When I listen to great Bluegrass songs like the Stanley Brothers’, “White Dove,” above, what captures me most is the simplicity of the language. Without flourish or fluff, great Bluegrassers can convey the most powerful, universal emotions and experiences with the most basic turns of phrase and the greatest restraint. It is only in Bluegrass music that you find such a unique blend of great artistry that is equally matched by its accessibility.
As a new bluegrass musician, I often feel the urge to create original songs myself. I’ve tried, and its hard, much harder than you would think. As a 21st century human living in a big city, how can I possibly match the simple and rich history that exists in so many bluegrass staples, honed by years of struggle, heartbreak and rural living? It’s not impossible, but it starts first with a study of the language of bluegrass.
First remember that Bluegrass songs usually tell a story, and great stories have some basic components that make them successful. Here I will cover categories like time, place, character and emotion with a few simple rules and examples within each to help guide new bluegrass songwriters. Let’s begin with time..
When it comes to setting the time or period in history of a song, the best bluegrass songs have a lack of it. The most universal songs could be set anywhere in time, whether the 1960’s or the 1660’s. Like many a train song, murder ballad, chicken song or a gospel tune, your’s should feel just as timeless and relatable to the modern day, even in another 100 years from now.
That said, times of the day are fair game! For example, phrases like “from midnight on” or a reference to the “pale moonlight” help set your story within a particular time of the day. Since the moon will alway rise at dusk and the clock will alway strike midnight, day and in and day out, setting your song in a particular time of the day is totally acceptable in bluegrass and won’t detract from the universal quality of your song.
One last example I’ll point out is the phrase “sweet by and by.” This is a common phrase used in many bluegrass songs which translates to “the future.” Referencing time in broad generalities is also very acceptable in bluegrass. A few other examples: “born in the mountain 50 years ago,” “in the sweet by and by, we shall meet” and “I have seen trouble all my days.”
Let’s move on to a new category: place.
The setting of your story is one of the most important components of a song. Remember that bluegrass songs typically are about the poor and downtrodden so you want to choose your place wisely. While you could set your story in a mansion in Bel Air, or the SOMA district of San Francisco, its best to steer clear of language that places your song in a very specific geographic location that doesn’t match typical Bluegrass subject-matter. It will make your song less accessible and quickly become outdated.
Instead, try placing your song in a more natural setting: on a hill, in a log cabin, down the road, under a tree. A few examples: “Cabin in Caroline,” “Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane,” “Under the Weeping Willow” and “Down The Road.” Referencing larger geographic regions by name, like states, counties or specific natural landmarks, is a common convention in bluegrass and also acceptable: “ Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Kentucky Waltz.” These are the kinds of places you typically see in bluegrass songs, and ones that will remain constant in past, present and future.
Like any good story, you really want to set the scene for yours. To do this, you can reference animals or plants in the environment around your song’s setting: “In The Pines”, “Rabbit In A Log” or “Footprints In The Snow”. Bluegrass musician Jessica Applegate has a great blog post all about the use of birds and specifically the whippoorwill in bluegrass music.
With any great story, the more you can put your listener into the scene with natural details, the more successful your song will be. Next, we move onto character.
Whether your song is in first person or third, when it comes to bluegrass you need to make sure you know your characters: are you telling a story of a drunkard or a jealous wife? A hunter or a coal-miner? An angry father or a daughter-in-love
You’ll want to use details that help establish the personality or situation of your character. For example, the drunkard likes to “pass around the bottle” or“eat when i’m hungry, and drink when i’m dry.” The poor boy has “holes in his shoes” or works for “a dollar and a dime a day.” The rounder or criminal “had no money for to go my bail.” The lonely mother has “faded cheeks and hair”and “rocks the cradle and cries.” You can try using color to better visualize your characters: “her lily white hands,” ”sparklin’ blue eyes” or “ruby red lips.”
Bluegrass songs always have very colorful and archetypal characters. Remember to utilize language and descriptions to help bring your song’s characters to life and make them more memorable and relatable.
The final and, I believe, most important category for bluegrass songwriting is emotion. Every bluegrass song must absolutely capture a feeling that is universal to the human experience: heartbreak, loss, longing, guilt, sadness, love, or faith, to name a few. To write a bluegrass song without one of these emotions is simply not bluegrass. Let’s look at a few examples.
Sadness in is often referred to as the “blues” in bluegrass. There are all sorts of blues found throughout the music: “Lonesome Road Blues,” “Coal Miner Blues,” “Worried Man Blues,” or “Bear Creek Blues.”
Heartache is also a common theme in bluegrass songs. Whether you’re singing about the “Ashes of Love” or how “All The Good Times Are Past And Gone,” you’ll want to use simple language to help convey the depths of your sadness. A few examples: “The lonesome sound of a train going by, makes me want to stop and cry,” “there ain’t nobody gonna miss me when I’m gone,” and“I loved you long with a faithful heart, but never any more can I believe you.”
The last example I’ll touch on is faith. Much of the bluegrass tradition is steeped in religion, and many songs touch on faith as a solace to the hardships experienced in everyday life. For example “some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away, to a land on God’s celestial shore” or “may they sleep forevermore, where a white cross stands to mark the soldiers grave”or “oh bear my longing heart to Him who bled and died for me.” No matter what faith you subscribe to or lack thereof, don’t shy away from bringing in elements of religion to capture the faith of bluegrass in your song.
I’ll end with a verse from one of my favorite gospel songs: “Farther Along.” Like many other bluegrass songs, the message is so powerful and universal. It’s songs like these, rich in history and depth yet so very simple, that have made me fall in love with this music. I hope others can appreciate it too, and help carry the tradition onward through their own original songs: