My collection of musics sprawls and continues to grow, and I’ve played around with all sorts of ideas for what to do with the riches, how to distribute them to audiences via radio shows I might do, books I might spawn, other media I might invade. Ten years ago, when I last started to assemble materials for an ethnomusicological farrago, YouTube didn’t exist; now practically anything you can imagine has a relevant video, so I’m thinking to combine that treasure trove with stuff I know (or, better yet, stuff I continue to be curious about).
The first project that occurred to me, in the form of a named collection, is a mandolin-centered compendium with the name ‘Cept Old Bill. I thought it would be interesting to begin with a tune written by Jethro Burns, which both honors and pokes a bit of fun at Bill Monroe, who is generally named as the Father of Bluegrass Music. The verses name a series of legendary mandolin players, basically saying for each “nobody does it better… ‘cept Old Bill”. So when I did a YouTube search for ‘Cept Old Bill one of the first results was this remarkable document. Not only do you see and hear Jethro Burns (who died in 1989), at the very end Bill Monroe himself puts in an appearance. :
There’s so much implied here, so many threads to follow. We might ask to see/hear each of the named mandolinists (YouTube is happy to comply), we might explore the Bluegrass genre (its origins, its evolution), we might wonder about the mandolins themselves. Each of these paths leads to further delights and questions, of course.
Let’s begin with Bill Monroe (1911-1996) himself. His Blue Grass Boys include many who are now famous in their own right, and serving as a Monroe sideman was a rite de passage for a couple of generations of banjo-, guitar-, and fiddle-players.
Steve Gebhardt’s 1993 film is a wonderful introduction to Bill’s world, though it emphasizes the mellow old dude rather than the famously irascible and demanding bandleader.
For some people, the lore of Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F5 mandolin is as fascinating as the music itself, and nobody tells it better, ‘cept Old Bill:
Pictures and stories abound.
As for Bill Monroe’s music, ‘Rawhide’ is probably the tune most familiar from the Monroe repertoire:
but Monroe’s innovations with the mandolin are even more interesting once one gets beyond the sheer drive of Rawhide. It’s been argued that Bill Monroe is one of the main links between Blues and Country/Old Timey genres:
[as a teenager] Bill also played with Arnold Schultz, a black blues musician, who became another major influence on his future music. He was given the chance to play guitar in Schultz’s band, thus incorporating something new into his awareness: the blues. “[Arnold] was a real musician,” reminisced Monroe, “and I thought it was an honor to get to play with him. There’s no colored man could play the blues with him, nobody in the world could play blues with that man.” (from BillMonroe.com, and see Keith Lawrence for more detail).
An example of the Monroe treatment of Blues, and a touch of the High Lonesome Sound too:
Get Up John is my candidate for the Most Rousing:
The mandolin is tuned to a cross-note Open D chord: F#A DD AA AD (where GDAE is standard mandolin tuning).
So it’s important to see Bill Monroe as an innovator with the mandolin, in the context of Country string bands, the ensemble groups in Southern/Appalachian traditions. It would be interesting to explore pre-Monroe mandolin, which is generally more melodic/less inclined to driving rhythm, but that’s a whole other project.
It’s useful to think of musicians in generational terms: younger players start as fans and emulators of older and established players, go on to make innovations in technique and repertoire, and in turn are followed by still younger players. Bill Monroe remains as a Gold Standard… but the problem with being the Father is that the Children are never content merely to emulate: they are pretty much driven to differentiate themselves by innovation. Exactly that process has happened with bluegrass mandolin: great honor is (still) paid to Bill Monroe as the Founder, but nobody aspires just to play exactly as he did.
Still, Bluegrass is essentially a classical form, the rules pretty clear about what is and isn’t Bluegrass, and while Bill Monroe was alive he wasn’t hesitant to express his opinion if he considered that somebody was deviating from the model and wasn’t playing Bluegrass. That ain’t no part of nothin’, he’d say. Shain Shapiro’s Bluegrass: A Theoretical Study provides more context, via interviews with a number of the Inheritors of the Monroe tradition.
Each of the instruments in the Bluegrass band (including the vocal –that ‘High Lonesome Sound’) has its own fascinating history of evolution and innovation, and players who began as straight-ahead Bluegrass players in or near the Monroe tradition have by now built their own legacies –but that too is a whole other project.
Here’s the Bill Monroe lineup when it included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise:
Here’s a version of ‘Cept Old Bill by Del McCoury and Sam Bush:
Sam Bush honors Jethro Burns
Mandolinists named in ‘Cept Old Bill: David Grisman, Sam Bush, John Duffy, Mark O’Connor, Mike Marshall, Norman Blake, Jesse McReynolds… each deserves an analytical page of his own, and there are a number of worthy Successors who would surely have been added if Jethro was still playing the tune: Frank Wakefield, Andy Statman, Tim O’Brien, Chris Thile, Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz…
Something of the wealth of possibilities (which I may reorganize and narrate more fully anon):
Chris Thile and Tim O’Brien play a Bill Monroe tune:
“The Greatest Improv Mandolin Solo Ever”: Chris Thile w. Mark O’Connor
at 1:40 Chris starts to improvise (through 4:15)
and here’s where it gets you in the band context, a long way from Monroe with Flatt and Scruggs:
EMD with Grisman
EMD 2003 Quintet Reunion
DGQ 2006 first set
The basic organology of the mandolin turns out to be pretty complicated, and probably won’t fascinate all that many readers. The voice is exactly in the range of the violin: GDAE. Mandolin Café’s history covers the ground pretty well, but add Daniel Coolik’s piece, a page on A-model Gibson mandolins, mandolinluthier.com’s lovely photos, Graham McDonald’s Mandolin Project, and finally listen to Dixie Michelle: