By the time he died this September, country musician Bill Monroe, bandleader of The Bluegrass Boys, was an official monument of American culture. This status was certified by the highest authorities. In 1995, Monroe received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton.
Years earlier he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the Folk Art program of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Let me start by noting that while my affection for bluegrass music as music is not unbounded, it is deep. I certainly consider that music to be a part of who I am, and of what my country is. And, as a critic, I second the notion that Monroe was one of the most important artists of this poor, dying century. But I also know that the rush to carve the stern face of Monroe into our cultural Mt. Rushmore simplifies some very complicated matters.
The Reagan-era NEA's identification of Monroe as a "folk artist" points to some of the most interesting ambiguities about his career and his contribution to American popular culture. He was, in fact, a folk artist. But only by a standard that would also validate the folk credentials of Elvis, James Brown, and every rock, country, or hip-hop band in the United States today. All of these musical artists, like Monroe, work in the vernacular of their communal traditions to give voice to the concerns of the common people. They are not officially "folk" because their traditions and their voices are transmitted electronically.
But by that standard, Monroe was "pop" because he was one of the first electronic transmitters. He gets it both ways because he was born at the time when folk culture was transmuting into pop culture via the new media of radio and phonograph recordings. Bluegrass music now bears the nostalgic stamp of pre-pop "authenticity."
But check out Monroe's customary costumes. For decades on end, the Kentucky farm boy always appeared in a business suit topped with a cowboy hat. Both are show biz affectations with no roots in anything about the artist's western Kentucky upbringing. The rhythmic innovations in Monroe's music showed the influences of ragtime. The rotated instrumental solos were from jazz. Bill Monroe himself often generously and pointedly noted the major influence on his life of Arnold Schultz, a black neighbor who played blues guitar and fiddle and shared the stage with Monroe at many Kentucky dances.
Monroe also did not emerge as a musician fresh from the farm. Like many ambitious Southerners, he went north to Chicago seeking work. He became a performer on the National Barn Dance show at the clear channel radio station WLS, and worked the clubs around Chicago as a professional hillbilly.
The point here is that Monroe was not a folk icon. He was a pioneer of pop. During the 1930s and 1940s, he made one of the big, important contributions to the great roiling, miscegenous, electric stew that would become our contemporary popular culture. As usual, Elvis knew much more than anyone gave him credit for when he reached for a Bill Monroe song ("Blue Moon of Kentucky") to be on his first recording (opposite the black blues tune "That's All Right").
The great musicologist Alan Lomax Jr. once called Bill Monroe's bluegrass sound "folk music in overdrive." Former Van Halen frontman, David Lee Roth, once called rock and roll "folk music shot from guns." It's the same thing.
Clearing the Air
Writing a column such as this one can be a tricky business. At least it can be for me. I always swing for the fences. That means trying to say something big and memorable and important, and do it in one page. In the process I sometimes over-generalize and obliterate important distinctions.
In my July-August column this year, I attempted one of my home-run swings, using the Unabomber as the metaphor for the bedrock individualism of American culture. Along the way I identified six contemporary political phenomena (three liberal and three conservative) as examples of the politics of individualism. Included in the list was the gay rights movement. The magazine received some letters complaining about that comment. Looking at the letters, and looking back at the column, I decided some clarification was in order. So here it is.
I believe in most of the goals associated with gay and lesbian rights. I do not believe that homosexuality is a sin or a disease. It seems instead to be one of the many interesting variants of your basic human condition. I believe that gays and lesbians should be able to participate in public life without hiding their identity. To do that they will clearly need new civil rights laws and some form of public recognition for their permanent relationships. I support those things.
My problem is not with gay rights, as such, but with single-issue politics. That was the point I was trying to make with my Left-Right laundry list. In individualist America we believe that everyone has absolute access to, and possession of, their own personal truth. That is why we have so many religious denominations, and so many issue-oriented political groups.
In this ideological marketplace, there is no place for us to submit our particular corner of the truth to the common good. This makes it difficult to forge a consensus around common interests and values that cut across lines of sexual or cultural identity. The clumsiness of my column, and of this clarification, may serve to demonstrate that difficulty.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.