Bluegrass, like other forms of American roots music, is born of the simple need to connect, remember and be remembered.
Three years ago assistant professor Travis Stimeling started the West Virginia University Bluegrass Band to remind people of the great history and culture present in West Virginia and Appalachia. Every year, the band goes on tour around West Virginia. We decided to get them together to give you your own virtual tour in a series of videos.
The music that the WVU Bluegrass Band performs links the listeners to deep roots from a disappearing past. With the exception of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the songs in this playlist are in the old-time string band genre. These tunes of the past may not sound as complex by contemporary standards, but the simple chords and direct lyrics can speak to the emotional life of us all.
Two of the songs performed by the WVU Bluegrass Band feature the music of West Virginia native Hazel Dickens. Dickens’ music touches on the familiar theme of West Virginians leaving their homes. The WVU Bluegrass Band connects us with this longing in their 360-degree video performance of “West Virginia, My Home.”
“West Virginia, oh, my home.
West Virginia's where I belong.
In the dead of the night in the still and the quiet
I slip away like a bird in flight
Back to those hills — the place that I call home.”
Another Dickens tune is a murder ballad called "The Yablonski Murder.” The song immortalized the political murder of a Pennsylvania union organizer. Dickens was known for her music about feminism and the plight of non-unionized mine workers.
“Well it’s cold blooded murder friends, I’m talking about
Now who’s gonna stand up and who’s gonna fight?
You better clean up that union, put it on solid ground
Get rid of that dirty trash, that keeps a working man down.”
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” may be one of the most famous songs about that feeling of missing home. And it’s a big hit when the WVU Bluegrass Band takes it on tour.
In 2014, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was added to the list of official West Virginia state songs. This much beloved song became country music star John Denver’s signature hit. The WVU Bluegrass Band takes the most contemporary song in this list into the digital future with a 360-degree video performance.
“All my memories, gather round her
Miner's lady, stranger to blue water.
Dark and dusty, painted on the sky
Misty taste of moonshine, teardrops in my eye.”
In this video, WVU alumnus Hillary Kay, MA ’16, Musicology, examines the murder ballad "Pretty Polly," a bluegrass tune about the death of a woman at the hands of her lover. Kay challenges patriarchal stereotypes in bluegrass music by examining from a woman's perspective bluegrass songs that depict violence against women or marginalize them.
“Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right.Read a story on the WVU Bluegrass Band from Fall 2016.
Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right.
I dug on your grave the biggest part of last night.
Oh she knelt down before him a pleading for her life.
She knelt down before him a pleading for her life.
Let me be a single girl if I can't be your wife.”
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