Bluegrass Corner

Is Bluegrass Music Political?

That, at first glance, may strike you as an odd question, but think about it. The bluegrass repertoire includes songs about coal mining, labor unions, strikes, and other clearly political activities. Also covered are songs about the struggles of working people of all stripes in a variety of circumstances. There are songs about farmers, factory workers, and their life issues. Mining, the production of energy, the rights of labor, strikes and shutdowns, the conversion of farmland to urbanization, and widening economic disparity between working folks and their bosses are all important political topics of the day covered in song.

Songs that have the power to move us have emotional content, and that power can come from songs about family, about love, God, and about personal tragedy – plenty of that in the bluegrass genre – but also from touching nerves that resonate with the powerful issues of the day. We want music to move us. We want that emotional content, so how can good music not touch politics?

Think of some of the greatest folk music of all time and you will find politics front and center. Give a listen to the lyrics of Pete Seeger’s “If I had a Hammer” or “I’m Sticking to the Union,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” (especially the later verses about private property!), and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’,” as but a few examples.

Even in the rock world politics finds its place. Who can forget Buffalo Springfield’s “There’s Something Happening Here.” Listen to almost anything by Neil Young and much of today’s radio music. Ever listen to the lyrics of Lady Gaga or Adele? Or country singers singing about the wars in the Gulf? Ever listen to Steve Earle? You will find lyrics addressing political issues of the day throughout old bluegrass and folk music and also in modern music as well. It’s the same with Gospel music, much of which is political in origin and content.

Is this a bad thing? No, not really. The struggles that ordinary people face every day in their lives are what motivate them, empower them, and sometimes overwhelm them. Hearing their struggles reflected in music is, accordingly, a powerful form of communication. Stir in the fact that people inevitably engage in activities to try and improve their lot and you find yourself at the door of politics. It is through political action that many of these issues can be, and are, addressed.

Political action, in turn, needs a song. In particular, folk music has been used politically as the rallying cry for many a movement. Arguably, folk music finds its origins in politics. Many a march, protest event, and political campaign have been centered around a piece of music. Think “We Shall Overcome” by way of example.

Think of any political campaign, from Romney and Obama on down, and you will hear associated music. This too is understandable – engaging the emotional content of music to unite those sharing common concerns and helping them translate that concern into action is a natural aspect of well written music. Note that the political users of music aren’t always the authors of the music. Bob Dylan claims in his autobiography that he never wanted to be a spokesperson for his generation, but his generation crowned him with that title and used his music for that purpose anyway.

So, fear not and dread not when you discern political content in your music. It has always been there and always will be. Let it move you. Consider its content. Judge for yourself, but don’t ask that bluegrass be apolitical; that would make it boring and uninteresting! In fact, expect political content and cherish it.

NU BLU in Concert Friday February 9. The San Diego Bluegrass Society is presenting Grammy-nominated Nu Blu in concert on Friday, February 6, at 7:30pm at the First Baptist Church of Pacific Beach, 4747 Soledad Mountain Road (off Garnet). There will be an opening local band performing from 7:30-8pm, and Nu Blu, out of North Carolina, will come on at 8pm. Admission is free; donations solicited. Nu Blu is a rising star in the bluegrass world featuring strong traditional bluegrass as well as more modern material.

Julian Family Fiddle Camp coming in April. The annual Julian Family Fiddle Camp will take place April 8-12 at Camp Cedar Glen outside Julian. See this month’s article about the camp for details.

Spring Bluegrass Campout in April. The annual bluegrass camp out will be held at the KOA Campground in Chula Vista over the weekend of April 17-19. There will be lots of jamming, a pot luck meal, and more. Public welcome. To reserve your discounted RV or tent spot (cabins also available) contact Phil Levy at: drlevy@pacbell.net.

Enjoy the early spring that San Diego offers, and get out to enjoy some bluegrass pickin’!

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