I have a secret: I love bluegrass music. People who know this about me think this must come from my West Virginia roots. The truth is I was exposed to every kind of music except bluegrass by the musicians on the West Virginia side of my family. When my brother discovered and shared this music with me in the seventies, there was no explaining the native feel of fiddle strings and banjo strings on these heart strings of mine.
Bluegrass may have had its start in the Appalachian Mountains, but the roots of its instruments are in the hybrid vigor of merging cultures. The fiddle had its start in the highlands of Scotland. The banjo began much earlier in Africa– and very likely in Mali–as a stringed gourd. I didn’t know any of this when my brother first introduced bluegrass to me– it was just toe-tapping, foot-stomping, hand-clapping joy.
We have been listening to the music of Mali as part of our study of the Empire of Mali in Social Studies; the ancestry of banjo music is right there. In Language Arts we’ve been studying Trickster Tales. Like the banjo, these stories have their roots in West Africa. The protagonist in a trickster tale (usually a spider, rabbit, or tortoise) is a risk taker, a survivor, and smart. These stories do not end with a moral, but they uphold core values: speak to people, don’t take more than your share, and don’t think you are bigger than you are. The protagonist is only outsmarted if he flies in the face of one of these values.
Music, stories, and values found their way to North America in the hearts of people– people who gave up everything and chose to come, and people who lost everything and were forced to come. The stories came with people who were not allowed to bring anything with them. They have morphed over time to fit the region: Brother Rabbit becomes Brer Rabbit, the African grassland becomes the meadow, and the underbrush becomes the briar patch. The values of risk, survival, and resourcefulness are more important than ever.
Stories and music are part of the intangible gift of diversity in our culture.
I bet you wish you could hear a trickster tale. I’m guessing your child will be more than willing to tell you one in the next week or two. Lean forward and be ready to listen. That’s a gift, too.