The Blues in Bluegrass

28 January 2012

Mike Henderson Gets the Blues

As I reported in a previous post, Mike Henderson recently announced his departure from the Steeldrivers, the popular bluegrass outfit known for its bouncy paeans to bloodlust and whiskey. I also mentioned that, despite his role in putting that group together, bluegrass seemed to be more of an avocation than an occupation for Henderson. I based this assertion in part on the low profile that Henderson maintained with The Steeldrivers, but I was also guided by some additional intelligence that I’ll share with you now— a Cousin Curly exclusive!

I was visiting Nashville a couple of years ago when I learned that Henderson had a regular gig at the Bluebird Café. Though it’s tucked into an unassuming suburban strip mall, the Bluebird is sacred ground for Nashville’s songwriting community. I was curious to see what sort of act a veteran bluegrass picker and session musician would bring to such an intimate venue.

As you can see and hear, Henderson and his merrie band were ripping through one swampy electric blues number after another. That’s how it went the whole night. And I have to say, whether he was exhorting the crowd to ignore the Bluebird’s famous no-talking-during-songs rule or belting out another baleful tune, Henderson seemed a good deal more relaxed than any of the several times I saw him perform with The Steeldrivers. Clearly, this was his home turf and the blues was his mother tongue.

‘Twas in the Spring, One Sunny Day

Superficially, bluegrass and the blues might seem to be products of cultures that have stood apart from one another. The blues was, of course, a cornerstone of African American culture during the first half of the 20th century, initially developing in the rural South and then evolving into an urban genre as African Americans migrated to the cities. Meanwhile, bluegrass first took hold as a musical genre among white folks in Appalachia and the South.

In reality, however, these art forms weren’t as segregated as the cultures from whence they sprang. Certainly in the case of bluegrass, the music was flavored by the blues from the outset. At the same time that the “Great Migration” was bringing thousands of black families from the southern delta into the cities of the Northeast and Midwest, many poor whites from the southern mountains were flocking to those same industrial centers, getting exposed to the blues and other musical styles along the way. Bill Monroe, the father of the genre, made a point of crediting the early influence that Arnold Shultz, an African American itinerant musician, had on his playing. His first single as a solo artist was a blues number (albeit one written by a white man), “Mule Skinner Blues” and “blue notes” play a big role in Monroe-style mandolin.

Here’s a blues that every bluegrasser knows— “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” I captured this performance by The Seldom Scene at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival. Like a number of performers, the group started the tune off slow and then “kicked it up.” And yes, it really was “in the spring, one sunny day.” Have a listen…

When Dudley Connell and Lou Reid trade off vocal duties on the slow and fast parts, they play up nicely how two traditions come together in this song. Connell’s delivery is relaxed and bluesy, whereas Reid’s is hard-driving and full of southern twang.

The history of “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” neatly exemplifies the cross-pollination that has occurred between the blues and bluegrass. The Mississippi Sheiks, an African American blues band, first recorded the song in 1930. By 1935, it had been recorded by the king of Texas swing, Bob Wills. I’d be curious to hear proposals as to which musician made the first bluegrass recording— a distinction that I would think is a bit hard to pin down, inasmuch as a number of string bands were playing the tune before bluegrass as such existed. In any case, the song has been a staple of bluegrass for at least six decades.

In our current era of cultural atomization, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of how much overlap and commonality there is among the artistic traditions that are at the core of our heritage and our identity.

Yer Pal— Curly


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