The University of Pittsburgh’s Bluegrass Ensemble (MUS 616, 1 credit, W 6-8:30pm, Fall 2020/Spring 2021) engages with local musical traditions west of the Appalachians. Rooted in a research approach, the Bluegrass Ensemble draws on recordings and scholarship to analyze and perform repertoires associated with roots music. A course taken for credit, the Bluegrass Ensemble offers students of all backgrounds contemporary ways of engaging with historical repertoires. Through weekly rehearsals and guest lectures with local musicians, students gain a deeper understanding of performance styles in relation to the social contexts that have shaped American musical traditions.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Bluegrass Ensemble’s featured recording for Fall 2020 is the North Carolina folk song “Tom Dooley,” based on the 1866 murder of Laura Foster who died at the hands of her lover. Our rendition brings attention to the female voice in a song traditionally sung from the perspective of the male protagonist. We dedicate this song to women across the world who have suffered from violence at the hands of their intimate partners.
The vocal parts were developed by the members of Bluegrass Ensemble and follow the style of traditional close harmonies in traditional music. The accompaniments on guitar, banjo, and mandolin offer harmonic support and highlight beginner skills.
Practice was conducted via Zoom for the first half of the semester and then shifted to in-person rehearsals in a large tent on campus. With an evening rehearsal slot, we often strained to hear each other over traffic noise and the hum of the tent’s air conditioner/heater system. We rehearsed in a square, separated from each other by 15 ft. We wore masks and plastic face shields for additional protection.
The recording, made in Bellefield Auditorium during the last week of classes of Fall 2020, surprised us because it was the first time we could truly “hear” each other. It seems, in light of the challenges we faced over the course of the semester, we had learned to listen. Recorded with one take in light of budget restraints, this recording captures unpracticed dynamics that reflect the bond among musicians in tune with each other musically and emotionally.
We thank the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for their assistance in the research of traditional murder ballads.
We also express our deep gratitude to the leadership of the University of Pittsburgh Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Music, and the Office of Facilities Management for their support and creative solutions during these challenging times.
The University of Pittsburgh Bluegrass Ensemble Members (Fall 2020): Dr. Adriana Helbig, director (guitar); Maya Brown, teaching assistant (banjo), Noah Kotzin (mandolin), Jacquelyn Sieber (banjo, vocals)