The earliest immigrants in North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee were Scots-Irish-English settlers who ventured down the Appalachian Mountains. Around 1750 they found the Cumberland Gap to discover the fertile soil of Kentucky’s bluegrass country.
These early pioneers were bringing a wealth of instrumental and vocal music traditions with them, and their Anglo-Celtic traditional ballads were comforting them along the way.
The majority of their ballads were originally from the British Isles, and the settlers had preserved them carefully because they wanted to stick to their European ancestors’ cultural traditions.
They actually had preserved the old ballads so perfectly well that in the early 20th century, English folksong collectors visited western North Carolina to collect pure English ballads as they had been already forgotten in England.
The traditional ballads were predominantly sung by emigrant women as local customs made that the men played the more raucous fiddle and banjo instruments. What we later came to know as bluegrass music, was strongly rooted in western North Carolina ballad singing, and much of the ballads’ subject matter was either death or murder, leading to the sometimes somber tone of the ‘lonesome bluegrass sound’.
The emigrant women who were singing these old English and Scotts-Irish ballads were usually singing with a very tight voice resulting in a shrill, high tone.
The emigrant men were favoring to play the instruments, and especially the fiddle was one of the best-favored treasures that English and Scotts-Irish immigrants had brought along when they arrived in America. Fiddlers were highly esteemed in those days as they provided great entertainment in remote communities, and their dance tunes definitely affected the traditional music in this area considerably.
Another important influence on Appalachian music (and also of a lot more music styles in America, of course) was African-American music. Slaves had brought with them a distinct tradition of community singing of worship and work, where usually one person sings a line to be responded by a group.
The percussion beat of African music influenced the Appalachian rhythm of dancing and singing, and when the banjo started to play a role in Southern Mountain Music after the Civil War had ended, the process of change was only sped up.
In the period 1860-1880, mainstream America also started to discover the African-American spirituals and it wasn’t long before black music (Slave Songs) started to be known outside of the Deep South.
By now, the English-Irish-Scottish Immigrants had brought in their high nasal, lonesome, kind of vocal harmonies, whereas the African-Americans had contributed with their rhythm and singing. Also, the old-time string band (which included banjo, fiddle, and guitar) played its role.
By the early 1800s, most of the region’s church singing was done without any harmony, and songbooks were rare. Church songs were just powerful melodies and had simple words so everybody was able to sing along.
In those days, religious music and Country Gospel was the music that was predominantly heard in the Appalachian Mountains, and there were three main sorts of religious music, revival spiritual songs, hymns, and ballads.
Revival spiritual music was directly coming from the African ‘call and response’ tradition and had become very popular among white residents when in 1800 the revival circuit had begun in Kentucky.
The music was simple, and the repetition of verse and refrain wasn’t difficult to sing, which was appreciated by the congregations. This sort of religious music was flourishing in the southern mountains but was eliminated in the northern churches where more ‘scientific’ new music was preferred.
The immigrants, who, for a large part were Bible-believing Christians, now started to incorporate Second Great Awakening songs with the music and instruments of old-time string bands, resulting in so-called ‘Mountain Gospel Music’. Which in turn later developed in ‘Bluegrass Gospel music’. We can distinguish three main styles of Gospel music, which came about pretty independently due to physical but also racial separation.
There is Black Gospel Music, Southern or White Gospel, and Mountain Gospel. Mountain Gospel Music came from the Southern Appalachian Mountains in southwest Virginia, Kentucky, north-western North Carolina, and northeastern Tennessee, and was in the past also referred to as ‘hillbilly music’.
For the devoted and Bible-believing people in those remote areas, their religious music not only played a role in worship services, it belonged to their every-day life as well.
Mountain Gospel Music later also included standing bass and mandolin in addition to already present instruments like banjo, fiddle, and guitar. During the 1930s, the brothers Bill and Charlie Monroe came from Kentucky to North Carolina to become active in that region’s vibrant and thriving music scene.
The Monroe Brothers were so busy with stage performances and visiting radio stations such as Raleigh’s WPTF, Asheville’s WWNC, and that they declined to record for RCA Victor records, until RCA Victor boss Eli Oberstein got them to record their music in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1936.
Their first recordings included ‘Long Journey Home’, a standard for this sort of music characterized by tight, high, vocal harmonies accompanied by spell-binding virtuous speedy music. Bill Monroe later went solo and formed a new band called ‘the Bluegrass Boys’, establishing what we now call ‘Bluegrass Music’.
The combination of religious lyrics about the Lord and bluegrass music has created ‘Gospel Bluegrass Music’, which is different from traditional bluegrass in a way that it sticks to the upbeat and spirited music style of the early immigrants’ Old-Time-String-Band, but without the misery lyrics, and including lyrics that are uplifting man’s soul.