Wayne Erbsen,
Rural Roots of Bluegrass:
Songs, Stories & History

(Mel Bay, 2003)

There's a heapin' helpin' of bluegrass songbooks out there, but this one's a lot different and, as such, is worth more than a second look from bluegrass fans. In this oversized volume, Wayne Erbsen presents more than 90 bluegrass and old-time songs, with melody lines, lyrics and chords. At first that may not sound too exciting. After all, who needs still another piece of music for "Old Joe Clark," "Nine Pound Hammer" and "Shady Grove"? Don't all bluegrass musicians have these old chestnuts lying around somewhere (if they're not already in their memory)? Why buy another book to duplicate what's already in our many bluegrass songbooks?

Well, if all you're interested in is the music, you'll get no argument here, but if you also want another look at the long and fascinating history of the genre, with succinct essays on individual performers and bands, you'll find this book fascinating. There's material on Mister Bill and Lester & Earl, but you'll also find essays on Riley Puckett, Bradley Kincaid, Charlie Poole, Wade Mainer and lots more, many with photos.

The first 40-some pages are devoted to a history of the genre and the tracing of its roots in rural, old-time music, as well as brief tidbits about playing the different bluegrass instruments, capoing, harmony singing and more. You're not going to become a virtuoso from reading anything here, but at least you'll be able to lay down the basic chords.

The real treat of this book, however, is the versions of the songs that are given. You won't find the O Brother version of "Man of Constant Sorrow," but rather the composer Dick Burnett's original version. Same with "Jimmie Brown the Paper Boy," which is given here in its 1875 version rather than the later Carter Family or Flatt & Scruggs versions. Another gem is the 1880 "Footmarks in the Snow," the original English music hall song that became Bill Monroe's "Footprints in the Snow." English music hall? You bet! And there are plenty more similar surprises in this volume of musical detection and history.

If you want to delve deeper into bluegrass than just knowing what chords go with what songs, you'll find this book a delight. It shows us the roots of the roots, as it were, and you may never think of bluegrass in quite the same way again. The volume is also available with a companion CD with 16 of the songs, not seen by this reviewer.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 10 April 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.