Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music (1993) is the film directed by Steve Gebhardt which discusses the biography of Bill Monroe with references to many interviews with Monroe himself and with the musicians influenced by his music. The film clearly explains why Bill Monroe is discussed as the ‘father’ of the specific bluegrass music, and it provides many fragments from Bill Monroe’s performances to state that it was not a coincidence that the discussed style of music was named after Monroe’s band the Blue Grass Boys. Such interviewees as the Osborne Brothers and Ricky Skaggs state that Monroe not only proposed a new style within the genre of country music, but he also determined its features and standards and impacted the music of several generations. That is why it is important to focus on bluegrass music’s development and to analyze the features of such songs presented and discussed in the film as “Uncle Pen” and “Muleskinner Blues.”
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The film presents the story told in Monroe’s own words and the words of his colleagues and followers with the illustrations in the form of fragments of performances, photographs, and recordings. According to Monroe, the bluegrass music as the style appears in the 1940s when the Blue Grass Boys begin to perform widely while presenting their combination of the country music, gospel, and blues motives (Bill Monroe, 2011). During this period, the music develops its characteristic features, and the style becomes known because of the usage of an acoustic string band where performers prefer to play such traditional instruments as mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, and bass. Thus, the specific sounding of the bluegrass music depends on the combination of these five instruments’ sounds and on the unique musicians’ manner to play instruments virtuosity and with the focus on the extremely fast tempo.
The beginnings of the bluegrass music are associated with the creation of the Monroe Brothers band which was very popular in the 1930s. Charlie and Bill played the guitar and mandolin, and their duet was characterized by the unique vocal harmony. The speakers in the film state that the focus on the distinctive vocal harmonies became one of the main features of bluegrass music (Bill Monroe, 2011). While forming the Blue Grass Boys, Bill Monroe focused on using his high voice as the major accent in songs to represent the feeling of lonesomeness and to respond to the gospel, country, and blues tradition. The next feature was the properly balanced combination of the high voice, lonesomeness idea, traditional acoustic instruments, and the driving tempo. Monroe’s high leading solos and the fast tempos of the band’s songs attracted the audience, and many musicians tried to copy the style while using the same traditional acoustic instruments and focusing on the driving tempo and intense close vocal harmonies.
The elements of the bluegrass music can be discussed in detail with the focus on analyzing such Monroe’s songs as “Uncle Pen” and “Muleskinner Blues.” In spite of the fact that a lot of bluegrass songs are rather melancholic and sung in a high and sad voice, “Uncle Pen” is characterized by the extremely fast tempo, altered rhythmic patterns, and switching solos. As a result, the general melancholic effect of the music and vocals is reduced. The instrumental solos play the most important role in the song while accentuating the changes in the melody and tempo. Furthermore, the song is characterized by distinctive tight vocal harmony (Bill Monroe, 2011). Although the tempo of the song is not as driving, as usual, the vocal is emotionally intense and switching vocal, and instrumental solos create the unique accentuated effect of the experienced loneliness.
The tempo of “Muleskinner Blues” can be discussed as faster and driving in comparison with the tempo of “Uncle Pen”, but on the contrary, the vocals in “Muleskinner Blues” are more ‘high and lonesome’ as well as plaintive in comparison with the vocals used in “Uncle Pen” (Bill Monroe, 2011). The lyrics of “Uncle Pen” and “Muleskinner Blues” can be discussed as the country narratives presenting the ordinary stories about which the speaker or singer demonstrates his deep feelings and intense emotions. The role of the discussed personal subjects is also emphasized with the help of the highly emotional vocals. Thus, it is possible to note that Monroe is inclined to sing as high as he can to add to the melancholic effect produced by the rapid and driving tempo of bluegrass songs (Bill Monroe, 2011).
Thus, Bill Monroe is the ‘father’ of such a sub-genre of the country music as bluegrass music, and he contributed to its development significantly while determining its aspects and characteristic features. Referring to the film Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music (1993), it is possible to note that uniqueness of the bluegrass music is in using the extremely fast tempo in combination with the intense high vocals to represent the feelings and the melancholy of the singer as the speaker presenting the unique narrative in his songs. That is why bluegrass music can also be described as emotionally passionate.
Bill Monroe: Father of bluegrass music (1993). (2011). Web.
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