Folk and Bluegrass Styles...


Folk music is considered to be music that originates from the people. It is not the preserve of professional composers because its themes and melodies are derived from the experiences and lives of people who usually have no professional musical training. The lyrics are usually an expression of social or personal conditions. Work songs are a common folk theme and are an excellent example of community and the lives of those who exist within that community. Sea shanties and farming songs are two types of folk music that have work related themes. It is only natural for communities to express their joy at the arrival of spring and the promise of a bountiful harvest or for sailors to celebrate their arrival home after a long time at sea.

Folk music before modern recording tended to be regional and sung in local dialects. The invention of sound recording meant that for the first time these regional songs could be captured and preserved and heard by people from different backgrounds and countries. Folk music had always been passed down orally from generation to generation but industrialization had led to the fragmentation of traditional rural communities as people moved to industrial urban towns and cities. Musicologists became very aware that the old songs were disappearing and soon there was a movement to capture the songs using the technique of field-recording. Alan Lomax is one of the most famous of these early scholars who took to the roads of America with the aim of recording folk music for the Archive of American Song of the Library of Congress. In England the work was done by the composer Percy Grainger.

Despite all these changes, folk music will always have its place in society. The form that the music takes may change but never the reason for its existence.

Playing Folk Music


The recording of an old Led Belly song "Goodnight, Irene" by The Weavers in 1949 revived general interest in folk music and gave rise to a new movement in the 1950s that was called the American folk music revival. The next decade saw the distinction between popular music and folk music becoming blurred.In the US and many other countries, folk music and folk guitar became very popular and musicians like Bob Dylan wrote contemporary folk music that encapsulated the feelings and politics of the 1960s. This style most often uses an acoustic guitar, open chords, simple chord progressions and vocals. You can play folk guitar with a pick, or by finger picking. This style is simple, yet diverse enough to let you play a variety of tunes.

Folk music evolved during the 1960s into folk-rock and the electric guitar started to take on the role once reserved for the acoustic guitar. However many of the 1960s rock bands also featured acoustic guitar songs on their albums. These songs are not "folk music" in an historical sense but they are a modern adaption of the older folk style and are now generally referred to as "acoustic music". Often they use the same progressions as older folk songs but incorporate a catchy strumming pattern, rhythm or singing style. Here's a short list of songs that have a folk influence:

  • House Of The Rising Sun - The Animals
  • The Times They Are A Changing - Bob Dylan
  • Sloop John.B - The Beach Boys

These are songs that have become immensely popular, such that many people can sing them communally though they may need prompting to remember the next verse. Although these songs can often be performed on an acoustic guitar, they are not quite "folk". You are encouraged to learn these songs and perform them with the view of encouraging others to sing along.

In bluegrass, as in some forms of jazz, one or more instruments each takes its turn playing the melody and improvising around it, while the others perform accompaniment; this is especially typified in tunes called breakdowns. This is in contrast to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together or one instrument carries the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment. Breakdowns are often characterized by rapid tempos and unusual instrumental dexterity and sometimes by complex chord changes.

Bluegrass music has attracted a diverse and loyal following worldwide. Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe characterized the genre as: "Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."

Unlike mainstream country music, bluegrass is so traditionally played on acoustic stringed instruments. The fiddle, five-string banjo, guitar, mandolin, and upright bass (string bass) are often joined by the resonator guitar (also referred to as a Dobro) and harmonica. This instrumentation originated in rural dance bands and is the basis on which the earliest bluegrass bands were formed.

The guitar is now most commonly played with a style referred to as flatpicking, unlike the style of seminal bluegrass guitarist Lester Flatt, who used a thumb and finger pick. Banjo players often use the three-finger picking style made popular by Earl Scruggs. Fiddlers will frequently play in thirds and fifths, producing a sound that is characteristic to the bluegrass style. The bassist will almost always play pizzicato, occasionally adopting the "slap-style" to accentuate the beat. A bluegrass bass line is generally a rhythmic alternation between the tonic and dominant of each chord, with occasional walking bass excursions.

Instrumentation has been an ongoing topic of debate. Traditional bluegrass performers believe the "correct" instrumentation is that used by Bill Monroe's band, the Blue Grass Boys (mandolin, played by Monroe, fiddle, guitar, banjo and bass). Departures from the traditional instrumentation have included accordion, harmonica, piano, autoharp, drums, electric guitar, and electric versions of other common bluegrass instruments, resulting in what has been referred to as "newgrass."


Aside from specific instrumentation, a distinguishing characteristic of bluegrass is vocal harmony featuring two, three, or four parts, often with a dissonant or modal sound in the highest voice (see modal frame), a style described as the "high, lonesome sound. Commonly, the ordering and layering of vocal harmony is called the 'stack'. A standard stack has a baritone voice at the bottom, the lead in the middle (singing the main melody) and a tenor at the top; although stacks can be altered, especially where a female voice is included. Alison Krauss and Union Station provide a good example of a different harmony stack with a baritone and tenor with a high lead, an octave above the standard melody line, sung by the female vocalist. However, by employing variants to the standard trio vocal arrangement, they were simply following a pattern existing since the early days of the genre. The Stanley Brothers utilized a high baritone part on several of their trios recorded for Columbia records during their time with that label (1950-1953). Mandolin player Pee Wee Lambert sang the high baritone above Ralph Stanley's tenor, both parts above Carter's lead vocal. This trio vocal arrangement was variously used by other groups as well. In the 1960's Flatt and Scruggs often added a fifth part to the traditional quartet parts on gospel songs, the extra part being a high baritone (doubling the baritone part sung in the normal range of that voice; Howard Watts [aka 'Cedric Rainwater] providing the part). The use of a high lead with the tenor and baritone below it was most famously employed by the Osborne Brothers who first employed it during their time with MGM records in the latter half of the 1950's. This vocal arrangement would be the defining aspect of the Osbornes' sound with Bobby's high, clear voice at the top of the vocal stack.


Bluegrass tunes can largely be described as narratives on the everyday lives of the people from whence the music came. Aside from laments about loves lost, interpersonal tensions and unwanted changes to the region (e.g., the visible effects of mountaintop coal mining), bluegrass vocals frequently reference the hard-scrabble existence of living in Appalachia and other rural areas with modest financial resources. Some protest music has been composed in the bluegrass style, especially concerning the vicissitudes of the Appalachian coal mining industry. Railroading has also been a popular theme, with ballads such as "Wreck of the Old 97" and "Nine Pound Hammer" (from the legend of John Henry) being exemplary. Also there are many songs that are written about the different weather occurrences; mostly about the rain. For example,"No Place to Hide" and "Early Morning Rain". Both of these songs are very popular songs in the bluegrass world today.