Grey Mennonite Swing

a brief history by Abram Dushkovitz

 

 

GMS has often been disparagingly referred to as "Siberian Hillbilly" or "Hutterite Bluegrass." The latter phrase, especially, reflects a deep misunderstanding of Anabaptist history.

GMS was originally the acronym for "Grey Mennonite Swing," still the most accurate name. However, more recently some musicians have taken to calling it "Greasy Mennonite Swing," a humorous reference to both the non-metronomic timing so treasured by GMS musicians, and to the signature quality of Mennonite cuisine. 

The music itself is hybrid and eclectic, veering from blues to bluegrass to hymnody, always airbrushed and ornamented with multiple idioms originating in both Western and Eastern Europe. Often the various layers of influence are "stacked" in a single song or chorus. One could say that the GMS repertoire holds within it the entire diasporic history of the Grey Mennonites, invoking multiple geographies and time periods.

 

Historically, GMS was also sometimes referred to as "Mennonite Blue," a confusing yet useful term. The Mennonite Blue is a forest near the Samara Oblast in Russia (originally home to a Mennonite settlement), and considered haunted by Grey Mennonites. The flavour of that haunting--described as grimsch in Old Plautdietsche--is eerie yet tempting, and bears some similarities to the tenor of Faerie in other European cultures. Grey Mennonite Swing, and 6/9 swing in particular, always has, as its goal, the manifestation of grimsch in the listener.

 

Jakob Voth (1876-1919) is usually acknowledged as the father of GMS guitar. He lost the majority of three fingers on his fretting hand to a threshing accident, and so pioneered a one fingered style that made heavy use of shift and legato slides, which is the primary reason that MSG guitar playing, both electric and acoustic, makes such prolific use of slides, slurs and smears. Voth's  "few-fingered" style predates that of Django Reinhardt. To this day, MSG musicians will encourage each other to "make it vothy," or sometimes just call out "vothy!" when taken by a supreme example of the slidey style. "Hitting it 6/9 vothy" is, in the argot of GMS, the ultimate compliment one musician can pay another.

If there is one signature element of Grey Mennonite Swing, it is the rhythmic format called 6/9. They rhythm is tightly knit to other elements of Grey Mennonite mythology and numerology, all of which cleave to the mystical number 69. To find out more about the Grey Mennonites, hit the button! To find out more about 6/9, hit the button! 

 

 
PHOTOS
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