Why Bluegrass and Old Time Are Not The Same

Reflections on how bluegrass music is different from old time Appalachian music and why there can be no name that will cover both no matter what Nashville or the media is presently saying . (From three email posts to Banjo-L by Allen Feldman)

It has been suggested that we need an inclusive cover name that would bring oldtime music bluegrass, clawgrass and dawg music under the same umbrella in order to attract new audiences. The unfortunate trend in this country is to homogenize things. I think oldtime music stands against homogenization; it celebrates an intractable, idiosyncratic difference. To come up with a cover name that unites oldtime with bluegrass and other styles like roots music etc. is to accept the myth bluegrass tells itself about its origins. But that myth is only a half-truth.

I, for one, do not accept the myth that bluegrass is the lineal descendent of oldtime music. Rather, bluegrass is a modern very urbanized genre, connected to the 1930s-50s industrialization of rural Southerners, that drew on a diversity of musical genres that

were available through radio and phonograph such as oldtime, western swing, gospel, big band jazz, blues, parlor songs, Hawaiian music, etc in order to create something new that expressed the experience of mountain folk in urban exile. Ralph Stanley describes the bluegrass sensibility exactly in those very terms. It’s the music of folk who were losing their traditions and past and used this form to hold on to and recapture their memory of a pre-industrial lifestyle.

In oldtime music the tradition has not been lost, it may be resisting change but it has not been displaced, it is not a modern music. I for one celebrate the fact that oldtime music is not bluegrass or dawg music or new grass or even claw grass (which sounds like an agricultural disease or killer weed). Oldtime works from different tonal centers, it uses open tunings and harmonic resonant overtones and incidentals, it mixes non-tempered scales with harmonization or it’s completely modal. Compared to bluegrass or country western its largely dance centered and not song centered, many of its songs are verses to dance tunes, and most of its songs were meant for solo and unaccompanied performance in their oldest form. It is often not strictly symmetrical in its rhythms; a-rhythmic fiddle and banjo tunes are common particularly in West Virginia and Kentucky. Drones, bowed or fifth stringed, are central and not incidental to the music.

Yes, I know bluegrass has some of these characteristics though in a much more domesticated and tamed state and certain forms of oldtime music in the 1920s and 30s appear as transitional bluegrass antecedents like the Carter Family, the Mainer’s, the Stoneman’s, the Delmore’s and the Blue Sky Boys, but then there are the Carter Brothers, the Weem’s Stringband, Doc Boggs, French Carpenter, they are in a different cosmos from the Country Gentlemen or Dawg Music.

The social organization of the bluegrass band with its division between virtuoso soloist and backup musicians is a product of the mechanized era and of urban individualism. It is a product of mass media and of the proscenium stage (audience/performer divisions, frontstage/ backdrop divisions) where it was originally designed to be performed, or around the microphone– the electronic acoustic equivalent of a proscenium stage. Bluegrass is a musical genre that is also a dramatic form with its soloist and chorus.

This stage-centered music can be contrasted to the very different communalism of the oldtime session, which was part of the Afro-Anglo-Celtic community barn, or kitchen and/or circle dance. Oldtime music’s anti-individualism is characterized by ensemble playing unison melody lines, or antiphonic call and response, forms in which back up instruments may be welcomed but are not essential and can readily be dispensed with, without diminishing the genre. Tunes may not have a beginning or an end. Tommy Jarrell once described the circle as the effect he tried to reach in playing a fiddle tune, a melody that went round and round in an endless continuous curve.

It is true that oldtime was crudely adapted to the proscenium stage and to mass media very late in its 250 year history, 1920-40, but only for a rather short period of 20 odd years less than 1/10th of its history. The commercial success of oldtime music of the 78 records was short lived, it presented 200-year-old sounds and modified these somewhat for mass media markets. But this commercialization was not the final evolutionary moment of oldtime music, nor was it a summing up, many more traditions and styles did not get recorded than did.

And the commercial string band ensemble sound was not pervasive everywhere only in certain locales. In Kentucky, West Virginia, Round Peak other ensemble and performance formats endured and were not displaced by commercial sounds. For instance Wade Ward two finger picked up the neck when he recorded with the Bogtrotters, considering it a more appropriate modern style of banjo picking, and we only have recordings of him playing the archaic 200-year-old clawhammer style because of field collectors. What was commercially recorded of oldtime music in the 1920s was highly selective and some of this selective material contributed to the development of bluegrass. Like a runoff into a large rising river but a lot stayed in isolate puddles with their own separate currents resisting homogenization and standardization.

Bluegrass is all about standardization, that’s why every body plays Scruggs style, or Keith style, such terms are alien to oldtime music in its original context. To talk of Koken style banjo sounds ridiculous in oldtime music. Most oldtime banjo players do not want to sound identical to Walt Koken, no matter how much they admire or learn from him, the way folks want to sound like Earl Scruggs. Then there is the West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky traditions where we often have the strictly solo musician who requires no ensemble backup context whatsoever, folks like Roscoe Holcomb, French Carpenter, Edn Hammons. [AND IN FACT, AN ENSEMBLE WOULD FLATTEN OUT AND SQUARE UP THEIR MUSIC, THUS DESTROYING IT – DWIGHT] The communitarian and the extreme soloist traditions in old time music are very foreign to the mechanical coordination and orchestration of the bluegrass band, with people weaving back and forth in and out of the microphone, standing awhile in the spotlight to take an often improvised solo. It’s all fruit but it is also apple and oranges, and they don’t taste or smell the same.

Bluegrass is a diverse sound, between Sam Bush and Ralph Stanley there is as much or more aesthetic distance as between Ralph and Doc Boggs, yet bluegrass festivals, like jazz festivals host a wide variety of styles, and period sounds from early bluegrass to jazz-bluegrass without any loss of audience. And even avant garde folks like Dave Grisman or Andy Statman came from a sound bluegrass foundation and still have their bluegrass chops and play at bluegrass festivals. So an alternative inclusive cover name for bluegrass derived genres is a non-issue for bluegrass. The real issue as per this suggestion for an inclusive term pertains to “oldtime,” and whether the bluegrass market, audience and promoters will welcome it in their ranks. And the answer is they do and they don’t, depends on the group. I for one would not like an inclusive name in this context because it sounds like it will end up in a situation where the bluegrass market decides what “oldtime music” will be publicly promoted and which will not– bluegrass will end up defining oldtime music. Even now as sections of the bluegrass scene claim the term ‘roots’ music they implicitly present themselves as the oldest original indigenous American music – for that is what the term roots means. So Dolly Parton by singing bluegrass songs and psuedo Appalachian ballads she composed herself can now claim she has a roots album and does roots music. So if bluegrass stands at the root at the beginning where does that leave oldtime– in the antediluvian period?

If it helps, the Irish came up with a cover name many decades ago – “Trad” {for traditional} – and Irish performers and audiences can decide for themselves if they belong to that category. Trad for some reasons has evaded the marketing faddism of world music, and the newer roots music.

The other thing that worries me about bluegrass defining oldtime music, is that many oldtime ensembles are already halfway to a bluegrass sound based on their approach to backup. Current styles of guitar and stand-up bass backup used in many oldtime bands are actually stylistically from bluegrass. The fine art of oldtime guitar backup or even of oldtime bands without continuous chordal backup of any kind has given way to the heavy thumping sound and rhythmic geometry ( Dwight’s squared off meters) of plucked bass and bluegrass guitar tempo favored by modernized clog dancers and festival jams and groove music. And this backup style has 1. changed the way a dance tune sounds and is played as compared to the fiddle/banjo duet sound and 2.moves oldtime ensemble sounds closer to bluegrass ensemble dynamics. A lot of audiences respond to this sound and it can lead them to an enjoyment of oldtime music because of the percussive rhythm. But it would serve nobody well if this ensemble sound displaces other ensemble approaches in oldtime music and other ways to play dance tunes rooted in the diverse tradition of oldtime.

Allen Feldman has been playing oldtime and Irish music on clawhammer banjo and cittern since the 1960s. He is the author of the Northern Fiddler: Music and Musicians of Donegal and Tyrone, Blackstaff Press, 1980.


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