Volume I, No. 2, Winter 1973
The music had already started as we left the riverside parking lot and walked through the walnut and oak trees to the rustic platform where Bill Jones and the Bluegrass Travelers were picking a lively old-time fiddle tune bluegrass fashion. The men's yellow shirts matching the women's dresses made a colorful splash against the rough-sawed oak platform.
We picked our way through the audience which was reclining in lawn chairs, standing against trees and even some children up in trees. We walked around quilts spread on the grass where small children played and a father stretched out with eyes closed, tired from his week's work, letting the music fill and relax him as old favorites and newer unfamiliar songs came one after another all evening.
We found our way to some empty places in the impromptu seats of long boards nailed to whole logs. Our late arrival was not noticed in the casual, informal gathering. Several people smiled at us, and one even commented, "Oh, I see you're going to listen to bluegrass all during the week, too," as we set up our recording equipment. But most were oblivious to their surroundings as they felt and experienced the music all around them in the natural wooded ampitheater.
The clear unmistakable music of the fiddle was leading the other instruments in "Sally Goodin" as the guitar, banjo and mandolin pickers played rhythm. The steady beat of the bass fiddle was more felt than heard, causing the people all around us to move in time to the music, tapping toes or heels, swinging legs, strumming fingers, or some of the children swaying their whole bodies to the dominating rhythm.
On the next song the mood changed from the spirited hoedown to the slower gospel "Glory Road." This time the instruments played background to the Jones family trio singing three part harmony, Carol leading with her mother and father harmonizing in alto and baritone. Between the verses the instruments again took the lead with the mandolin and banjo alternating in some rapid skillful picking.
At an especially intricate part of the picking, the audience spontaneously clapped and cheered. Their interest and enthusiasm was contagious, spurring the musicians to pick and sing even better. Everyone was thoroughly enjoying it, the musicians as much as any.
A slight cool breeze found its way through the trees, as the hot July sun began to disappear behind the hill across the river which made a bend around the level wooded area temporarily turned theater. The horizontal lines of sunlight for the first time this day found their way under the trees momentarily giving a golden light to the performers. Captured by the strong rhythmic beat of the music, we were unaware when the sun sank below the hill and lights replaced it, as our complete attention was drawn to the music.
The Suns of Bluegrass were next, high school boys chauffeured all over Missouri and Illinois to bluegrass festivals by their father, Bill Klug, who is also their greatest fan. "Bluegrass is clean, wholesome music played in family-oriented surroundings," he said. "I'm pleased the boys love it so." Their own individual fast style showed the diversity of the music and the wide range of ages and backgrounds of bluegrass performers.
Group followed group singing and picking music for people who enjoy living. They sang the songs their grandparents used to sing on Sunday afternoon or played at a square dance on Saturday night. They sang gospel music and more recent songs adapted to bluegrass styles. The songs were about real life happenings, based on religion, love, joy, sadness, special events and occasions with most of them telling a story or legend. "It's a simple down to earth music," said seventeen year old performer Randi Calton.
Bluegrass music is played with a strong driving beat and is sung in three or four part harmony. There is usually a lead singer with a high tenor and a baritone or alto with a bass added when a quartette sings. The songs are often sung and played in higher keys of B flat, G and C flat which raises the voices up, giving the characteristic high tenor which is slightly nasal. Each group and each song is done differently with singers switching different parts to suit the song. Even the same group does not always sing the song the same way each time.
Five string instruments are basic to bluegrass. They consist of flat-top guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and sometimes the dobro guitar. (See article on dobro guitar, page 27 .) It is important for the musicians to play well and each takes pride in his skill. for that reason they do not use electric instruments for they want to retain the natural sound rather than volume. About one-third of the selections are instrumental, featuring different instruments in turn. Those usually featured are the banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Even in the songs, the instruments take the lead between verses, being more than a chording accompaniment for the singers.
Before realizing how the time passed it was midnight when the last group came to the stage. just as intense and vivacious as the first group, the Battlefield Bluegrass Express began. "It's a pleasure for us to be out here picking for you," said Charles Lee, the leader, as he began singing in harmony with his wife and daughter. Though they, as all the musicians, work all week at jobs such as policemen, electricians, doctors, salesmen, teachers, secretaries and housewives, they load up the whole family with tents or campers and supplies, traveling all over the Ozarks to spend their weekends singing, playing and enjoying the companionship and music of others. When the master of ceremonies indicated their thirty minutes were up, even at this late hour, the group wanted to continue. "Oh shucks," Lee said, "I was just getting started."
Even though the organized program was over, that didn't mean the audience or musicians had had enough. The children were put to bed, but jam sessions were going on in several places back at the trailers. "Hard core grass musicians can stay up until dawn playing music, then get up in the morning and play more. They have an amazing resistance to sleep," said one enthusiast. As we walked back to our car, the lonesome dobro of one group faded into the banjo picking of the next, which in turn was replaced by three fiddlers from different bands each seemingly trying to out race the others as they sawed their way through an impromptu piece.
Saturday and Sunday were filled with repeat performances of the ten to twelve groups invited to the festival with special performances by visiting musicians dropping on. Workshops, old fiddlers and flatpicking contests offered a change in Saturday's program.
A very special part of a bluegrass festival is the Sunday morning service and gospel singing. In the open air of the Ozark hills under the trees beside the gravel bar of the river, the presence of God is clearly felt as a few select groups sing bluegrass gospel, singing old-tlme songs like, "I'll Fly Away," "Lift Your Eyes to Jesus," "Washed in the Blood of the Lamb," and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." The skill of the pickers, the beautiful harmony and intense poise of the singers leaves the audience with the feeling of actually being "Washed in the Blood of the Lamb."
Charles Calton, father of the Colton Family, has expressed this feeling in his song which is on our sound sheet, "Bluegrass Music on Sunday Morning."
Bluegrass music on a Sunday morning
We preach, we pray this day.
We pray of our neighbor,
We sing of our savior,
We sing in the old gospel way.
It matters not your religion,
Nor the clothes you choose to wear,
But the festivals Sunday mornings
Are about our Lord up there.
We feel each song in our hearts,
Each group gets up to play,
The fast the slow it matters not,
It's the old gospel way.
In between events we wandered through the grounds, listened in on jam sessions, met new friends and talked with the band members who had donated their time to give BITTERSWEET its first official start by playing for us at a benefit performance earlier in the year.
We visited with Jan Lee of the Battlefield Bluegrass Express who helped us understand more clearly what bluegrass music is by comparing it with rock and country.
"Bluegrass is easier on your ears than rock and country both, because it emphasizes the instrument picking and playing in the band. It is important to really pick the instruments good and have good harmony. It's a more mellow sound and you can set back and listen without grabbing your ears. Country western usually has only one singer. Bluegrass involves quite a bit of harmony. Bluegrass is not a tear-jerking barroom type song like country, chasing around with other people. It's not as draggy. It's faster, has more feeling. It's a challenge as it's harder to play."Gerald Stowe added, "It's country soul."
Jan also described the different kinds of bluegrass music. She said there are three different types, basic, contemporary and modern. "The basic or old time bluegrass is driving. They hit it real hard. It's more nasal and sung higher and lonesome and through the nose lots of it. The contemporary is done in minor chords and with different chord changes and sequences that are unusual. The tune is not real basic. It switches around. It's got prettier tunes, I think. Modern bluegrass is a little too modern for me when they go to electrifying their instruments. We don't go for that here in the Ozarks."
We asked Inez Calton how the groups kept together since they used no music and had no visible leader. "We all play by ear. I guess it just comes natural or we're born with it. I used to play with my brothers and sisters. I met Charles through music and we've always played as a hobby. Charles can play anything. We just sort of know what each is going to do. One is the leader, but we mainly play our own rhythm and play and sing to the lead instruments."
Bluegrass music is a true modern folk music. Though the origin of any folk art is obscure, researchers in modern times have more success in determining development. But folk endeavors have roots far in the past in the common man who keeps no record. Bill Monroe of Rosine, Kentucky, is credited with starting the promotion of bluegrass music in the 1940's and giving it its name, but folk singers, country singers, gospel and family singers in the Ozarks as elsewhere have been singing and picking stringed instruments in similar styles for many decades. So this type of music was natural for them. They took their music and gave it a distinctive rhythm, pepping it up.
Most of the Ozark musicians grew up in musical families, learning to sing and play as they learned other things from their parents. Their natural skill and liking developed as they grew. Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of Ozark bluegrass is its family-oriented groups. Not only does the whole family attend the festivals, but they all participate. The women in the Ozarks have always been included in music; therefore the bands include many women. Jan Lee, who plays bass, and with her daughter Juanita sings trios with her husband, said, "I think in the Ozarks it's more family than anywhere, and I hope it stays that way.
Another Ozark characteristic may be more emphasis on gospel singing. This is also a natural outgrowth of the family singings, church singing conventions and the important role religion has always had in Ozark life. In early days of isolation, no doctors, nor outside help, the Ozark people put their trust in God. Still considered the Bible Belt, all gatherings of folk musicians include gospel music.
Late Sunday afternoon the audience and musicians packed up and one by one pulled out from the shady timber patch, crossed the creek, crawled slowly up the winding road to the highway to return to their homes, jobs and school until the next festival in a week or two.
We, too, drove slowly home with the forceful tunes still swirling through our heads, with tapes loaded with the music and our visits with musicians. Beginning as novices to the type of music, we have become ardent fans ourselves. We hope you enjoy a sampling of Ozark talent on our sound sheet and that some of you come to BITTERSWEET's bluegrass festival next June. The Calton Family, the Battlefield Bluegrass Express, Bill Jones and the Bluegrass Travelers, the Suns of Bluegrass and Harold Rowden, Ralph Withers and the Bluegrass Five didn't realize what an influence they had when they all traveled to Lebanon last June to give us our first real boost to financial solvency.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.