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Singing

Posted by Tom Meisenheimer on Monday, August 13, 2012

A friend of mine mentioned something about old time music that hadn't occurred to me. Something that the late Mike Seeger had said about singing being the most neglected part of the OT revival. It does seem so, going through the many entries at BHO and other venues.

I probably have half my repertoire as songs (maybe more, I haven't counted). One of the great attractions of OT music for me was the poetry of the songs. Also the wonderful fit that some songs and music enjoyed.

Some of the music has dark strains to it. Some is light hearted and joyously uplifting. When it comes to words though the meaning and the atmosphere can rarely be confused.

Pretty Polly MUST be sung in a minor key, Oh Death, too. Obvious stuff. Bile The Cabbage Down and other dance or "play party" songs are always or almost always light and springy. I know you all know what I mean.

I find myself almost never playing a song only as a tune. When I hear a song played as a tune it always seems to me to be lacking, not just the words but the story and therefore the history and sense of place.

There are a number of Cripple Creeks, geographically speaking. One is just West of Readyville, TN, Uncle Dave's home place. I have run into others in the far West and the Southwest. Possibly named so because of the song but possibly for other reasons. The one in Tennessee might well be the original. That there is an actual Cripple Creek makes the song feel more anchored and thereby more "authentic". There are a great many verses to the song, some are the "floating" verses found in many songs, some are unique all give a sense of the fun of the music, the Saturday night dance feeling it conveys.

We strive to play like our mentors and heroes but very few of us try to sing like them. Mike Seeger did so (at was occasionally criticized for it). Not doing that isn't about being able to sing or not. Some OT singers can really pierce the ears (Almeda Riddle comes to mind) but the nuance that her singing brings to the song places it firmly in time and place. I don't think we all need to try to present authentic recreations of the OT singers styles and voices. Singing (and playing, for that matter) is best done with your own voice, after all. But it would be interesting if we all paid closer attention to singing and to developing our own voices to suit what we are singing about. I love story songs like Pretty Polly, Buffalo Skinners, Wild Bill Jones, Little Sadie and so on. They tell about something that happened and often  convey that story powerfully as well as poetically.

I'm all for starting a "movement" to seek our authentic voices and use them so that they become an integral part of our music.



1 comment on “Singing”

Don Huber Says:
Friday, August 17, 2012 @1:34:49 AM

Currently, the most common social version of old time music seems to be fiddle-driven ensemble playing. This has resulted in a preponderance of instrumental only tunes. Or tunes with the words omitted do to the "fixed" fiddle key not being friendly to the potential singers present. I'm kind of torn here on this issue. I love the transcendental feeling of just sitting and playing tunes. But I also enjoy songs and I really respect the BHO members who sing on their music and video pages as it reveals a lot more about their personalities to me than if they only recorded instrumentals. I straddle the fence here.

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