What is Old-Time Music?
By Mike Seeger
(Originally printed in the May 1997 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited)
I travel by air quite a bit and as I put my fiddle in the overhead luggage bin someone often asks what kind of music I play. Sometimes I've answered "old- time music" but soon learned that means little to the general public, as it could mean any kind of music that occurred before the time of our conversation. Sometimes I try "old-time country" and they might say "oh, like Hank Williams?" or even Merle Haggard. "No," I say, "it's acoustic and more backwoods than that." Then sometimes (if they're really knowledgeable) they'll say, "oh, is it bluegrass?" I wish old-time music had such a nice handle.
I'm gradually learning to abandon short labels and take a minute to describe the place and time that this music existed in and now exists in, because musical consciousness is so layered and limited by contemporary format radio and TV that most Americans' view of music is pretty narrow.
Old-time music was the old-time name for real mountain-type folk music. Old-time music is the main foundation for bluegrass music. It is the kind of music that Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and in fact most rural people prior to the mid nineteen twenties, were raised with. It is the old unaccompanied English ballads like Barbara Allen, new American songs like Wild Bill Jones, old fiddle tunes like Devil's Dream, and newer banjo tunes like Cumberland Gap. It's a rich and varied heritage of music - as rich as the roots music of any country. It was played throughout rural America but was extra strong and distinctive in the Southeast, especially in the mountains. It is sung and played on a variety of acoustic instruments including the guitar and mandolin which were newcomers to it in the early twentieth century. It used to be played by African Americans as well as Anglo, French & Scotch- Irish, etc Americans. It nearly died out in mid-century but has found new life and is being played, mostly informally, by people all over the country.
Before we had radio and phonographs, folks used the music to entertain themselves; a lot more people played music in those days, before you could push a button and rely on others to make it for you. In the pre-electronic days you always had to make your own music or be real near to some one who was making the music, to hear it when it was actually being made. There wasn't a music market and not much money around, so except for a few minstrel shows and occasional schoolhouse and medicine shows even exceptional musicians gained only local, informal popularity and retained their "day jobs" in agriculture or small-town mills. The music from these earlier, old times endured through the generations because of its rich and varied sounds and lyrics and because it filled the needs of the people, who, after all, created it for themselves.
Now that we have radio, TV, CDs, and so much electrical gadgetry this music might seem old-fashioned. Or in other words, enduring and timeless. Sometimes in interviews I'm asked, "Why do you play old-time music?" I suppose they ask that because it's old and, by implication and also in reality, non-commercial. I suspect that many of us play this older style music for some of the same reasons that most bluegrass musicians play bluegrass, because we like it and it fits us. We can think of all kinds of reasons such as "I was raised with it," "I like its sound," "I like to be able to play the music myself or with friends without plugging in," and I can add "it's timeless, meaningful and I value its continuity with the past." All of those and more fit me. I can talk on and on about reasons for liking old-time and bluegrass music but really it all boils down to "it just suits me."
These days, as in the old days, old-time music can be heard in people's homes for the most part; in public the main place is at fiddler's contests, such as Mt. Airy (NC) or Clifftop (WV), on or off stage, where a couple of thousand people, many of them musicians, will gather. At such an event, there are upwards of 100 old-time bands competing. Old-time music is also occasionally present as part of community events, music festivals, at occasional concerts and in the schools.
There are probably a few thousand people playing this music now. Whereas old-time music used to be played by rural and small-town people, mostly involved in agriculture, and sometimes in the mines and mills, it is now played by people who have a common urban-based experience. Now occupations can include carpentry, computer programming, law practice, car-washing, education and so forth. Probably five and no more than ten musicians make their full-time living playing old-time music, depending on your definitions of "old-time" and "a living."
At present few bluegrass events feature old-time music despite its obvious connection to bluegrass, its musical value and ability to communicate. Some bluegrass artists are including old-time sounds and tunes in their repertoire, for instance, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tony Trischka, Bill Evans and Tim O'Brien and the O'Boys.
As in bluegrass and in any constantly used and evolving art form there is some controversy as to what old-time music really is. To some it's only string band music of a certain type, to some folklorists working in the public sector it should only be made by persons born in the South, to some it's only the music of the late twenties and early thirties. Since there are so many kinds of music and it is so important to be able to communicate in this complex world, some such definitions are helpful. In the following list this description will be my guide: rural-style music of late 19th and early 20th century America and its closest descendants.
It's only possible to communicate about music if you can hear the music, so I've compiled two lists of ten CDs each that would give the bluegrass listener a good introduction to the sounds of old-time music. The first list is of contemporary musicians, the second is of re-releases of older traditional musicians and singers, most of whom are deceased. Unfortunately some of the best recordings of old-time music are on out-of-print LPs, but all of the following are available on CD. This is my personal selection and certainly important musicians have to be left off of such a short list.
I believe that anyone interested in bluegrass would enjoy having at least a few recordings of its parent music, old-time. In case you can only afford a few, the first several in each list are a good place to start.
Click here for Recordings of Contemporary and Older Roots Musicians.