Bluegrass Music, Roots and Instruments

Dr. Ralph Stanley has always maintained that his music was “just mountain music.”  A few weeks ago, I posted a video of me playing Wildwood Flower on Facebook;  it has followed me through my childhood and is a joy to play.  But what was most interesting was when one of my friends from outside the United States asked if “this is Country Music?”  It stopped me cold.  Then, I linked her up with a bunch of artists showing the difference between what I was playing, and what the Nashville hierarchy determines country music to be.

Bill Monroe is certainly the “Father of Bluegrass.”  But he did not invent the style; he simply developed the music of people of Scotch, Irish and English ancestry in Appalachia.  He named the music he loved after Kentucky, not after the nature of the music (though knowing about a broken heart might be necessary in Bluegrass).

This then brings us to the roots of  Bluegrass Music, and the instruments that compose a good, strong Bluegrass band.  The first people to gain popularity in mountain music were the Carter Family, A.P., Maybelle and Sara Carter.  All three had been raised in the tight harmonies of southern gospel music, and shape note singing.

Bluegrass Music, Roots and Instruments

Bluegrass Music, Roots and Instruments

Though they only recorded for about twenty-five years, the Carter Family essentially created Country Music and Bluegrass Music. No Bluegrass or Country group would close a set without having played Keep on the Sunny Side, Wildwood Flower, or Foggy Mountaintop.

The next question then is what instruments did the Carter Family bring to the public eye?  Maybelle Carter brought a hollow bodied guitar to the group, Sara played autoharp.  After the A.P. Carter died in 1960, the group’s popularity remained stable, and their songs have shaped Bluegrass, and every other type of music.  While there is proof that the guitar has remained a staple of Bluegrass,  the autoharp (which is actually just a fretted zither) seems to make frequent and notable appearances in rock music (Led Zeppelin and PJ Harvey, Corrine Bailey Rae, and perhaps most notably John Mellencamp).

Looking at both traditional and modern Bluegrass bands, the autoharp is not a frequent participant.  Most likely this is because, like the guitar, it is a rhythm instrument and would replicate the guitar, the bass, and the muted mandolin as lead rhythm instruments. Bill Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys never had an autoharp player, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage have never had an autoharpist.

Does the autoharp belong in Bluegrass?  There is no reason it cannot, but there is certainly no real need for it either.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lori January 27, 2011 at 3:36 am

I love the autoharp.

Flatpicker January 27, 2011 at 10:11 pm

We do too!

Claire February 14, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I grew up with the autoharp, and now learning to play. The new release from Carolina Chocolate Drops features an amazing tune with autoharp and vocals only. Maybe not total bluegrass, but AMAZING!! Love the autoharp..

Zaylin August 20, 2011 at 4:32 am

I love riaedng these articles because they’re short but informative.

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