“If you go to China, or if you go to Brazil, or if you go to Ireland, children there are very aware of their own folk music,” says program co-director Casey Cook, who as far back as he can remember played bluegrass with his family. “They know their grandparents’ tunes; they know tunes from the 1800s. We don’t celebrate that in America.”
Carlson and Cook, professional musicians themselves with decades of combined experience touring and recording, credit Denison for being ahead of the curve when it comes to the emergence of bluegrass in academia. Carlson points out that jazz had been considered off-limits for years in higher education. “Now, every music department offers a jazz degree,” he says. “They wouldn’t think anything of it.”
Bluegrass’ roots can be traced to the British Isles, whose immigrants brought their music with them to Appalachia in the 17th and 18th centuries. The style has continued to evolve, blending elements of country, gospel and even jazz. Handed down from generation to generation, the music lives on not in written form, but audibly, almost like a secret passed from ear to ear. This makes the teaching of it unique, and uniquely difficult.
“With classical music, your goal is to take what someone else has written and try to recreate it as authentically as you can,” says Carlson. With bluegrass, however, it’s all about listening, recognizing patterns and cues and improvising.
Guitarist Hayes Griffin, who graduated from Denison in 2010 and now tours full time with the April Verch Band, says developing the ability to understand the music without written instruction is no cakewalk, but certainly comes with its rewards.
“After you beat your head against the wall for a while trying to learn that way, you begin to hear chord changes before they happen; your fingers start to instantly find the melody to a tune you’ve never heard before; or you fill in vocal harmonies to a new song,” he says. “The music becomes less mechanical, and more spiritual.”