10 November 2020

A not-really-necessary defence of Bluegrass: a history (and more)

The BIB editor writes:

The BIB post of 14/18 Aug. was mainly concerned with 'Making black influence in bluegrass visible', a student post by Teiana Nakano in Feb. 2018 on the blog 'Music 345: race, identity, and representation in American music'. Nakano's first paragraph (with links added by the BIB) reads:

Neil Rosenberg’s book Bluegrass: a history presents a greatly different idea of bluegrass history when being compared to Rhiannon Giddens’ keynote speech at the International Bluegrass Music Association Business Conference. I took particular interest to Giddens’ point that scholars and historians, which surely includes Rosenberg, have contributed the erasure of black history in bluegrass.

In fact, Rhiannon Giddens’s 2017 IBMA keynote address doesn't make this point. The scholars and historians she names are Dena J. Epstein, Phil Jamison, and Patrick Huber, all of whom strongly emphasise the importance of black traditions and performers in American folk and old-time music and dance. The people she blames are (a) Ralph Peer and others who created a segregated music marketing industry, fostering a myth that those who made and those who bought 'mountain music' were all white; and (b) folklorists and song collectors who colluded in creating this myth, among whom she focuses on Cecil Sharp. Readers of the BIB for 5 Oct. won't be surprised that I don't agree with her on this (see below).

Bluegrass: a history and the 2017 IBMA keynote address 'present different pictures' because they're about different things. Giddens asks 'Why is bluegrass so white?', and the answer (as she shows) is the artificial barriers that were erected before bluegrass developed. Her valid and important message - that it's time to remove barriers - takes nothing away from the value of Bluegrass: a history. Neil Rosenberg produced a comprehensive account, meticulously detailed and admirably organised and analysed, of the music that took its classic form in 1945, gained a name a decade later, and subsequently evolved. Those who wish the book had paid more attention to black music before 1945 should note that it does not pretend to be a history of white music before 1945 either.

Warning: Readers who have seen quite enough about Cecil Sharp on this blog should stop reading now.

The paragraph on Sharp from the 2017 keynote address is as follows, in italics. My comments are in roman.

Folklorists and song collectors at the time also had a huge hand in the creation of this myth; Cecil Sharp, founder of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, was one of the first to brave the Appalachian mountains in search of it.
Of the myth? No; some people have written of Sharp as if he were looking for Elizabethan settlers or a 'pure Anglo-Saxon race', but he was in search of songs that had originated in Britain and Ireland, because that was the focus of his life. He had devoted himself to English folk song and dance for fifteen years, and he had been given solid evidence that many such ballads and songs were still being sung in Appalachia. Not surprisingly, he wanted to find them.

With Maud Karpeles he spent three years in the Appalachian mountains,
Nearly a year, all told: two months in 1916, about four-and-a-half in 1917, and a similar total in 1918.

... recording families and making much of what he found there – but only the white folks.
And not even all of them - not the Dutch or Germans, for instance, who were surely white enough...

Now by the time they got to western North Carolina, the black population wasn’t as high as it was, but that’s only part of the reason there’s no black representation in his collections, which influenced everyone who came after; they just plain didn’t like black people.
Regrettably, there is truth in this, but not the whole truth. Sharp, from long experience with country people in England, found the white mountain people familiar, accessible, and congenial, as well as being richer in the music he was seeking than he could ever have expected. By contrast, he had no experience to put him on an easy footing with African-Americans or encourage him to approach them, as he did not expect them to have songs with origins in these islands. When he met an individual black person who did - such as Aunt Maria Tomes, who sang 'Barbara Allen' for him - they seem to have got on well together; but Sharp and Karpeles certainly expressed feelings (to use the words of Kehrberg and Keith) of 'disdain and dismissal' about black people in general.

This abounds in their writings – my favorite quote is this one; after a long hard hike looking for the most isolated homesteads to record, they caught sight of some likely looking log cabins. Sharp says [in his private diary]: 'We tramped – a very hard and warm walk, mainly uphill. When we reached the cove we found it peopled entirely by negroes!! All our trouble and spent energy for naught.' Except of course, he didn’t say negroes.
It wouldn't have helped if he had, by some present-day standards. The dismay of Sharp and Karpeles at this place was clearly (as Phil Jamison recognises) because they believed no suitable songs would be found among black people; this was before they had met Mrs Sinda Walker or Aunt Maria Tomes. However, a year later Sharp's intense dislike of Winston-Salem, NC, was partly due to its black population. Mike Yates, in his major account of Sharp in Appalachia, considers the way Sharp writes in his diary about them 'indefensible', though possibly exacerbated by the effects of ill-health.

Two things more about Sharp and race: first, after his initial visit to Appalachia his view was that the mountain people had 'so many of the essentials of culture' chiefly because 'they have one and all entered at birth into the full enjoyment of their racial heritage' (English folk songs (1917), introduction, p. ix). Developing that further (ibid., pp xix-xx) - and using 'racial' and 'national' interchangeably - he suggested 'with the greatest diffidence' that city education authorities in the USA tended

to ignore the educational and cultural value of that national heritage which every immigrant brings with him [...].  I admit that the problem which faces the educationist in America is a peculiarly difficult one, but it will, I am convinced, never be satisfactorily solved until the education given to every foreign colonist is directly based upon, and closely related to, his or her national inheritance of culture [bold type added by the BIB].

In theory, at least, Sharp was consequently arguing against 'Anglo' supremacy in education.

Secondly, by the time he finally left Appalachia, his own brief experience there had indicated, and his communications with John C. Campbell would have confirmed, that there were no simple answers to the question of ethnic origins of its population. What he felt entitled to observe was that 'whatever admixture of races there may be in the mountains', the predominant culture there (judging by traditional songs and dances) was 'Anglo-Celtic' - a term that Campbell hoped might reconcile the proponents of 'Scotch-Irish' and 'English' origin.
John C. Campbell, The southern highlander and his homeland. Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 1921. Chapter IV, 'Ancestry', pp 50-71 (see Sharp's contribution, pp 69-71).

English folk songs from the southern Appalachians (1917 ed.), introduction by Sharp, pp ix, xix-xx.

© Richard Hawkins

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