Global Stories, Local Issues: Storytelling Through Music
January 12, 2021
This piece tells a story of Appalachian musical culture through the medium of the bluegrass guitar. As Charlie Keziah explores his own musical heritage, he also validates the action of making — in this case, music — as an essential knowledge-building technique. Follow along as he journeys through the history of bluegrass not with a pen or keyboard, but with his guitar and a pick.
By Charlie Keziah
Music is a language. And as with any language, to understand it is to learn its vocabulary and its grammar.
During the COVID-19 lockdown of spring 2020, I set out to learn the language of bluegrass guitar. I sought to reconnect with my musical heritage, which, in my mind, meant learning to play the melodies that told the stories of Appalachia. I'm still a beginner, having barely scratched the surface of the communicative capacity of bluegrass. Yet as I learned to replicate its patterns, motifs, and riffs on my own guitar, I began to see them as parts of a language, acting in ways similar to the syntax of a written or spoken history. What follows is a recording — in words and music — of my journey back my roots.
Knowledge Is in the Making
In her ethnography on the Vodou flags of Haiti, Elizabeth Chin stresses how ethnographic knowledge is made valid through processes of making. Learning the needlework techniques used to create Vodou flags puts her in a better position to stitch together the cultural stories and lessons behind them.
Throughout her work, Chin emphasizes the notion that other mediums can communicate cultural stories and knowledge just as well as, if not better than, the written or spoken word. "We make things in part because language is never enough,” she writes. With flag-making, she is "textile-izing" knowledge with needle and fiber.
Music, in similar ways, has the power to tell stories more vividly than words alone. We may not remember the lyrics of our favorite songs, but the melodies might stay with us for life and communicate with our psyches in ways that lyrics alone cannot.
Can certain musical traditions transmit their origin stories and histories through melody and technique?
I test this question on the bluegrass musical traditions of Appalachia. I am the only member of my family, dating back hundreds of years, who was not born and raised in North Carolina. While my relatives were acclimated to the bluegrass sound by the time they could talk, I grew up in Colorado. Bluegrass is a language that I feel I should understand but haven't yet fully grasped. In what follows, I test the communicative powers of bluegrass on my fingers and my ear by learning its stories and traditions.
In a word, I am “sound-ifying” bluegrass knowledge.
A Sound-History of Bluegrass
Before Bluegrass: Traditional Appalachian Music
Bluegrass is a story of cultural confluence. Diverse cultures came together to create bluegrass music, yet we can trace the individual cultural components that contributed to its distinctive sound. Traditional Appalachian music, the oldest antecedent of bluegrass, began with the mass exodus of lower- and middle- class Scottish, English, and Irish farmers to the Appalachian region in the eighteenth century.
Over time, the traditional ballads and reels that these groups brought across the Atlantic Ocean melded into a distinctive Appalachian sound. The fiddle, one of the most iconic instruments in bluegrass, was developed by these Anglo-Celtic groups into a lead instrument in the ensemble .
The guitar, however, was rare in Appalachia, and was not included in traditional ballads and reels. In its place was the mountain dulcimer, which was used to carry the ensemble’s tonal center and rhythmic backbone during traditional ballads, while the fiddle and vocals performed the lead roles. With its pure and sharp timbre, rhythmic strumming pattern, and constant, droning bass notes reminiscent of Scottish bagpipes, the sound of the dulcimer reinforces its position as a back-up instrument meant to ensure the cohesion of the ensemble’s musicians.
After the Civil War ended and new infrastructure opened up previously isolated parts of Appalachia, traditional Appalachian music experienced a period of broad cultural exchange, particularly with African American musical traditions. Lower-class whites in Appalachia held similar economic and social statuses to African Americans, which allowed the groups to trade musical traditions in close proximity.
African Americans began playing the fiddle, the lead instrument in the traditional Appalachian musical repertoire, and Anglo-Celtic groups learned to play the banjo, an instrument of West African descent. The addition of the banjo was a critical development in the progression of Appalachian music into bluegrass, as it created an entirely new sound when combined with the traditional Anglo-Celtic ensemble. Over time, a new style of music emerged, called old-time.
During this period, the guitar began to replace the mountain dulcimer as the instrument holding the ensemble together. While originally rare, the guitar became widely available in the South at the beginning of the twentieth century through mail-order catalogues and innovations in mass production, and they arrived in Appalachian towns by train.
Old-time guitar carries the distinctive role of being both the rhythmic backbone and the bass instrument of the ensemble, as upright bass was not yet common. Because of this, old-time guitar focused largely on bass lines that transitioned between the song’s chords.
In the recording below, I play just the bass lines. The guitar's role as metronome and bass can be heard in the “boom-chick” pattern between the bass note and the high strings.
The Whiteness of Bluegrass
As Appalachian music made its way out of the mountains, record labels became interested in broadcasting the unique Appalachian sound to the rest of the country. Motivated by profit and driven by misguided or pernicious beliefs that associated Appalachian music with whiteness, the early labels only recorded white contributions.
In effect, Black contributions to Appalachian music were selectively deinstitutionalized, which relegated Black musical influences within the genre to obscurity. What was once an open collaboration between two racial groups became segregated, and Black musicianship in old-time music was all but destroyed. This had particularly profound effects on the banjo, which lost nearly all of its Black musicians as it was claimed by and repositioned within an almost entirely white musical culture.
The Beginnings of Bluegrass
Bill Monroe is often credited as the father of bluegrass, and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, as the namesake of the genre. After finalizing the band in 1945 with the inclusion of bluegrass icons such as Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, the group eventually became known as the “Original Bluegrass Band." The band is credited with configuring the bluegrass ensemble as mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, and upright bass. The group also created the frantic, dexterous, and twangy quality dubbed the “high lonesome sound."
The addition of the upright bass, which became the metronome and the low-end of the ensemble, freed the guitar to focus less on bass lines and back-up chords. The guitar evolved from the “boom-chick” rhythm of old-time music:
and began to develop more elaborate melodies, like this:
The guitar also changed its voicing of the "G chord" shape, perhaps the most important chord shape within Appalachian music and often the tonal center of Appalachian tunes. Old-time guitar’s G chord voicing included every note in the chord:
But bluegrass guitar’s G chord only included the first and the fifth notes in the scale:
“Cleaner” than its old-time counterpart, the bluegrass G chord allowed the lead instruments — banjo, mandolin, and fiddle — to experiment with more innovative solos without increasing the clashing of notes in the overall ensemble sound.
Bluegrass Grows Up
The mandolin, banjo, and fiddle were not the only instruments to enter an experimental phase when bluegrass became a distinct genre. As the guitar’s popularity increased and more musicians were exposed to its possibilities, it became more and more integrated into the bluegrass sound.
In the era following the debut of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, the guitar’s role evolved from a rhythmic instrument carrying the tonal center of the ensemble to a lead instrument alongside the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin. Players pushed the boundaries of the instrument’s technique, timbre, and sound. Flatpicking, a method of striking the individual strings with a pick, replaced the fingerstyle guitar that musicians had used before the creation of bluegrass, which allowed players to give the guitar a solo-style feel:
African American Blues Influence
Guitar innovators, such as Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and George Shuffler, developed their own unique solo styles in the 1950s and 1960s drawing on the sounds of the banjo and fiddle. These artists also took inspiration from African American blues electric guitar players, exhibiting an enduring cultural exchange within the Appalachian musical tradition in spite of the racialization that occurred in the old-time era.
The transformation of the guitar into a solo instrument occurred on a continuum between the rhythm guitar of the early bluegrass age and the flatpicking solo guitar that emerged in the following twenty years. "Modernized" rhythm guitar carried the distinctive “boom-chicka” sound reminiscent of early bluegrass, but its dexterity and complexity had increased, perhaps due to the influence of the banjo:
The flatpicking style introduced fast lines, or quickly moving lines of individual notes and intricate melodies, between the chords and rhythms:
As the “boom-chicka” rhythm disappeared, the guitar shifted from a rhythmic to a lead instrument.
Bluegrass continues to be a rapidly evolving genre that pushes the boundaries of Appalachian music traditions. While the consequences of racializing Appalachian music in the early twentieth century still have profound impacts on bluegrass today, groups like Gangstagrass are revitalizing the severed connection between Appalachian music and its African American musical heritage.
The outside influences of rock, country, and hip hop are transforming the way that bluegrass presents itself to the world and the stories that it tells through its ever-evolving sound. New-age acts, such as Nickel Creek, Billy Strings, and the Infamous Stringdusters, continue to push bluegrass and its instrumentation to extremes while modernizing its sound and lyrics to attract a contemporary audience and to grapple with contemporary issues.
Bluegrass Guitar Today
Just as the bluegrass genre continues to adapt to the world today, the guitar continues to evolve into its contemporary form. Bluegrass guitar is now a hybrid instrument that can take on a variety of roles within the ensemble. In this recording of "21st of May," the sound begins with a solo-style ascending line that transitions to a more rhythmic, yet still intricate, melodic verse indicative of rhythm guitar with its distinctive “boom-chicka” feel:
You'll hear how the guitar no longer only occupies a lead or rhythmic role: it exists somewhere in between, where the musical traditions of old and new mix together and form novel sounds while maintaining reverence for older traditions and techniques.
In this recording of "Cumberland Gap," the guitar takes on the role of a modern solo. Its intricate melody and lines of individual notes, however, still pay homage to the past by using a simple chord progression and a solo style reminiscent of early Appalachian fiddle music:
Bringing It Home
Music Is a Language
There are three takeaways that I hope to pass on from this “sound-ified” ethnographic work. First, music is a language. Music is capable of sharing a wealth of information, but, as with any language, if we don't take the time to learn it, we can never fully grasp what the music is telling us.
It is only after learning the language of bluegrass through the medium of the guitar that I am beginning to understand the bluegrass story. As I continue to improve, more details of this story will undoubtedly emerge. The same is true for any other genre of music: it takes a level of musical fluency in any musical tradition to truly hear what is being told. Music has so much to tell us, but we must know how to listen.
Music Is an Archive
Second, music keeps historical records. While Appalachian music has evolved over time, every musical contribution on the journey from traditional Appalachian music to modern bluegrass is tucked away somewhere in the sound, where it will remain in some form for eternity.
Music, however, is a more flexible record-keeper than books. The addition of novel contributions into older musical traditions causes new and old to interact and change in ways that are impossible to mimic when the same contributions are recorded with words onto a page.
We hear this clearly in the story of the modern bluegrass guitar, which is both a rhythm instrument of the past and a solo instrument of the present. The interaction of these two roles has formed an entirely new sound that pushes the envelope of innovation and virtuosity without degrading the integrity of either. Music has the profound ability to show the implications of the new as it interacts with the old in a way that spoken or written language cannot.
Making Can Be Scholarship
Third, learning and making music as a method of gaining knowledge is a valuable ethnographic tool that has its place in the academy. Bluegrass tells a historical story that no other Appalachian medium of communication can tell. Language is truly not enough to tell the full story of a culture, and using music as the interactive, evolving record-keeper that it is can extend the story past the limitations of the spoken or written word.
I began the journey of learning bluegrass guitar to test music’s ability to communicate history and help me reconnect with my musical heritage. While the experiment is long from over — there are thousands of hours of practice between me and musical fluency in the genre — I would still consider the experience overwhelmingly successful. Through “sound-ifying” knowledge, I have built a closer connection to my heritage and my relatives alive and past. I hope that the project offers insight into music’s ability to act as language and storyteller.
Perhaps most importantly, I hope that this piece serves as a reflection on the immense value that music holds given its ability to preserve stories, interact with other cultures, adapt to change, and provide commentary on the human condition. Music is a dynamic microcosm of the larger world, and we have much to gain personally and culturally by respecting music as a source of wisdom.
 Elizabeth Chin, "Needlework," Feminist Anthropology 1, no. 1 (May 2020), 7.
 Patricia Keppel, But Did You Know...Appalachian Music & Virginia's Mountain Towns, Virginia's Travel Blog (Sep 9, 2020).
 Differences Between Old-Time and Bluegrass Guitar, dir. Nikolai Fox, perf. Nikolai Fox, (Oct 27, 2015).
 Differences Between.