Saturday, October 11, 2008

Interpretation & Correctness -- And I Stand Corrected

I've been having an interesting conversation with S.B. regarding the chord structure of Jerusalem Ridge. In particular, we have been discussing the chords of the 3rd section of the song. I had learned it without any runs and have been playing it Am, Dm, E, Am. Not having heard (or maybe it was that I didn't pay close enough attention to) the original recording of Kenny Baker and Bill Monroe, I assumed that the C chord was part of a run; however, I don't believe that's the case anymore. More importantly, I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss interpretation of bluegrass music. (You can view the original comments here.)

Most of my students know by now that I encourage individuality and improvisation. I don't need to (and don't want to) have 50, 100, 200 or more students leaving here sounding just like me. We have talked many times during lessons about how words, chords, and melodies get changed over the years, and in different parts of the United States. I just haven't discussed that here in the blog before.

My view of improvisation is that it has to meet certain criteria. In particular, you have to stay within the chord structure of the song. Now this can be hard when there are different versions of the song floating around. How do you know which one is "correct"? And does it matter? Secondly, the melody must be played (or sung) in such a way that the song is recognizable. If you are going to stray very far from the melody, it is important to state the melody the first time around before straying. Thirdly, your rhythm has to be correct. If it's not, it can affect the first two points that I made in the very least.

I'm going to address the first point I made, since that is what this post is really about. There are times when I know about different versions and chord structures of songs. I try to point that out. I also try to have students "follow the leader" when they are in jam sessions. In other words, even if you learned it one way, play it the way the leader is playing it, if reasonable and possible. (That doesn't mean that if the leader has no rhythm that you copy that!) If you know the leader is playing something non-standard, you will have to decide yourself if and how you would say something later on...

So does it matter if you play the song one way and someone else plays it another? Yes and no. It matters if the integrity of the song is at stake. Imagine that you wrote a song and someone else starting playing or singing it and used some different chords in it. It wouldn't sound the same. Although it might be flattering that someone liked your song well enough to play it, it could be very disheartening if lots of others started copying this different chord structure. Worse yet, what if they used that person's version as the "correct" version? Wouldn't you be a better judge of that since you wrote the song?

What if you like your version better than the original version? I guess this is up for discussion, but at the very least, you should be aware of this difference. Especially if you are going to teach it to other people.

How do you know which version is "correct"? By going back to the original. That might sound simple, but it can sometimes be tough because so many people have recorded the songs over the years. You can look for copyrights on websites like, or you can listen to musicians who generally represent the "standard," like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.

I love bluegrass music and I hope to pass this love along to many others. In the process, I hope to encourage individuality and interpretation without compromising the traditional bluegrass that is our heritage and backbone.

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