Old-time music: Genres of influence

September 29, 2016

old-time music album coverThis post about old-time music is our third article in a series highlighting music genres of influence with regard to Tresbear Music, Tony Huber & Friends, and other partners, friends, and associates of the Tresbear Music label of Dickson, Tennessee. The first two articles focused on Gypsy music and Celtic music.

What is old-time music?

Old-time music, sometimes referred to as old-timey music, mountain music or hillbilly music, features playing styles that predate bluegrass, emerging from the string band tradition stretching back to the early years of United States history. Old-time music developed and evolved along with various North American folk dances, such as square dancing, clogging, and buck dancing.

Shop for old-time music on Amazon

Old-time music can be considered the folk music of the Appalachian Mountains predating bluegrass. It includes much of the music that had been commercially recorded in the South from the late 1920s through the 1930s.old-time music band

The core instruments in the original old-time string bands were the fiddle, banjo, and guitar; other instruments used include mandolin, upright bass, and harmonica. In the old days, the primary determining factor of what instruments to play was simply availability, as in, What instruments do we have around here we can use to play some good music?

The term old-time music originated as a euphemism, but proved a suitable replacement for other terms that were considered disparaging by many inhabitants of these regions. It remains the term preferred by performers and listeners of the music.

Ethnic roots of old-time music

European influence

Immigrants from England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland arrived in Appalachia in the 18th century, and brought with them the musical traditions of these countries. These traditions consisted primarily of English and Scottish ballads — which were essentially unaccompanied narratives — and dance music, such as Irish reels, which were accompanied by a fiddle.

African-American influence

In old-time music, the most obvious legacy of African-Americans is the banjo, which is African in origin. Minstrel shows and medicine shows brought the banjo to white Southerners in the 19th century.

African-American syncopation and phrasing profoundly influenced old-time music. (Syncopation is the displacement of beats or accents in music so that strong beats become weak and vice versa. Phrasing refers to the manner of playing the individual notes of a particular group of consecutive notes, and the way they are weighted and shaped relative to one another.)

The African-American influence is especially notable when comparing American string band music to similar tunes from Canada, which had a negligible African-American presence at the time.

Featured old-time musician #1: Dock Boggs

Dock Boggs, old-time musicianalbum cover - Dock Boggs, old-time musicianDock Boggs (1898–1971) was an influential old-time music singer, songwriter and banjo player and one of the primeval hillbillies to record during the 1920s. He was largely forgotten for decades until the 1960s folk revival breathed new life into his career at the twilight of his life. Boggs’s dozen recordings from 1927 to 1929 are staples of folk music, comprised of Appalachian ballads and blues such as “Pretty Polly,” “Country Blues,” and “Danville Girl.” Born near Norton, VA, in 1898, he was named after the doctor who delivered him. The youngest of ten children, Boggs began working in the mines at the age of 12. He began playing banjo around that time, picking the instrument like a blues guitar instead of using more common clawhammer banjo technique.

More: Read our January 30, 2017 post: Dock Boggs, legendary old-time banjo player

Featured old-time musician #2: Bruce Molsky

Bruce Molsky. Old-time fiddlerBruce Molsky (Wikipedia | Facebook), one of America’s premier fiddling talents who has been nominated twice for a Grammy, is an American fiddler, banjo player, guitarist, and singer in the tradition of Appalachian old-time music. Molsky is seen by many (and rightfully so, in our opinion) as the go-to guy for the next generation of tradition-minded fiddlers. Bruce is the first permanent visiting professor in Berklee College of Music’s American Roots Program, which is dedicated to exploring the rural and early American music of the first half of the 20th century (1900 to 1950).

More: Read our January 11, 2017 post: Bruce Molsky, a premier American old-time fiddler

Original old-time musicians

  • Fiddlin’ John Carson made some of the first commercial recordings of traditional American country music for the Okeh label. The recordings became hits. Okeh, which had previously coined the terms hillbilly music to describe Appalachian and Southern fiddle-based and religious music and race recording to describe the music of African American recording artists, began using old-time music as a term to describe the music made by artists of Carson’s style.
  • Uncle Wade Ward [ Amazon ]
  • Tommy Jarrell [ Amazon ]
  • Roscoe Holcomb [ Amazon ]

“Revivalist” old-time musicians

old-time music posterSome take issue with the concept of revivalist old-time music. Important old-time music artists who helped repopularize the genre include Mike Seeger, who brought the music to New York City as early as the 1940s. Mike Seeger hails from The New Lost City Ramblers, who took old-time music across the country and often featured older musicians of the genre in their show. The New Lost City Ramblers certainly succeeded in sparking substantial new interest in old-time music in the United States and beyond.

Genre-crossing influence of old-time music on modern artists

Bob Dylan’s version of Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie” [ Clarence Ashley on Amazon ], The Grateful Dead’s cover of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” [ The Grateful Dead on Amazon ] and many other songs plainly show the continuing influence of old-time music.

Instruments of old-time music

Old-time music is played on acoustic instruments, generally centering on a combination of fiddle and plucked string instruments (most often the guitar and banjo), along with a few others.

Fiddle

The unchallenged favorite instrument for generations of Americans was the fiddle; in fact, the first documented fiddle contest in America took place in 1736. We’ll have more about the fiddle in upcoming articles in the Tresbear Music blog.

Banjo

old-time music book coverOld-time music was played using acoustic instruments like the fiddle, guitar, and banjo. We’ll look briefly at the types of banjos used on old-time music.

Five-string banjos can be either resonator banjos or open-back banjos. There isn’t a big difference, physically, in the appearance of these two types of banjos – when viewed from the front, at least. Which type of banjo one chooses depends largely on one’s preferences.

A resonator banjo has a wooden back attached to the instrument.
An open-back banjo doesn’t have anything attached to the back. You can easily look into the inside of the banjo’s sound-producing chamber.

Open-back banjos generally have a mellower tone, weigh less, and can be less expensive than resonator banjos. They also usually have a different setup than a resonator banjo, often with a higher string action (string action refers to how high the strings are positioned above the fingerboard). Open-back players use metal, nylon, or gut strings, depending on the style of music they’re playing, how their instrument is set up, and the sound they want to get from their banjos.

Several manufacturers have entry-level open-back banjos with the same sound chamber (or pot) and overall design and construction as a matching resonator model. However, more-expensive open-back banjos likely have a different configuration of metal and wood than you find on a resonator banjo.

Upright bass, aka double bass

When a bass line is heard in traditional old-time music or mountain music, it’s almost certainly an upright bass, aka the double bass. Early on in this musical heritage (e.g., a century or more ago), the bass line was sometimes provided by jug or cello. As six-string guitars became more common in the Appalachian Mountains, bass runs on the lower strings became a fundamental element of string band music; however, the upright bass (the largest member of the violin family) is the standard bass instrument in bluegrass and old-time music today.

The double bass is played either with a bow (arco) or by plucking the strings (pizzicato). In orchestral repertoire and tango music, both arco and pizzicato are employed. In jazz, blues, and rockabilly, pizzicato is the norm. Classical music uses just the natural sound produced acoustically by the instrument; so does traditional bluegrass.

Pizzicato: An instruction to players of stringed instruments to pluck the strings instead of using the bow; usually abbreviated in scores

Arco: A note in string instrument musical notation indicating that the bow is to be used in the usual way, usually following a passage that is played pizzicato

The double bass is used in a range of other music genres, such as jazz, 1950s-style blues and rock and roll, rockabilly, psychobilly, traditional country music, bluegrass, tango, and many types of folk music.

Resonator guitar, dobro

A resonator guitar (aka resophonic guitar) is an acoustic guitar with one or more metal resonator discs mounted inside the body. A resonator guitar produces sound by carrying string vibrations through the bridge to one or more spun metal cones (aka resonators), instead of to the sound board (guitar top) as with a typical acoustic guitar. Resonator guitars were designed to be louder than existing acoustic guitars, which were often overwhelmed by louder instruments in live performances. Resonator guitars were soon sought out for their distinctive sound and became the norm in musical styles such as old-time music, bluegrass, and others.resonator guitar

There is some confusing terminology to explain. So far we’ve used the term resonator, but some call them dobros, while others consider only square-neck resonators to be dobros. While the term dobro has historically been used to refer to these instruments, it can also be confusing since Dobro™ is also a trademark name for a family of Gibson resonator guitars. The name dobro was derived from its inventors, the Dopyera Brothers (DoBro), back in the 1920s. Gibson acquired the rights to the name in 1994 when they began producing their own line.

See our January 5, 2017 post about Dobros & resonator guitars

More old-time music artists

Why Old Time? A documentary film about old-time music

Why Old Time? is a full-length documentary film about old-time music released in the summer of 2008 by Horse Archer Productions. Two years in the making, the documentary film explores the world of Old-Time music, what makes it so unique and important, and why so many musicians still play this style today. In this film, the beauty and art of Old-Time music are explored, serving to demonstrate exactly how and why this particular type of roots music holds such power.

What the documentary makers found is that old-time music just isn’t merely a sound or style of music; rather, it’s a lifestyle… living history. The old-time musicians drive it ever forward while preserving an untarnished, lasting musical tradition. [ More about Why Old Time? ]

Resources – Old-time music: Genres of influence

Old-time music organizations

old-time music poster

Old-time music festivals

Instruments: Open-back banjo

Instruments: Upright bass, double bass

About old-time music

Hillbilly music

Notes on the research and writing of this post

The original version of this post, Old-time music: Genres of influence, was much shorter and relatively shallow, especially for readers who are into old-time music. One old-time music expert, a member of the folk music forum Mandolin Cafe, issued the following review with recommendations on how to improve this article:

Interesting, a bit superficial. There are more instruments in old-time than the banjo, but that’s the only one that’s discussed in (moderate) depth. And playing styles aren’t really discussed, or the interplay of dance-style music with vocals, either secular or gospel. As to whether old-time is the “oldest style of American folk music, other than Native American,” which the article claims, I’d say the jury’s out on that one. Musicians in the thirteen colonies played many European-derived styles, and the British Isles-derived style that caught on and remained in relatively inaccessible Southern uplands, later becoming “hillbilly” music, competes with church-based Protestant hymnody, “parlor” compositions in East Coast urban areas, and several styles of orchestral and brass-band music, for the designation of “oldest.” Plus, I suppose Spanish settlers in our Southwest were playing their style of music nearly a century before the Jamestown colony.

I would have liked to read an exposition of different modes of musical presentation: the long-format, somewhat unstructured performance of old-time fiddle-band music, vs. the audience-oriented, staged bluegrass or blues show. Old-time instrumental music is still often played as if the musicians were playing for a dance — extended single- or multi-tune “sets,” no instrumental soloing, danceable tempos. Old-time vocal music, which the article barely mentions, is often unaccompanied or accompanied very sparingly, and frequently is either religious in nature, or shows strong influences from “sacred” singing.

Still, I guess some information about a musical genre, generally accurate if incomplete, is better than no information. I’d take exception to the mention of Pete Seeger as an “old-time revival” musician, however; the fact that he played banjo using non-bluegrass techniques, and was early influenced by some old-time banjoists, doesn’t make him old-timey, and calling him that ignores the multiplicity of styles and influences his music exhibited. Shoulda mentioned Bruce Molsky…

Upon reading and considering this review, we decided to do more research and beef up the article, though we still did not cover every facet of old-time music suggested in the review.

Thanks for reading!

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