I’m a sucker for good music. A rock and roll song with a good deep bassline never fails to turn me on. Toshi Reagon is one of the sexiest women alive. And when I hear the twang of a steel guitar or banjo, I am positively lost. It is why I have an embarrassing collection of pop country music mixed in amongst the bluegrass, roots music, folk, and blues on my ipod. For full disclosure, I should also admit that I have a nagging and at times pressing desire to take up the banjo.
While it’s one thing to talk about the cultural ramifications of the performance of hip hop and the blues, parsing apart bluegrass and American roots music is a monster unto itself. What does it mean to be a White women who listens to music created by the ingenuity of slaves and later African Americans played on instruments that originated in Africa, largely played by White people (at least according to the mainstream media)? (Black Banjo has a great “About the Banjo” section that offers a brief and excellent overview of the history of the banjo if you are interested.) To a lesser extent I’ve also been pondering what it means to be a Pagan woman who listens to this same music filled with conservative Christian themes by musicians like Ricky Skaggs.
I’m not sure I know the answer to those questions. From what I can suss regarding cultural appropriation and music, it seems that the problem often lies more in the way that artists and their music are marketed therefore consumed by the general public than with the actual music these artists are making. And ultimately, I find myself more interested in non-mainstream bluegrass music and its derivatives than the mainstream. Certainly, I have music by the likes of Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley, Bela Fleck, Allison Krause, and the Dixie Chicks. Yes, I have this music, and I listen to it periodically. But the music I have by The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Laura Love, Jo Miller, and Abigail Washburn rocks my bluegrass world and makes me more excited than Earl Scruggs ever has.
Laura Love has long been a favorite artist of mine. She is black, queer and unapologetically liberal and as such subverts mainstream bluegrass and roots music in a number of ways. I loved her book and album You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes, an autobiographical piece about her childhood, and I was very excited when she released NeGrass about her slave and newly freed ancestors during the transition after the Civil War. She is passionate about highlighting black musicians playing the old style of African American bluegrass.
Otis Taylor is incredible and not to be missed.
Musicians like Abigail Washburn make me more interested in the broad and expansive possibilities of this music than spending my time worrying about legitimacy and digging for instances of cultural appropriation. She spent time living in China and wound up writing her incredible album Song of the Traveling Daughter which mixes American bluegrass music with traditional Chinese music to stunning effect. The following video is her with her new group, The Sparrow Quartet, jamming with Chinese musicians.
I will leave you with this culturally convoluted and absolutely delightful video of Abigail Washburn and Uncle Earl. Note that Washburn sings in Chinese throughout the video.