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GUEST,Songster Bob what is old-timey music? (95* d) RE: what is old-timey music? 14 Nov 04


If you sit down to play, and tune your instruments (onstage), it's old-timey. If you stand up and never tune, it's bluegrass.

Actually, bluegrass is a specific outgrowth of old-timey, and one that was created specifically as a performance music. It was Bill Monroe's sound in 1946, a culmination of a musical direction he took looking for an identifiable -- and salable -- "sound." In fact, when Flatt and Scruggs each quit his band, then reformed as their own band, he was livid, since they were stealing his trademark sound. It took him a long time to admit that he had actually fostered a whole genre of music. But he grew to like the "father of bluegrass" label.

Old-time music is the tradition-based stringband music that preceded Monroe. The first recordings of old-time music were in 1924, as I recall, but the "industry" of "country music" started in 1926, in Bristol Tennessee/Virginia (it's a border town). Ralph Peer, of Columbia records, sent a crew down there in July & August, and recorded a whole plethora of folks, from Jimmie Rodgers to the Carter Family to Rev. Alfred Karns to Pop Stoneman.

Now, the modern version of old-time music has become the modern string band, despite that "old-time" music included all those folks I mentioned, none of whom played endless fiddle tunes with improbable names (a common generic title is "___ in the ____"). It's this kind of presentation that upset our poster above, and also drives the bluegrassers crazy, 'cause it's dance music. It's meant to be long (you have all those dance figures to complete, once for each couple in the set) and boring (it's dance music, as I said). Vocals are usually reserved for when the fiddler's arm needs a rest.

Bluegrass is meant for the stage. It's not dance music (though you can dance individually -- or "couple-y" -- to it, it won't do for a set dance, like a square dance). It's supposed to have a structure that includes intros, outros, breaks, turn-arounds, bridges, vamping, and suchlike. Fiddle tunes don't have these as such, unless a stage presentation is intended, like with bands like the Skillet Lickers or the North Carolina Ramblers. Those bands were closer to bluegrass than the typical fiddle-tune-playing band, in that they were stage bands (who also played dances, of course).

So some bluegrass players consider old-time players to be musical "throw-backs," because such players have rejected the more modern sound of bluegrass. And old-timey players consider bluegrassers to be followers of flashy fashion, looking for the "new" when the old is solidly sound and wholesome.

In jazz, this division was between the beboppers and the mouldy figs, and was fought out on the pages of Downbeat in the late 40s and early 50s.

But wasn't it Louis Armstrong* who said "It's all folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing?"


Bob Clayton


* Also attributed to Big Bill Broonzy, Will Rogers, Ben Franklin, and Atilla (the hun), so maybe it wasn't Satchmo who said it.


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