Bill Mullins on "Blue Grass" Music

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Mar 21 22:47:55 UTC 2013

From: Mullins, Bill CIV (US) [william.d.mullins18.civ at]
Sent: Thursday, March 21, 2013 3:03 PM
To: Shapiro, Fred
Subject: FW:      Antedating of "Blue Grass" Music (UNCLASSIFIED)

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My posts aren't making it to the list; feel free to forward if you like.

Mayne Smith's master's thesis (1964 MA thesis, Bluegrass Music and
Musicians: An Introductory Study of a Musical Style in its Cultural
Context, Bloomington: Indiana University) is the first scholarly study
of Bluegrass music.  He then adapted it into "An Introduction to
Bluegrass," Journal of American Folklore 78:309 (July/September),
245-256 (available on JSTOR).  In that article he declares the start of
what we now know as Bluegrass music to be the addition of Earl Scruggs
and his banjo to Bill Monroe's band, The Blue Grass Boys, in 1945
(Scruggs's banjo picking marked a significant change in the style of
music played by Monroe's band).  He also states that "Bluegrass" as a
descriptive term was originally used much more by fans and listeners
than by the musicians themselves.  He dates the founding of Monroe's
band "The Blue Grass Boys" to 1938.  All that being the case, it would
be surprising to find a reference to Bluegrass music with the currently
accepted meaning before the mid-1940s.

As far as the 1939 CSM cite, I'd bet it is not referring to Bill
Monroe-style music.  I've also seen references to radio shows in the
late 1930s and early 1940s called "Bluegrass Briefs" and "Bluegrass
Brevities". I suspect "Bluegrass" refers in some way to Kentucky as a
region, and not to the music style as we know it.  There are many early
1940s cites of "Bluegrass" where this is clearly the meaning.  But no
hard data to disprove the cite.

I can antedate the bracketed OED cite:
_Billboard_ 28 Mar 1942 p 115
"Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys (B-8953) Shake My Mother's Head for
Me and Were You There?"
[in a section called "American Folk Records" describing new releases;
these two sides seem to be spirituals]

Also, in 1949 Monroe had a hit single called "Blue Grass Breakdown", and
one in 1950 called "Blue Grass Ramble", which may be relevant to the
naming of the style of music.  Both can be found on Youtube and are
worth a listen.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On
> Behalf Of Shapiro, Fred
> Sent: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 7:00 PM
> Subject: Antedating of "Blue Grass" Music
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> --------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Shapiro, Fred" <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Antedating of "Blue Grass" Music
> --------
> The OED's first citation for "blue grass," in the meaning "A type of
> countr= y music played on acoustic stringed instruments," etc., is
> dated 1955.  In = the Christian Science Monitor, May 29, 1939, page 10
> (ProQuest Historical N= ewspapers), in listings of radio programs, one
> of the programs on WEEI is l= isted as "'Bluegrass' music".  It seems
> odd that such a term would first be=  found in connection with a
> radio station.  It is also possible that=  the term here is referring
> to some other kind of music emanating from Kent= ucky.
> The OED quotes a reference to "Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys,"
> dated = 1942, in square brackets.  Monroe's group is widely considered
> to have insp= ired "blue grass" as the name of this musical genre.
> ProQuest Historical N= ewspapers yields a mention of "the Blue Grass
> Boys" in the New York Times, = Jan. 14, 1940.
> Fred Shapiro
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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