The Journey of True Life Blues

The Journey of True Life Blues

Picture of Joey Pilot

Joey Pilot

Let’s go on a journey, to a simpler time where everyone knew their place and no one played the vi minor chord…

I hate to see the sun sink low
Just for a cause you ought to know
For it’s true love I can’t forget
All of my sorrows you’ll soon regret

– Bill Monroe, True Life Blues

The first recording of “True Life Blues” come from the 1945 sessions that produced other singles such as “Footprints in the Snow”, “Rocky Road Blues” and “Kentucky Waltz”. I was first drawn to this era of The Bluegrass Boys because of the bluegrass girl, Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester on the accordion. Key of A for those of you keeping track at home.

Mr. Monroe is in fine form on the mandolin, kicking off the tune and coming in strong with blues riffs and his trademarked tremolo. Wilene and Stringbean on the banjo have some audible contributions (which can’t be said for all of these early recordings), and the rhythm section moves the sound closer to honky tonk or rock and roll than Bluegrass.

As the lyrics to the first verse allude to nondescript imagery about a sunset, love and regret, the sounds of this band set the stage for what is to come.

You promised me love that was true
I’m sorry to say that I believed in you
For it’s all turned out just like dream
That left me so sad in the world it seems

– Bill Monroe, True Life Blues

Here we have a live recording from the Grand Ole Opry in the late 1940’s with Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Chubby Wise. To my ears, this is the peak of Bill Monroe’s mandolin tone, and his rhythmic and melodic ideas still sound fresh.

Immediately this sounds more like bluegrass. Is it because of Earl Scruggs banjo?  Chubby Wise’s fiddle breaks? Is it because we are now in the key of D? (a fourth higher than the original recording). I’m not sure, but the pleas of the lyrics call forth to that platonic ideal of “bluegrass” we think we know.

There’s dishes to wash and a house to clean
There’s washing to do oh it seems so mean
A million words I can’t explain
Think of this girl before you change your name

They’ll go away and leave you at home
They’ll never care if you’re alone
They seem to forget, they’ve got a wife
This story is sad, but it’s a true life

– Bill Monroe, True Life Blues

We’ve got “Dale” Mccoury on the banjo and lead, and the closest thing to a mandolin “chop” we’ve heard thus far. Del takes a very audible and clear banjo break. Monroe does his mandolin thing, but at this point the mandolin tone isn’t where it was on the late 40s recording with Earl Scruggs.

We’ve settled into the key of C, so a whole step lower than the Opry recording, which takes a little bit of the “bite” out of the vocal harmony. But what strikes me about this recording is the balance of voices and instruments. How the fills, breaks and the vocal parts all have a predetermined place. This contrasts greatly with the wall of sound present in the earlier recordings – this is much more dynamic and interesting.

The words are true. Dishes. Washing. Home. Wife. The words are also “unexplainable” and we are still left wondering how much of this music is the product of an individual, and how much of it is shaped by context? How much of this music can actually be put into words?

In any kind of music, it is common for a single artist to explore the possibilities of a song, making adjustments to accommodate for personnel changes and audience. People like me will try time and time again to observe and analyze in attempts to make claims about authenticity and influence, to prescribe thoughts and motivations to the artists and meaning to the music.

Music, our ephemeral master, will always pull the rug out from underneath us just when we think we understand it enough to write a blog post. Just like true life.

Joey Pilot plays jazz piano, bluegrass mandolin and other things in Raleigh, North Carolina. A self proclaimed music nerd, he runs a periodic newsletter of weird, obscure and interesting music called The Orphic.

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