Folk and Bluegrass Music: Background information when reading Before We Sleep

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Before We Sleep

by Jeffrey Lent

Before We Sleep by Jeffrey Lent X
Before We Sleep by Jeffrey Lent
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  • Published:
    May 2017, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Zoë Fairtlough
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Folk and Bluegrass Music

This article relates to Before We Sleep

Print Review

In Before We Sleep, Oliver, a World War II veteran, repairs fiddles for others to play folk and bluegrass tunes.

Fiddles and violins are essentially the same instrument (for more about this, read the 'Beyond the Book' for Black River), but the music that they produce can be classified into different categories. According to Strings magazine "violin is for classical and jazz [music] while fiddle is for folk, country and bluegrass." To my untrained ear, folk, country and bluegrass sound pretty similar. What is the difference?

Country music is the umbrella genre under which folk and bluegrass fall, although some argue that country and folk music carry on along parallel tracks. Music Genres List calls country music "a federation of styles," rising out of America's colonist history that melded Irish jigs, Scottish reels, and English ballads with French square dances and, later, spirituals. This type of music originated in the poorer communities of Appalachia and the Southern American states. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that American country music used to be called "hillbilly music" until the recording industry changed the name in 1949.

Folk is a type of country music usually led by a vocalist singing a ballad, where the fiddle is played to accompany the song rather than to carry the main melody. Folk musicians used to rely on oral traditions to learn tunes rather than on reading music. This has led to many different interpretations of the same song, called variants, often linked to geography.

Bluegrass is a more recent style, fusing jazz and ragtime with traditional country music. It features a syncopated rhythm, with the fiddle and the banjo prominent in acoustic (never electric) ensembles that can also include guitars, double bass, drums, harmonica, mandolin, and vocals. A well known example of a bluegrass tune is "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"

Then there is Americana, which is defined as "contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band."

To listen to a clip of bluegrass music with a touch of Americana, click on the video below. You can also listen to more episodes from PBS's Bluegrass Underground programming while you're there.

Article by Zoë Fairtlough

This "beyond the book article" relates to Before We Sleep. It first ran in the June 21, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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