Kentucky: Bluegrass, Blue Moon
We’re continuing a series at Tweetspeak — 50 States of Generosity, in which we highlight the 50 states of America and give people beautiful ways to understand and be generous with one another by noticing the unique and poetic things each state brings to the country. A more generous people in the States can become a more generous people in the world. We continue with Kentucky.
State capital: Frankfort. State bird: Northern cardinal. State flower: goldenrod. State tree: tulip poplar. State nickname: The Bluegrass State. State music: bluegrass. State musical instrument: Appalachian dulcimer (upon which bluegrass music may be played). State bluegrass song: “Blue Moon of Kentucky”
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining
Shine on the one that’s gone and said good-bye”
Those lines are the chorus of the state bluegrass song, Blue Moon of Kentucky, by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. He played the tune in 1939 at the Grand Ole’ Opry with his band, the Blue Grass Boys. The episode was broadcast over radio, and Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins were listening. A genre was born. “Blue Moon of Kentucky” has also been covered by Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Alan Jackson, and Paul McCartney, among others.
Here’s how Monroe described the style of music for which he is known in an interview back in 1983:
It’s got Baptists and Holiness and Methodists singing in it and Scotch bagpipe and the old Southern blues and the—a lot of different ideas in it. It really touches your heart, and it’s good, clean music.”
Bluegrass descended from Scottish and Irish immigrants to the New World. It’s also got a fair bit of blues. Monroe was influenced by the thumb-style method of guitar-playing by his friend Arnold Shultz. If you saw the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? you heard bluegrass. The soundtrack went triple platinum.
But before there was bluegrass, the music, there was bluegrass, the grass. Depending on your perspective, poa pratensis is either good lawn and pasture material (which also makes an excellent playing field) or an invasive species to be avoided at all costs.
The Commonwealth of Kentucky was established in 1792 as the 15th state in the nation. Long the center for the tobacco and coal industries, the state’s economy has expanded to include auto manufacturing and uranium enrichment. But two of the current drivers of commerce in the state go with its motto: Unbridled Spirit. Unbridled for horses, and Spirit for bourbon.
Bourbon, American whiskey made from corn, is known as America’s native spirit. September was National Bourbon Heritage Month, and fall is a season for bourbon festivals along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Horses are in season year-round, and not just during the Kentucky Derby. Lexington is the Horse Capital of the World, and Shelbyville is the Saddlebred Capital of the World. During her reign, Queen Elizabeth II came to Kentucky five times to experience American horsemanship at its best. Perhaps she enjoyed a glass of Kentucky spirits as well, while in the background someone played a banjo.
Music is essential to the state’s Kentuckyness. In addition to bluegrass pioneers, Kentucky has produced blues artists (W.C. Handy), country artists (Loretta Lynn, The Judds), Christian artists (Steven Curtis Chapman), pop artists (The Backstreet Boys), rock ‘n’ roll artists (The Everly Brothers), and R&B artists (Wilson Pickett). It’s even the birthplace of the Louisville sisters who wrote the tune we now know as Happy Birthday — Mildred and Patty Hill.
When current U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón moved to Kentucky from California, she found solace in birdsong, specifically, in the song of the state bird, the Northern cardinal. Its music kept her blue moon at bay until she fell in love with her new state home, bird note by bird note.
Confession: I did not want to live here,
not among the goldenrod, wild onions,
or the dropseed, not waist high in the barrel-
aged brown corn water, not with the million-
dollar racehorses, or the tightly wound
round hay bales. Not even in the old tobacco
weigh station we live in, with its heavy metal
safe doors that frame our bricked bedroom
like the mouth of a strange beast yawning
to suck us in, each night, like air. I denied it,
this new land. But, love, I’ll concede this:
whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird,
the loud, obvious blur of song people point to
when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.
–Listen to Ada Limón read the poem and discuss Kentucky birds and the name of her car
Poetry Prompt: Kentucky Generosities
Use any of the things you learned about Kentucky (research more, if you want!) and put one or more of them into a poem. If you like, weave in a little generosity. Share in the comments.
More About Kentucky: Poets & Writers + Landmarks
1937 flood, in which water rose 60.8 feet and submerged 95% of Paducah
Abraham Lincoln birthplace, national historic park
Wendell Berry, poet, essayist, author
Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum
Fort Knox, where they keep the gold, right?
KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), established by Harland Sanders, who fed hungry travellers at his service station
Mammoth Cave National Park, longest known cave system in the world
The National Quilt Museum
University of Kentucky, (note the blue)
Helen Thomas, UPI White House Bureau Chief, who covered ten presidents
Hunter S. Thompson, journalist and author
Browse more 50 States of Generosity
“Megan Willome has captured the essence of crow in this delightful children’s collection. Not only do the poems introduce the reader to the unusual habits and nature of this bird, but also different forms of poetry as well.”
—Michelle Ortega, poet and children’s speech pathologist
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