Month: October 2021

by MHK Library staff MHK Library staff No Comments

What is Bluegrass Music

What is Bluegrass Music

by Bryan McBride, Adult Services Librarian

Defining a musical style can be difficult, no matter the type, and bluegrass is no different. What is bluegrass music? How did it get its name? Who started it and when? Are bluegrass songs always in the key of G? Unlike most musical genres, it does have a definitive beginning date and a singular creator. July of 1938, Bill Monroe broke with his older brother Charlie, left the Monroe Brothers group, assembled a group of musicians of his own choosing and called them the Kentucky Blue Grass Boys.

There are three questions answered right there. “Bill Monroe: the Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man” by Tom Ewing is exhaustive in its biography of Monroe, who is known as the Father of Bluegrass. The unanswered question remains: Are most bluegrass songs in the key of G? If anyone alive would know, it’s Ewing, who was a long-time guitarist in Monroe’s group. The key of G became a staple for a couple of reasons. For one, it was a good singing key for Monroe, who along with being the namesake of the genre, gave name to his singing style: the “high, lonesome sound,” named for his high tenor singing above a lower-pitched singer. For another, the most common way to play a banjo is to tune it so when the strings are strummed in an “open” position, it plays a G chord. Banjo and fiddle were the essential instruments in the music of Bill’s youth, and his mandolin didn’t fit very well in the traditions that existed before his talent and vision sparked a new kind of music. He was hard-headed, and determined to chase his vision.

Not only does Ewing’s book cover the life of Bill Monroe, it includes the history of those who played in the Blue Grass Boys, as well as other musical influences going on during the run of the Blue Grass Boys. History is one of the things I love about bluegrass. Maybe it was Monroe’s singing background and love of God from attending church, or living with his uncle from age ten following the death of his parents. One of Monroe’s best-known songs is “Uncle Pen,” a song about Bill’s uncle who was known for his fiddling at barn dances. If you wanted to host a square dance you needed two things: a caller and a fiddler, and Uncle Pen was the man you called on to do the fiddling. Bill grew into Uncle Pen’s sideman for these dances. Region was an important part of a musician’s character as well. Monroe included Kentucky in the name of his group so people would know where his group was from without asking. It is a bit foreign in this day of occupational mobility and the breakdown of family, but in the rural areas of the mid-to-late 1900s, roots were important and it shows in the music.

One of the fascinating aspects of bluegrass is its genealogy, and Ewing covers that in depth. He includes countless, noteworthy musicians who either started their careers with Monroe, or joined up with him mid-career as Monroe became a regular performer at the Grand Old Opry. These include Ralph and Carter Stanley, Del McCoury, Stringbean, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt. Stringbean was Bill’s first banjo picker, and Monroe claims he hired Stringbean for what his entertaining, comedic skills brought to the group. Earl Scruggs played banjo sometime after Stringbean left the group. Scruggs became legendary himself for a whole new way to play the banjo. The “Scruggs Style” uses finger picks to pick the strings rather than the old-time clawhammer style of playing the banjo with mostly downward strokes. Monroe’s lightning-fast playing, Scruggs’ style, and the high, lonesome singing created an energy level in string band music that had never been seen before.

Bill Monroe was the father of bluegrass and his legacy holds an amazing place in history. Ewing writes that in Monroe’s span of more than fifty years of Blue Grass Boys, 149 musicians had played in his band. Ewing’s book shows us a history of people, a history of place, a history of music.  A musical heritage that lives today in young string-band musicians, around campfires at music festivals worldwide. Monroe’s musical influence cannot be overstated and his impact is well-documented in “Bill Monroe: the Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man” by Tom Ewing.

by MHK Library staff MHK Library staff No Comments

Keep Calm and Read Jane

Keep Calm and Read Jane

by Rhonna Hargett, Associate Director of Learning and Information Services

Several years back (beginning with the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice era), I was obsessed with all things Jane Austen. I read all the books, all the biographies and spinoffs, and watched all the movies. I think I burnt myself out a bit. When I picked up “The Jane Austen Society” by Natalie Jenner, I was a bit tentative. It only took a couple of chapters, though, before I was completely sucked in. This delightful novel reminds me of the joy I felt when I read the commentaries or discussed the books with a true Austen scholar, as well as the gift that Austen has for helping us to sort out a confusing and overwhelming world.

The Jane Austen Society” takes place in Chawton Village, England, where Jane Austen spent the last few years of her life and wrote most of her novels. The novel begins towards the end of World War II, and the village is reeling from the losses of both world wars. A recent war widow, a farmer who lost two brothers in WWI, a widower doctor, and a young precocious housemaid discover a shared love for Austen’s novels and band together in an attempt to preserve the few remnants of the author’s presence in their little community. They persuade Fanny Knight, a distant relative of Austen’s, to join them, along with a Hollywood star and an expert in estate sales from Sotheby’s auction house. All of them have been touched by Austen’s stories of resilience and hope, and they want to create a place where others can come to honor the gifts she gave to the world.

It is difficult at times to keep in mind that this book is fiction. None of the characters actually existed, and the timing isn’t completely accurate for the development of the society and the establishment of the museum that exists today. However, Jenner has captured the devastation of a society recovering from war and the ambivalent relationship that the British people had with Jane Austen’s legacy.

Although the book isn’t quite historically accurate, it’s interesting that Jenner put the development of the society at the end of World War II. (The society was actually established in 1940.) This connects to the fact that Jane Austen’s writings have long been considered a balm for trauma. Author Claire Harman shares in her book “Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World” that Austen’s novels were recommended as therapeutic material to be read to World War I shell-shocked soldiers. Rudyard Kipling wrote “There’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight spot.” Some see escapism as her primary appeal, and there truly is something very calming about the setting and the guaranteed happy ending, but the romance in Jane’s books has an underlying difficulty that we sometimes forget. There were not many options for women who did not marry. The Bennet girls would have lost their home and income if their father had died. The Dashwood girls actually lost their home and support when their father died, and were fortunate to receive assistance from a relative they barely knew. Fanny Price relied on the kindness of her wealthy aunt and uncle. Anne Elliot is subject to the whims of her family, shipped here and there to help wherever needed, with no power or resources to run her own life. Austen’s books have an underlying theme of the precariousness of life, giving her characters a chance to learn more about themselves and to demonstrate resilience in the face of difficulty.

The Jane Austen Society” appeals on many levels: as a story of hope rising out of despair, an escape to a charming village in a different time, and the chance to vicariously join a group of Janeites.  Manhattan Public Library has the book in print, on CD, and digitally as an audiobook or ebook. Since this novel will also likely inspire you to reread your Austen favorites, they are also available in several formats. I know that I can’t wait to go back to reread them and see what new treasures I find that went unnoticed before.

by MHK Library staff MHK Library staff No Comments

Thrills and Chills

Thrills and Chills

by Rachel Cunningham, Circulation Supervisor

As the sidewalk’s decorations change from discarded fireworks wrappings and grass clippings to yellowed leaves and cracked walnut husks, I begin to reflect on the year behind me. Yes, there are still about 100 days left in 2021 – some hope for our “to read” list – but we can also begin to evaluate what we’ve accomplished so far.

In 2021, I wanted to intentionally spend time reading about characters with a story that was different from mine. Writer Angeline Boulley is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and published her first book, “Firekeeper’s Daughter,” in early 2021. The debut is a Young Adult thriller, focusing on the Ojibwe community. Deferring her acceptance to the University of Michigan, Daunis Fontaine stays in her hometown to support her mother after her uncle’s fatal meth overdose and her grandmother’s stroke. Daunis believes that bad things always come in three, which comes to fruition when her best friend, Lily, is murdered by her meth-addicted ex-boyfriend. Desperate to find justice for Lily, Daunis begrudgingly aids undercover FBI agents in their investigation into the drug operations on the reservation. However, things begin to spiral out of control as she finds connections too close to home. Through Daunis, Boulley educates readers about the traditions and beliefs of the Ojibwe people. Although this novel focuses too heavily on Daunis’s romantic relationship and reads as a debut novel, I would still recommend it to readers interested in learning about the Ojibwe community, the under investigated crimes against indigenous people, and the contemporary politics within tribes.

Along with many others, I enjoyed Courtney Summers’s award-winning thriller “Sadie” and looked forward to her 2021 novel “The Project.” Using alternating narratives, readers follow the stories of two sisters after the accident that killed their parents. While Lo is struggling to survive her injuries, her sister, Bea, desperately pleads for Lo’s life in the hospital’s chapel. In this vulnerable moment, 19-year-old Bea meets Lev Warren, the leader of The Unity Project. After a “healing” from Lev, Lo’s health miraculously improves. Bea immediately joins Lev and The Project, leaving Lo behind. Six years later, Lo is now nineteen, with a large disfiguring scar. Despite her efforts, Lo has been unable to reach her sister at The Project. However, after witnessing a member from The Project commit suicide at a train station, Lo decides to investigate the group and find her sister. The deeper Lo digs into The Project, the less certain she becomes about everything she thought she knew. Although listed as a thriller about cults, “The Project” is a study in family bonds, grief, and loneliness. Lo’s unrelenting search for her sister drives her to make precarious decisions, but after all, “Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make – and no one but the two of you can break.”

Also new in 2021 is Laura McHugh’s “What’s Done in Darkness.” McHugh has returned to the Ozarks, a familiar setting for those who read her award-winning novel “The Weight of Blood.” Sarabeth is 14 years old when her parents relocate their family to an isolated farm, joining a fundamentalist sect, Holy Rock Church. Despite her parents’ efforts, Sarabeth doesn’t accept their plain way of life and refuses to comply with her parents’ plan to arrange a marriage by her eighteenth birthday. But before an engagement can be made, Sarabeth is abducted from their family’s roadside farm stand, only to be abandoned along the highway a week later. With no distinguishable memories, local law enforcement refuses to investigate Sarabeth’s case. Rejected by her family, an advocacy group assists Sarabeth’s transformation into Sarah – a girl with her GED, a house, and a job at an animal shelter near St. Louis, MO. Sarah is beginning to piece a new life together when she receives a plea from Nick Farrow at the Missouri Highway Patrol, desperate for insight on cases that bear similarities to hers. Warily, Sarah agrees and returns to her family farm for her 16-year-old sister’s wedding. Reconnecting to her past, Sarah begins to uncover unsettling details as she races to solve the missing girls’ disappearance before it’s too late. With her rich descriptions of setting paired with well-paced tension, McHugh leaves readers with a story they’re unable to put down.

All novels feature female protagonists attempting to solve mysteries that haunt them, with a strong emphasis on familial relationships. Don’t worry, there’s still time to add these to your 2021 “to read” list!


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