The Waltham Review goes to a Bluegrass festival and talks to white people about whiteness

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of covering the FreshGrass music festival in North Adams, Massachusetts on assignment for the Waltham Review.  The FreshGrass festival is eclectic but rooted in America’s bluegrass tradition.  The lineup included some relatively traditional bluegrass, but it also branched far out from bluegrass with acts like the blues musician Ruthie Foster and the Scottish space folk band Lau.

The festival was tremendously enjoyable, and it offered many, many of those moments of spiritual transportation that only great music can provide.  At the same time, now that we are firmly nestled into the Age of Trump, I have to confess that an all-white gathering of thousands in a struggling industrial town has an emotional and intellectual electricity that wasn’t present for me in previous years.  I have attended the FreshGrass festival for each of the past two years, and – whether because of Trump, or BlackLivesMatter, or just the general Zeitgeist – this is the first time that I had been quite as conscious about the whiteness of bluegrass and its community of listeners.

I am obviously not the first to notice the whiteness of bluegrass, or the irony of a musical genre so thoroughly rooted in Africa being so overwhelmingly white.  In 2013 the Atlantic ran a post on the whiteness of the Americana music genre; the Atlantic piece could be thought of as part of a larger genre lamenting the whiteness of certain categories of American popular music – another example being the New Republic’s piece on the whiteness of indie music.

In addition to the genre of criticism that laments the whiteness of certain American musical styles, there is also also an alternative tradition criticizing this lamentation, and example of which can be found here.

The lack of diversity in the audience had nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with the efforts of the organizers, who appear to me to have gone to great lengths to put together a program that is diverse in every conceivable way, within the confines of Americana and blues music.  Indeed, the organizers are pushing diversity to the point where they are happily stretching the notion of what a festival rooted in bluegrass can be.

But I wanted to get my arms around the whiteness of bluegrass and Americana, and the whiteness of this weekend’s festival in the Berkshires.  How do the people attending this festival feel about discussing their whiteness and the whiteness of the larger community?  How do they feel about discussing the African roots of the music they love?

Below are four interviews with members of the audience.  It turns out that festival attendees were generally thoughtful about the racial complexity that surrounds bluegrass.  This community, though largely white, is not thoughtlessly white in the way that the article in the Atlantic might imply.  On the whole I found FreshGrass festival participants open and enthusiastic about discussing race and enthusiastic about the concept of creating a more diverse and inclusive community for the music that they love.


Interview with “Phil” – a festival attendee from the Worcester area

WR: So we’re here at the FreshGrass festival.  One thing that jumps out about the festival is that for a musical genre that has roots that are deeply intertwined with both the European and African, this is a musical genre that seems, at least in terms of the listeners, to be overwhelmingly white.  Is there anything that could be done to diversify the genre?

P: You know, I don’t know.  Even blues which of course was traditionally known as Delta blues, Black music, African American has been coopted by white kids.  Coopted in the sense that a lot of the great blues musicians now are not necessarily Black people from the South.  So I don’t know what to do about this [gestures around him, referring to bluegrass] because you have, although you have some things coming from African culture, you just have a total mix.  For example, the mandolin really comes from the Near Eastern culture.  And then came up from Irish music and on into the US.  And the guitar, which I guess has roots in Africa, but there are a lot of European roots.  But the melodies tend to be European – English, Scottish, traditional.  Then they came over here and morphed.

WR: In a country that is becoming increasingly diverse, what is the future of bluegrass? 

P: It will be interesting to see, in a few years, when white Europeans are actually in the minority in the US.  We’re getting close now, and it kind of scares me [referring to music rather than general context] because there a lot of people that don’t embrace it and fear it.  But you don’t hear that at this festival.  What you hear at this festival is more “why are there so many white people?”

I think as long as people are true to what they believe, maybe things will open up eventually.  But then, I feel the same way about maybe going to listen to hip-hop or rap.  I’m not as comfortable.  So we do have some bifurcation of the music and people.

WR: I do have to say that for a gathering of thousands of white people in a struggling industrial mill town, you couldn’t feel further away from a Trump rally than you have here right now. 

P: Did you say that out loud?  Yes, that’s true.  I think that anybody could walk in here and feel instantly welcomed.  These [gestures around] are not the people who are not by their words or actions would ever give the impression that everybody isn’t welcome here.  It’s really the music that is separating people out here.  I feel the same way about other musical gatherings.  I used to run a theater in a town that had a large Brazilian population, and people said “wow, how come the Brazilians don’t come,” and it would be like “they don’t like the music that we like.”

And then I would try to book a South American band.  And they don’t know us.  But until you start intentially opening bridges and opening ways for people to become comfortable with each other – it just takes time.  Then, over time, you realize, people are people, and music is music.

Interview with “Christian” – a festival attendee from western Massachusetts.

WR: So is this the first time that you’ve come to FreshGrass?

C: It’s not.  It’s my second time.

WR: So what brought you back?

C: The question, given how much I like this kind of music, is why I haven’t been here for years.  So I teach over at the college in Williamstown.

WR: Williams?

C: Yeah, Williams.  We have just finished our first full week of classes.  This is a terrible, terrible time to take a weekend.  The worst conceivable time.  This beautiful man here [points to man next to him] is on leave, so he is not teaching classes right now.

WR: And what do you guys teach? 

C: I’m in the English department – I teach critical theory in the English department, and he [points to companion] teaches religion.

WR: Right on.  Right on. So, my audience is largely in Boston, and people in Boston may not be familiar with the bluegrass scene.  They may not be familiar with Williamstown.  Would a white person feel comfortable here, or would they feel out of place?  Do you worry that there are too few white people here? 

C: Yeah, yeah.  So, uh, you know, for a Western New England crowd, I think that this is pretty vibrant in its diversity.

WR: Vibrant in its diversity?  In what sense, exactly?  Just looking around. 

C: There are brunettes.

WR: I saw a redhead as well.  You know for a genre that has roots that a fundamentally African in a number of ways….

C: I totally agree.  But who knows that?  Who knows that?  I mean, the banjo is one of West Africa’s great contributions to world music and to American music quite specifically and that – to say it was suppressed makes it sound conscious – but it’s been lost.  That the banjo is not an American instrument, let alone a white American instrument.

[friend disappears]

WR: Is there anything you think the Bluegrass or Americana music community could do in order to become more diverse – not just in terms of the influences, which are obviously extremely diverse – but in terms of the listener base?

C: The obligatory thing to do at this point would be to talk about the nonwhite performers, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, something like that.  This gets complicated very quickly.  Mainstream country music is better on this front, because under the pretense of a traditionalism it spends way more time poaching from Black music and from a wider variety of musical styles.  Country music is not a conservative music.  It likes to pretend that it is, but it’s not.

WR: But I think of pop country of having some conservative themes.

C: I think that, just musically, and in production styles, of songwriting format, like we know that country in 2016 doesn’t sound a lot like country in 2000 or like 1990.  That means that the sound of the music is changing.  For the most part I think what happens is that country rejuvenates itself.  Major country music rejuvenates itself mostly by adopting whatever style Black musicians have most recently abandoned and calling it tradition.

WR: Interesting. 

C: And by now, in 2016, that means, like hip-hop, circa 1999.  So like half what’s playing on major country radio right now sounds like minor-key Nelly.  It’s crazy.  Where THIS scene, this Americana bluegrass scene, with its more assiduous traditionalism, despite being for the most part politically progressive in some voting kind of way, is actually, it actually keeps Black music way more at arm’s length.

WR: So it more assiduously keeps the Black music influences outside, but the early roots of bluegrass involve all sorts of African influences. 

C: Well bluegrass does for sure.  Did you grow up in New England?

WR: Texas.

C: So this might stand out more.  There is a folk scene in New England that goes way back.  And the folk scene always defined itself as more on the political left, and increasingly as the decades went on, defined itself as against country music, as progressive, in opposition to country.  You know, country music is sort of reactionary, and Ku Kluxers.

WR: OK. 

C: But in fact, esthetically, country music was really more of a two-toned music.  Whereas New England folk, for demographic reasons, was steeped in Anglo-Celtic music, in more narrowly Western European traditions.  So it is politically more progressive, but racially, more circumscribed.  And the music is always living out that paradox.  But the paradox works the other way as well, in the sense that sure, a lot of country musicians think of themselves as being on the right wing of the political spectrum, and could, in some cases, be indicted of something – you hate to say it – but be indicted of something like white supremacy.  And yet, country musicians are in a living, porous relationship with Black music in ways that they can really only half spot.  It’s crazy.

[C had to take care of his child for a moment.  The interview continued about fifteen minutes later.]

WR: Picking up where we left off, where does this festival and the larger context of musical racial politics fit within the larger context of our present Verblendungszusammenhang? 

C: Umm. You want to give it a more precise meaning than some kind of a general context?

WR: You know, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer, they propose this idea, but the term they use is Verblendungszusammenhang.  The idea is a context of general mystification. 

C: Oh!   Verblendung!  Verblendung!  I thought you said Verbindung!

WR: No, Verblendung. 

C: Yeah, no, I just misheard you.

WR: Of course. Is this phenomenon part of it?  Or is it orthogonal to it? 

C: I don’t think that this has…so there is [banjo starts in background] if it’s in the context of a dialectical political context, then what we were talking about before, in the context of the improbable racial inversions in American music and politics, I actually think that fits.  And the ways in which, I mean, there a racial unconscious to a whole variety of American musics.  And there is something peculiar about the ways in which those racial unconsciouses, in the plural, counterprogram against the overt racial politics of the musical genres in question.

WR: Yes.

C: So I do think it’s possible to say that the committedly, sincerely progressive folk music of the acoustic north is invested in its whiteness in ways that the people who love the music can’t even come to grips with, and would be horrified to be faced with.  But it’s nonetheless demonstrable, especially in a comparative context, when you realize just how much less open the music has been to ongoing Black musical creativity.  But conversely, for a musical scene in the south, is in some quarters, at least, particularly among the fandom, to realize that the music, maybe this is the right way to put it – the music models the miscegenation that people are refusing overtly.  Country music does not build any of the walls that its fans would like to see built.

WR: Fascinating.

C: That is Verblendung.  But it is on both sides.  If we could get those musical political cultures to swap musics, then this country would make sense in a way that it doesn’t right now.

[C’s child finally loses temper, interview ends.]

Interview with “Zoe” – a festival attendee from Western Massachusetts.

WR: Is this the first time you’ve come to the Fresh Grass festival?

Z: We’ve come every year.

WR: Every single year.

Z: Every year, every day of every year.

WR: That’s awesome.

Z: Yeah!

WR: And where are you from?

Z: I’m from Stamford, VT.

WR: Oh, right on. 

Z: But we live in Williamstown now.

WR: OK.  Speaking to maybe a person from Boston, a white person who worries that they might feel out of place at a bluegrass festival….

Z: [laughs]

WR: Do you feel comfortable as a white person…

Z: Yeah…

WR: and it’s awkward to talk about whiteness, but do you feel, as a white person, that there are enough white people here?

Z: We’re not outnumbered, that’s for sure.  I haven’t actually done an official tally though.

WR: But just looking around.

Z: Yeah.

Bystander: Not much different than the Berkshires…

WR: Not much different than the Berkshires.

Z: Actually there is probably more culture here.  Like standing here I can see three people of color.

WR: How many people would you say that you can see?

Z: Oh.  In general?

WR: Yeah.

Z: I’m not really good at counting, but [laughs]

WR: Maybe a thousand?

Z: It’s gotta be more than that.  Maybe double.

Bystander: Maybe five hundred.  Three thousand.

WR: Is it strange at all that a style of music that has roots, I mean, the banjo is an African invention, the syncopation of bluegrass is something with fundamentally African roots.  Does it seem strange at all that bluegrass and Americana have maybe less diversity than you might find in other genres? 

Z: Huh.  I’ve never thought about it.  I’m definitely not an expert.

Bystander: Bela Fleck played last year.  He did like a big exploration of the roots of the banjo.  He had a whole African group he toured the US with.  I mean, this is the band playing, right.

WR: True enough. 

[Zoe looks away, interview eventually ends]

Interview with “Charlie” – Charlie is a professor from the Boston area who attended FreshGrass.  Note: this interview was conducted over email; I know Charlie, and ran into him by serendipitously at the festival.

WR: How did you get into bluegrass music?

C: I inherited two banjos from my grandfather, which sat in a closet for most of my childhood. The summer before my senior year of high school, I broke my foot and wasn’t able to train for my sport…so had nothing else to do but take the banjos out of the closet. I loved the sound of the banjo…but had no-to-a-low opinion of bluegrass—it was just the noise constituting the background to the banjo breaks. It took two years, but I remember the exact moment when I was a college sophomore driving around in my two-toned brown Chevy Chevette…and I caught myself joyfully singing along to a bluegrass tune. I was hooked.

WR: Does it surprise you to be at a bluegrass/Americana music festival and have an audience that is so overwhelmingly white?

C: Not in the slightest. Although the banjo’s roots are in Africa, brought to the Americas by slaves, the subsequent history of the banjo is inextricably entwined not only with “white culture,” but with outright, highly articulated racism against black people—against the very idea of black skin. And for bluegrass, which is much younger than the banjo (I once got to meet Bill Monroe, the man who literally “invented” bluegrass), it was a form of music that came out of the white south…with all the baggage that that entails.

WR: How is the “whiteness” of bluegrass experienced differently in northern states from what you have seen in the south? 

C: I can’t say I have much experience with the South. Even though I grew up in Washington, DC (which my born-and-bred Cantabrigian wife describes as “the deep south”), I didn’t get out of the suburbs much (truthfully: at all). My first exposure to bluegrass was in college, and it was amidst a highly educated, uber-liberal, post-hippie, we’re-all-in-this-together, back-to-the-land-pretender crowd. Oh, and completely white—not a person of color to be seen anywhere a banjo, mandolin, or fiddle cropped up. The only crossover I ever saw was in southern Rhode Island, where there used to be an annual bluegrass & zydeco festival—which was was tons of fun and got me totally into zydeco….but as an exceptionally naive young college student, I was totally unaware of the cultural ironies that must have infused those events.

Later in college, a friend and I drove to Virginia to see a “real” bluegrass festival. It was fun at the start, but the ubiquitous confederate flags hanging off cars, camper-vans, and tents was, to put it mildly, off-putting. On the first night of the festival, one guy insisted that I come into his camper-van to lull his daughter to sleep…with my banjo. Strangely enough, I got her to sleep. But after a full day of lines like: “You from New England? This must be the most beautiful part of the country you’ve seen,” I was definitely not feeling the love. On the last day of the festival at the Sunday morning bluegrass gospel session (a staple at bluegrass events, north and south), a man got on the main stage and screamed: “Keep your Confederate money, ‘cause the South’s gonna rise again!” I looked over at my friend, he looked back, and we got the hell out of there.

I’ve never been back, though I expect to be at some point; my son has usurped the banjo from me and is now a real picker—he knows his stuff at a level I never dreamed of. He will inevitably go to festivals in the south, and I hope to tag along. I expect—it’s more than just hope—that things will be different, at least at the larger, more broadly attended festivals. We’ll see. I have to say that over the years, I have sometimes wondered: were I African American banjo player, what would be worse: picking with my all-white liberal crowd in New England, or picking with some self-proclaimed rednecks in Virginia? I won’t pretend to have any insights on how to answer that question.



(Artwork: Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862-1918) Music 1901)

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