Scott Underwood L&S Arts & Humanities
Bluegrass: Black Roots, Black Reclamation
Bluegrass music is a modern invention, emerging in the 1940s as a synthesis of Black music forms such as work songs, gospel, and blues with white European-descended fiddle tunes and traditional ballads from the British Isles by way of Appalachia. It includes prominent use of the banjo, an African instrument brought by enslaved Blacks, and stresses instrumental virtuosity including improvisational “jamming” derived from Black jazz of the 1920s. Despite these factors, bluegrass has for most of its history been associated with white musicians and white audiences. In the last twenty years, Black musicians such as Rhiannon Giddens and Jake Blount have begun to reclaim and refashion traditional string band music. My research seeks to understand this racial split in traditional music. Why did bluegrass become white? What Black music influenced bluegrass, and where did it “go”? Why did the banjo move from Black to white music? What factors have led to the recent resurgence of Black string band music? Beyond racism and appropriation, what are the socio-musical forces that contributed to this split and can we add perspective to the recent revival in Black traditional music forms?