I remember reading a think piece somewhere (probably in The Stone blog) that talked about the correlation between musical training and academic achievement in school aged children. In the comments stream, a guy had written from France to say how “American” the story was. The intrinsic value of music was somehow not enough to justify teaching it. The language of the gods had to be tailored to our bourgeois aspirations of professional achievement. Sacrebleu.
Last week I bemoaned our country’s failure to remember its past, and sometimes I’ll take a swipe at our exceptionalism or some other native trait that irks me, but that’s usually only because I’m in love with my own country. The source of that love? Even in our too-fast-moving contemporary culture defined by its constantly connected consumer craziness and its obsession with wealth acquisition, the land continues to shape our story. Stay long enough in the Northeast Kingdom and you’ll get a bit frosty. Hang out in Eugene and the green will glow through your skin. Lay up on the Carolina coast a while and see if you don’t start feeling a little tidal.
This week’s feature on two bands that have spent the better part of the last decade reinterpreting the bluegrass tradition is a case in point. I had occasion last week to be asked in public what I thought Charlottesville was all about and I reverted to a prior answer, calling it a preppy town with a hippy heart and deep pockets. It’s also the quintessence of the Piedmont, one eye fixed jealously on the refinements of the capitals and the other searching the Blue Ridge, wondering about the possibilities across the divide.
The Appalachian culture that shaped bluegrass music is gone. Subsistence farming and coal mining no longer support an insular Scotch-Irish population that stretched from Pennsylvania to Tennessee. While we haven’t had muleskinners for some time, we still have the “Muleskinner Blues.” We still have melodies shaped by reels and ballads and gospels to carry the stories of life in the continent’s oldest mountains. When we’re feeling low, we can still take a turn harmonizing a high, lonesome chorus in some little pickin’ shack and feel the better for it.