Bluegrass in Gettysburg

Mr. Zuska and I spent a few days in Gettysburg at the Bluegrass Festival. I am a conflicted fan of bluegrass music. That is, I do love me some banjo. And hearing a good banjo, fiddle, bass, mandolin, and guitar together is, to me, a true aural delight.

The problem lies with some of the lyrics. As the Steep Canyon Rangers pointed out Thursday night, there are a lot of "mean woman songs" in bluegrass. Thursday I must have heard at least three whose story went along the lines of "you done me wrong and broke my heart; that's why I had to shoot you and him with my daddy's gun; you're layin' in the cold cold ground and I'm a-waitin' here in prison to die".

The Steep Canyon Rangers were awesome and the banjo dude was truly fine.

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It's too bad they had to play one of those "you done me wrong" songs.

Now Friday went a little better because there were two bands in the lineup fronted by women. Women tend not to sing songs about women cheating on men and then getting shot dead for their sins while the poor lonesome man mourns his losses and sings his regret in prison. To the contrary, one of the women sang a song about her man loving someone else. In this case, she begged him to come back; but if he truly did not love her anymore, she said she'd make it easy on him to leave. Nowhere did she mention that she would shoot him and his new love dead with momma's gun. Consequently, she was not singing from prison, about to be hung. Momma didn't raise no fool. Maybe it's just me, but I found this point of view refreshing.

So, Rhonda Vincent was kickass, but the group I really liked was the Biscuit Burners. They are a truly unique bluegrass band. In the photo below, they are performing an Indian folk song (that's India, not Native American) in a bluegrass version. I know that sounds weird as hell, but let me tell you, it was beautiful. That horizontal instrument on the left is some sort of Indian guitar with 23 strings and a totally funky sound. You haven't lived till you've heard two-part harmony Bengali bluegrass. I mean it. They actually sang in Bengali, then in English in their interpretation of the Indian folk song. The song's supposed to be on their new album forthcoming, so you could have a chance to hear it someday. It's a pity you weren't there to hear it live, though. It was just incredible. In the meantime you could buy their cd "A Mountain Apart" and you would really like it.


Recording is allowed at the Festival, and thus Mr. Zuska brought his M-Audio digital recorder and his little "stealth" mikes that clip onto his shirt collar (not sure if you can see them in the picture). Therefore I will be able to hear the Bengali bluegrass tune live again.

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That's some sweet technology there.

Saturday offered some of the best bluegrass bands, including Cherryholmes


and the Seldom Scene.


Unfortunately, I had a migraine. Fortunately I got to see both bands, both sets. The migraine came in the late afternoon and I took my meds, went to the car and slept it off. I was lucky that it was not too severe of a migraine; I was able to bounce back for the evening sets. Yay!!!!!!! Three cheers for botox and petadolex making the migraines a little more bearable!!!!!!

Cherryholmes is a family band. I have to say, I like Cherryholmes a lot, but the uber-patriarchal dad gives me the creeps. That is one dude who is totally full of his sense of self as Man Who Is Head Of The Family And In Control. Ick. Plus, I do not know how his wife stomachs getting into bed with that beard at night.

Sunday I was just about burned out but Mr. Zuska was going strong, I think mostly because he was on a "taper's high". You know, playing with the technology, talking with the other tapers - can you still call them tapers if it's all digital recording now? - at the show, schmoozing with the soundman, etc. I went off to visit Willow Pond Farm, which was a huge disappointment - not as large a selection of herbs as advertised, in my opinion, and garden beds looking sort of scraggly and unkempt. Don't waste your time.

As usual, now that the vacation is over, we both could use a little vacation time to recuperate. This is where the minions would come in really handy - someone to do all the laundry, go grocery shopping, cook us some nutritious meals. Or at least clean the litter box. Oh minions, where forth art thou?

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Murder ballades are a good portion of bluegrass's charm. Most of them have a rather pathetic male protagonist in need of redemption for his sin. None that I have heard actually glorify violence against women, just report on it as a fact of life.

Um, excuse me if I don't find murder ballads that feature the murder of women just because she slept with someone other than the song's protaganist "charming". Especially since, in real life, this sort of thing happens ALL THE TIME. I read about it in the daily newspaper every week, sometimes several times a week. The notion that a man can't stand for another man to have "his" woman, that if he can't have her, if she doesn't want him anymore, then no one else can have her either, is all too alive and well in today's world. Men kill women all the time because the woman is audacious enough to break up with them and start seeing someone else. Or just because she tries to leave him.

So, no, I don't find songs that sing about this in any way charming. Because usually the song is singing about why he "had to do it". And I don't think anybody ever has to kill a woman just because she loved somebody else. And beautiful bluegrass songs - and they ARE beautiful songs - just glorify this notion as if it were romantic. In that way, they are dangerous. They perpetuate the notion of this sort of behavior as somehow romantic, tragic, instead of the hideous disgusting criminal behavior that it is. There's no redemption for a man who would commit such a cowardly, selfish, destructive murder.

Go to a battered women's shelter and ask any woman there who's in fear of her life how charming she thinks murder ballads are.

That "if I can't have her nobody can" mentality also shows up in those cases of men who kill their own children to deny them to their former wives or girlfriends.

The murder ballads were typically based on actual cases and were a popular means of reporting on them. Tom Dooley for example was an actual murder in North Carolina. The typical form of these ballads is that the murderer is shown to be a pathetic individual who is brought to justice and punished for his crime along with the Christian hope for redemption.

Although not strictly bluegrass, The Dixie Chicks' 'Goodbye Earl' helps narrow the gap a bit.

By the way, if you are upset by the traditional bluegrass treatment of women, don't even think about listening to rap.

Of course it does happen the other way too. My 3rd cousin shot and killed her husband over a car.

Forget Rap, there is always Berg's opera Wozzeck (that would make a great murder ballad) or Carlo Gesualdo's madrigals