Search This Blog

Friday, January 6, 2017

You Don't Need A Reason In A Bluegrass Song

Today, while we were traveling to and from an appointment in Mount Sterling, KY, my wife Candice and I listened to a couple of Bluegrass CD's which we hadn't listened to in a while including Ralph Stanley's classic "Saturday Night" CD, Larry Sparks' "40" disc, and Dale McCoury's "Del And The Boys" album which contains one of the best Bluegrass songs ever recorded, "Vincent Black Lightning 1952" which was actually written by the great rock and roll guitarist Richard Thompson.  Actually, every one of those discs contains more than one Bluegrass classic recording.  Candice grew up in East Central Wisconsin and never listened to Bluegrass until we were married and she moved to Eastern Kentucky.  At first exposure, she frequently responded "it makes my ears hurt" but she has become a devout Bluegrass aficionado over the last twenty-five years.  But today, as she sometimes does in the middle of a Bluegrass song about death or murder she asked "but why did he kill her". This time she asked that question in response to "Banks Of The Ohio".  My first response, which I still think was a good one, was "you don't need a reason in a Bluegrass song".  But, if you listen to the lyrics, you will hear the words "I killed the girl I love you see because she would not marry me."  As is true with "Banks Of The Ohio", most Bluegrass songs which involve the murder of a loved one or an innocent do contain some stated reason for the murder. 

Bluegrass Banjo

The next best example of this type of song that pops into my head is "Pretty Polly".  Late in the song, the reason for the murder is clearly given: "Willie, Little Willie, I'm afraid of your ways The way you've been rambling you'll lead me astray".  The young Polly is clearly afraid that her lover, Little Willie  will lead her astray.  We don't clearly hear exactly how Polly is afraid this will happen but we learn almost immediately that Willie has planned this murder in advance and has "dug on your grave the biggest part of last night". 

Photo Of An Appalachian Graveyard

The Bill Monroe classic "The Little Girl And The Dreadful Snake" actually falls clearly into this category of songs without a clear reason for the death, not by murder but by snake bite, and also falls clearly into another of the most unique categories of Bluegrass which I have written about previously, Dead Baby Music.  The child dies due to a snake bite without any clear reason being given in the lyrics for her death.  It is also interesting that this song is included on a very unique compilation CD called "American Gothic: Bluegrass Songs Of Death And Sorrow".  That CD also contains a Mac Wiseman version of an old song called the "Ballad Of The Lawson Family" in which the father kills his wife and six children and commits suicide.  It is a classic Bluegrass song without a reason for the violence and the lyrics clearly state that "we'll never know what caused him to take his family's life". Of course, since the song is about the death of six little children, it also falls clearly within the subgenre of Dead Baby Music. 

I could go on at great length about all the Bluegrass songs which contain tragic circumstances without a reason for the tragedy but I think you get the point.  Some of the best songs in Bluegrass are tragic and have no clearly stated reason for that tragedy.  Let's all hope Bluegrass song writer's keep going for the next hundred years writing without a reason. 

No comments: