Thesis Christ: The Beauty of Bluegrass

Thesis Christ has returned! For the first Thesis Christ of the fall 2022 semester, the Quest spoke with spring/fall senior Cathy Saidi (they/them) about their research into interpersonal relationships. Their sociology thesis investigates interesting micro-interactions that are only to be found in Bluegrass jam sessions. 

Image courtesy of Cathy Saidi

Saidi found themself torn between majoring in music or sociology, when Professor Kjersten Bunker Whittington pulled them into the study of human behavior. Saidi’s Introduction to Sociology professor, Bunker Whittington opened up Saidi to sociology and made them feel at home in the department. “She really just made me feel like I was on the right track,” Saidi commented. While sociology won out, Saidi did not stray far from music. 

Saidi grew up in a Missouri college town filled with both academic and rural influences. Professors, farmers, and “real, old hippies,” created a rich environment for art and creativity. In Saidi’s community, music thrived as a way for people to come together. When Saidi arrived at Reed, they immediately felt the loss of that atmosphere. Bluegrass music offered one way to reconnect with their family and community. Reed found a Portland-based fiddle teacher (Kenji Bunch), and Saidi began taking lessons. Together, Saidi and Kenji Bunch founded the American Roots Ensemble here on campus. 

Going into their thesis, Saidi knew Bluegrass would play a central role. Combining their major in sociology and minor in music, Saidi is studying traditional Bluegrass jams. Unique micro interactions between players allow Bluegrass to thrive as a genre – Saidi’s research examines these interactions.

Originally Saidi’s research was going to rest primarily on observation, but due to COVID-19 they had to pivot to a more interview-based approach. Regardless, Saidi still went out of their way to attend Bluegrass events at venues such as farmer’s markets, sit in on music lessons, and take in rare Bluegrass jams in Portland. 

Bluegrass, Saidi explained, developed from informal, mostly rural music making. A Bluegrass jam brings together a group of musicians, usually sitting in a circle and playing music as an interactive group. Bluegrass is fundamentally about that group, and the act of playing together.

Saidi focuses on three elements of Bluegrass. First, the tradition of recycling of the same music. Groups often play music composed several hundred years ago, with roots in traditional folk and hymns. Second, Saidi explores the idea of privacy in Bluegrass circles. Both privacy from the music industry and privacy for the players to learn and grow without judgment are key to Bluegrass. Finally, effective interpersonal interactions between jam members. It is essential to a successful Bluegrass jam that the musicians have the opportunity to watch and listen to each other. This requires immense trust and practice. This result is Bluegrass being fairly exclusive to outsiders – if you didn’t grow up playing Bluegrass, it is incredibly difficult to learn to play intuitively. 

These three elements grant a unique accessibility to people in rural areas. Bluegrass often intimidates musicians who did not grow up playing it. Saidi studied how the unique familiarity and privacy of a Bluegrass jam created a space of comfort, allowing people to learn and thrive. 

Saidi encourages those who have not started the thesis process yet to view it as an opportunity. A thesis, they argue, provides you with a jumping off point into the rest of your career and life. “Your thesis is an opportunity to get a head start on life after Reed, [to do] what you’re actually interested in.” Saidi urges students to avoid doing something unenjoyable for the sake of impressing others. Instead, make your undergraduate thesis strategic for your career, and something that deeply interests you. “It’s a year of your life – it should be fun!”

Saidi plans to take a six-month sigh of relief post-graduation but is committed to participating in the Bluegrass community. They hope to move closer to their home state of Missouri and find work in the preservation of Bluegrass heritage, Bluegrass festival organizing, or teaching music in some capacity. Their ultimate goal is to pay respects to their teachers by one day becoming the ancient hippie passing on Bluegrass to the next generation.

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