Bluegrass Battle

Article sets off debate on whether a roots genre from Appalachia risks its authenticity when colleges study and teach it.

July 13, 2017
Nate Olson, second from right, performs with students.

Bluegrass music has its roots in rural Appalachia. In recent years, however, its growing popularity has also helped bring it to the classroom, prompting debate and discussion about its origins and those who are taking it into the mainstream, both via the lecture hall and the concert stage.

“Do the available opportunities represent real choices for students, or are they more effective marketing as colleges seek to recruit adolescents burning with a fever to succeed in music?”

“Does a college degree function to offer more choices or narrow opportunities?”

Those are some of the questions raised by Ted Lehmann, well-known in the bluegrass world for his writing and blogging on music, in a recent post on the roots-music website No Depression. In his column “Bluegrass Goes to College, But Should It?” Lehmann brings up a number of questions about bluegrass’s changing role in a changing America.

“The question I want to address, or at least introduce, here is whether going to college benefits students entering bluegrass programs and how it might affect the music itself,” he wrote.

The study of roots and bluegrass music is rather limited, but Lehmann highlights undergraduate programs with a roots focus at Morehead State University, Berklee College of Music and East Tennessee State University. Bethel University has a bluegrass band in its performing arts program, though not a specific bluegrass major.

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Lehmann said that he does think bluegrass belongs in college just as much as other music programs. But the genre’s rising prominence, and the gulf between its origins and its current trajectory, are things that people should keep in mind and discuss.

“In the last month or two, I’ve been particularly burdened by class issues and how they influence music,” Lehmann said, citing J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Joan Williams’s White Working Class. Both books focused on a demographic that was widely watched in elections around the world as right-wing populism gained ground, signaling cultural, political and social gaps that many were previously unaware of. Vance’s book, published during the 2016 presidential campaign, has been assigned at multiple colleges for their freshman common reading programs.

More and more, from Lehmann’s experience, roots musicians are coming to the scene with more classical training. It would be common, 25 years ago, for roots musicians to be unable to read music, Lehmann said. When he got his start blogging about and photographing musicians in 2003 -- Lehmann considers himself a “newbie” -- things were changing, but slowly.

“You’d ask them that question [about being able to read music] and they’d say, ‘Well, a little bit, but not enough to hurt me,’” he said. “In other words, ‘I’m not going to lose my improvisational awareness.’”

To be clear, Lehmann isn’t saying that roots musicians who receive an education are worse off or can’t improvise, but rather that the changing educational environment around bluegrass, and a lack of awareness of the class and social gaps in the bluegrass music community, could lead to a change in the music.

His column, and the questions it raised, garnered attention across the bluegrass world. Professors from East Tennessee State University -- Nate Olson, Daniel Boner and Jack Tottle, bluegrass musicians themselves -- released a video discussion addressing the column, and their own experiences with bringing bluegrass music to the institutional level. ETSU offers an undergraduate major in bluegrass, old time and country music studies through its department of Appalachian studies.

They largely defended bluegrass’s movement to the collegiate level. Tottle brought experiences he had in the past fighting the stigma that bluegrass wasn’t progressive or forward thinking and therefore didn’t deserve an academic presence. At the same time, Olson did bring up guarding against institutional “compromise,” making comparisons to jazz.

“A lot of academics have argued this, that as jazz has become more institutionalized, it’s kind of lost its characteristics,” he said in the video. “I think [bluegrass] is a fragile thing that we’re trying to be very careful about, that we don’t want these very special characteristics about bluegrass music to be compromised. That’s something we have to pay a lot of attention to, and be diligent about.”

The jazz comparison is especially interesting given how much progress it’s made into traditional conservatories, such as Oberlin College or Juilliard. Like bluegrass, it’s more modern than classical music but has been embraced at the top level.

Olson grew up playing the fiddle in a family band since the age of 5. It wasn’t until he went to high school, playing in the school’s orchestra, that he learned how to read music. He now holds a doctorate from Columbia University -- he wrote his thesis on fiddling and folk music in higher education -- and told Inside Higher Ed that teaching bluegrass at the collegiate level comes with challenges.

“Look at conservatories -- their job is to conserve a music tradition,” he said. “And while there is some of that in bluegrass music, there’s another part that’s pushing the boundaries. We want to cultivate artists that can shape it, that are relevant to the world right now.”

“Often when nonclassical music becomes institutionalized, they lose their cultural heritage.”

As for the pushback against introducing bluegrass to higher education, Olson said he’s seen it come not just from the bluegrass community, but also from more traditional music professors. And, like Lehmann, he said he’s raised his own questions about what bluegrass’s embrace -- if limited -- by higher education means: What credentials count when hiring professors to teach in a subject that’s traditionally nonacademic?

“We need to be careful so that the tradition remains a living tradition,” he said.

Lehmann said the discussion he prompted in the bluegrass community has been civil so far, which he was thankful for (not what you “usually see on Facebook”). And though he raised questions about class disparities between roots music and higher education, the answers are far from clear.

“If you’ve got good solutions to class issues in America, tell me what they are,” he said with a laugh.

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Nick Roll

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