The Cumberland Gap


Long before the Great Depression the mountain people of the Eastern states of America were poor. They had always been poor. But some Virginian &  Pennsylvania folk went west, that's where the action was. The comfortable stayed at home, the restless went west and they took their music with them.

The folk song Cumberland Gap told the story.

In 1750 the Cumberland Gap was discovered, leading to the fertile bluegrass country of Kentucky. From 1780 there was a massive influx of Irish and the 'poor white trash' or 'hillbillies' took root in the Appalachians where land was cheap. These communities were more isolated than the earlier settlements on the rich Easter seaboard.

Between 1775-1810 some 200,000 to 300,000 pioneers trekked through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian mountains into Kentucky & Tennessee. Some stopped along the way and from the 1830s the country region was settled and their music thrived and can be post rationalised as two sub genres - 

traditional music; ballads and dance tunes, brought over with the Anglo Celtic immigrants. In this way the Southern Appalachian mountain folk enjoyed their own North America ballads and dance tunes derived from their own tradition of Irish jigs, Scottish reels and English ballads ... and square dancing & line dancing. Their music had generally simple forms and harmonies accompanied mostly by fiddles ...

'old-time' music; popular from around 1900 which was a blend of the old tradition with African American styles, and Minstrel songs. Clearly these poor Irish, Scots & English immigrants inevitably met up with the slave music & in this way the 'country' music tradition had roots in plantation songs, minstrelsy and The Blues ... and certainly around the end of the 18th century the trekkers were heavily into church music and the rhythms of the southern churches. How else could such distinctive Country rhythms prosper? They played 19th Century pops from minstrelsy and Americanised British folk songs with Afro-American rhythms and blue tonality. 'Hillbilly' music focused on the fiddle in a sort of chordal & drone mode, with banjo and percussion ... banjos around 1860 and guitars around 1910 ... and bones.
The basic back beat, the 'boom chuck', was the rhythmic focus of Country ... the ubiquitous syncopation of the Negroes ...
The cow camps of the country folk 'included in' the southern Negroes who had their own distinctive music which was 'in the mix'.

The Blues and Country music emerged at the same time and had intermingled roots from the start. Listen to Debby McClatchy, April Masten and Mike Seeger-

Debby McClatchyDebby McClatchy, a professional banjo player from Roaring Spring, Pennsylvania, in the Appalachian Mountains., told the story in a 'Short History of Appalachian Music' 27/6/2000 - 

'One of the greatest influences on Appalachian music, as well as many other popular American music styles, was that of the African American. The slaves brought a distinct tradition of group singing of community songs of work and worship, usually lined out by one person with a call and response action from a group. A joyous celebration of life and free sexuality was coupled with improvisation as lyrics were constantly updated and changed to keep up the groups' interest. The percussion of the African music began to change the rhythms of Appalachian singing and dancing. The introduction of the banjo to the Southern Mountains after the Civil War in the 1860s further hastened this process. Mostly denigrated as a 'slave instrument' until the popularity of the Minstrel Show, starting in the 1840s, the banjo syncopation or 'bom-diddle-diddy' had produced a different clog dance and song rhythm by the turn of the century.
Many of the African American spirituals were discovered by mainstream America, particularly with the collection 'Slave Songs from the Southern United States' published in 1867 and popularized by a small choir of black students from Fisk University in Nashville. With emancipation, black music began to move outside the South. By the 1920s a whole body of songs known as 'race music' became popular. Many Appalachian songs sung today that allude to 'children' in the fields or 'mother', have been changed from 'pickaninnies' or 'Mammys'.
Religious music, including white Country gospel, was probably the most prevalent music heard in Appalachia. During the Colonial period the press was controlled by a clergy which had no interest in the spread of secular music, therefore, not much of the latter survived in written form. There were three types of religious music: ballads, hymns, and revival spiritual songs. The latter directly arose out of the call & response of the African song tradition. These were popularized among the white inhabitants after the revival circuit started in Kentucky in 1800. Their simpler, repetitious text of verse and refrain was easier to sing and learn and produced an emotional fervor in the congregation'.

'Partners in Time: Dancers, Musicians, and Negro Jigs in Early America, Music & Meaning in Early America' by April Masten, associate professor of history at Stony Brook University, 2013 -

'Negro jigs were produced by competition and cooperation among Irish and African musicians and dancers, who met and interacted. It wasn't just poverty and displacement that brought them together, it was likenesses in their music and dance. In both African and Irish practice, music and dance were inseparable. Tunes distinguished dances in Ireland, just as rhythms differentiated them in Africa.
Good musicians did not just keep time for the dancer; they responded to the steps, there was an interchange in the 'Double Shuffle', 'Heel & Toe', 'Buck & Wing ... and 'Juba'.
For black fiddlers and white dancers, adopting another group's cultural practices did not have to mean oppression or loss. Negro jigs were the property of both. Synergies were involved'.

sample.jpgMike Seeger, Musician, Documentarian, Ethno-Musicologist -

'I believe that to get some idea of the process of Southern vernacular dance development, we must consider it in parallel with its companion music and the dominant cultures that have mixed to produce it: British and African. These cultures began their intense musical interaction here in the 17th century, first among African Americans and then in the 19th century among British Americans, especially in small Southern towns and nearby rural areas. A good example of Anglo/Afro interaction in music is the introduction of the banjo, originally an African instrument. It is quite certain that the interaction between the European fiddle and African banjo changed the styles and repertoire of both. African Americans first played these instruments together soon after being brought here, and the banjo/fiddle combination was the basis for the late 19th century/early 20th century mountain music to which most of our older dancers moved.

Later Appalachian folk music came into the cities with the jobs ... into Atlanta, Nashville & Memphis and in these centres 'country' music was noticed, a music distinctive but influenced by the rhythms of black blues and southern church music.

Did the publicity start in 1910 when John Lomax published 'Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads'? Certainly John Lomax was well aware of the new sounds -

'It was not unusual to find a negro who, because of his ability to handle wild horses or because of his skill with a lasso, had been promoted from the chuck-wagon to a place in the ranks of the cowboys. Negro folk songs, the songs of the lumber jacks, the songs of the mountaineers, and the songs of the sea, already collected, being included in this final publication'.

Extensive research established the Work Song, Church Song, Minstrelsy, Hot Bands and Ragtime as influential inputs into Jazz and there were similar African rhythm inputs into Country music via percussion -

the banjo and percussive strings, the banjo came from Africa to folk music via the slaves not direct

the pentatonic blues and percussive melody, ornamentation of simple scales with the third and seventh blue notes and sliding tones were also Afro American

the negro jig, the walkaround, tap dancing and percussive dancing

... and interestingly white anti percussive musical preferences were a constant brake on raw polarising African rhythms ...

Appalachian folk music was a distinctive genre of folk music. Jigs & Reels were folk music for dancing.

Reels 4/4 time 8th notes and one & three accents. AB or AABB 2*4 square bar sections
fiddle & tin whistle, flute, harp ...

Jigs 12/8 time lively folk dance in compound meter. 2*8 bar parts AB from French giguer, 'to jump'
19th century America, the jig was the name adopted for a form of step dancing developed by enslaved African Americans and later adopted by minstrel show performers. Danced to five string banjo or fiddle tunes in 2/2 or 2/4 meter played at schottische tempo, the minstrel Negro Jig was characterized by syncopated rhythm and eccentric movements.

Tap Dance had roots in Irish stepdancing, Lancashire Clog dancing and Juba Dance. It began in the mid-1800s during the rise of Minstrelsy.  

In 1913 The Georgia Old Time Fiddlers' Conventions started in Atlanta and fiddling legend Fiddlin' John Carson (1868–1949) was there and country music was introduced to America as  'Hillbilly'.

Okeh Records began issuing hillbilly music recorded by Fiddlin' John as early as 1923.

A year later in 1924 Papa Charlie Jackson (1887-1938) a blues singer from New Orleans was recorded by Paramount, 'Salty Dog Blues'. This was a follow up after the success in 1920 of Mamie Smith's 'Crazy Blues'. Black and white folk music as Blues and Hillbilly were emerging as identifiable recorded genres with popular appeal at the same time.

However, from the same roots, The Blues and Country Music were evolving into distinct sub genres. Race music was black and involved the horns and hillbilly was white with strings.

In this way Country music was much of a mix but predominantly dance music of the Scottish reels, Irish jigs, and square dances; the poor man's version of the French 'cotillion' and 'quadrille'? The English ballad also got transplanted into this new world and was merged into the rhythms of the religious hymns of church and camp meetings.  It was a myth that Appalachian mountain folk & cowboys preserved a British ballad tradition. Yodeling, Hawaiian guitars, accordions, waltz & polkas, reels & jigs were essential parts of the scene but they mixed with the Blues ... Afro-American rhythms and blue tonality ... Country had more rhythm than melody ... and the rhythm was Afro American ...

Interestingly the guitar became popular in the South only around 1910 as more and more blacks abandoned the banjo and adopted the guitar with the flexibility to play those bass lines of the Blues. The guitar went to black American music at the same time as the banjo from Africa went into white American music. Another example of the culture mix ...

The new jazz music was heard on the radios in the mountains, and became a big source of entertainment. The locals didn't imitate this horn music, the costs of buying wind instruments in the country was beyond their meagre means. However, many homes had cheap string instruments hanging on pegs ... and players aplenty ...

 The result was toe tapping 'Hillbilly' played with fiddles, banjos, guitars and simple rhythm instruments. A different kind of 'jazz' music, which grew & grew in popularity.

Hillbilly always involved lots of everyday folk and everyday action ... ranching cowboys, logging louts, mining rednecks, railroads, wrecks, shootings, robberies, disasters, murders, bust ups & train crashes ...

In 1925 the grand ole opry, a radio barn dance, started broadcasting from Nashville. Country music had come of age. Country & Western styles became established as an influential part of American popular music throughout the 20th century. 

Then in 1927 RCA Victor Records recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

The defining virtuosos of the new music - 

Maybelle CarterThe Carter family - Alvin Pleasant 'A P' Delaney Carter (1891–1960), his wife Sara Dougherty Carter (1898–1979), and his sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter (1909–1978) were early practitioners clearly playing improvised blues lines. They recorded from 1927 - 'Wandering Boy' 'Poor Orphan Child' - 'Keep on the Sunny Side' 'Worried Man Blues'.

Sarah had a beautiful voice but A P was the musician and found the songs.

Maybelle's guitar style was significant. The 'Carter Scratch' involved bass lines of melody played with a thumb pick on the low strings with upper string rhythmic strumming maintained with the fingers. No need for separate rhythm and lead guitars, Maybelle did it all in one ... straight from Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929) ... or Lesley Riddle (1905-80) a black musician ... and picked up by Merle Travis (1917-83) who got it from Arnold Shultz (1886-1931)? No doubt she never realised how influential her contribution was ... she was just playing the music she loved the best way she could ...

But Maybelle was not playing British ballads, she was playing rhythm guitar!

Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) was the 'Father of Country Music' he was first super star who yodeled the blues; the mountain blues, 12 bars 3 stanzas, with the easy swing of jazz. A blues singer who happened to be white. 'Blue Yodel' 1927. His seminal contribution was to American music was a brilliant collection of country blues. A persistent fiction was that country music was pure white, but right from the beginning it was a hybrid, in the low down joints on the railway tracks, Jimmy heard the blues and all the gang, the Carters, Bill Munroe, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, had black musical mentors.

Yodelay-i-tee! In 1839 a Swiss singing group the Tyrolese Rainer Family toured the USA. Their Alpine harmonies and yodeling inspired the formation of like minded singing groups in rural America. In the 1840s there was a yodeling craze in America ... of course, the 'field hollers' of the slaves were well known and involved the same mix of long, loud, musical shouts, rising and falling and breaking into falsetto ...

Roy Acuff (1903-92) and his Crazy Tennesseans, was a veteran of Ole Opry for 50 years who sang mountain style with his 'Smokey Mountain Boys', often tearful with his Dobro guitar with a metal resonating plate. A staunch traditionalist, probably the most popular ever. 'Wabash Canonball'.

With Roy the pop songs began to lead the genre and the string bands from the hoedowns and cow camps began to lose out to radio and Hollywood.

Gene Autry (1907-98) the singing cowboy from Texas. Recorded with Columbia in 1929, made a name in Hollywood and ran a publishing business. 'Back in the Saddle Again' 1935, 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer' 1949.

Then in 1939 Bluegrass style appeared.

Bill Monroe (1911-96) joined the Grand Ole Oprey radio programme in 1939 with his 'Blue Grass Boys' (Kentucky was the 'Bluegrass State'). The 'Bluegrass' music was characterised by tight discipline, careful integration, driving, brilliant, high pitched, up tempo, instrumental virtuoso breaks, pinched nasal toned interpretations of 'Gospel', 'Blues' ... even Jazz ... and also sentimental ballads.

Earl Scruggs (1924- ) played a characteristic 3 fingered syncopated banjo style. He took the banjo out of fun Minstrelsy into 'serious' music.

The birth of bluegrass and the life of Bill Monroe were well documented. And unlike the mystery of Buddy Bolden and very early jazz, his music was recorded for listening.

The common cause of the Blues and Country was established again as Bill Monroe was raised on a farm in Kentucky and his first musical experiences were with a black blues guitar player with the unlikely name of Arnold Shultz (1886-1931). Arnold Schultz

Monroe's family members were musically inclined and played for barn dances and social gatherings. When the three Monroe brothers left for Chicago in 1929 (Bill was 18), they were fairly accomplished in the instrumental and vocal style that they had learned. Just like many others from the South they earned money playing music while working at unskilled factory jobs. There was a lot of Jazz  around Chicago at this time and Bill Monroe absorbed the sounds. In a rare Southern California appearance in 1977, Munroe announced his next tune as 'something I remember hearing when I lived in Chicago'. and he launched into 'Milenberg Joys'.

From 1932 to 1938, Bill & Charlie Monroe were very popular in the south as a brother duet. Bill on mandolin, Charlie on guitar. They both sang and played. Bill had developed a mandolin style that was much more sophisticated than the simpler styles of country musicians. They were not yet playing mature bluegrass.

From 1938 until 1945, Bill Monroe led a country style dance band that incorporated some of the motifs of popular music. It was pretty corny stuff with some minstrel oriented comedy. It brought in enough money to live on, but it wasn't satisfying to Monroe's creative urges. He had a sound in his head that was finally realized when he heard a banjo played in the three finger roll style that had been developed by a few in the Caroline region. In 1945 he was able for the first time, to bring together the instrumentation and the skilled players to play the first identifiable bluegrass sound.

The 'new' rhythmic banjo sound (Earl Scruggs), a bluesy fiddle (Chubby Wise), a solid rhythm guitar (Lester Flatt), a dance rhythm string bass (Howard Watts), and a virtuoso mandolin with some blues and jazz influence (Bill Monroe). What a band!

Since that time, bluegrass music has branched out into a variety of sub styles.

Some was very much Jazz oriented with the more modern sounds of extended chords and complex rhythms. Traditional jazz and bluegrass only overlapped in a few areas. They were both played best in small groups of 5 or 6 or 7. They were both best played without reading music and required the ability to improvise individually and collectively. Both have popular appeal because of the 'happy' rhythmic feel that was generated for dancing.

Two sub traditions emerged shadowing the trend in mainstream popular music -

1. Western Swing - country music imported Big Band Swing ... 

Bob Wills (1905-75) became popular in the 1930's with his Texas Playboys as big band swing, pop blues, jazz, saxes and drums, blended with the string band. Was this fiddle jazz? Western Swing was broadcast from Apollo 12! 'San Antonio Rose'.

2. Honky Tonk - derived from the rough piano music of the western dives which led to boogie woogie and the Fats Domino Rock 'n' Roll style of New Orleans piano - electric instruments started to be used as they became available.

Ernest Tubb (1914 - 84) - an ex country blues singer, the Texas Troubadour, became popular with Honky Tonk. 

Hank Williams (1923-53) singer songwriter who spanned both sub traditions, with his 'Drifting Cowboys'. Blues strains and the spirit of Rock 'n' Roll. Died of alcohol & pills at 29. A rough & ready Honky Tonk songster taught by a black street performer ... 'Honky Tonkin'' 1948 and 'Your Cheatin' Heart' 1953.

Kitty Wells (1919-2012) the pioneering girl, 'It wasn't God who made Honky Tonk Angels'!

Arthel 'Doc' Watson (1923-2012) was discovered at Newport in 1960, a blind singer of everything, but always swiped from the blacks. Learned his finger picking and flat picking tricks from Merle Travis (1917-83) and Arnold Schultz (1886-1931).

Jim Reeves (1923-64) Texas born was Jim a Country 'crooner'? ... he was outstandingly successful during the 1950s ...

Chet Atkins (1924-2001) record producer and guitarist. The Nashville sound, he made a guitar chorkle and he made it wince. An accomplished syncopated pickin' style from Merle Travis (and Django). 'Mr Sandman', 'A Taste of Honey', 'Yakety Axe'.

Johnny Cash (1932-2003) and The Tennessee Three and 'Folsom Prison Blues' - married June Carter, Maybelle's daughter ...

In 1969 Cash's Country music outsold pop.

Patsy Cline (1932-63) died at 30. From the Nashville sound to pop. 'Walking after Midnight' 1957.

Willie Nelson (1933-) from Texas followed in the wake of Bob Wills, played the Blues with Wynton Marsalis and toured the country in a bus.

Country Rock - 1960s The Byrds and 1970s The Eagles ... with pEdal steel guitars ...

Conway Twitty, Pee Wee King, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton ... and Guy Mitchell was a country boy.

Country MusicMusical Characteristics


1 banjo - America's only indigenous instrument, out of Africa it was played as a percussive instrument. The lead was played like a hot clarinet. 1820, Congo Square, New Orleans, 'claw hammer' 'drumming' on the strings with the back of the fingernails. Rolls breaking up the beat with subdivisions, 3 over 4 in the case of the Scruggs 3 finger style, the result, identical to jazz, is to superimpose a flexible 4/4 over rigid hillbilly 2/4.

The claw hammer technique was to 'hit' the strings on the down with a crooked hand ... this was drumming ...

2 Mandolin - cornet like busts on the offbeat

3 Fiddle - trombone like heavy bowing, flexible rhythm

4 Guitar - rhythm, heavily accented, basic pulse tended to be 'strummed' and 'picked' on the up European style.

5 Slapped bass - rhythm, metronomic line

Singing – Tenor a 3rd above the melody, frequently with sustained high notes, baritone a 5th below, bass on the octave. But the predicable triad is dispelled through anticipation, passing notes and ornamental slides/glissandi. High pitched, upbeat, flattened, tight integration, improvised, up tempo. Multiple parts in continual interaction, ensemble music

Hoedown SongsRhythm – Europe and Africa, the jigs and reels and the drum lines of Africa portrayed by melody instruments ... some folks didn't like the 'talking' drums during slavery ... that was voodoo and not for the Saturday night funtion. Melody and counter melody. Basic pulse and counter rhythm. Melodic rhythms, playing the drums on the instruments. A melodic image of the rhythm ... the hoedown song ...

Blues and Latin rhythms

Two forms of counter rhythm - 

 displaced accents = syncopation

 cross rhythms = 4 on 2 and 3 on 4

... the effect was a break-up of the metronome sense, crossing rhythmic waves sets the bars in motion, a linear roll or, more correctly, a 'rock' and 'roll', a to and fro, the syncopated 'backbeat' takes the bar back on itself only to urge forward again on the next downbeat, the fundamental beat is attacked where it hurts, under the beat itself, the beat is undermined and the rhythm lifted of its foundations in a state of buoyancy, the uncoupling of rhythm from the meter.

Scruggs used eighth notes, thumb, index and middle finger, 3 note 'rolls', creating the familiar 'secondary' rag of the Negro. Ragtime on the banjo, the 1st ragtime piano piece was, of course, a 'banjo' imitation. 5th string is not a 'drone' note but a chime! Breaks or 'scatters' the pulse.

Melody – acoustically pure notes - octave 2/1 5th = 3/2 4th = 4/3 major 3rd = 5/4 minor 3rd = 6/5the ear recognises there ratios sympathetically, all other notes in the scale are culturally dependent. In our modern system the 'tempered' octave is divided into 12 equal intervals. The diatonic scale uses 7 of these intervals. Almost invariably folk music divides the octave into 5.

the major pentatonic plus the flattened 3rd and 7th = the blues!

the minstrel song is the 'Dixieland' song, jumping up and returning to the tonic through the cadences of the circle of 4ths.

the spiritual on the other hand goes below the tonic and returns with rising cadences.
typically, pentatonic verse with the start of the chorus moving to the subdominant, 'minstrel spirituals'!

the blues phrasing is everything, the melody is preaching all the time

As with jazz it was the way it was played, the feel; the hot lick, the rolls, the blues, the ensemble, functional music, disciplined & spontaneous, recorded & imitated, mimetic, ex minstrelsy.

The Dixie Chicks?

There were many musical influences that were mixed together to form the musical style of Bluegrass music and from that mix emerged many musical styles ... that's the only way evolution can work ... and, for sure, Country Music has evolved ... it was along journey from Fiddlin' John Carson to 9/11/2001 ...

A few major sources -

Folk music of the British isles as transplanted in southern areas of the US, both the singing style and instrumental effects (drone sound for example)

Minstrel shows

Shape note singing

Barn dance instrumentals

Black rural blues

Ragtime sounds

Popular music of the 20s & 30s via radio and records. NBC went coast to coast in 1928.

Field music including black spirituals

and some jazz ...

These influences all came together around 1945 due to the efforts of the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe.

Clearly there was Country Music before and after Bluegrass ... the music went from Hillbilly, to Grand Ole Opry, to Bluegrass, and on to Country pop & Rockabilly, to Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks ... 


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