Members of The Bluegrass Journeymen during their gig.
It was Friday evening at the Roosevelt House, the residence of the US Ambassador to India Kenneth I Juster, and the agenda was to celebrate American folk. The tunes transported those present for the concert in Delhi to the American countryside as The Bluegrass Journeymen belted out the popular folk song, Hand me down my walking cane. “I sang this song at my grandfather’s 90th birthday, and he told me he had heard his grandfather sing it too,” announced the mandolin player and vocalist Patrick Fitzsimons. But what took many by surprise was when Fitzsimons and ukelele player Nabanita Sarkar, a law student from Kolkata, sang Ekta golpo boli, a Bengali song composed for regional theatre in the ’70s, fusing it with the fiddle tune Ashland breakdown. The audience cheered and swooned as the band switched to the popular Tujhe Dekha toh yeh jana sanam — “the song that popularised mandolin in India”.
This was The Bluegrass Journeymen’s fifth visit to India, and they were invited by the US Embassy on a grant titled “Building Bridges through Bluegrass,” which includes performances and engagements in Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu. But the band had first came to India in 2017, and over the years has performed at various music festivals, jazz clubs, schools, government programs, and in remote villages. They have recorded a live album at The Piano Man Jazz Club in Delhi and also jammed with Baul musicians in Santiniketan. It’s not hard to spot touches of Indian classical music in their music. Apart from Fitzsimons and Sarkar, the eight-piece band includes Billy Cardine on slide guitar, Shaun Nicklin on banjo, Andrew Conley on cello, Coleman Smith on fiddle, Summers Baker on guitar and Jean-Luc Davis on the bass.
Fitzsimons founded the band to popularise bluegrass music beyond America and Europe. “It’s not really well-known in America anymore. In Europe maybe a little bit, but certainly not in Asia, so I really wanted to form a tight band that represented the music to the world,” he says.
An orchestral form of folk music, bluegrass music developed in the Appalachian region in the US in the ’40s. Once called hillybilly music, it derives its name from the band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, and has roots in traditional English, Scottish and Irish ballads and dance tunes. One will also find touches of traditional African-American blues and jazz in it. What's unique about bluegrass is that it is string band music and doesn’t have percussion. “The mandolin is known to be the drum of the bluegrass band,” he says.
It was in college that Fitzsimons got the bluegrass bug. “Bill Monroe started it,” he says. What also has always drawn people to the music has been its participatory nature. “Most of the people who listen to bluegrass also play music. So it is really about building a community and people getting together and having a good time,” he says.