Reactionary Progressivism: Bill Monroe, Political Philosopher


Music is, in its essence, repetition. This is as true of the fugue or theme-and-variations structure as of the verse/chorus, verse/chorus, bridge, chorus pop song.  The fundamental forms of popular music deploy repetition not only inside each song, but across songs. Elmore James essentially made a career out of a single riff, which he swiped from Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom," and perhaps Johnson swiped it from someone else. Hip hop makes use of mechanically-generated repetitions, and is constantly returning to its own earlier sounds, and to the sounds, for example, of funk. Reggae consists of a particular, throbbing beat: each song repeats it many times, and in a sense the whole genre consists of its repetition. Rhythm is repetition. Rhyme is repetition. A series of sounds without repetition is unrecognizable as a melody.
    Indeed, it would not be too much to say that this fact connects music to human life or to the universe in general, which has its novelties but rests on its repetitions. Day and night, sleep and waking, the cycle of the seasons, eating and excreting, the content of relationships, what makes a particular personality distinctive, the orbits of the planets, the energy of the pulsar, big bang and big crunch: cyclical or spiral structures. "I watch every day for sunset," Bill Monroe told Lee Rector in 1980. "I've always done that. I love the sunset. You know it's different every day. It always has a different set" (Monroe Reader, 117).

    According to information theory, a perfect repetition is redundant: it conveys no information. On the other hand, no repetition is, actually, perfect. Even when you press play on the same digitally-encoded song for a second time, you are listening to it in a slightly different context: a context that includes the first iteration; the song gains or loses significance; is experienced as familiar or surprising. Resorting to paradox, we might say that each repetition of the same is different, each return a moving forward.

   We might think about this matter in relation to politics. Often the political spectrum is sorted into conservatives, who we might think of as advocates of repetition, and progressives, who want to take us to someplace new. But this makes sense only if time or progress is linear; the picture is that we stand at a certain point and have to decide whether to go forward or back. But putting it mildly, this distinction is impoverished. The politics of Barry Goldwater or the Young Americans for Freedom in the sixties were every bit as radical - were every bit as much critiques of the present and calls for change - as those of the Woodstock generation. Sarah Palin is no less a progressive figure than is Barack Obama, insofar as Palin calls for a pretty radical change in the status quo. Progress is progressive, but so is regress, or rather, the two are not clearly or firmly distinguished, nor ought they to be, and Obama as much as Palin will call for a return to basic American values and teach the lessons of history, though he has a somewhat different interpretation of that history and those values.

     Confucius is, by acclamation, the most conservative political philosopher in human history, and he basically uses the concept of "tradition" to authorize any possible move: his philosophy is continually looking backward, is a kind of worship of the ancestors and their ways. And yet very consciously Confucius was advocating radical reforms in a culture disintegrating into a chaos of small warring states. Confucius was, we might say, a reactionary progressive, and indeed his philosophy became the template by which the Chinese empire was consolidated and administered for thousands of years: a profoundly backward-looking and conservative regime founded by a radical critic of his own present.

     In art history, we might think about this in terms of classical and baroque: the classical is always a return to origins; the baroque expresses the need to strike out forward. But by the same token, the rediscovery of the classical in the Renaissance was a radical critique of its own context. The neo-classicism of a David or a Jefferson at the end of the eighteenth century was, explicitly, a revolutionary movement and also a return in a looping structure to the Renaissance and the Roman republic. Neo-classicism is what I would term a reactionary progressive movement.

    If I were conceiving time, myself, I'd conceive it as a line, but also as a scribble, continually working back and forth, whirling, xing over itself at myriad junctures. But perhaps for present purposes we might think of it as a series of loops, moving forward precisely by rolling back on itself. This is good, because there is no sense in progress that loses where you are and where you have been: then history becomes a series of disconnected dots. The question is not forwards or backwards, but always both at the same time.


     Why, you might ask, is this dude trying to figure out the structure of history etc? Not because I want to figure out history, but because I want to figure out bluegrass, the most profound enigma of them all: the deepest philosophical problem. And probably you've already cottoned on to the basic approach. It is often said that Bill Monroe invented a musical form or genre, indeed that he's perhaps the only identifiable figure of the twentieth century to do so, with the possible exception of DJ Kool Herc with regard to hip hop. That portrays Monroe as a profound innovator, an inventor. Now on the other hand, Monroe himself said that he invented bluegrass by trying to play music the way it sounded in 1880. Before the term "bluegrass" was used to denote the genre, it was termed "old-timey" music. Some of the defining features of bluegrass - for example that it is played on acoustic instruments, which is more or less a dogma - appear to be hidebound holding to traditions. Others - for example the way those instruments are played, often with extreme virtuosity, in a series of competitive solos analogous to hard bop - seem to entail continual innovation. Bluegrass music revolutionized the banjo, the mandolin, and the dobro: reconceived these instruments thoroughly. Neil Rosenberg calls "tradition regarded as innovation" (10) "the seeming paradox" of bluegrass music, and Ricky Skaggs titled one of his bluegrass albums "History of the Future."


   Before I try to apply the notion of reactionary progressivism to bluegrass music, let me throw down some of the intellectual resources of the Western tradition for understanding the shape of history. One we might mention is Nietzsche's concept of "the eternal return of the same," which I think he regarded as his most profound thought. Sometimes this was put forward as a serious account of time as purely cyclical or circular, and sometimes as a thought-experiment. In the latter version, Nietzsche asks you to imagine that a demon appears to you and tells you that the life you have lived, you will live again, in every detail, infinitely many times. It's like the Nietzschean alternative to a Christian afterlife of bliss. Now, he asks, would you curse that demon, or could you accept, or ecstatically affirm, this infinite repetition? The answer to that is supposed to show how much you hate or love your life and this world in which you've lived it: whether you can really face reality. Everything bad that's ever happened to you or to people you love, everything you've ever regretted saying or doing, will recur infinitely many times in eternity.

    Here we have time pictured as a perfect circle. But the moment of affirmation, in which you open yourself radically to the reality of the world is, in each recurrence, an incomparable, transformative moment. The Nietzschean paradox is that by willing the same thing over and over in eternity, you transform yourself into someone who treasures what is real, who renders even the future into the object of nostalgia. In this sense, I suggest, Bill Monroe is a Nietzschean superman.


    Jorge Luis Borges wrote a marvelous "story," or rather a parody of a scholarly paper ("Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"), in which he describes the work of the author Pierre Menard. Menard's masterpiece is a re-writing of Don Quixote: a word-for-word identical copy of Cervantes' novel. Menard says of his method: "My solitary game is governed by two polar laws. The first permits me to attempt variants of a formal and psychological nature; the second obliges me to sacrifice them to the 'original' text and irrefutably to rationalize this annihilation" (Ficciones, 51). Borges observes that though the two Quixotes are word-for-word identical, they are radically stylistically distinct: "The archaic style of Menard...suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his precursor, who handles easily the ordinary Spanish of his time" (53).


    The last station in our loop is Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote a whole book on this topic and titled it Repetition. One of the elements in it is the story of a young man from Copenhagen who lives for a while in Berlin and then returns to his native city. In order to see whether a true repetition is possible, he goes back again to Berlin, rents the same room he had before, goes to the same theatre, frequents the same restaurants and so forth. The experience is at once disappointing and stimulating: he finds that a repetition is both impossible and inevitable: that he cannot have the same experiences and that he cannot fail to be the person who had these experiences. Now doing this may strike you as a remarkably perverse exercise, though not as perverse as re-writing Don Quixote word for word. But in fact it is quite typical: we often seek to reproduce experiences we have had before: set out to achieve the same...relationship, home, vacation, or whatever it may be. Indeed, the representation of experiences, for example in snapshots or videos, is precisely an attempt to make a repetition possible, to hold on to something that seems to be receding into an incomparable past. In one sense, such a repetition is impossible, but the attempt at it lends our life whatever comprehensible structure it may have or lends us whatever comprehensible character we may have, a music that is our personhood - and though the routine may be tedious, it is also comforting.

    Kierkegaard writes, in what may be termed the emblem of our theme, that "The dialectic of repetition is easy, for that which is repeated has been  - otherwise it could not be repeated - but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into something new" (149). This, we might say, displays both the reaction in reactionary progressivism and the progress: the possibility of creating something radically new out of a recapitulation - as perfect as possible - of the past. And Kierkegaard goes on to say this: "Hope is a lovely maiden who slips away between one's fingers; recollection is a beautiful old woman with whom one is never satisfied at the moment; repetition is a beloved wife of whom one never wearies, for one becomes weary only of what is new" (132).


     Alright. I hope you will hear these ideas echoed as we briefly explore some themes and moments in bluegrass music. Monroe's band was the training ground of many of the best bluegrass players, and Monroe was a stern taskmaster: he insisted that, whoever was playing his music, they first of all master the proper rhythmic structure - which he thought of as the essence of his style - and that they play "pure": though there was room for improvisation, the form was already delineated, and though every performance was unique, every performance was a pure repetition. Four decades into his career, he said "I hope [the next generation of bluegrass pickers] will stand up for what's right and play the music as pure as they can play it for the people. There's one thing that I hope: that the people, when the time comes, that there will be somebody that will get in there and will hang on and do it right . . . someone that's got a lot of willpower and can get things done" (Reader 117). This is one reason that Monroe could stand not only as a significant musician, but as the founder of a style: he enforced a repetition that was a continual return to the origin: every performance was an affirmation of the life already lived. It was a commercial formula, but ultimately something much more than that, and Monroe was never as concerned with sales as with whether the playing was "right"; he didn't want you "putting things in" that weren't there before.

    For Monroe, the power of the music was the power of the origin, which he thematized as "Uncle Pen," the hills of western Kentucky, and so on. Or even as a return to God: a return to the church of his youth and to the hymnal, and a return of the soul to its maker. A or even the great theme of bluegrass, from Monroe's "I'm Goin Back to Old Kentucky" to Alison Krauss's "Heartstrings" is "the old home place," and cultural historians of the form point to the migration of young men from the Appalachian hills to the industrial and commercial centers surrounding the Appalachian region, such as Knoxville, Chattanooga, Roanoke, Asheville, and further afield to Cincinnati, Atlanta, or Washington DC. One emotion explored in these songs is the loss of the homeplace and the family of origin, and the yearning for a return. But in many songs - I think of "Weathered Grey Stone" (Johnson Mountain Boys) or "Rank Strangers" (Stanleys) for example - the return, when accomplished, proves impossible, in a perfect instantiation of Kierkegaard's "dialectic of repetition": one returns to find one's parents or sweetheart dead, or the way of life or the land in which one originated disrupted or over.

    The return home is a return to the self, and Kierkegaard once said that the most difficult task is to become what you already are, precisely because everyone wants to be something more or different. And it is a return, too, to a cultural identity of rural, perhaps Scots-Irish "mountain folk," an endangered way of life, a dying culture, and so on. I think it is an interesting question, familiar to folklorists, whether this identity is an authentic antecedent reality, or is, in fact, manufactured in being remembered and represented, or represented and remembered. The nostalgic song of home, I think we should say, both identifies and creates a shared identity. The Grimm Brothers, for example, in collecting and repeating and re-articulating folk tales, in coming up with written, canonical versions, selecting and deleting, and so on, were describing but also forging a German identity. The same might be said, for example, of Zora Neale Hurston's collecting of folktales and song lyrics of African-Americans in the south: it was both a mimetic and an articulatory representation, both the reflection of an antecedent reality and a remaking of reality in repetition.

     Rosenberg astutely proposes that bluegrass the genre begins not at the moment that Bill Monroe took the stage with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts, but when the Stanley Brothers started performing and recording in the same mode a year or two later, with an overlapping repertoire that included songs such as "Molly and Tenbrooks," a Monroe number drawn from a traditional song that the Stanleys managed to release on record after Monroe recorded it, but before Monroe's record was released. Monroe of course was angry about this, and apparently left Columbia Records specifically because it signed the Stanleys. But some years later he understood this differently: not as plagiarism but as a tribute to the power of his own music. And ever since, bluegrass has been a continual cycle of return, tribute, veneration: a cycle in which innovation and tradition cannot be distinguished or in which they are always in what Kierkegaard would call a dialectic of repetition. To some extent this is true of anything that could count as a style: it has to have a set of basic gestures and forms that account for its continuity, and in some cases - such as the blues, Nashville country (neo-traditionalism of the late 80s/early 90s, e.g.), and hip hop ("old school") - this structure of repetition is consciously at the heart of the form. But I don't think there is any style more totally caught up in this sort of loop of return as bluegrass. The closest analogy might be roots reggae music of the 1970s, in which a major theme was the future as repatriation to Africa as the point of origin, in which drum patterns and other features were conceived to be African, and in which the echoes of dub music were a kind of image of repeating diasporas.

    Bluegrass, even in its moments of fusion, has always maintained an aesthetic of what we might call genre-centeredness. Monroe had this aesthetic, of course, and not only in bluegrass. He told Steve Rathe in 1974 that "you got to be pure in bluegrass. You might come up there and say it's "bluegrass rock," but it should be kept pure, and rock should be kept pure, and jazz should be played . . . where you're born on it" (Reader 71). In 1967 he said " the biggest job is to keep out what don't belong in it" (Reader 37): a constant discipline of omission, a constant stripping down to the central gesture, the essence or sine qua non of the style, the originary moment. Every excursion was a search for this center, a loop back to the origin. Then every performance, every song, even every innovation would also be a return home. Synthesis is one mode of innovation, but a continual return, a continual purification, is also a mode of innovation, especially in the face of rapid change, as Confucius taught. Bill Monroe, as he often said, wanted to be the kind of man his father was, but in an entirely transformed context.

    I grew up in DC, a great bluegrass center in my youth. But listening to the Seldom Scene or the Johnson Mountain Boys made me nostalgic for a childhood I never actually had, and that most of the members of these bands never had either. I would say that these assumed memories made me what I am to some extent, and now I actually live in a little house in the woods: remembering a childhood I never had made me repeat it and try to give it to my own children. I want to be the kind of man Bill Monroe's father was. Bluegrass is not an immediate photographic transcription or mirror image of rural life, but a way of shaping memory and hence the future; an expression of solidarity that tells us who we are by telling us where we came from, and invents who we are by telling us where we are going: namely, back home, to God or to southwestern Virginia.

     DC in my youth was a center of "progressive" bluegrass, above all the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. The Seldom Scene will forever be the lens through which I understand the form; my dad used to take me to their Tuesday gigs at the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda. The Seldom Scene, The New Grass Revival, Cliff Waldron, J.D. Crowe and the New South and other progenitors of the progressive bluegrass movement were progressive in several senses. Their repertoire extended to songs from the folk movement, singer-songwriters, and country rock of the sixties and early seventies, such as songs by Bob Dylan, James Taylor, the Byrds, the Beatles, and John Prine.  They looked different. On "Live at the Cellar Door," John Starling, in introducing their showstopping version of Jimmy Martin's "Hit Parade of Love" speaks humorously and derisively of the days of "negative stage presence," when "everybody dressed alike in their little uniforms and gathered around the mike" and no smiling was allowed. The Scene wore jeans and were incredibly loose in their performance style. Progressive bluegrass eventually included some longhairs and hippie-types, such as Peter Rowan or Sam Bush.

    And they sought by these means to construct a new audience, which was in effect at the Red Fox: a younger and middle-class audience with no hillbilly roots. They sought to connect bluegrass to the counter-culture, which they did for example in Jerry Garcia's band Old and in the Way, or in the resemblance of bluegrass festivals to Woodstock, or when erstwhile Blue Grass Boy Richard Greene played a showstopping "Sally Goodin" on an electric fiddle with the rock band Seatrain. But I think what is most remarkable about these groups from the standpoint of now is how traditional they sound. All the innovations were attempts to preserve the traditional form as a viable popular music. If a third of their repertoire was Dylan or whatever, two thirds was Monroe, Reno and Smiley, Stanley Brothers, and originals in that mode. The instrumentation, harmony structures, and playing and singing styles were as close to identical to the early bands as these performers could make them. And the question about whether to include a Grateful Dead song had to be whether it lent itself to the traditional style, and whether its lyric still brought the performers or their audience home.

     Bluegrass history, in other words, is a pretty tight series of loops. "Postprogressive" bluegrass, as we might call it, bluegrass of the last two decades, is eclectic. There are direct reactionaries, like Karl Shifflett and Big Country Show, Dave Evans, or the Dry Branch Fire Squad. The style of artists like Shifflett, who has returned even to the single mike and the "little uniforms," suffers, as Borges would put it, from a certain affectation, where Ralph Stanley handles easily the ordinary bluegrass of his time, which is not to say that Shifflett or Evans don't also produce some masterpieces, or that the return they instigate isn't compelling. Neo-progressives like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek obviously venerate the whole tradition, but also try to drive it forward. Newcoming returners like Dolly Parton or Jeannie Kendall are interesting: engaged in a return to a home they didn't, as artists, originate from, as though you want the last road to be the imagination of a return; they're on the road that winds back to the homeplace. I suppose my favorite artists of this period are people who effortlessly inhabit the tradition - neither consciously reactionary nor consciously progressive - groups like Hot Rize or IIIrd Tyme Out (who are for my money the greatest bluegrass artists of now). The style is their home, but they're also engaged in craftsmanly home improvement. Indeed, real craftsmanship can only be attained by repetition driven by love: a Nietzschean affirmation of the real.

    Each repetition is characterized by a consciousness of the previous repetitions, and in some ways this is what drives progress in bluegrass music. If you could transport IIIrd Tyme out or Dailey and Vincent to 1950, I think Flatt and Scruggs or Ralph and Carter Stanley would be flabbergasted by the quality of the playing and singing. But of course that quality depends on the previous existence of Flatt and Scruggs. "Hope is a lovely maiden who slips away between one's fingers; recollection is a beautiful old woman with whom one is never satisfied at the moment; repetition is a beloved wife of whom one never wearies, for one becomes weary only of what is new" (132).


Crispin Sartwell

Dickinson College