Have you ever wondered what type of music the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies was? Well, wounder no more. It was bluegrass. During the 40’s and 50’s bluegrass music was a big influence in society. It combined traditional folk ballads, gospel songs, and string band music to “create a style characterized by instrumental virtuosity, high-pitched vocals, and fats tempos” (Pendergrass pp. 3). It’s history; instruments and influences are what make bluegrass one of the most distinctive American forms of music.
Bluegrass music is the old time country music, which has been influenced by Scottish-Irish, British, the blues, Negro spirituals and gospel music as well. It had its start on the rural south and came about in the 1940’s after World War two. It was “basically a fusion of “hillbilly”, “folk” and various types of “country” that were popular with the farm families and blue collar workers” (Pendergrass pp. 4).
In the beginning it was called by various names including “hillbilly” and “mountain music. Most Professional musicians, however, did not like the term “hillbilly” music and referred to it as “Old Time Country” or “Country. ” It was not until the mid 1950’s that the term “bluegrass” was used. When thinking of American music, Bluegrass is a genre of music that will forever have a place in American history. Bluegrass has always been played on acoustic instruments. The typical bluegrass band consists of these six instruments: banjo (five-string), guitar (flat-top), fiddle, mandolin, dobro and bass.
In early bluegrass history they occasionally used spoons, bones, washboards and harmonicas as instruments. Along with close vocal harmonies, especially high-tenor harmony singing called the “high lonesome sound. ” Unlike country, singing tends to be high pitched and harmony is never sung in unison. Depending on the type of harmony, it is always above or below the lead singer. Bluegrass music can also be described as “high energy. ” The tempo tends to surge during solos, especially during banjo solos. Another bluegrass attribute that us different from other musical styles is the tradition of “passing a break.
This is when everyone with an instrument takes a turn. This is, “a clear stylistic departure from the Old-Time southeastern string band music from which bluegrass developed” (Pendergrass pp. 288). Although bluegrass has its connections to Old-Timey rural music from the American south, bluegrass is mostly the creation of one man named Bill Monroe. He formed the first bluegrass band and has been known ever since as “the father of bluegrass music. ” He named his band Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys in honor of the Blue Grass state of Kentucky, his home.
He was a very inventive mandolin player, singer and bandleader. In 1945, two new band members joined the group. They were Earl Scruggs an innovative banjo player and Lester Flatt a skillful guitarist. Of these, the most important was Scruggs who developed one of the most unique banjo styles ever created, the “three-finger” style. Scruggs, more than anyone else was responsible for making the banjo the signature instrument in bluegrass, and it is Scruggs” banjo sound that most people think of when bluegrass is mentioned.
The success of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, in the late 1940’s, broadened bluegrass appeal, and produced many imitators. Two of Monroe’s greatest sidemen Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs, who left Monroe in 1948, formed the first new bands in the bluegrass style. Their band was called the Foggy Mountain Boys. During their twenty-year collaboration, Flatt and Scruggs became important pioneers in bluegrass. They helped widen the appeal of bluegrass by producing bluegrass music such as the theme song to the 1960’s television show The Beverly Hillbillies and title song to the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.
Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs are the standard by which bluegrass music was played and sang. A close cousin of country music, bluegrass music is an acoustic musical style. Its music was a combination of homeland, popular and folk. Pioneers like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs all contributed to the genuine genre of bluegrass. Bluegrass music is now performed and enjoyed around the world. “It remains a vibrant musical form in touch with the past and constantly looking toward the future” (Pendergrass pp. 288).