Social Justice, Community, and Bluegrass Music

by Rachael Snyder

Anti-oppression and social justice issues have long been a part of my guiding morals. As a child of hippies, I grew up listening to Bob Dylan’s protest anthems and John Lennon’s songs of peace. (My mom was also a big fan of Dolly Parton and bluegrass, so it wasn’t all hippy-dippy rock). Music shaped my development in that I was always deeply concerned when I perceived people being treated unfairly or bullied. The political punk rock and, later, hip-hop music I listened to as a teen/young adult echoed these sentiments. Jello Biafra, The Clash and Dead Prez were able to articulate my anger at injustice in a way I didn’t know how. As I got older, I attended a hippy-dippy college and became more actively involved in anti-oppressive efforts and education. I became cognizant of the areas in which I hold privilege, and, to this day, I try to live as an ally to those who experience oppression. Music continues to be the common thread that weaves its way through my social growth.

 Photograph by Annie Leibovitz

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz

During college, I started playing guitar and got involved with musical communities. I became reacquainted with the bluegrass music of my childhood. It quickly became my very favorite music to play and sing. Initially, (and honestly sometimes even now) I had some serious internal qualms about loving a music that is so traditionally dominated by white men (despite being deeply rooted in black culture). Even still, I was drawn to the sense of community around the music. I was welcomed into jams with open arms. I formed close bonds with women in the community and was introduced to bluegrass and old-time powerhouses, like Alison Krauss, Hazel and Alice, and Ola Belle Reed. The words of these women in history and the women I connected to through bluegrass have brought me so much comfort growing into adulthood.

As I’ve become increasingly troubled by events in the news and the apparent resurgence of white nationalism in the world, I have gotten more and more uncomfortable with ideas of “traditionalism” and “the good old days”. These ideas always tend to leave out the unpleasant aspects of older times i.e. a lack of civil rights for women and minorities. I also get uncomfortable at bluegrass jams when strict adherence to “traditional” bluegrass music seems to exclude songs by women and people of color. These limitations have always been in stark contrast to the feeling of welcome that I am accustomed to. To me, the tradition of bluegrass music is the spirt of inclusion. I love bluegrass and the community of rad, radical women I have surrounded myself. I want this community to be accessible and enriched by anyone who wants it, whether or not they are represented in “traditional” bluegrass.

Over the last year or so, I have become more diligent in supporting bluegrass musicians and organizations that break that mold. I don’t get cranky when a bluegrass band incorporates clawhammer banjo (heck, Ralph Stanley himself played plenty of clawhammer banjo). I am delighted that The Handsome Ladies has a kinship with Bluegrass Pride. I love when artists like Molly Tuttle, Rhiannon Giddens (and the Carolina Chocolate Drops), Carl Johnson, and Sam Gleaves get the public recognition they deserve. Intersectionality in music communities is the key to making bluegrass accessible. That accessibility will be what ensures that bluegrass endures and continues to provide community for people, despite injustices that are occurring in the world.