Neo-Tribalism in Acoustic Music


"It is well known that on the Continent, whence our Norman nobles came, the Bard who composed, the Harper who played and sang, and even the Dancer and the Mimic, were all considered as of one community, and were even all included under the common name of Minstrels."

(Thomas Percy, Essay on Ancient Minstrels, 1764)

I have an issue of Lowrider Magazine at home that I look at every now and then to remind me of just how different our various passions and lifestyles can be. When I look at the fantastic photos of the Freestyle Bed-Dance Championships and the Car-Hopping world champion, I imagine what they would think of Autoharp Quarterly magazine or Bluegrass Unlimited. And one thing is for sure-- the crowds in the magazine's photos who watch the Car-Hopping contests are bigger than the crowds who watch the National Fingerpicking Guitar Championships, and the printing quality and gloss of the paper of Lowrider Magazine surpass any of the acoustic music magazines I have ever seen. It's a tiny little corner of the world we inhabit as acoustic musicians and fans, and the things that I devote my life to, and that the fans and the participants in the world of acoustic guitar playing get all excited about are pretty small potatoes in the big picture. I would venture a guess that there are far more people interested in HO trains, model airplanes, kayaks, soap-box derbies, camp stoves and innumerable other pursuits. The numbers that represent the respective circulations of the Bluegrass and Banjo and Autoharp and Folk Song magazines and all the sales of the records, CD's and videos makes it a really small world, probably right up there with black-powder gun enthusiasts or llama breeders in sheer numbers.

So what is my point? When I look around me I see an increasing divisiveness in the acoustic music community. Instead of a sense of comraderie, and a uniting against the common enemy of Disney, Sony, Time-Warner and HBO, I see the Bluegrass, Celtic, old-timey, songwriting, instrumental fingerstyle, blues and other communities circling their wagons and having less to do with each other than ever before. Dangerous lines of distinction are being drawn arbitrarily, trying to force us into the various camps. Whether you are a songwriter or not has become a really big deal in some situations. There is becoming a stigma if you use fingerpicks on a guitar or not. I see a very fast-growing trend of instrumental, fingerstyle guitar players staging events, starting magazines and in general trying to separate themselves from whatever "masses" of acoustic guitar players there may be out there. Bluegrass has been divided for years between "traditional" and "progressive" camps. Muriel Andersen's promo is touting her as America's Premier Woman Fingerstyle Acoustic Guitarist. What is next? Left-handed gay Christian fingerstyle acoustic women from Canada? Why can't we all just be entertainers and guitar players and people? Aren't we all just "humans who play musical instruments," as opposed to the other forms of entertainment which include: movies, bands, books, sports, camping... Isn't this getting out of hand?

It is a natural thing for people to want to distinguish and define themselves, but there are two big problems with this neo-tribalism and label-making. First of all, the community needs to be large enough to divide, (which I don't think it is) and more important, people who do not fit neatly into these camps become outcasts. I am a songwriter, but I also like traditional music a lot and I play songs written by all sorts of other people. I have spent 30 years trying to be a diverse artist, and I am very interested in flatpick-style guitar as well as fingerstyle guitar. I like to sing. I like to strum. I like to play mandolin and autoharp. I play some blues. So the various autoharp, blues, folk, songwriting and fingerpicking communities are encouraged to mistrust and be somewhat wary of those of us who sort of belong but not totally. And I am not the only one. A large proportion of guitarists can play with a pick or with their fingers. Doc Watson, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon come to mind right away. James Taylor. Pat Donohue is one of the finest fingerstyle guitarists who ever lived, but he is also a great singer and a primo songwriter, and he does not fit neatly into the camps that are forming either. We've talked about this, and we both feel sort of left out of some of these fingerstyle-instrumental events and media. My friend David Surette is a marvelous fingerstyle player, but he is also a really good flatpicker, mandolin and bouzouki player? How do you classify him? Should you? Why can't he just be David Surette, good musician. Audiences are not as concerned about these labels as you might think they are. I know someone who saw an issue of Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine, and said "Don't all guitar players use their fingers?"

If there is a finger of blame to be pointed, it gets pointed partly at radio. Radio formats have become deeply ingrained, even though I personally believe that there a lot more people who would rather hear a variety of music than those who want to hear the same style of music all day. Even in public radio, (the only place people like me get airplay) there is an increasing trend toward shows that are really focused on only Blues, Celtic, Bluegrass, Folk, or some other category. And I know that even those very DJ's who present those shows are constantly battling with the morality of crossing the arbitrary lines of demarcation they have drawn, and they actually seem to like diversity. Perhaps it is the program directors and station managers who are to blame, and not the DJ's themselves.

Why should the artists with the most versatility and the widest possible range of appeal to various audiences-- the very people who are most in a position to attract a wider audience for acoustic music -- become excluded from things simply because they are not totally specialized. Wouldn't a concert with a singer-songwriter, an instrumentalist, and a traditional picker be more interesting and sell more tickets than one of these showcases we now see regularly with 3 or 4 very similar songwriters or instrumentalists? Does it not make sense that a songwriter who knew how to play guitar really well could attract and hold an audience better than someone who sang songs with only novice guitar skills all night? Wouldn't a change of pace or instrument make the show more entertaining?

Face it, we live in a world of information, and the various styles of music are just outgrowths of this. Bill Monroe grew up in rural Kentucky where there were reputedly a handful of music influences: church & gospel, traditional fiddling, tin pan alley, & blues primarily. There was no mass media, so Bluegrass music was able to evolve from a finite number of influences. We can also trace the roots of specialized music forms like blues, jazz and Cajun music, and see how they grew from the cultures that combined and mixed. But today, we have a lot of young musicians, but we hardly have a definable culture. Regionalism barely exists any more. And there is no way to know what music influences a young person today has been exposed to. There are so many TV channels, radio stations and other influences that there is a total explosion of hybrid and weirdly cross-pollinated music styles, and there are going to be a lot more before there are fewer. I have seen kids who appear to be a cross between Ricki Lee Jones and Patsy Cline. Why not? It worked. I have met young musicians whose influences were so random, because of what their families and friends and neighbors knew about: Frank Sinatra, The Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett and Hank Williams and Robert Johnson, or some such combination. We see more and more young people who have been exposed randomly to things, and what they come up with is no less valid than what Bill Monroe did with the influences he had to work with.

There are too many styles and artists. Even the most devout students cannot know about all the branches of the musical tree, and we should just welcome and applaud all creative and sincere musicians and stop trying to hard to create classes and subclasses we can fit into.

© 1996 by Harvey Reid

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This web site concerns the music and life of acoustic musician & music educator Harvey Reid.

If you don't find what you want, or if you have comments or questions, please email to

WOODPECKER MULTIMEDIA
PO Box 815 York Maine 03909  USA
phone (207) 363-1886


About Harvey Reid Concert Schedule Catalog of Recordings
Lyrics Newest Recording Booking Information
Buy From Us Reviews Interviews
Say Hello to Us Newsletter Hot News
Harvey's Gear The Song Train About the Partial Capo
Articles & Essays Out of Print Music Books
Downloads Publicity Info Favorite CD's
What's Here Publicity Photos Guitar Tunings
About Joyce Andersen Lyrics History
Listen to Audio Say Hello to Us Listen to Audio
Lyrics Lyrics Listen to Audio

Harvey Reid Concert Schedule |Harvey's Blog | About the Liberty Guitar Method|Catalog of CD's and Tapes|Discography|About this Web Site & What's New Here | Hot News | Woodpecker Home Page | About Harvey Reid |The Song Train | Video | Audio | About Joyce Andersen | Books by Harvey Reid | Say hello to us... | Concert & Record Reviews | Interviews with HR | Lyrics to Harvey Reid Songs | Harvey Reid Annual Newsletters | HR's Guitar Tunings | About the Partial Capo | Articles & Essays by HR | HR's Gear | HR's Favorite CD's | HR's Career History | Booking Info | Publicity Info & Download Files |


This web site concerns the music and life of acoustic musician & music educator Harvey Reid.

If you don't find what you want, or if you have comments or questions, please email to