Old-time music is a form of North American folk music, with roots in the folk musics of many countries, including England, Scotland, Ireland and Africa. This musical form developed along with various North American folk dances, such as square dance, buck dance and clogging. The genre also encompasses ballads and other types of folk songs. It is played on acoustic instruments, generally centering on a combination of fiddle and plucked string instruments (most often the guitar and, more generally in regions outside of the Northeast U.S. and Canada, banjo).
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. The term, thus, 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. It is sometimes referred to as "old-timey" or "mountain music" by long-time practitioners.
By the early 19th century, the banjo (an instrument of West African origin originally played only by people of African descent, both enslaved and free) had become an essential partner to the fiddle, particularly in the southern United States. The banjo, originally a fretless instrument and frequently made from a gourd, played the same melody as the fiddle (though in a lower register), while simultaneously providing a rhythmic accompaniment incorporating a high drone provided by the instrument's short "drone string." The banjo used in old-time music is typically a 5-string model with an open back (i.e., without the resonator found on most bluegrass banjos).
Today old-time banjo players most commonly utilize the clawhammer style, but there were originally several other styles, most of which are still in use, loosely grouped by region. The major styles were clawhammer (which also went by a number of regional names), two-finger index lead (also called "North Carolina picking"), two-finger thumb lead (Kentucky), and a three-finger "fiddle style" that seems to have been influenced in part by late-19th century urban classical style. Generally, a young player would learn whatever style a parent or older sibling favored. This style of having a fiddle play the lead melody and a banjo play a rhythmic accompaniment is the most basic form of Appalachian old-time music, and is the instrumentation most Appalachian old-time musicians consider to be "classic."
Because playing with more fingers meant being able to put in more notes, three-finger styles intrigued many players. Individualistic three-finger styles were developed independently by such important figures as Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, and Snuffy Jenkins. Those early three-finger styles, especially the technique developed by Jenkins, led in the 1940s to the three-finger Scruggs style created by Earl Scruggs and which helped advance the split between old-time and the solo-centric style that would become known as bluegrass. Jenkins developed a three-finger "roll" that, while obviously part of the old-time tradition, inspired Scruggs to develop his smoother, faster, more complex rolls that are now standard fare in bluegrass music.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, other stringed instruments began to be added to the fiddle-banjo duo; these included the guitar, mandolin, and double bass (or washtub bass), which provided chordal and bass line accompaniment (or occasionally melody also). This, along with a dobro, or resonator guitar, is also considered to be 'standard' bluegrass instrumentation, but old-time music tends to focus on sparer instrumentation and arrangements than bluegrass. Such an assemblage, of whatever instrumentation, became known simply as a "string band." Occasionally the cello, piano, hammered dulcimer, Appalachian dulcimer, tenor banjo, tenor guitar, mouth bow, or other instruments were used, as well as such non-string instruments as the jug, harmonica, Jew's harp, concertina, accordion, washboard, spoons, or bones.
The fiddle is sometimes played by two people at the same time, with one player using the bow and fingers, while another player stands to the side and taps out a rhythm on the fiddle strings using small sticks called fiddlesticks (also spelled "fiddle sticks"). This technique (also sometimes called "beating the straws") is utilized in performance most notably by the duo of Al and Emily Cantrell.
While in the British Isles reels and jigs both remain popular, the reel is by far the predominant metric structure preferred by old-time musicians in the United States (though a few hornpipes are also still performed). Canadian musicians, particularly in the Maritime provinces where the Scottish influence is strong, perform both reels and jigs (as well as other types of tunes such as marches and strathspeys).
Each regional old-time tradition accompanies different dance styles. Some of these include clogging and flatfoot dancing (Appalachia), contradancing (New England), square dancing (Southern states) and step dancing (Nova Scotia, particularly Cape Breton Island), though there is some overlap between regions.
Players usually learn old-time music by attending local jam sessions and by attending festivals scattered around the country. With the spread of broad-band Internet, more and more old-time recordings are available via small publishers, boutique Web sites, Internet streaming audio ("Web radio"), and small Web sites making the music more accessible.
Although it is one of the oldest and most prominent forms of traditional music in the United States and Canada, old-time music (with a few notable exceptions) is generally not taught in North American primary schools, secondary schools, or universities. Although square dancing is still occasionally taught in elementary schools (generally with recorded, rather than live music), old-time instruments and dances are not included in the educational system, and must be studied outside the school system.
There are, however a growing number of folk music schools in the United States, usually non-profit community based, that have taken up the mantle of providing instruction in old-time music. The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Illinois is perhaps the oldest of these, having begun in 1957. The Folk School of St. Louis, Missouri is one of the many newer schools having opened its doors in 2002 after the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? caused an increase in people from urban areas wanting to learn old-time music. These schools and the subsequent music communities that spring from them offer a positive trend in keeping old-time music alive.
There are a variety of programs, mostly in the summer, that offer week-long immersions in old-time music and dance. These camps are family friendly and allow beginners to enter into the tradition and more advanced players to hone their sound with instruction from some of the best in the music.
This section applies primarily to the "Southern Appalachian" region of the United States (the Central Appalachians being in the northeastern U.S. and the Northern Appalachians stretching into Quebec, Canada).
Appalachian music is believed to have developed from traditional Scottish, English and Irish music brought to the United States by immigrants from those countries, and in turn it influenced country music and old-time music.
Most roots of early Appalachian folk music can be traced to ballads sung in the British Isles brought over and preserved by immigrants who moved into these western regions due to land opportunities made possible by land grants.
As a result the terrain of the region, the societies and cultures were fairly isolated from outside intervention. In 1916 Cecil Sharp arrived in Appalachia and began recording the folk songs on the Mountains. Sharp, an authority on British ballads was able to identify 1,600 versions of 500 songs from 281 singers, almost all had their origins in the English/Scottish Child Ballads. After his first study in Appalachia, he published, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Some examples of songs preserved in the Appalachian Mountains and recorded by Sharp include, “The Hangman Song”, “Barbara Allen”, etc.
A Scottish fiddler named Neil Gow is usually credited with developing (during the 1740s) the short bow sawstroke technique that defines Appalachian fiddling. This technique was altered during the next century, with European waltzes and polkas being most influential.
While in the year 2000 African Americans made up only eight percent of the Appalachian population, their numbers were greater in the 19th and early 20th centuries, due not only to the presence of slaves but also free blacks working in timber, coal mining, and other industries. Their considerable influence on Appalachian music can be seen in instrumentation: the banjo was adopted from African Americans by white musicians following the Civil War. Even into the early 20th century, it was common for young white musicians to have learned the banjo or other instruments from older African American musicians living in their area. Their influence can also be felt in the ornamentation of old-time music which includes the third and seventh blue notes, and sliding tones. Sliding tones are not found in British Isles folk music outside of certain styles of Irish music, whose influence on Appalachian music is considered minimal (this may be indicative of parallel evolution since the early Appalachian settlers were generally not of Irish extraction).
Appalachian folk became a major influence on styles like country music and bluegrass. It is one of the few regional styles of old-time music that, since World War II, has been learned and widely practiced in all areas of the United States (as well as in Canada, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere). In some cases (as in the Midwest and Northeast), its popularity has eclipsed the indigenous old-time traditions of these regions. There is a particularly high concentration of performers playing Appalachian folk music on the East and West Coasts (especially in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Pacific Northwest). A number of American classical composers, in particular Henry Cowell and Aaron Copland, have composed works that merge the idioms of Appalachian folk music with the Old World–based classical tradition.
Appalachian old-time music is itself made up of regional traditions. Some of the most prominent traditions include those of Mount Airy, North Carolina (specifically the Round Peak style of Tommy Jarrell) and Grayson County/Galax, Virginia (Wade Ward and Albert Hash), West Virginia (the Hammons Family), East Kentucky (J. P. Fraley and Lee Sexton), and East Tennessee (Roan Mountain Hilltoppers).
The banjo player and fiddler Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a native of the North Carolina mountains, collected much traditional music during his lifetime, also founding the old-time music festival in Asheville, North Carolina. Notable North Carolina traditional banjo players and makers include Frank Proffitt, Frank Proffitt, Jr. and Stanley Hicks, who all learned to make and play fretless mountain banjos from a family tradition. These players, among others, learned their art primarily from family and show fewer traces of influence from commercial hillbilly recordings. The Proffitts and Hicks were heirs to a centuries-old folk tradition, and through the middle to late 20th century and they continued to perform in a style older than the stringbands often associated with old time music. Their style has been recently emulated by contemporary musician Tim Eriksen.
Old-time music has also been adopted by a few Native American musicians; the eminent Walker Calhoun of Big Cove, in the Qualla Boundary (home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina) plays three-finger-style banjo, to which he sings in the Cherokee language.
It is in this region that the music of Africa mixed most strongly with that of the British Isles. Records show that many African slaves (some of whom had been musicians in Africa or the Caribbean, where they had lived prior to the United States) were talented musicians, playing, as early as the 18th century, instruments such as the fiddle, banjo, and piano. Slave documents and advertisements of the time often listed musical abilities of individual African slaves as a selling point, as slaves were frequently asked to perform for their masters.
The banjo, an essential instrument for Southern and Appalachian old-time music, is believed to have derived from a West African skin-covered lute; such instruments (generally with four strings) are still played today in Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Guinea, where they are called ngoni, xalam, or various other names.
States of the Deep South such as Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana also have their own regional old-time music traditions and repertoires. Premier old time banjoist Bob Carlin has authored String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont with a focus on non-Appalachian styles in that state. While the music of the Louisiana Cajuns has much in common with other North American old-time traditions it is generally treated as a tradition unto itself and not referred to as a form of old-time music.
Oklahoma, with its high concentration of Native American inhabitants, has produced some Native American old-time string bands, most notably Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band (consisting of Henry Hall, fiddle; Clarence Hall, guitar; and Harold Hall, banjo and voice), which was recorded by H. C. Speir for the Victor company in 1929.
A handful of solo old-time musicians perform currently, including multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger, fiddlers Brad Leftwich, Bruce Molsky, Rhys Jones, Dirk Powell, Rayna Gellert, banjo players Paul Brown and Riley Baugus, and guitar players/singers Alice Gerrard, Martha Scanlan, Carrie Fridley, Thomas Bailey, and Beverly Smith.
Stephanie Coleman, Greg Burgular, Leela and Ellie Grace, and Matt Brown are in the vanguard of a new generation of talented old-time musicians currently performing.