The history of Bluegrass in Japan #1
by Sab “Watanabe” Inoue
It has passed 70 years since the style of bluegrass music was born when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in December 8th of 1945. Such exciting music, the sound of bluegrass has been spreading to the world slowly but surely.
In January 1958, Japanese Columbia released first bluegrass 45rpm EP “Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy / Blue Ridge Cabin Home” by Flatt & Scruggs. In October 1958, East Mountain Boys of Kyoto tried to play bluegrass-like mountain music which was asked by late Tatsuo Arita of Osaka American Folk Music Society. Mr. Arita asked several young Country musicians to play Bluegrass music. East Mountain Boys created the sensation in 1959 at then famous “Western Carnival” in Tokyo. Many college students followed them both in Tokyo/Kanagawa and Osaka/Kyoto. Since 1960, Japanese bluegrass community has been created and raised mostly by college kids till now.
Japanese Bluegrass community will be going to celebrate its 60 years anniversary in 2018. 60 years... in Japan, we say "Kan-Reki", literally mean "return-calendar." We celebrate the kanreki as reborn, new stage of life. Before the celebration of the new stage, I'd like to figure out "How bluegrass settled in Japan? and ...what is bluegrass in Japan!?". We still have two years to get ready for the big celebration for the "Kanreki of bluegrass in Japan".
1970's was the most flourished time for bluegrass here in Japan as well as American Rock music after Folk movement and English invasion of the 60’s and just before Mouse music of the 80's. After the rapid economic growth to recover the lost from the WWII, that's the time music was not luxury anymore. Though media hardly showed any interest, there were many bluegrass communities in colleges and even in high schools.
Today in the 21st century, there are many returners after the 40 long years break while they were raising kids and working for companies and also the number of college students is increasing through internet. I wonder what attracts those people? Because it's organic and eco friendly music? …old and new timeless tunes with acoustic sounds? ...unbelievable technique of master musicians? …simplicity which everybody can play with three chords ? Those are some of things I can think of. However, after 50 years of my life with bluegrass, I can say this… I have friends all over the world and we enjoy “Jam” …and of course, in my family, we enjoy “Jam” too!
East Meets West
When I think about the introduction of Western Music to Japan, it seems OK to be back to the Meiji Restoration (1867), even we had an encounter with Spanish and Portuguese music while Azuchi-Momoyama period (approx. 1558-1600 CE). We can imagine through the ball music of the Period of the Rokumei-kan Pavilion (constructed in 1883 for entertaining foreign diplomats and dignitaries) and Primary school songs which were selected by the Ministry of Education. My guessing is that those were in the same stream when the Buddhism was introduced in Nara-era (6th century) . The acceptance of those foreign cultures shows the aspects of Japanese flexibility. Sometimes flexibility destroys identity, ...however personally, I support the national characteristics which has no settled convictions rather than strict policies based by the race/religious or money/economic reason, though.
Although I haven't studied Japanese music history scholastically, it's just my intuition as a banjo and fiddle player. At the end of the Edo-era (which lasted over 250 peaceful years until Commodore Perry invasion with four heavy armed Black-Iron-Ships in 1853), people were dancing with shouting "eejyanaika, eejyanaika, tennkara ofudaga futtekuru! (Isn't it great? Isn't it great? Good luck charm is falling down from the sky!)." that sort of easy going mood of Japanese might have been resonant with Celtic wildness and mystique...!?
From Scotland to Japan
Thomas Blake Glover, who is said to be Ryoma Sakamoto's friend, was a merchant from Scotland and founded his Glover & Co. in Nagasaki. He sold guns to Japanese Civil War, the first guy to introduce the locomotive and the one of the founding father of Kirin Beer which I like to drink everyday..., the one of the biggest brewing companies in Japan. I'm not sure what kind of music he listened to, but there is no denying that Glover's Scottish spirit touched the heartstring of Ryoma's shamisen. Glover might have thought of the new instrument (banjo) which already gained the popularity in his home country introduced by Minstrel Shows from US. Ryoma is the most famous hero from Meiji Restoration who had a free spirit and good skill to play shamisen, the three string banjo-like instrument, though he was a skilled samurai as well.
Ryoma might have heard a song "Oh, Susanna" published in 1848 by Stephen Foster. The song was brought by John Manjiro, known as John Mung in US. John just came back from US, which was very rare occasion while Edo government closed the country. John, born and raised in Kochi same as Ryoma, was a fisherman whose boat was wrecked when he was 14. However luckily, he was saved by captain William Whitfield and he went to US and was educated under the wing of captain Whitfield at Fairhaven Mass. When he tried to come back to Japan in 1850, he went to California to make money for the ship as one of the forty-niners for the gold rush where everybody sang the song, "Oh Susannah" which was written by Scots-Irish descendant Stephen Foster. The painter Syoryu Kawada, a neighbor of Ryoma interviewed John and wrote the lyric from the song on his book "Han-Hou-Sai Zakki". It was written in English and Katakana, "I came from Alabama with a banjo on my knee...". Ryoma might have shown interest to the song cause he played shamisen？ Ryoma was assassinated by terrorists because of his eagerness to the freedom when he was 31 years old.
Koizumi Yagumo, or Rafcadio Hearn once wrote an article in the newspaper about African-American string band consisting of " a cracked violin,a dismal guitar and a wheezy bass viol" in Kentucky (referring from liner notes of "early southern guitar sounds" by Mike Seeger). Hearn came to Japan in 1890 and became an English teacher and fell in love with Japanese old tales about ghost. Since Hearn was not a Scottish but an Irish, he might have found Celtic mystique in Japanese ghost stories. Hearn might have talked about weird music he heard in Kentucky to fellow Japanese teachers who might have been interested in the string band music in rural south of US... no-way!!?
Since Meiji-Era(1868-1912), we’ve had a lot of songs based on pentatonic scale which is same feel as Celtic melodies on popular music. Before Meiji, our Japanese traditional songs without Western influence were also based on pentatonic scale which we call "yo-na-nuki", literally means "no 4th and 7th". For Japanese, the image of Irish is mystique and transparent, while the image of Scotch is brave and dauntless. The Munro clan, the father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe was born undoubtedly from the latter, I can imagine. Monroe used a lot of pentatonic scale on his mandolin playing.
In any case, there is no doubt that Japanese music education which started after Meiji Restoration was influenced greatly by the songs from popular composers of British American sheet music in the 19th century such as Stephen Foster (Scotch Irish) and Henry Clay Work (Scottish). And importantly, their songs were influenced from Celtic ancestors and they didn't know that those songs were hidden in Appalachian Mountains. Not in Scotland but in Appalachia.
There is no denying such attractive melody based on pentatonic scale influenced on the works of many Japanese composers of the time as well as Taki Rentaro whose songs are covered by The Bluegrass 45 and other Japanese bluegrass bands. Also the songs composed by Stephen Foster are also very popular in Japan, and moreover "Grandfather's Clock" written by Henry Clay Work in 1876 hit number one chart in Japan by popular singer Ken Hirai in 2002. Clay's 1865 song "Marching Through Georgia", sometimes it is played as an old-time fiddle tune, is still familiar in Japan through TV commercials. The marching song during the Civil War, is known as the big hit with antipolitical comic lyrics "Tokyo Bushi" released in 1919 and besides it is said the song was used for Japanese Army marching song at the attack on Port Arthur in 1904, which is the famous tragedy war in Meiji Era between Japan and Russia. By the way, Clay's another song "The Ship That Never Returned" is reused in the "Wreck of the Old 97", one of the most famous bluegrass standard jam tunes.
I was moved by the story that more than one hundred years ago, Japanese street performers called "Violin Enka-shi" played Southern Appalachian fiddle tunes as some of their repertoires. I wish I can find a proof of the visit of Appalachian old time fiddler to Japan in Meiji Era... is this a crazy dream?
Fiddle & Banjo
In 1854, Commodore Perry made the second visit to Japan to force the conclusion of Treaty of Kanagawa (Convention of Peace and Amity between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan). Peaceful Edo Period which lasted over 250 years was ended.
Commodore Perry and his black-iron fleet accompanied minstrel show to entertain the Japanese people. The export of music business by US government had already started as early as mid 19th century! Needless to say, the minstrel show which teased black culture (the importance of the rhythm was there ...but they did not recognize it yet like 20th century musicians did, though), consists of the leading instruments, banjo and fiddle, including guitar and percussion. Just like you can imagine, that's the very close formation to Bluegrass.
The clamor music and dancing must have been familiar to those Japanese who have traditional festival music played with shamisen, bamboo flute and drums. Commodore Perry's USS Susquehanna reports that the party to celebrate conclusion of Treaty of Kanagawa went very well and they entertained Japanese people a lot. The similarity of Minstrel music and Japanese Bon-dance festival music must be one of the reasons why the Japanese was easy to get into.
Banjo seems to have been introduced to Japan earlier than the time when mandolin club of Keio University was founded in 1910. The Keio Mandolin Club history mentioned about banjo club in Yokohama made of trade merchants from foreign countries. It is said that they taught how to perform the mandolins just like banjo orchestra.
In the United States and England, banjo caught attention in the late 19th century and made a huge boom. It was introduced earlier than guitar and mandolin. That was right in the middle of Bunmei-Kaika, Japan's Westernization movement during the early Meiji era. It was not surprising that trading merchants from the United States and Britain owned banjos in Nagasaki, Kobe, and Yokohama.
Fiddle or violin became more common musical instrument when the German teacher was invited by the government. Folksongs from Scotland became Japanese elementary school songs and classical music from Germany became art...!? In 1900, Masakichi Suzuki founded Suzuki Violin Co., Ltd., the first violin maker in Japan. Masakichi's son, Shinichi Suzuki was the founder of Suzuki Method which produces a lot of great fiddlers of the 21st century. Of course, bluegrassers know that European fiddle and African banjo met at Southern Appalachian mountain where American gets new boom-chick rhythm which became the basic of American popular music.
Wrong War... there's no right war!
Between the World War I and II, the time named Roaring 20s in the States, Jazz which got fame with radio or records, naturally, might have made novelty -loving Japanese people dance in Taisho Era(1912-1926), when people say Taisho democratic era. The times when all the music from the West was called "jazz", as well as any kind of pleasure-seeking hip music, idyllic folksongs and what is called hillbilly music must have been some part of it.
As time passed by , in Showa Era(1926-1989) the threat of war deleted the music from the West, especially American music because it was too pleasure-seeking (hedonism!?). The music which speaks for the people received unreasonable treatment. Japan experienced terrible and wrong war and gave the hard time to the world.
I think I have to move the story forward about how Japanese Bluegrass was born and how it developed on the next issue. (from “Moonshiner” magazine #385, July 2015)
…to be continued.