3 core bands of blugrass' golden age.

Not quite 6 days but when I started looking into bluegrass' roots I did not expect the story to be clear at all. The idea that it formed in less than 10 years under the guidance of about a dozen men is pretty amazing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are you doing research for Blood & Bluegrass or something? Hehe!

I love bluegrass myself altho I have problems finding just what I like. I tend toward what I call "railroad bluegrass" with some good harmonica in it. Something you can just picture a train chugging away to in the late 1800's.

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