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Is The Definition of "Old Time Banjo" a Matter of Perspective?

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Sep 28, 2022 - 11:39:52 AM
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7227 posts since 9/21/2007
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A bit ago there was the question about what we call "classic banjo" being old time. I guess that depends on your point of view...

archive.org/details/genuine-ol...for-banjo

Sep 28, 2022 - 12:13:33 PM
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banjo bill-e

Tuvalu

12586 posts since 2/22/2007
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I hate the term "Old Time", prefer "mountain music". I would just call if folk music if that term did not carry social and political baggage.

Sep 28, 2022 - 12:30 PM
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2021 posts since 5/19/2018

I’ve heard certain styles referred to as “Old Time” and even some years ago, as “Old Timey”. Not sure what either of those mean, back then, late 70’s, early 1980’s I think it referred to any music that had a fiddle and banjo in it and was not Bluegrass music.

My personal preference if it is a traditional regional style, played in a way that utilizes traditional techniques, then it is traditional banjo/traditional music. Or to get specific, Piedmont style, two finger style, Uncle Dave Macon style, a fiddle tune from West Virginia, ect, ect.

At this point with the internet, and resources such as the Hangout, there is now an awareness of styles from specific regions and players. To refer music as to “Old Time” is very Vague. I have a 20 year old Niece who refers to groups such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam as “Old Time” music. She studies the music of these groups in much the same way I studied the music of Charlie Poole and the like back in the 70’s. Strange to think that her listening to 33 1/3 vinyl disks is the same as me listening to 78’s back when, but the time frame is the same.

So I would say the definition of “Old Time” is certainly a matter of perspective.

Sep 28, 2022 - 12:58:14 PM
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quote:
Originally posted by Alvin Conder

I’ve heard certain styles referred to as “Old Time” and even some years ago, as “Old Timey”. Not sure what either of those mean, back then, late 70’s, early 1980’s I think it referred to any music that had a fiddle and banjo in it and was not Bluegrass music.

My personal preference if it is a traditional regional style, played in a way that utilizes traditional techniques, then it is traditional banjo/traditional music. Or to get specific, Piedmont style, two finger style, Uncle Dave Macon style, a fiddle tune from West Virginia, ect, ect.

At this point with the internet, and resources such as the Hangout, there is now an awareness of styles from specific regions and players. To refer music as to “Old Time” is very Vague. I have a 20 year old Niece who refers to groups such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam as “Old Time” music. She studies the music of these groups in much the same way I studied the music of Charlie Poole and the like back in the 70’s. Strange to think that her listening to 33 1/3 vinyl disks is the same as me listening to 78’s back when, but the time frame is the same.

So I would say the definition of “Old Time” is certainly a matter of perspective.


Interesting, I've pointed out a few times that, if "traditional banjo" or "old time" or whatever was living and continuing tradition, the current generation should be playing "Grunge" era music on banjos and fiddles. 

Poole, Macon, etc., were playing popular music from the 1880s and 1890s in the 1920s in a nostalgic style.

That exact same time spread can be applied to the music from the 1980s and 1990s to the 2020s.

Sep 28, 2022 - 2:35:30 PM

10144 posts since 8/28/2013

Categories are just an attempt to organize what can't really be organized. There will always be debates about where something fits, be it banjo music, or anything else. What, for example, is "classical music? Is it BAch, who wrote in the Baroque period, or Chopin, who is usually placed as "Romantic?" Is a "classic car a 1931 Cadillac, or a seventies Dodge Charger, or a defunct DeLorean?

to me,discussions like this are like debating whether cat doo-doo belongs in the same category as dog doo-doo.

Sep 28, 2022 - 2:50:48 PM
Players Union Member

Edwards

USA

186 posts since 3/26/2014

Always thought it was a marketing term, if it wasn’t a mountain banjo, and arch top, a Resonator, and open back. Especially have a place in my heart for the heat full term pre-war, Where is it pre-police action? Who knows it’s just one of those things that marketers think they can organize to sound better as others have said.

Sep 28, 2022 - 3:07:40 PM
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2158 posts since 11/17/2018

Old-time refers to a specific genre of North American folk music.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old-time_music

The Library of Congress has multiple references.

So it would seem that instruments used for that genre could be accurately described as playing old-time style.

Sep 28, 2022 - 7:46:22 PM

Bill Rogers (Moderator)

USA

26476 posts since 6/25/2005

I first saw the term applied specifically to a range of music in the notes to the NLCR Vol. 1. They applied it to commercia country and LOC recordings of music from the American South from 1925-35. The use of “old-time music” applied to southern mountain traditional and early commercial music seems to have spread from there, first among urban musicians. What it means now depends on the user. Clearly the NLCR usage did not include “classic” finger-style banjo.

Sep 28, 2022 - 8:20:27 PM

1886 posts since 1/13/2012

quote:
Originally posted by Joel Hooks

Interesting, I've pointed out a few times that, if "traditional banjo" or "old time" or whatever was living and continuing tradition, the current generation should be playing "Grunge" era music on banjos and fiddles. 

Poole, Macon, etc., were playing popular music from the 1880s and 1890s in the 1920s in a nostalgic style.

That exact same time spread can be applied to the music from the 1980s and 1990s to the 2020s.


My guess would be that the term, as applied to rural American fiddle and banjo music, probably originated during the 78 rpm era. I have done no organized research, but in my small collection of twenty or so 78s I have two records that reference the term... "Old Time Tunes" by Gid Tanner and his Georgia Boys (on Victor), and Seneca Square Dance by Fiddlin' Dave Neal on Challenge, whose description on the label is "Old Time Fiddle accompanied by guitar".

I think conflating popular recorded music (Uncle Dave, Charlie Poole, Nirvana, ect) in with what folks around here called "home music" is a mistake. The two share instruments and some repertoire, but generally did not serve in the same role within the cultural context.

Sep 28, 2022 - 11:24:24 PM

1442 posts since 1/9/2012
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Seconding what Bill said, I recall a video interview with Mike Seeger where he described having been asked what kind of music he played. He said he thought and decided then and there to call it "Old Time." In his telling, he wasn't aware of any earlier use of the term for that or related genre. I think that a lot of the repertoire of the NLCR came from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and then music they dug up themselves in their travels, looking for more in that vein.

(They came through where I was going to college at least a couple of times a year, and I went to all their shows. That was at the then newly created Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tom Paley had left and was replaced by Tracy Schwarz)

Sep 29, 2022 - 3:28:29 AM

Bill H

USA

2014 posts since 11/7/2010

I think folk music would be an apt label for much of the traditional music we play today. The roots of this music are in fiddle music carried here from the British Isles dance music going back several centuries. The influence may depend on your region of the country. In the southern US the blend of European and African American influence along with the introduction of the banjo merged to shape the music. Traditional New England music that has a French Canadian and Cape Bretton influence mingled in with its Scott and English roots.

And of course, today, due to scope of recorded music over the past century, there is much overlap and adoption from other regions. Bluegrass evolved from these roots. This music has been going on for centuries and remains popular because people react to it by clapping their hands and tapping their feet.

Sep 29, 2022 - 3:28:41 AM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

16074 posts since 8/30/2006

"And they took such delight in the slip jigs and reels. "


Sep 29, 2022 - 5:22:52 AM
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460 posts since 11/9/2021

Most players I know only use the term Bluegrass and Old Time to determine which banjo they bring to a jam session! Kidding of course. But maybe not, as a jam session labeled as either can have the same tunes played in the circle. Some exclusively for the most part. I don't like labels, but one needs to convey SOME idea of the different genres.

Sep 29, 2022 - 6:45:55 AM
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7227 posts since 9/21/2007
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For those that might not have clicked the link I posted, it takes you to a music collection published in 1889 by L. B. Gatcomb in Boston titled "Genuine Old Timers Arranged for Banjo" and includes the following pieces for what we now call "classic banjo" or historically called fingerstyle/guitar style banjo.

Arkansas Traveler,
Pigtown Fling
Chorus Jig
Fun on the Wabash (not the same as Parke Hunter's composition)
College Hornpipe
Kendall's Hornpipe
Money Musk
Speed the Plough
Irish Washerwoman
Devil's Dream
Come Haste to the Wedding
Fisher's Hornpipe.

The joke being that "old time" was used in 1889 in connection with classic banjo.

This publication does bring up a good point the contradicts the impression that most people have about what we call "classic banjo". Folk and post folk era academics have fabricated a narrative (when they don't just glaze over it) that "classic banjo" was nothing but "classical music" played by the very wealthy in their "parlors". The music being extremely difficult. The truth is that the music, like any "style", ran the gamut from very easy to very difficult, but most American publications before the late 1890s were playable for the average banjoist.

This narrative seems to be based on the advertising rhetoric of people like S. S. Stewart who used a lot of hype to make things sound much fancier than they actually were in reality.

Sadly the writers of banjo history took this advertising copy hype at face value and never bothered to look further. If they had, they would have found that the entire popular music movement of the banjo was largely a working class fad.

It was also strongly driven by the phony nostalgia that is found in many popular culture movements.

The body of work included all the "fiddle tunes" one could ever want to play. And by the late 1880s, these pieces (like in the linked example) were considered "old time banjo" pieces, as they were of the type that were played when the early rimmed banjo took form.

If I am not mistaken, I believe that many of these pieces are in the current "old time banjo" rotation.

Sep 29, 2022 - 12:39:04 PM

188 posts since 8/9/2022
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Generalisations function differently depending on the purpose. For simple everyday practical purpose we need terms to differentiate X from Y; in regard to music say, Cajun from Bluegrass. ‘Old Time’ as a shorthand works as well as anything at that level.

But it’s meaningless and does not serve a useful purpose when we look closer and try to understand specifics and encounter the complex overlap between creative activities that are given a simplistic label.

So to answer the OP, it does entirely depend, not so much on perspective, but purpose.

Edited by - quartertoner on 09/29/2022 12:42:20

Sep 29, 2022 - 10:15:27 PM
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169 posts since 2/5/2014

I own an 1857 broadside advertising Joel Walker Sweeney as "that old time banjoist." So the term is at least that old.


Sep 30, 2022 - 12:42:43 AM

188 posts since 8/9/2022
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quote:
Originally posted by Joel Hooks

A bit ago there was the question about what we call "classic banjo" being old time. I guess that depends on your point of view...

archive.org/details/genuine-ol...for-banjo


I would suggest that a significant and specific direction (stylistic and cultural) is attached to the label 'classic' banjo. Is it descriptive of a fingerstyle form of playing? Yes, clearly. Does it encompass fingerstyle playing in it's entirety? No, equally as clearly.

In the mid-1800's much more use was made of the terms 'English style' and 'American style' in regard to what are respectively guitar-style and down-picked techniques. Are these terms accurate or useful? Not really. Historically, banjo players independent of labels and geography employed both methods.

What are generalised and artificially applied labels or 'genre boundaries' used independently of specific context are typically more awkward and obstructive than helpful when we are seeking to understand and describe what actually occurred at the level of the individual and community. Often the producers of the print record we refer to are the biggest culprits in resorting to generalised labels. This labeling borne of a communication need to generalise to quickly engage an audience can create a misleading assumption or 'certainty' in relation to activity. Again, purpose and context is everything.

Edited by - quartertoner on 09/30/2022 00:55:42

Sep 30, 2022 - 2:26:50 AM

1886 posts since 1/13/2012

Around here, I've heard "old time" used to describe many things over the years... both musical and not. It's sort of a catch-all descriptor for anything that evokes nostalgia, age, or a "simpler" time, particularly in rural settings. Makes sense that revivalists would have used it to differentiate their music from bluegrass.

Sep 30, 2022 - 5:16:26 AM

2392 posts since 1/4/2009

now that we got this settled, lets define new grass vrs bluegrass

Sep 30, 2022 - 6:35:01 AM

4240 posts since 9/12/2016

no Joel I didn't punch the link-but the list you showed is pretty much songs from the fiddle tune books dating back a couple of centuries ---not being said to dispute anything --just more fodder
nowdays when banjo is involved old time refers to clawhammer and everyone taking a break at once--but that is not carved in stone forever-
I remember Elderly instruments CD catalogues ending up with with many regional fiddle styles--which made sense in the slow transportation and communication days---but the net and auto erased those facts.
We as a culture love to be nostalgic --we always say old this or them old that--personally I like those old fiddle bands like Gid Tanner and Lowe stokes--
The way the chips will fall who knows --I am nowdays ready to just enjoy the view

I always call mine banjo music --

Edited by - Tractor1 on 09/30/2022 06:49:32

Sep 30, 2022 - 7:54:24 AM

7227 posts since 9/21/2007
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quote:
Originally posted by quartertoner
quote:
Originally posted by Joel Hooks

A bit ago there was the question about what we call "classic banjo" being old time. I guess that depends on your point of view...

archive.org/details/genuine-ol...for-banjo


I would suggest that a significant and specific direction (stylistic and cultural) is attached to the label 'classic' banjo. Is it descriptive of a fingerstyle form of playing? Yes, clearly. Does it encompass fingerstyle playing in it's entirety? No, equally as clearly.

In the mid-1800's much more use was made of the terms 'English style' and 'American style' in regard to what are respectively guitar-style and down-picked techniques. Are these terms accurate or useful? Not really. Historically, banjo players independent of labels and geography employed both methods.

What are generalised and artificially applied labels or 'genre boundaries' used independently of specific context are typically more awkward and obstructive than helpful when we are seeking to understand and describe what actually occurred at the level of the individual and community. Often the producers of the print record we refer to are the biggest culprits in resorting to generalised labels. This labeling borne of a communication need to generalise to quickly engage an audience can create a misleading assumption or 'certainty' in relation to activity. Again, purpose and context is everything.

 


In all my discovery I do not ever recall reading any reference to "English Style" or "American Style."

Recently a friend of mine was frequently using the term "guitar banjo style", so I went through and pulled a pile of print examples to show that the phrase was "guitar style banjo".

The historical use was "guitar style" or "picking" or "finger style".  The other was "stroke style" or "thimble style" or "banjo style".  I also seem to remember "striking" used.

Sep 30, 2022 - 8:59:28 AM

188 posts since 8/9/2022
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quote:
Originally posted by Joel Hooks
quote:
Originally posted by quartertoner
quote:
Originally posted by Joel Hooks

A bit ago there was the question about what we call "classic banjo" being old time. I guess that depends on your point of view...

archive.org/details/genuine-ol...for-banjo


I would suggest that a significant and specific direction (stylistic and cultural) is attached to the label 'classic' banjo. Is it descriptive of a fingerstyle form of playing? Yes, clearly. Does it encompass fingerstyle playing in it's entirety? No, equally as clearly.

In the mid-1800's much more use was made of the terms 'English style' and 'American style' in regard to what are respectively guitar-style and down-picked techniques. Are these terms accurate or useful? Not really. Historically, banjo players independent of labels and geography employed both methods.

What are generalised and artificially applied labels or 'genre boundaries' used independently of specific context are typically more awkward and obstructive than helpful when we are seeking to understand and describe what actually occurred at the level of the individual and community. Often the producers of the print record we refer to are the biggest culprits in resorting to generalised labels. This labeling borne of a communication need to generalise to quickly engage an audience can create a misleading assumption or 'certainty' in relation to activity. Again, purpose and context is everything.

 


In all my discovery I do not ever recall reading any reference to "English Style" or "American Style."

Recently a friend of mine was frequently using the term "guitar banjo style", so I went through and pulled a pile of print examples to show that the phrase was "guitar style banjo".

The historical use was "guitar style" or "picking" or "finger style".  The other was "stroke style" or "thimble style" or "banjo style".  I also seem to remember "striking" used.

 


Joel, I have many mid-19th century banjo print references to 'English style' and 'American style' from English sources referring respectively to guitar-style and down-picking (stroke style). The colloquial usage (without additional descriptive information) suggests that the terms were commonly, if somewhat simply, understood at the time in the context in which that print material was read. Just one example of repeat occurrence are in contemporary mid-century adverts for banjo tuition.

But in relation to your OP the same general point holds true; while useful at one simple level, labels really don't communicate much of specific interest.

Edited by - quartertoner on 09/30/2022 09:06:18

Oct 1, 2022 - 3:45 AM

188 posts since 8/9/2022
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To be strictly accurate reference to 'English style' and 'American-style' continue to occur into the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Out of curiosity I checked my source material and even a quick search found examples of this usage from 1895, 1896 and as late as 1909.

In the 19th century English banjo context there was evidently a fairly common perception and portrayal in print of guitar-style as 'English' and down-picking as 'American'. Of course the usage of such labels was influenced by those specific people's experience and knowledge which is, again, that context that is all important.

A label isn't necessarily factually accurate, but it's contextual use may shine a light on specific people's perception of 'fact' or their thinking at a given time.

Edited by - quartertoner on 10/01/2022 03:47:13

Oct 1, 2022 - 11:34:31 AM

10144 posts since 8/28/2013

Ten years from now, we will be debating some other "genre." I think there are already those questioning whether "melodic style" is really Bluegrass." There is no telling if even BG will be called "old-time" when the tunes are 100 years old.

Oct 2, 2022 - 2:18:06 PM

188 posts since 8/9/2022
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This quote from Samuel S. Stewart taken from his Banjo Players' Hand Book (Philadelphia, PA. 1880) shows that the issue of perspective in relation to the banjo has been around a long time:

"The first three fingers of the right hand, and also the thumb, are used in manipulating the strings. The little finger should rest on the head, near the bridge, to support the hand. In the old style of playing, by striking the strings, the first finger and thumb only are used. The first finger in most cases being covered by a "thimble", not so much as a protective to the nail, as a hammer to produce a greater amount of noise. I say noise instead of sound. Noise is not sound. The former is a confused mixture of sounds whereas the latter is pure harmonious effect. The old style of "striking" or "thumping" is rapidly passing out of date, and is now used mostly in playing Military Marches, etc."

Edited by - quartertoner on 10/02/2022 14:32:17

Oct 2, 2022 - 4:56:02 PM

10144 posts since 8/28/2013

Question 1: Would "Old Joe Clark" or "cripple Creek" played on a tenor banjo be old time?
Question 2: Would "Foggy Mountain breakdown" played clawhammer style still be a bluegrass tune?

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