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Folks are Folks; Women in Bluegrass Music and Beyond

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As we add titles to our collection from the Smithsonian Collection, we are eagerly learning more about different music genres and their development, particularly of American Folk Music. When I was told I would have “other duties as assigned” there was no indication that those duties would be so enjoyable.

I grew up listening to country-western music songs on a clock radio as we prepared for our school and work day, broadcast from a small radio station 20 miles away. I had no idea then how these singers and songwriters came to their profession, but I think like many people, they had feelings that could only be conveyed through song, words set to music. There were no self-help books or TV talk shows in those days to help you with a problem.

I Love Mountain Music; photo of man sitting in a chair by the window playing fiddle
I Love Mountain Music; photo of man sitting in a chair by the window playing fiddle

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard were the Pioneering Women of Bluegrass, singing songs they loved and singing them their way. They learned this music from families and communities, and always had music in the air when a group of musicians visited them in their homes.  If you didn’t play music, why else were you there?  As I reviewed the liner notes for this particular title, I noted with pleasure that one of the homes where they met, played music and had good times is in the same neighborhood as the current location of the NLS Music Section here in Washington, D.C.  People identified with hard times, lost loves, pain, misery, (and gloom, despair and agony for all you Hee-Haw fans) as well as the joy which comes from family and friends. These ladies led the way for future bluegrass and other women singer/songwriters such as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Naomi Judd. Enjoy a quick trip home to “West Virginia, My Home” with Hazel Dickens at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1978.  

Some bluegrass instructional titles in the NLS Music collection are by Dan Huckabee, Bluegrass Harmony: How to Sing 2-3-4 Part Harmony (DBM 01221) and Bluegrass Mandolin (DBM 01281),  Brad Davis, Improvising Bluegrass Guitar (DBM 01274), and Chris Jones with Designing Guitar Solos for Bluegrass Songs, (DBM 01223.) Bill Brown provides some banjo lessons on some Bill Monroe titles including “Kentucky Mandolin” (DBM 03226), “Cumberland Gap” (DBM 03222), and “Blackberry Blossom” (DBM 03220). And while researching a request from our large print music collection, serendipity pointed me to this title which includes a short bio and song sample of Hazel Dickens, Here’s to the Women, LPM 00598.

Ears That Hear Not
Ears That Hear Not-Photo of two bearded Appalachian men sitting, one with fingers in ears, the other playing a flute

At the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I enjoyed several performances by groups from China, including Wu Man, a soloist on the pipa. Her finale  included two other women, artists in their own fields. I had never heard a cymbal cadenza before, but Haruka Fujii demonstrated it can be done. Another fascinating collaboration was from Abigail Washburn and Ih Tsetsn with folk music from Appalachia and Mongolia.

While it is a far distance in miles and years from my childhood in Texas to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C., I am convinced the more different types of music I hear, the more I am certain we all connect with the same need to express ourselves.

Comments (5)

  1. Thank you for another great and interesting article. I am especially impressed with your personal connection to the music and the performers. NLS is so lucky to have a staff who is truly interested in the work they do and to give us the back-story on the music you catalog.
    Tina Davidson, Braille Music Transcriber and fan!

    • Thank you so much Ms. Davidson. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Excellent article, Mary Dell! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for shining a spotlight on this important part of our culture.

    • Glad you liked it!

  3. Thank you for a beautifully written article highlighting this homegrown music. I love classical music above all, but the music which grew out of the lives and experiences of my countrymen is valuable and enriching, and should be appreciated.

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