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Bluegrass Symposium Revives Genre and Class Debates

Bluegrass music has taken a long road to the ivory tower from its hardscrabble roots in the rural South.

But 50 years after mandolin player Bill Monroe, often credited as the father of bluegrass, broke from country traditions and melded breakneck instrumentals with unique melodies, academics are coming around.

A symposium that began in September at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky., brought together scholars from 17 states and three countries to discuss bluegrass and why its fast pickin’ banjos have been so slow to take root in academia.

A dozen or more universities have folk studies programs that include classes on bluegrass, but outside of a folk revival in the 1960s that led some to seriously look at the subject, most academics haven’t embraced the genre as they have jazz and blues.

“Poor rural Whites are in a sense the last examined minority,” says Dr. Erika Brady, a professor of folk studies at Western Kentucky who helped organize the symposium.“It’s a group that it’s taken the academic world a long time to get around to.”

It is impossible to ignore social groups and race when asking about the development of bluegrass studies, Brady says, and too often there are misconceptions that bluegrass’ early practitioners were backward country folk incapable of finesse.

Bluegrass rose from the musical traditions of the downtrodden — southern workers, farmers and families who took to song in hard times. Monroe, a native of Rosine, Ky., about 40 miles northwest of Bowling Green, blended the blues, ragtime and folk songs he heard while growing up to fuel his driving performances on the mandolin at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville.

Monroe was already a staple star, and few identified the break from country as the genesis of a new style of music.

But historians point to Monroe’s band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, as the first practitioners of  a style that was just as new as jazz was at the turn of the century in New Orleans.

Thoughtful study was bound to come, says banjo player Bela Fleck, whose style crosses the distinctly American traditions of bluegrass, folk and rock, and has garnered thousands of modern music fans.

“It’s like music theory, which was created to study what already was. Bluegrass exists, and since it’s been around long enough, there are people who want to talk about it,” Fleck says.

Still, it’s a bittersweet moment for the faithful to move bluegrass from jam sessions to the lecture hall, says Paul Wells, director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University and a speaker at the symposium.

While music that isn’t embraced by the universities can be trivialized — it’s not culture with a capital C — anything that’s worthwhile will eventually be examined. Whether it’s art or music, people want to understand what they like, Wells says.

“Some people think that it’s over-intellectualizing a grassroots music. But why not give it full attention?” he says. “It can be some of the most hair-raising, emotional music you ever want to hear.”

— Associated Press

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