Author: Daniel, Bert

Ten Reasons to Love Old Time Music
With the annual International Bluegrass Music Association meeting just completed, thereís been a lot of bluegrass buzz recently, so it was great to read the following in Rick Cornishís board meeting summary from the fall campout: ďMark Hogan, the CBAís North Coast Activities Vice President, reported on continuing work being done on our first-ever Old Time Campout scheduled for next year on the Russian River. This will be an attempt to gradually build an exclusively old time music festival, something the California Bluegrass Association has sought to create for many years.Ē

Right on! Bluegrass is central to the CBA, but of course the CBA is much more than that and the organizationís mission statement mentions that the CBA is dedicated to the ďfurtherance of Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Gospel Music in CaliforniaĒ. So instead of the usual ďhow I got hooked on bluegrassĒ story today, I thought Iíd give you ten reasons why I love old time music:

#1 Itís the true vine

Letís face it. Without old time music, there would never have been any bluegrass music. Sure, bluegrass is a complex amalgam of varied musical influences. For example, without the blues guitar playing of Arnold Schultz, there wouldnít be bluegrass either. But it canít be denied that the strongest musical current in bluegrass music has always been old time music. Itís the music Bill Monroeís uncle Pen played after all.

#2 Itís history
Quick, what famous battle was fought on the 8th of January? What event is commemorated by the tune Hullís Victory? Is Billy in the Lowground really a reference to the burial place of William the Conqueror? Look how many old time tunes include Bonaparte in their titles. In addition to Bonaparteís Retreat, Bonaparteís March, Bonaparteís Grand March, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps and Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine, thereís even a Bonaparte Crossing the Rocky Mountains! How about that, even pseudo-history! Old time music is so richly entwined in our cultural history. Thomas Jefferson played his fiddle every day. The members of Lewis and Clarkís expedition of discovery were entertained by fiddler Paul Cruzatte. Soldiers around civil war campfires heard old time music from each otherís musicians as they prepared for battle. What did their old time music sound like compared to the old time music played today? Weíd recognize many of the tunes if we could hear the fiddlers of yesterday. If youíre a history nut like me and want a good site to research some of these old tunes, try the Fiddlerís Companion ( ) compiled by Andrew Kuntz.

#3 Itís literature
I donít have many hobbies but three of my favorite hobbies are bicycling, literature and playing my mandolin. A couple of years ago, I was relaxing at home after a long bike ride. Iíd pick a few tunes, then read a few pages of my book. I happened to be reading Return of the Native by the 19th century English author, Thomas Hardy. After playing a tune I put down my instrument and two pages later read the following:

The air was now that one without any particular beginning, middle, or end, which perhaps among all the dances which throng an inspired fiddler's fancy, best conveys the idea of the interminable - the celebrated 'Devil's Dream'. The fury of personal movement that was kindled by the fury of the notes could be approximately imagined by these outsiders under the moon, from the occasional kicks of toes and heels against the floor, whenever the whirl round had been of more than customary velocity.

Guess what tune I had just been playing! Devilís Dream! How cool is that? All of the sudden I felt a profound connection to the culture of a bygone era so richly evoked by one of our greatest authors (who happened to be a fiddler).

#4 Itís the peopleís music
Old time music was developed on peopleís back porches before there was TV or internet. It was a way of socializing with your neighbors. It will always be a music that brings people together.

#5 Itís relatively easy to play
Bluegrass instrumentals are often played at breakneck speed and feature hot instrumental solos. Thatís great if youíve got the ďchopsĒ for it but most of us are mortals. Old time is usually played more slowly. Tunes often follow relatively simple, song-like melodic lines and players frequently play more in unison. As a result, sometimes a little mistake might be more or less absorbed by the rest of the group.

#6 It still sounds good when played by amateurs
Sometimes you hear an old time tune and notice that the fiddle is scratchy, notes are a little off, thereís a squeak here and there BUT IT STILL SOUNDS GREAT! Itís a little crude like an old 78 or like it was recorded on somebodyís back porch. But the energy of the music comes through. Almost as if itís supposed to have that raw, back porch quality. The sound conjures up some old codger from the hills who isnít long for this world but can scratch out a few ancient modal tunes for some aspiring music folklorist to preserve on his or her field recorder. Now THATĒS AUTHENTIC! Donít get me wrong. I think all music sounds best when played well by experts. But bluegrass has been professional music since its inception. People expect a certain polish. Old time music didnít become professional until Ralph Peer started recording old time musicians in the 1920s. Sure, itís great to hear Brad Leftwich or Mark OíConnor really tear up an old time tune, but you can bet they listen to those old scratchy 78s too!

#7 The fiddle is king
Iím not a fiddle player. (Many whoíve heard me play would say Iím not a mandolin player either) But Iíve always loved the sound of a fiddle. Iíve heard it said that humans gravitate to the sound of the fiddle because it has more of the characteristics of a human voice than other instruments. I donít know, but the fiddle deserves its place at the center of old time and Iím glad itís so.
#8 Other cool sounding instruments too
We all know the core instruments of bluegrass: fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin and sometimes dobro. These same instruments all sound good playing old time, but several other instruments pop up as well. The beautiful sounds of the Appalachian dulcimer or the autoharp, for example would be hard to hear in a bluegrass jam because they donít have enough volume to cut through the other instruments. Old time features great instruments like these as well as others.

#9 Tunes have colorful names
Possum up a Gum Stump, Peas in the Pot, Rabbit in the Woodpile, Sally Put a Bug on Me, Sheep Shell Corn by the Rattling of His Horn, Shove that Pigís Foot a Little Further in the Fire, Grasshopper Sittiní on a Sweet Potato Vine, Flop-Eared Mule, Drunken Billy Goat, Granny Will Your Dog Bite?, Indian Killed a Woodcock, Jaybird Died With the Whooping Cough, Skunk in the Collard Patch, Whiskey Before Breakfast. Hey, Iím not making these up. Titles like those make you think ďIíve just gotta hear what that one sounds like!Ē.

#10 Itís alive
Old time music has not been superseded by bluegrass. Not by a long shot! Just listen to groups like the Foghorn String Band or the Carolina Chocolate Drops and you know what I mean. It still has the drive and energy to appeal to new audiences and young audiences. And great new tunes are being written in the old time style even as we speak. Iím a huge Norman Blake fan and one of my favorite Blake recordings from a few years back is called Old and New. Itís about half old standards and half Blake compositions. When you listen, youíll get confused sometimes about which is a new tune and which is an old one. Just like bluegrass thereís a lot of room for this great music to grow if musicians (and fans) keep injecting their energy!

Those are just a few of my reasons why I love old time music. Make up your own list and enjoy the music!
Posted:  11/7/2008

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