Happy Songs About Sad Stuff

There went Pride Month, and what a month it was. The California bluegrass community won’t be the same after this. The world’s biggest bluegrass organization put its name and its energy behind the proposition that bluegrass is for everyone, and then we got out there and showed that we meant it.

Our beautiful float carrying live musicians (one of a very few live music floats in the whole vast parade) was escorted by more than 100 bluegrass fans waving rainbow banjo flags and celebrating with the huge crowd. If anyone out there thought bluegrass was an old hidebound institution unable to relate to the diversity of the modern world, they’ve had to think again.

I’ll never forget the whoop that went up from the crowd when Suzy Thompson’s old-time band hit its first number, about 25 minutes in. I think those first eight bars of joyful noise made us more new friends than all the street fair appearances we’ve done this year.

They say bluegrass is just “happy songs about sad stuff.” It’s a bundle of contradictions, just like all of us. Our music comes straight out of the deep South, where it has steeped for decades in sorrow, anger, resignation, and defiance. It contains wide streaks of misogyny and racism only recently and patchily covered over. Its homophobia is rarely explicit, but it’s hard to miss. This powerful, irresistible music reflects and reproduces the world of its birth even as it provides a foundation for overcoming it.

So we looked at each other one day and asked ourselves, what if we took that on straight up? What if we brought the love and acceptance and joy at the heart of bluegrass out into the open, and showed it off to a million people celebrating their difference and diversity? If you take the fear and protectiveness out of bluegrass, is there any bluegrass left? I’d always thought that was a yes, but on Pride Sunday I finally really believed it.

One of the things I loved most about walking in the Parade was the number of people in our contingent that I didn’t know. I realized, looking at all those new faces, that bluegrass is on a roll. More and more people are being drawn to banjos and mandolins, getting that old guitar out of the attic, tuning into KPFA Sunday afternoons. If you’re one of those people, welcome. You have a place in our circle.

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