I have a question that's been bothering me lately. I often read and am told that the Old-Time tradition was distinct from the popular music of the time, and that the communities where old-time music was played were largely isolated from the influence of popular music. If these communities were isolated, why did so many of them share the same basic repertoire of old-time songs and tunes? Period field recordings certainly indicate that there was a core/common repertoire throughout much of the mountains. How did this become the case?
Edited by - csacwp on 05/05/2021 13:44:05
Communities may have been isolated, but not without outside contact. Trips to the county seat to pay taxes or to a neighboring county to buy farm equipment or livestock usually were multi-day trips and quite often involved an evening of playing music. On such trips, one might hear a new to them tune and attempt play it when the returned home, remembering the tune and lyrics as best they could, but not exactly as they had heard it.
To me, this always accounted for a tune having so many regional variations.
I suppose that the degree of isolation would depend both on what period you are talking about, and how far away the nearest population center was.
And the radio and the phonograph changed everything. By the mid 1920's, plenty of string bands were already on the radio and making records.
And then, of course, there were the square dances and the barn raisings. And weddings and funerals would bring distant relatives together. A student of mine traced his family history back past the Civil War, and found that there were Forresters scattered from northern Alabama, through rural north Georgia, and deep into the North Carolina mountains. That's a lot of territory, and at least some of the family would travel for important events.
I'm more perplexed about how the so-called Piedmont blues double-thumbed guitar style got from Avalon, Mississipi to Poor Valley in Virginia and Washington DC. I'm thinking about Mississippi John Hurt, Leslie Riddle [who taught Maybelle Carter how to double thumb], and eventually the urban players like Reverend Gary Davis. I imagine that 100 years ago, the southern African Americans traveled less often and less far than the white folks.
An interesting question though. I stopped off at a restaurant in Murphy, NC maybe 15 years ago, and got into a conversation with the waitress. She had never been farther from home than Chattanooga, 90 miles away, and had only been there once.
Edited by - rcc56 on 05/05/2021 17:37:32
I've never been east of Reno. Is there any signs of inteeligent life past thar? banjered
I'll add that "Fiddling" Bob Douglas, who was born in 1900 and lived to be over a hundred years old, talked about spending time with older fiddlers from the southeastern Tennessee - north Georgia - Nantahala and Smoky Mountains of North Carolina region. He could trace local tunes back to the Civil War, and at least some of the fiddlers from the region either knew or knew of each other. And the music passed between them, before radios, records, and automobiles.
A.P. Carter and Leslie Riddle would travel throughout their region, and everywhere they went, they would ask anybody they bumped into if they or anybody they knew had a song to share.
Edited by - rcc56 on 05/05/2021 18:05:12
It was a actually a small world even in the 1890s. I recently got an SS Stewart banjo and did a bit of digging around. I live in the West of Australia which is as far way on the planet as you can get from Eastern USA. I was surprised to read in SS Stewarts newsletter of the 1890s many letters from banjo players in Australia. The music was contemporary to the US/ European style of the day (classic, classical whatever debate there is in that old chestnut!) and there were banjo clubs in most of the big cities of Australia.
So the hollows and plains of the US may not have been as isolated as we think. Dirt poor people may not have had the luxury of SS Stewart newsletters but I bet they got around just fine. The US has an excellent history of catalogue shopping and I am sure music in some form was also handed around. A unique style is quite natural but the base tunes and songs were probably the start point. As were the actual instruments ie a banjo is pretty much the same everywhere. Also a banjo can be used in a concert hall, a parlour or a cabin with a dirt floor. It is quite a social instrument in that sense.
I suspect the churches were a meeting point on Sundays and afterwards there would be interaction across social divide where music was played or discussed. In fact music can bring people together quite nicely as a mutual talking point.
What usually gets called "old time" music, I like to at least try to define a bit more clearly. Let's try: homemade rural music of the USA. The segregation of its repertoire from commercial popular music stems mostly from a whole bunch of academic/philosophical/political preconceptions about the definitions and values of things like "culture", "tradition", "the people", etc.etc.
Musicians in isolated communities sang and played whatever they liked. Yes, there were songs, tunes, and styles which had been handed down down the family line for centuries, but it's hard to imagine anyone being so remote as to be completely ignorant of the hit songs of the day, and there are loads of examples of those hits being adopted and adapted by country musicians. I'm sure there was a huge variety of awarenesses of and attitudes toward the differences between ancient "folk" and new(er) "pop" songs and tunes, but generally nobody (except the folklorists) back in the day made a lot of fuss over the distinction.
I have a few speculations and also a request: anyone with good suggestions for quality research or literature along these lines, please drop in some citations/suggestions to this thread.
Okay, onto my speculations:
To me, old-time is partially a nostalgic construction of an imagined past, partly based on some real practices. There were string bands and fiddlers, but today's practice may not be that similar.
By the time recordings were widespread, so were powerful radio stations that likely had a homogenising influence. I take it that this could have made for some similarities as those at home followed along with the influence of broadcasts.
Keep in mind that many of the field recordings we have today were made by a comparatively small number of recording engineers and collectors (such as the Lomax family). They might have passed over some kinds of music in their search, or perhaps those who played for them thought it should be the "good" music they knew.
Finally, I take it that, however fiddling and banjo playing took root across the US, they took root here after leaving Europe, and there's reason to think that the tunes and ideas that we have here (like Soldier's Joy) come from over there, so finding them all over here isn't that odd.
All that said, I am aware of some strong regional differences and tendencies. All the crooked versions I know seem to be from Kentucky and West Virginia, and Galax has its lick, and etc. There are some differences out there!
Looking forward to reading more of this thread!
Bill Rogers (Moderator)
Note tht the New Lost City Ramblers, essentially the progenitors of the urban old-time music revival, early on (see notes from NLCR Vol. 1 on Folkways) as commercial country music of the 20s and 30s. The NLCR were highly eclectic in their sources, something perhaps less true of today’s younger old-time musicians. The Ramblers’ repertoire changed over the years, notably when Tracy Schwarz replaced Tom Paley. Tracy was the best singer the band had, and they took advantage of that, as well as his more advanced fiddling. The term “old-time music” seems to have incorporated much of what used to be called “folk music,” usually with no perceivable differences.
When I was interested in learning the tune, "Froggie Went a Courting," I found an article that talked about the tunes origins going back to the fifteenth century. Isn't this the case for many traditionally tunes? Whether in the southern Appalachians, New England or Quebec, these dance tunes and folk songs came to the new country from Europe and have been passed down and passed around and eventually have evolved and branched into the various forms and regional styles we know today as American music. Many of these tunes survive and continue to be popular because they continue to be appealing. Part of the appeal I think is the simplicity of their structure as well as the familiarity--we have all heard traditional songs or derivatives as children.
fiddle tune books appear from the 1700s on .
Soldier’s Joy is an example how a tune can travel around the world. One of the first written sources of the tune is from 1756 in a book from Scotland (Rutherford's Compleat Collection of two hundred of the most Celebrated Country Dances, Both Old and New, published in Scotland circa 1756), and there are other books from around 1780 – 1790 that mentions or presents the tune.
The tune is known in traditional Swedish music at around 1900 or earlier, both in the south of Sweden and in the north (or middle) part of Sweden. The southern version seems to have traveled from Scotland to Denmark and then to the south of Sweden. The northern version seems to have traveled first to Norway (it may have been directly from Scotland, but also from Denmark (Norway was a part of Denmark at that time) and in to Sweden. This travel should have been done through several “isolated” communities even if it was brought to Norway and Denmark by sailors or see-traveling musicians.
I saw a version of the tune in a Swedish music book where the tune was named “Engelska” which means “English”, probably referring to “English Dance” (just like Schottische means Scottish dance and Polska means Polish dance).
When played today in Sweden (to Swedish traditional dancing parties) the tune is usually called Soldier’s Joy, and sometimes it is also referred to as an American tune ?.
And as you already know, the tune also traveled to the US. It seems to be known already in the Civil War. The first recording I know is Skillet Lickers form 1929.
In the early 1900’s when Cecil Sharp, pencil and notebook in hand, was invited to a night of music and dance in a pub up on Mendip near West Harptree in North Somerset (The Castle of Comfort, it’s still there) he had to intervene and request that locals sing ‘the old songs’. Up to that point they had been singing, fiddling and step dancing to popular tunes.
These locals were farmers, farm labourers, miners and quarrymen most well into middle age and some much older. That should give a clue that people sang what they liked, including popular songs.
Sharp only transcribed the old songs. We need to be thankful that he did, but that is not vernacular research in the true sense; it is a predefined agenda. Neither did he note down the detail of the characteristic regional step dancing in the pub that night. To our great loss.
Edited by - m06 on 05/07/2021 10:47:55
There’s little reason to suggest that Sharp was motivated to employ a more rigorous approach on his song-gathering tour through the southern US.
He was looking for vestigial examples of an older British song repertoire...and found them. But because he didn’t record the full context and dismissed anything else that wasn’t a fit with his search criteria we are left with an incomplete and therefore potentially misleading picture.
We need to keep a healthy scepticism about the ‘embodiment of musical antiquity’ that his field work can cause us to imagine. The people he met had retained songs that drew on a much older repertoire but as Sharp ignored context we have no way of knowing the extent to which these songs were sung in that contemporary setting or their preference (or not) in relation to popular song.
The circumstantial likelihood is that he was as intervening and selective in America as he was here in Somerset.
Edited by - m06 on 05/08/2021 05:40:39
'Changing tempo' 2 hrs