Learning Lit Through Music
Burnett Family Bluegrass performs Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Earl Scruggs at Flagstaff, Arizona's Pickin' in the Pines Festival in 2011.
Understanding great literature is of course a matter of reading. But it can also be a matter of listening. As part of West Valley Arts Council’s Big Read program, the Burnett Family Bluegrass band held a community concert in early January to highlight John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Using bluegrass music from the 1920s and on, the band evoked the sounds and rhythms of the Great Depression, the era that frames Steinbeck’s epic Dust Bowl novel.
As the band played songs by musicians such as Bill Monroe, Woody Guthrie, Earl Scruggs, and even two of their own compositions, the music was contextualized through historical photos and readings. Connie Burnett, bass player and Burnett family mom, spoke of how the music was used as entertainment before the era of television, and encouraged the audience to remember the “remarkable generation” who suffered through long years of drought and poverty. As she told the crowd, “These ancestors of ours bravely and stubbornly endured, sustained by their bibles, their patriotism, and their determination that things could be made better than they were.”
Burnett, whose family has been performing together for 20 years, said that she hoped the concert conveyed the importance of holding on to our literary and musical past. "It’s important that [kids] read [The Grapes of Wrath],” she said, explaining what she hoped was imparted to young audience members. “It’s so important that we’re going to do a program about it.”
Click here for more about Woody Guthrie and The Grapes of Wrath.