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Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences

18 Jul 03 - 08:42 AM (#985870)
Subject: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,Pete Peterson

Peterr asked this question on the Clifftop thread and I thought it deserved a separate thread.

My 1st stab:

"Old time music" is a catchall term used for music based on the country music recorded 1922-1945, and on the old fiddlers who learned their repertoire from even older people about the same time. As played today, it's played in bands where the fiddle is almost always the lead instrument, the banjo is played in clawhammer (frailing) style. Sadly, the singing in most of those old 78s is no longer emphasized, but some of us are trying to Do Something about that and sing Carter Family, Monroe Brothers, Charlie Poole, Riley Puckett's repertoire.

"Bulegrass" grew out of old time music and can be dated back no earlier than 1945, when Bill Monroe first added Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt to his band. It features LOTS of good singing in two and three part harmony, is often played in keys where there are no open strings on the fiddle and mandolin (B and B flat!) so that the lead singer can "show his stuff", and the instrumental breaks are traded among 3-finger Scruggs-style banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and sometimes dobro and lead guitar.

   Oh boy. . .rereading this I realize that every name or concept mentioned could be fractally expanded. . .

18 Jul 03 - 09:41 AM (#985905)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Geoff the Duck

Go to the Honking Duck website. There is somewhere around 30 hours of recordings of Old-Time 78 recordings in Real-Audio format. They can be listened to online or downloaded.

18 Jul 03 - 09:44 AM (#985906)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: zanderfish3 (inactive)

As I see it ' Old Timey ' is "mostly", but not all traditional songs and tunes whereas 'Bluegrass'uses both traditional and purposely written songs and tunes. Anyway they are both the best parts of American folk music.

18 Jul 03 - 10:22 AM (#985933)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Mary in Kentucky

I saw the A Capitol Fourth concert and got a taste of "green" grass and bluegrass.....The Chieftains and Earl Scruggs.

A review of their album, Down the Old Plank Road, is here.

18 Jul 03 - 10:30 AM (#985935)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: chip a

The "what's the difference" question has been argued every which way before. I think it's important, for the sake of discussion, to remember that as with any phrase in any language, "Old Time Music" has come to mean certain things in our language and most importantly, amongst the folks who actually use these words to define the music that they play and sing.
Most (but not all) OT played and recorded today is what would have been played for a dance. As Pete said, the "song" branch of OT has been neglected somewhat in favor of the "tune" branch. The same can be said for the picking styles in that there has been a certain narrowing down in that department too.
BG music features instrumental breaks by the musicians. OT is generally played ensemble style without these lead breaks.

18 Jul 03 - 10:32 AM (#985937)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Fortunato

Pete Peterson,

I am with you. Although I like the fiddle tunes, we like to sing.
I'll never forget sitting down at a session in Mt. Airy, and when the music stopped, thinking it was our turn, I said "Could we play 'Little Darling Pal of Mine'," and the blank stares were chilling, until the fiddler said, "that's in A, we're playing in D today."

So sing your Delmore Brother's tunes, Pete. We'll be right there with you.

The songs of the Carter family and the Leake County Ramblers, and so on are not necessarily traditional, in that we may know who wrote them, but they have long since passed into the oral tradition, and form for me an essential part of this music.

cheers, Chance Shiver

18 Jul 03 - 10:34 AM (#985938)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Peterr

Thanks, Pete Peterson
As a not very accomplished fiddle/mandolin player, I thinks I'd better steer clear of attempting bluegrass - can't get a capo on a fiddle.
I'll still enjoy listening to it though - I've got an old tape off a vinyl, I think the name was Austen. What is it he's playing?

18 Jul 03 - 10:40 AM (#985944)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,Martin Gibson

Some good observations, especially how the modern bluegrass sound was hatched by Flatt & Scruggs joining Monroe. This seminal edition of the Blue Grass Boys blew the old time string bands away on the Opry.

18 Jul 03 - 11:01 AM (#985964)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: chip a

Chance was told: "We're playing in D today". Out of courtesy for the OT banjo picker (and often the fiddler) who tune differently for different keys or tunes the jam will try to stay in each key for a while.
I think, with a few exceptions,the BG folks tend to play out of the same tuning most all the time and are able to switch keys without re-tuning.
Meat for a whole 'nother thread. Why re-tune?

18 Jul 03 - 12:23 PM (#986015)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Mark Clark

Bluegrass indeed began with that famous prototypical band Monroe was fortunate enough to have assembled in 1945. And although Lester's singing was wonderful, I think it was Chuby Wise's fiddle that, together with Earl's banjo and Monroe's mandolin, really solidified the instrumental approach to the new music. People forget how innovative Wise's playing was for the day.

But as for old-timey music, isn't it really more specific than just a catch-all term for country music of a certain period? For example, the period 1922-1945 includes The Original Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and others who wouldn't be regarded as old-timey.

      - Mark

18 Jul 03 - 01:11 PM (#986043)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Fortunato

chip a,

You are right, chip, I understand the tunings, and I'm sure it would have caused them some consternation to retune. I should have made clear that I was going to sing the song in their key of 'D'.

The fiddler, who at least knew the tune, thought of it as an 'A' tune and that was to him, that.

I was trying to portray for you the gulf that exists and the roadblocks I am met with when I try to bridge it.

The gulf is not unbridgeable, and may be merely mechanical. I recall several occasions when a fiddle/banjo/guitar session of playing tunes would break up and members would drift by to hear Susette and I sing our old songs and be very appreciative, but few make the transition.
I dislike such discrimination and labeling and exclusion in music, but I accept it in practice.

18 Jul 03 - 02:03 PM (#986070)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,Russ

Defining "Old Time Music" isn't much of a problem for the people who play it. There's a pretty generally accepted canon of recorded music and musicians that we all (mostly) agree is old time. The problem with this canon is that it is so varied it is quite difficult to come up with some sort of definitional "essence." What, for example, does Eddn Hammons' "Star of Bethlehem" have in common with the Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side" that makes them both old time music?

If you are trying to define the term for a non-player, the vaguer the better. My standard definition for such a person is "It is the music that you would've heard on the radio if you lived in the south during the first few decades of the 20th century. It's the music that sort of metamorphosed into modern bluegrass and modern country music."

I sometimes use "old time" in a sort of via-negativa way. I say that I play old time music to distinguish myself from other stringed instrument musicians who play "folk" music or "singer/songwriter" music, or bluegrass. It's more about what I don't do than what I do.

Finally, for me, the litmus test for bluegrass is the banjo playing. If there's a banjo in the band, and s/he's playing Scruggs's style (not just fingerpicking), it's bluegrass.

18 Jul 03 - 02:12 PM (#986074)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Sorcha

How weird, Chance. I never tune out of standard tuning, and never heard of a jam that stayed in one key all day.

18 Jul 03 - 03:19 PM (#986123)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,Pete Peterson

You haven't been in some of the jams I've been in Sorcha! I am fortunate that looks can't kill; I want to switch keys to make it easier for the SINGER, but the jams are tune-oriented and the banjo player and fiddle player have to retune every time the key changes.

Russ, wish you had a copy of the Skillet Lickers skit "Jeremiah Hopkins' Store"-- somewhere in it Mac complains "this isn't the kind of music you hear on the rado, Stranger, the only two places you can hear it are on phonograph records and in this here store! OT music didn't get air play even back in 1929! (But it was stuff that SHOULD have gotten air play. . . on reflecting, I like your definition!

18 Jul 03 - 03:27 PM (#986126)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: chip a

I wasn't scolding you! Just clarifying for others why OT jams tend to stay in each key for a while. All day? Boring jam!
Singing the odd song in an otherwise instrumental old time jam usually means singing the song in the key where it's traditionaly played by the fiddler and/or banjo picker. (I'm not saying fair or unfair here). Chances are, your Mt Airy fiddler couldn't have played the song in D without working it out first.
If I heard you singing the old songs, I'd be one of the first to walk over. I can't sing a note but my wife can and I love to play where there's singing. I also like finger picking old parlor tunes on the banjo. Hardly a hot item at festivals! You are right that a gulf exists. As I said earlier, the music heard most and favored most in festival jams is dance music.
The more understanding pickers and singers have of each others needs the less discriminating and exclusive our jams will be.

18 Jul 03 - 05:24 PM (#986190)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Bill D

I remember back in the mid 60s when we had some gen-you-ine Hootenannies of sorts in Kansas... Once, a fiddler came and played some nice 'old' tunes--then, a few weeks later, I met two brothers who played guitar & banjo and were looking for a fiddle player ...so I kindly offered to get them together. *grin*..It was an educational experience! They talked a bit and compared stories and decided to try some tunes...and the fiddler said "I know a bunch of nice "A" tunes..."...well, you can guess how it went...they didn't all know or agree on WHICH tunes were 'A', etc...they did play a bit and knew enough to share some things, but they all knew early on they were not correctly matched!

I do wonder though at just how hard it is to switch keys for a banjo or fiddle player..being an autoharp player, I have more than once been blindsided by little bands who have decreed that tune "X" gets modulated in the middle.("Silver Bell" comes to mind)

I see banjo player use capos, and I know fiddlers who CAN play more than one key without re-tuning. I guess it is just harder, and they'd rather not. (Like me trying to play various keys on a recorder...the fingerings are jusr easier if I switch instruments)

18 Jul 03 - 05:36 PM (#986196)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: wilco

Practically everyone I play with is in standard tuning, and they can all play in most major keys. I always thought this was typical. Lots of purists want it to "sound just like _____________," and they show little creativity. We change keys to accomodate the lead singer, who might be different on every song. With banjos, we try to stay in G or A. Most of the fiddles and banjos can retune in less than a minute, so its no big deal.

18 Jul 03 - 06:01 PM (#986223)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: JohnInKansas

Re the key changes: Many of the banjo players I've played with do re-tune for key changes. I've never seen a fiddler retune because of a key change. There are a few fairly common tunes that use an "alternate tuning," and for these the fiddler would need to re-tune, mostly to get the "double stops" that are part of the tune.

(And if "Silver Bell" is the "Silver Bells" I'm familiar with, the original did not modulate. This is a "sop" to the guitar players who find it easier to swap the "low line" into a different key - but one might question whether it should be left as a fiddle tune, in one key.)

The essential difference I see is that "Blue Grass" is the adapting of old time tunes to radio performance. In the old-time style, the players all played together, and people danced and sang along with them. When converted for radio performance, most people just sit and listen. In order to "put on the show" in a way that will keep the audience, bluegrass switched to an emphasis on "solo" performance, and on "professional virtuosity."

In bluegrass, when one instrument plays lead, the other instruments back off to a really boring "chop, chop, chunk, chunk" so that the virtuosity of the lead can "star." And for a "radio grade" performance, the lead should display virtuosity of the "we're professsional, don't try this at home" grade.

In old-time style, the other instruments would be more likely to play harmony or counterpoint to the lead line, hopefully following what the lead does - or at least not drowning out the lead.

A somewhat unfortunate "growth" from the virtuosity of the best bluegrass players is that "wannabe's" hear all those notes from the virtuoso player and think that playing faster means playing better. Sadly, that means that many very nice tunes get hacked up to leave out the hard notes, just so they can be played faster, get moved to keys that are easier for the guitar (a leading offender), and otherwise get transmogrified into "bluegrass" versions. Even Bill Monroe objected that "most people try to play too fast."

It ain't the speed. It's the drive.

Not a complete differentiation, but bluegrass is for a "listening and non-participating" audience. Old time style generally assumes audience participation.

Bluegrass is a sequence of solos. Old time style is (often) harmony and counterpoint.


18 Jul 03 - 06:30 PM (#986251)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Sorcha

Hmmm, still ver' strange to me. I CAN play in any key, but don't much like things with more than 3 sharps or flats. Neither of our banjo players re tune to play in any key.........both they and the guitars sometimes use a capo. Sometimes I can relearn a tune in a different key, but fiddles commonly run out of notes if the tune isn't in the 'correct'key. Example--we can play Whiskey Before Breakfast in D but not in G. Run out of notes on the bottom end. Also, changing keys on a fiddle means a whole new set of fingerings. I originally learned Gal I Left Behind in Eb--then found out the rest of the world plays it in G.

18 Jul 03 - 06:54 PM (#986281)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Burke

When the music in "O Brother, Where Art Thou" was being described as Bluegrass, I was really confused. I know most of the performers are considered bluegrass artists, but was hearing a-capella old time, gospel, blues, anything but BG. It was finally pointed out to me that the playing style is bluegrass.

I mention this because if bluegrass is a particular style of playing the music, there is a lot that can be heard at bluegrass festivals and on bluegrass recordings that can as easily be called old time & sometimes to my ear just country. This is especially true of anything acapella. We have a local bluegrass radio program that I enjoy because the MC likes old time as least as much as he likes bluegrass & does include a fair amount of it.

18 Jul 03 - 07:36 PM (#986317)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Bill D

John..this is the one I meant...bell is singular in it. (Did you by any chance come to Winfield years ago when Henry the Fiddler was there?) He was at one time obsessed with "Silver Bell" and was corraling musicians to play it with him...drilling them on details until he wore them out. (he was good, but NOT easy to take..*grin*)

18 Jul 03 - 10:55 PM (#986377)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Sorcha

I think I know Silver Bells, but forget how it starts.......happens often with me. I'm easily confoozled.

19 Jul 03 - 01:22 AM (#986417)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: JohnInKansas

Bill D

I thought you might have a different tune in mind, but it served for an illustration of the way that "old" tunes get migrated to different arrangements to suit the instrument and performance style.

The "Silver Bells" I had in mind is the Bob Wills tune - which he played without modulation, but which the bluegrassers insist has to have a key change for the "B" low part - because the guitar has trouble ("bluegrassing" it) if you don't.

I don't remember "Henry the Fiddler" from Winfield, although I have been to all but 3 sessions there in the last 27 or 28(?) years. I didn't start "playing" a stringed instrument much until about 10 years back, so didn't really get acquainted with too many "personalities" among the players until then. (Banjo Bill, of course, being an exception - known him casually for 25 years or so.)

Sorcha - Whiskey Before Breakfast is another good example of a tune that has been "bluegrassed" to the point where it's barely recognizable, and a look at the 3 common variations that I know of - trad, "Irish," and bluegrass - are pretty much illustrative of the kind of difference I see between the styles. The "trad" version only has one chord different than the bluegrass version, but it's the first chord and it almost forces you to put back the notes that the bluegrass version leaves out (and makes it a real b... to play [really fast] on a guitar(?)).

As to key changes on fiddle: it's easiest to play first position where you use open strings. It's sort of like having an extra finger that you never have to move. But the "first step," to playing comfortably in second position - admittedly a tough one - should be the key to being able to play easily in "any key." Once you don't use open strings, it doesn't make much difference where you move to down the fingerboard. Much easier said than done - I do mando and use a capo.


19 Jul 03 - 02:32 AM (#986424)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: JohnInKansas

Bill D - Should have asked - any thoughts about coming back to Winfield? It's only about a month away.

Well, actually, the festival starts September 18, but a lot of the fun is the week in the campground before the festival starts. "Landrush" (when you can set up camp) is Sept 11 this year.

Of course, if you want a good camping spot, and hookups, you do need to get into the "Lineup" for Landrush, which begins Sept 4. You can't really camp then, but it gets you a shot at getting a hookup and a decent campsite location when you can get in to camp.

That is, you can get a good spot in the Lineup if you go down early when the city park opens on August 21, to get in line for the Lineup, so you can be in the first 3 or 4 hundred in the "Lineup," so that you can be far enough up in the "Landrush" to actually get a spot (and maybe an electrical hookup) ... - then it's only about a month from now.

Sort of makes you wonder "when does a festival get to big to be worth going?" - but we will.

Maybe next year we'll just go for the festival, so we won't need the "choice" campsite and the hookup. Problem with that is, if we don't "establish" a camp for the pickers to stroll into, we might end up being forced to go listen to some of the paid entertainment - haven't done that in years.


19 Jul 03 - 03:57 AM (#986439)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,Arne Langsetmo

One reason for retuning in old time fiddle tunes is that
they use a fair amout of cross tunings (i.e. "open tunings)
(AEAE, AEAC#, ADAE, ADAD, I've even heard D'DAF#). This isn't
just for laziness in fingering; not only are drop-notes
and drones possible without having octopus fingers and
perfect pitch, but even if the string is not bowed, you
get harmonic resonance in these strings which changes
tonal quality. This really adds to the "sound" of the
old-time fiddle, where the tunes are more centered on
the key and not given to the flights of fancy that are
more common common in the bluegrass realm.

In other cultures, open tunings are more common as well.
Norwegian hardingfeles have not only open tuning, but
additional sympathetic strings for even more resonance.
But there they do take to "flights of fancy" at times,
modulating the key (and the rythm; they came make a
3/4 on paper into something approaching a 5/4 time) and
even getting into semitones and such. Perhaps the drones
and sympathetic strings serve to remind them how to get
back to where they came from. . . .   ;-)

I suspect a lot of the cross tuning tradition in old-time
fiddling comes from its closer relationship with its
prior roots in Celtic music than is true of bluegrass.


                            -- Arne Langsetmo

19 Jul 03 - 10:33 AM (#986549)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: chip a

Great posts from John and Arne. Having had to put up with the "if you were a better musician you could play this in F#" look from people who aren't used to old time, I'm glad to see tunings and the reasons for them discussed. Yes I could learn it in F# but that's not the point.
Because there were fiddles playing these tunes before there were banjos or guitars, it's likely that the traditional key for a given tune was settled on by fiddlers. Along came pickers of the early fretless banjos. They had to create tunings to fit the fiddler's key without getting too far out of the first position (no frets).
But ease in reaching the notes and key changing weren't and aren't the only reasons for retuning. On my banjo the tunings allow me to achieve different sounds because of the different relationships of the strings to one another in each tuning. Most banjo pickers use more than one tuning for each key depending on the tune being played.
A couple of weeks ago I was learning Row Us Over the Tide and I came up with an A tuning I'd never used before. I chose the key of A because that's where Tish needs to be to sing it. I worked out the tuning because it let me do some hammers and a long, smoothe slide right where I wanted them. I could play the same notes in standard A tuning but without the devices available in "my" tuning it wouldn't sound near as good.
Since then I've decided that I like Aragon Mills (I know it's not OT) and Sally in the Garden better in that tuning than where I'd been playing them.
Clear as mud?!


19 Jul 03 - 11:28 AM (#986574)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: M.Ted

--"Silver Bell" was a ragtime song, written in 1910 by Percy Wenrich, who also wrote, "On Moonlight Bay". There were several popular recordings, and it undoubtable sold a lot of sheet music(we tend to forget that the big money used to be in sheet music, and the records were used to market sheet music)--so it was a tune that entered the repertoire from the pop realm--Which kind of reinforces the idea that "Old Time" is a catchall--

19 Jul 03 - 12:23 PM (#986592)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: chip a

I probably wouldn't call Silver Bell an OT tune. But it is a tune that I love to play. I learned it from Will Keys and it stays in the same key throughout. He (and I) take a varient of the coarse part up the neck above the fine part but it's still in the same key. C or D for me. I think Will plays it in C.
A chordal approach to a tune while only hittin' the high spots of the melody allows for easier use of standard tunings. The more melody you want to put in there the more you're going to hunt new tunings. I like to get all the melody notes that I can.
When you do hear a bluegrasser change tunings as in Ruebins Train the difference really stands out. The texture is completely different.
I think that most OT musicians are willing to accomidate singers' needs for certain keys. It's just that a new key or tuning will change all his/her fingerings and likely will take some time to work out the tune. So, a wide open, straight ahead OT tune jam may not be the best place to ask him to do this. Catch your favorite fiddler or banjoist away from the crowd and ask 'em to try playing some songs with you.

19 Jul 03 - 12:59 PM (#986599)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences

Got this off the Net, left off author. Great statement:

Labels are necessary components of the ideas and experiences we fit into our lives. With labels, we differentiate. Where would marketing be without them? Some labels have the ability to be simultaneously pleasing and/or pejorative, depending on one's point of view. Such a label is `old time music.' We may interpret it to denote (A) hopelessly outdated music or (B) deeply authentic music. Could it be both, music rooted in pre-video (even pre-radio) rural America and thus heroically anachronistic?

`Old time music' may suggest sounds rooted in pre-mass media Americana, but it is no less a marketing label than is `urban' (contemporary black music) or `young country' (post-Garth Nashville pop). It's just an older sales hook. This one can be traced to 1923, when Georgia's Fiddlin' John Carson waxed The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane and The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow for the OKeh label. Legendary A-man Ralph Peer deemed Carson's performance "pluperfect awful," but enough rural Americans disagreed to make the record a hit, the first in the history of what's now called country music. (Ever the pragmatist, Carson remarked at his first whiff of success:, "I'll have to quit making moonshine and start making records.") Carson's paean to barnyard fertility rites and bucolic cabins initially appeared in OKeh's popular music catalog, where it kept uneasy company with slicker stuff. Where to put such downhome keening and sawing? The company which had three years prior pioneered `race' recording with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" opted for `old time music' as a descriptive moniker for records by artists of Carson's ilk, and OKeh's label has prevailed.

But just what was a 1920s commercial record company selling with `old-time music'? Something not jazz age surely, but what specifically? [Old-time banjo picker] Clarence Ashley's observations suggest that the record companies, at least from the artists' viewpoint, had a dim understanding of this music, though we sense a general `grasp of genre' when reviewing vintage `old time music' recordings today. A few obvious generalizations bear witness to this. Most of the `old time' musicians were white rural agrarian Southerners. Their singing, by European art music standards, was unschooled (though not necessarily `artless'). The same might be said of their musicianship, expressed primarily via strings. Their song repertoire could be broadly divided between secular and sacred and further subdivided into categories of traditional, commercial (often of sufficient vintage to have entered oral tradition), and original (often topical and tragic) songs. These general elements are found equally in the commercial `old time music' recordings of the 1920s and in the performances captured decades later.

`Old time music,' then, is a music rich in cultural continuity. Alan Lomax has written in his essay "Folk Song Style" (American Anthropologist, LXI, No. 6, December 1959) that such music is intent to "give the listener a feeling of security, for it symbolizes the place where he was born, his earliest childhood satisfactions, his religious experience, his pleasure in community doings, his courtship and his work - any or all of these personality-shaping experiences." Such music, drenched deep in its listeners' "personality-shaping experiences," is inherently powerful, and was especially so in a culture, marginally literate and pre-electronic, where it was among the strongest threads of the social fabric. Religious faith and fable (Daniel Prayed) were underscored in song. Socially accepted pleasures (square dancing) were set to brisk rhythms and tunes. Balladic sagas of the bad (John Hardy) and the beautiful (The Four Marys) were more readily remembered (and strikingly heard) when Sung. Resonant in meaning and methodology, `old time music' had been the heartbeat of Anglo-Celtic Southern America for many generations. By the time it became a marketing label which celebrated its own quaintness, its days were numbered. The technology which enables us to savor Fiddlin' John Carson 70 years after his heyday also heralded the demise of the charmed circle of oral tradition and relative isolation which had nurtured old time music since the coming of the South's first Anglo-Celtic settlers.

The notion that this tradition was simultaneously endangered by twentieth century modernity yet preserved in the remote South was dramatized by English folklorist Cecil Sharp's 1916-1918 song-collecting field trip, the fruits of which were published in 1919 as English Folk Songs From the Southern Appalachians. Sharp found American variants of many hoary British ballads with impressive pedigrees. Songs scarcely remembered in their land of origin still held a kind of `racial memory' spell over Southern descendants of expatriated yeomen. But the ballad tradition was not static: newer songs of outlaws and train wrecks sprang up alongside old ones of knights and ladies. In a rural society where newspapers were rare outside cities and literacy limited, the ballad makers filled the role of dramatist/news anchor. This Southern penchant for story songs, often of a morbid bent, remained a striking element of even commercial country music until fairly recently.

[If many documented old-time performances] are of ballads, plenty more illustrate varied instruments and instrumental styles. By far the oldest type of instrument played [in this genre] is the Appalachian dulcimer, though technically this `mountain dulcimer' is misnamed: true dulcimers are struck with beaters (thus `hammered dulcimer' is redundant). A plucked zither, the Appalachian dulcimer's basic design is ancient: the legendary Pythagorean Monochord, from whence the rudiments of the diatonic major scale were supposedly derived some 2500 years ago, may have looked similar. The instrument's antiquity belies the fact that it was a relative latecomer to the American South. It didn't come over on the Mayflower or any other ship of British origin. Germans and other Northern Europeans apparently brought such instruments in the 19th century, when they were spread via the Pennsylvania side of the Appalachians into the American South. A newcomer as late as the 1890s, the Appalachian dulcimer's apparently medieval design and penchant for modal tunes disguised the fact that it was, among folk instruments in the South, a new kid on the block.

Though more modern in design and far more difficult to play, the unchallenged favorite instrument for generations of Americans was the fiddle. The first documented fiddle contest in America took place in 1736; for two centuries fiddlers were necessary components of most successful social functions, especially anywhere dancing might occur. Often deemed a mite disreputable, the fiddler was a living repository of tradition who imbued venerable tunes with fresh fingerprints, a characteristic assertion fell variously in the gloriously unpolished [performances of] Tommy Jarrell and the more disciplined (but no less spirited) [of] Marion Sommers.

Despite the European background of much of this music and of such instruments as the fiddle, the influence of African-American phrasing and syncopation profoundly affected old time music. (This influence becomes particularly striking when you compare American stringband music to that of Canada, a New World culture which lacked a significant African-American presence.) The banjo is the most obvious legacy of African-Americans in old time music, for the instrument itself is African in origin. It came to white Southerners via the nineteenth century minstrel show, vestiges of which echoed in such performers as Uncle Dave Macon, an early Opry star imitated [more recently] by his longtime accompanist, Sam McGee. Compared to the banjo, the guitar was both a latecomer and a folk instrument by commercial fiat. It was in the late nineteenth century that such mail order catalogues as Sears & Roebuck made inexpensive mass-produced guitars widely available, and it was by such prosaic means that the guitar and mandolin entered Appalachia. The emergence of a Doc Watson was unforeseen by the catalog dispensers.

There is a sketchy background of old time music and the means by which it was made. The social and natural environments which nurtured this music are no less important to understanding it than are matters of instruments and ethnicity, but the interested reader will look elsewhere to learn of them. During the folk music revivals which spanned the late 1950s-70s, much of the extraordinary music recorded by commercial labels in the 1920s was reissued, legendary artists were rediscovered, and previously unheard exponents of the `old time' tradition were likewise found and brought to perform at folk festivals. It was an exciting epoch which coupled `living legends' like Clarence Ashley and Tommy Jarrell with younger incarnations of the `old time' spirit (New Lost City Ramblers, Red Clay Ramblers, etc.). Some fine music was played and a fitting `last hurrah' was sung to a final generation of musicians who absorbed this music by osmosis as their primary music, a core "personality-shaping experience." By the time men like Roscoe Holcomb were passing from the scene such young rural Kentuckians as Ricky Skaggs were aggressively moving into Nashville's commercial mainstream. Skaggs made it in 1981 (the year of Holcomb's death) with a country-rock version of Lester Flatt's Don't Get Above Your Raising; by then a Kentucky boy's raisin' was more apt to include Led Zeppelin than the `lassy-makin' tunes' of Clarence Ashley's youth. The heavy metal hillbilly rant of the Kentucky Headhunters soon followed (their first hit was a buckskin-and-downers version of Bill Monroe's Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine), and the [genre of] `old time music' receded like dream fragments of ancient ballads saved fast in the memories of a dwindling few tradition keepers.


19 Jul 03 - 01:38 PM (#986607)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Bill D

John....I have been back to Winfield twice since I left Wichita, but not for a number of years (1981 I guess...wow!)....and now September is serious "get ready for crafts season" for us...so, not likely..*sigh*..(I attended the first 11 festivals, including the Spring Thing) I suppose I walked right by you more than once.

I always camped in a tent or my VW bus, so didn't need the hookups...but I doubt I'd comprehend how big it has become. I was ticket #1100 or so in year 1, and #1700 in year two, and remember Mark O'Conner as a pimply-faced kid....I ought to scan some of my slides from the old days.

19 Jul 03 - 04:21 PM (#986687)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: JohnInKansas

Bill D -

I started out in a 2-person pup tent, "shared" my first night with 5 young ladies whose own tent was submerged in about 7 inches of water. "Shared" is a euphemism, since the 5 young ladies got the inside of my tent, and I was allowed to flop outside, nearby. (It didn't stop raining.)

I tented until a few years ago when I had to trip down from Seattle, and got a tent trailer more suited to "staying the duration." We've camped with pretty much the same group since I started going, but it gets harder each year to capture a good spot big enough. Our major "personal" problem is that we need refrigeration for medications for SWMBO. The week when all the fun stuff goes on is just a little too long to make it on battery power alone - but to get the electrical hookup it's turned into a necessity that you arrive (to stay) a month in advance.

The 3 day festival ($70 x2 = $140 tickets, advance purchase price) with camping ($17/day for two vehicles x 3 days = $51) turns into $499 camping fees to sit in line long enough to get the $50 spot. In addition, if we can't find a suitable "sitter," - the likely situation since most of our close friends are at Winfield - and if we both go for the whole "sit-in," boarding our 5 animals for a month runs to about $1300.

We are scrambling to make arrangements already. Next year we may be forced to cut back to coming later and taking whatever spot we can get, and minimizing the trip to what we can stretch out of the battery. We'll likely still have a pickin' stool and a cupa' under a tarp in the Pecan grove if you manage to get by - and there are a number of other 'catters spread through both groves. If not this year - maybe another.

It's still a good festival - but you can't imagine how BIG it's gotten if it's been more than a few years since you've been there - especially if you remember when we were all tenting. The two groves where everybody used to camp are pretty much filled the day after landrush now, mostly with RVs, with a few hundred units scattered in the ditches and on the pastureland behind the stadium (Stage 1) by the time things actually kick off.


19 Jul 03 - 09:26 PM (#986800)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Bill D

a MONTH in advance??...lordy! I sorta heard that people got there days early...but.....

What do people with real lives do? I mean, does this mean you live on the grounds?..Or that you capture a space and go back home? If I had to spend half of August & Sept. in the heat down there, I'd rethink my committment.

Ah, well...I guess it's nice to see success.

19 Jul 03 - 10:36 PM (#986821)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Mark Clark

GUEST's quote was written by Mark Humphrey and at least one copy may be found at The Old-Time Music Home Page Web site.
Folks may also be interested in Mike Seeger's “What is Old-time Music?” page.

      - Mark

19 Jul 03 - 11:18 PM (#986828)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: 8ch(pl)

One thing not meantioned for bluegrass is the limitation of instruments in the genre. Stringed instruments only and acoustic, sometimes amplified with a microphone. Further, the banjo is only 5 string, not 4 string tenor or plectrum. The mandolin often takes a percussion role through the use of "Chop Chords". Other allowed instruments are: fiddle, stand up bass, guitar.

Often instrumental breaks are playedwith fiddle, mandolin,banjo and sometimes guitar taking turns.

Another noteworthy and unknown to some item is that Bill Monroe's first banjo player was Dave Akeman, known as Stringbean, the country comic from the TV show Hee-Haw. Stringbean and his wifw Estelle, were murdered about 1975 by 2 men who were waiting in their home when they came home from his last performance at the grand old Opry. Their bodies were found by Grampa Jones, who lived across the road.

just for interest.

20 Jul 03 - 10:10 AM (#986976)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,New York City

One thing not meantioned for bluegrass is the limitation of instruments in the genre. Stringed instruments only and acoustic, sometimes amplified with a microphone. Further, the banjo is only 5 string, not 4 string tenor or plectrum. The mandolin often takes a percussion role through the use of "Chop Chords". Other allowed instruments are: fiddle, stand up bass, guitar.

It's not so definitive. One of Bill Monroe's "Blue Grass Boys," for some years, was a woman named Wilene "Sally Ann" Forrester, who played the accordion. At the height of their popularity, harmonica player Charlie McCoy was a member of Flatt & Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Boy.

20 Jul 03 - 11:46 AM (#987003)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,sorefingers

Can't say I know much, can't say I know a lot either!

Henry The Fiddler ..haw haw haw Last I seen Henry he was playing Celtic in a beer hall!

BG is popular among old folks who sit in foldups at festivals, stone faced and bored to death with the nth rendition of Orange Blossom Special played by some litte twirp on fiddle- who along with his folks thinks that he is freakin Pagininni. They say that in a crowd of 1000 BG fans you can see 500 feet tapping and 3 theeth clacking - but what would I know ...lol

OT is popular among happy helpers and the partying beer swillin young folks of the Midwest. They still gather to hear the great bands of the time. They do not sit in foldups, often at daytime meets I see lots of kids running about, and laughter is not a crime! Visitors to the USA may like to learn that most OT meets are not advertised, more likely they will be a sideshow at a Renaisance Fare or some other attraction.

The comment about players playing in the same key tells me either the writers are lying or the musicians are learning/mean/idiots or something. In double C tuning I can play in F and G without too much hassle. Fiddlers who say they cant switch key are lying!

20 Jul 03 - 12:44 PM (#987034)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences

Thanks, Mark Clark, for giving credit where it is due. I have not seen an equally good statement exlpaining Bluegrass music. I did read an article about Bluegrass harmony by Mike Seeger. High lead, baritone sings the root (sometimes above the tenor), bass only on gospel songs, etc. I think the origional formula Bill Monroe developed excludes female voice but that could be a dangerous statement.

I have two CD's with Chubby Wise: "Good Old Boys" rec. 1975 by Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) GDCD40122 and "Mac and Chubby" (Wiseman and Wise) rec. early '80's MAC~W 107. Not sure where Wise's roots go, but greats like Kenny Baker, Benny Martin and Vassar Clements were raised on swing. Joe Venuti and "Stuff" Smith.

21 Jul 03 - 08:59 AM (#987414)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: chip a

Dang, Sorefingers, you busted me! When I commented on changing keys I was lying through me three "theeth"!


21 Jul 03 - 03:54 PM (#987657)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,Frankham

One (Bluegrass) seems exclusive and the other (OT) seems inclusive.

People in the bluegrass community seem amiable enough until you get into the music than they might become a mite precious.

OT folks I have met have not been generally opposed to autoharp, accordians, concertinas. harmonicas or tenor banjos. Seems more open.

There is a similarity between the two respective musics to modern jazz and traditional jazz. The former became very exclusive and isolated the virtuosi as soloists quickly. Many vied at cutting contests for first place. Trad jazz offered more ensemble playing and interaction amoung musicians who are not necessarilly soloists all the time. There were instances of Trad Jazz cutting contests but they seemed less than in Be Bop or Modern Jazz.

Also, for those who advocate that folk music in the 60's had a political agenda, the same could be said for Bluegrass music in it's support for fundamentalist religion (a political thing)these days.
Don't get that necessarilly in OT music although hymns are sung often the "devil has all the best tunes".

Frank Hamilton

21 Jul 03 - 07:31 PM (#987755)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Mark Clark

As always, Frank, your comments seem quite insightful to me. The OT faithful are, I think, a more welcoming lot. They will happily make room in a session for nearly any instrument or skill level. The only thing the OT faithful can't abide, in my experience, is bluegrass.

Bluegrassers are generally more intent on recreating the sound of one of the well-known bluegrass ensembles. Bluegrassers are delighted to listen to old-timey music when it's played well but they really don't want their own sessions to include an old-timey feel. Neither do they make room for people just learning to play. There are beginners sessions at bluegrass festivals but they tend to be more like song circles than actual bluegrass jams.

I agree that the fundamentalist religio-political thing got to be a bit much with the bluegrass crowd. In the 60s and 70s, bluegrass festival promoters seemed to understand that people were probably going to do a fair amount of imbibing in the campsites. Nowdays it's common to see signs prohibiting alcoholic beverages of any kind on penalty of eviction or worse. I don't really attend the big festivals anymore since the people I went to see are mostly dead now. I'll attend the odd local festival just to see friends and then work to overlook all the other stuff.

My own favorite festival or jam session crowd is the blues crowd. More diverse, no pretense or hangups for the most part, no exclusions… although like bluegrassers, they expect participants to be able to play.

      - Mark

21 Jul 03 - 08:15 PM (#987786)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: 8ch(pl)

Guest in NYC may be right about the instruments he sited, but those were in early bluegrass times, maybe before the genre was defined as it is today.

21 Jul 03 - 08:19 PM (#987788)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,Frankham

Thanks Mark. Blues is more a type of music that lends to jamming because of it's African-American heritage, don't you think?

I think OT might be closer to this tradition too, though Monroe claims to have learned from a blues musician. (Mose Rager? or am I confusing the name.) I hear lots of blues sounding licks in bluegrass.


21 Jul 03 - 08:33 PM (#987793)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: Mark Clark

Blues is more a type of music that lends to jamming because of it's African-American heritage, don't you think?
Yes, I agree wholeheartedly.

Monroe claimed Kentucky bluesman Arnold Schulz as an influence. I think Mose Rager and Ike Everly claimed him as well. I've heard Bill say he considered himself primarily a blues singer and bluegrass is certainly full of blues.

      - Mark

21 Jul 03 - 09:06 PM (#987802)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,sorefingers

Frank - you said it the best of all, I heard on radio the other day that most BG festivals are 80% Gospelmusic but audiences never notice.

Also I have heard Harmonicas in OT bands and that would be the way they do it. OT grew out of housedances, like celtic did before it, and the rough and ready frontier life style created that unique melodic sound that BG today so lacks, so perhaps the real music is not being played except at sideshows? I have not heard anything original in BG Banjo since Earl Scruggs, indeed nobody I hear is even close to Earl's precise and correct timing! Small wonder then to see more folks turning on to OT Banjo!

Perhaps BG Banjoism is a myth? if so there are a lot of Earl clones out there still banging away at the same old same old?

Perhaps BG Banjo is far harder to play, but Clawhammer is capable of far more variety? Certainly, to begin, OT is harder to get right, but after a few decades it begins to make a little more sense.

Gee chip fall off of it! and if I had your checker I too would appear to be a perfect copycat! But OC you know I am kidding, and as good or as bad as the next musican when it comes to tha kaybroad.. oh hell or is it well!

21 Jul 03 - 09:30 PM (#987815)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: John Hindsill

I am not a musician, nor even a musicologist; I am self described "audience." But I do have a number of records and CDs featuring Bluegrass, ditto old-timey music.

It seems that Bluegrass is a more stylized music, generally using nearly the same combination of instruments, with the vocals sung by a high tenor. Is that because Bill Monroe was himself a tenor?

Old-timey music utilizes a wider variety of instruments, on the whole, including dulcimer, auto-harp, etc. There is less standardization of the music. My wife is wont to call the vocals 'no teeth music', but what does she know?

Here in southern California of a Sunday morning we have a radio program call "Bluegrass, Etc.", www.kcsn.org, 6am-10am local time. It is a program of old-timey and gospel musics, as well as Bluegrass. Once when I phoned in a request, I noted to the host that a little Bluegrass goes a long way, and I hoped he would program more 'Etc.'.

PS-I tried to a blue clicky thing for KCSN, but got an error message, but that is the correct location.

21 Jul 03 - 09:41 PM (#987816)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,sorefingers

Indeed you are correct John, BG 'is' radiomusic, OT evolved long long ever before recording or radio was invented, hence it can sound uninteresting ON radio. But live BG is so boring that I have seen folks falling asleep! Live OT on the other hand is irritatingly inviting, endlessly fascinating even when they play the same tune over a lot of times, and visualy a feast for the weary radio-ed out punters today, not to mention the fact that it was first of all folkdance.

BG is ear music, OT is feet music!

21 Jul 03 - 11:57 PM (#987868)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: John Hindsill

Hey, sorefingers, I don't dislike Bluegrass...I just like it in smaller doses, maybe three or four songs in a set now. I went to a Bluegrass festival some years ago, noon to midnight which was about 11 hours over my limit. I remember my primary reason for going was to see Mac Wiseman (a tenor). Really, I had a good time.

Idea! We've had the "3 Tenors" and the "3 American Tenors" concerts on PBS. Howabout "3 Bluegrass Tenors"?

BTW, one of my favorite records for years was "Beatle Country" by the Charles River Valley Boys. Think I'll put it on tonight.

22 Jul 03 - 09:40 AM (#988080)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: chip a

Sorefingers said:

"BG is ear music, OT is feet music! "

Talk about gtting to the bottom line.......That's the best description I ever heard!


22 Jul 03 - 12:35 PM (#988213)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences

Bluegrass is for the head, Old-time is for the heart, and Western Swing is for the feet!

22 Jul 03 - 01:22 PM (#988239)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: chip a

I have a touch of gout. Would western swing help me? I have to admit that old time only helps temporarily. The gout usually returns when I stop picking. That's really the only reason I spend so much time with my banjo. I keep thinking.....if I only had more banjos.


22 Jul 03 - 02:01 PM (#988262)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: GUEST,cordleycoit@yahoo.com

Old Timey has evolved into such diverse new roots as the Holy Modal Rounders and Wayne Henderson's extention of blues. A recent series of recordings by Otis Taylor challanges the White Only srangle hold on the music. Rugby
where the music comes from became a musical dynamo because of the rail road (like in England.) Then the music followed the rails in Pullman Cars and on the footplate and in the cabose. Old Timey turns up all over the place musicly because the rails, mills, ships and mines were connected. Heard some in Hull, Scotland and Belfast in the sixties.
Hitched a ride in Pete car over Monarch Pass and we never did get sung out.

22 Jul 03 - 03:31 PM (#988310)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences

"White Only" is a myth, plain and simple. Much of the recorded work of Black musicians in the 1920's cannot be called Blues. Even Leadbelly and Lonnie Johnson loved Pop songs, Old-time, even children's songs. Historians are most likely the one separating the races, since Jimmie Rodgers sold many records to working class Blacks, and Louis Armstrong was popular with everyone.

22 Jul 03 - 03:40 PM (#988316)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: BanjoRay

Old time comes from Rugby? Is that the game or the town? Is that why some of the tunes go on for 90 minutes? Is that why once you've had a try you get converted? (see the rules of Rugby Football)

22 Jul 03 - 04:20 PM (#988340)
Subject: RE: Old time and Bluegrass-- Differences
From: 8ch(pl)

Bluegrass has evolved in the 60 or so years since it started. The Scruggs style of banjo playing caught on and now is considered the definitive type. Earl Scruggs used to call it "Carolina Picking" and he is credited with it's start, when he joined Bill Mnroe's band in the 1940's. As I meantioned in a previous post, Monroe's first banjo player was Dave "Stringbean" Akeman. He was a clawhammer style player. Scruggs replaced him I believe.