Author: Daniel, Bert


I have a real problem with old time music. But it's not what you might think. For example, I'm certainly not the died in the wool hard core Bluegrass fan who resents any intrusion by another musical form into the stage time "reserved" for the mainstream Bluegrass bands I want to see at every bluegrass festival I might go to. My problem is quite the opposite. I LOVE old time music.

I love old time music but I can't really play it because I don't play the fiddle and I don't play the banjo. The fiddle is king and queen in old time music and the banjo is a close second. So many great fiddle tunes sound so perfect with just fiddle and banjo. Bluegrass masters like Earl Scruggs and Paul Warren appreciated that too. Guitars and basses work well at an old time jam but they mostly just provide a chordal and rhythm framework for the real stars of the show. (I wrote this piece a week early, but in the same week that it's being posted I read another good article about the same subject. Check out "That Old Time Mandolin" by Cary Fagan in the Old Time Herald, volume 12, number 11 June/July 2011).

I've tried to learn the fiddle with very disappointing results, even though the tuning and neck fingering positions are exactly the same as the instrument which I already play. I think it's probably just too hard for an adult like me to get the bowing right. Maybe I should try banjo (but then I'd have to put up with all those banjo jokes). The sad thing is that I do already know how to play an instrument pretty well. Alas, my instrument is the mandolin.

Mandolin might be the king and queen in bluegrass, thanks to Bill Monroe (Sorry Scruggs, Wise, Flatt, Rainwater and Graves fans out there). But in old time music, the mandolin has kind of a mixed reputation. The big problem I think, is that the mandolin is tuned exactly like the fiddle and therefore competes with the premier instrument for the same tonal space. Old time musicians generally play together as a group in unison. They don't take breaks like in a Bluegrass band.

I feel a little awkward walking up to a group of old time jammers when I see only fiddles, banjos and guitars. If I know somebody in the group maybe I can get in, but I don't press my luck with strangers because there are purists out there and I respect them and their music. I attend an old time jam in a nearby town regularly, and the participants there are fortunately very tolerant of me. Some of the fiddlers, and one of the banjoists, actually play mandolin too. Sometimes they'll put their regular instruments down in order to play mandolin (or guitar) on certain tunes. I'm lucky. I actually get to play this music I love on my favorite instrument (which I think of as a guitar that actually wants to be a fiddle).

So how do we get over this problem of instruments competing for the same tonal space? One solution is to play harmony or to play in a lower or higher octave. I've tried both of these strategies and they work pretty well sometimes. Another strategy is to just play right along with the fiddles and damn the torpedoes! You might get some funny looks from the fiddle traditionalists but it's do-able.

I know that it is do-able thanks to two of the music instructors at last months CBA music camp, Sammy Lind and Caleb Klauder. These two guys created a very distinct sound in old time music that I really love and that I think gives new legitimacy to the mandolin in old time music. Listen to the group they founded, the Foghorn String Band, and you will hear a very special and distinct sound: a perfect note for note melding of the fiddle and mandolin on old time fiddle tunes that are almost always played by only fiddle. In renditions by the Foghorn String Band, fiddle and mandolin do not interfere with each other, although they share the same tonal space. On the contrary, the two instruments enhance each other and add drive to the music, because of their perfect in synch timing. Synchronicity. Other bands may have done it before, I don't know, but I've never heard anyone do it better. The only thing I can compare to this special sound effect occurs often in Celtic music. Listen to a good Irish fiddler playing with a top notch accordion player and you will hear a very similar effect, a beautiful melding of two very similar tones. (Just as an example take Sean Cleland and Jimmy Keane of the group Bohola).

Caleb Klauder was my instructor at music camp this year and I learned a lot from him. I was really disappointed that he and his band were not asked to stick around for the Father's Day Festival. It would have been great to hear more from those talents. And I wish the whole Foghorn String Band could be resurrected for some of this special music. They no longer travel together and the best we can get is a Foghorn Duo or Trio, which in my opinion is plenty good enough.

Caleb and Sammy did a workshop at the end of music camp. They divided up mandolins, fiddles and guitars and then got everybody together for a demonstration of their technique of putting those instruments together. In only an hour, somehow we all learned two tunes, instead of the usual one for a workshop. I got to the lesson a little late, because I had to eat dinner. I wolfed down my food at a picnic table strategically situated near the students in order to pick up a little of what they were learning. That way I could take my instrument out when I was fed and join the group. Fortunately, the first tune was pretty straightforward and the second tune was Golden Slippers, which I already knew.

Well, all of us mandolinists got back on stage with the fiddlers and guitarists at the conclusion of the workshop so that we could put it all together as a group. I wondered how we mandolinists would stack up as a group against our competition. With Caleb and Sammy strolling around among the players, I soon realized that it was not a competition at all. It was a collaboration. And it sounded great! I played along with the group joyfully and sang out my best harmony on Golden Slippers.

It was on that tune however that I had to be reeled back into the synchronicity. Since I already knew Golden Slippers, it was natural to just play what I knew rather than the exact notes that we had been taught. My fingers were used to it and I was having fun. Who's to know?

Just as I relaxed into my comfortable version, who should stroll by but Sammy Lind with his fiddle. If you've never met Sammy, I can describe him for you now. Big guy. Looks like a corn-fed midwesterner. If I had to guess what his name was without knowing I'd pick Lars. I can assure you it was extremely intimidating when this big guy looked right at me and sort of scowled. Maybe he had scowled at Caleb a few times or vice versa when they were working hard to perfect their special sound. I prudently reverted to the "standard" version of Golden Slippers and Sammy grinned broadly. Great! I can continue playing this fun music and I don't have to die just yet.

Thanks Caleb and Sammy for showing us how it's done. Hope to see you guys again some time.

Posted:  7/10/2011

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email