Old-time (oldtimey) Music What is it?

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For old time resources on this site check out:

Old Time Song Lyrics - lyrics of 900+ songs from old-time artists such as Charlie Poole, Ernest Stoneman, Brad Leftwich etc, also with downloadable PDF versions.

Carter Family Songs with Chords - A fairly complete Carter family repertoire of 200+ song lyrics, with easy chords for guitar, banjo etc.

Traditional American Old-time (Oldtimey) tune-book and songbook - 300+ tunes & songs with lyrics, chords, sheet music & midis.

Wehman's Universal Songster Lyrics for 3000+ Music Hall, Vaudeville, Theater, Sentimental, Inspirational & old time songs with downloadable PDF versions of all the songs (This collection has been used as a source of material by many performers from the Carter family to Bob Dylan).

OLD-TIME MUSIC is traditional music that developed in rural and often isolated areas of the Appalachian mountains and other regions before radio, cars, and other modern inventions. The two main strains of the music come from the banjo, brought with many of its common playing styles from Africa by Africans, and the fiddle, which came from western Europe, particularly Germany, Scotland and Ireland. The fiddle and banjo were played separately and together, particularly for square dancing, in the nineteenth century. Songs and ballads, many imported from the British Isles and many written on these shores, are also an important part of old-time music. [If there's an electric guitar or drums, it's probably not old-time music, though you can probably find a few exceptions.] The early days of old-time music are unfortunately not well-documented, and there are various theories of how it started and spread. This first one I got from Bob Flesher. White minstrels popularised the banjo in urban centres before the Civil War. The banjo went back to the mountains with veterans from that war. When people began to play banjos and fiddles together, fiddle playing changed. (See the notes, for example, to the Emmett Lundy LP.) After reading Conway's African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia (see book list below), I would lean toward another theory. Conway gives persuasive evidence that black banjo players taught both minstrels and white mountain musicians to play the banjo directly. Just one of her arguments is that there are lots of common tunings between earlier black banjoists and mountain banjoists that weren't used by minstrels.

The coming together of the banjo and the fiddle in ensemble is not well-documented, but Conway does not find evidence for it happening prior to the minstrels. In the mountains, it dated roughly from the civil war period until roughly World War I, when the guitar arrived. It is likely that slaves played fiddle and banjo together first. There is an 18th century reference in Sinful Tunes and Spirituals to two slaves playing fiddle and banjo in 1774, p. 115.

The guitar and mandolin entered the music in the late 19th century. Sometimes accordions, concertinas, pianos, and flutes or pennywhistles are found in contemporary old-time ensembles. Bones, too. And let's not forget the dulcimer and hammered dulcimer. And the harmonica and autoharp. Old-time music has usually been made on whatever instrument was at hand, so many more instruments could be mentioned.

Fiddle music in other parts of the United States and Canada also has an old-time tradition that is less influenced by or developed independent from the southern music, although radios and recordings have made it unlikely that any regional tradition would remain completely free from other influences. And within any tradition, there are those who emphasize passing on the tradition relatively unchanged and those who experiment with the tradition at the edges, extending it into new areas. Some individuals may even do both.

In the 1920s record companies recorded many old-time musicians, such as Eck Robertson, Fiddlin' John Carson, Gid Tanner and the Skilletlickers, Charlie Poole and Riley Puckett, Clarence Ashley, and others. It was these record companies that coined the term old-time music, which they also called hillbilly music. Uncle Dave Macon, a flamboyant banjo player, was one of the first musicians on the Grand Ole Opry when it started in the twenties. Uncle Jimmy Thompson, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Gully Jumpers, DeFord Bailey, and Dr. Humphrey Bate were some other early Grand Ole Opry stars. Grayson and Whitter were another important duo in those early years. Some other important source musicians include Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Al Hopkins and his Buckle Busters, Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters, the Stripling Brothers, Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb, Fiddling Arthur Smith, Ed Haley, Clark Kessinger, Sam and Kirk McGee, Wade Ward, Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader, and many more. Few recordings were made of the many active African-American old-time string bands in this period, but John Lusk, Albert York, and Murphy Gribble played in one band of which we have recordings. There are a few commercial recordings, such as those of Jim Booker with Taylor's Kentucky Boys and Andrew Baxter with the Georgia Yellow Hammers, in which African-American and European-American musicians played together. An important role was played by the Library of Congress, which preserved many musicians not deemed commercial by the record companies. Some of the fine fiddlers recorded include Emmett Lundy from Galax, Virginia and Edden (or Edn) Hammons of West Virginia (who was recorded by a professor at West Virginia University).

Document Records in Austria has begun reissuing old-time music CDs based on recordings that were originally on 78s. So far they have released collections of Herschel Brown, John Dilleshaw (7-foot Dilly), Frank Hutchison, Earl Johnson, the Stripling Brothers, the Kessinger Brothers, and Mississippi String Bands. [Many more have since been issued, but I won't attempt to keep this list of Document up-to-date.] Document and its related labels have also reissued recordings of African-American bands such as the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon and his Jug Stompers.

Old-time music was much of the popular country music of the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s Bill Monroe, who had solid old-time roots from his mother and his Uncle Pen Vandiver, both old-time fiddlers, began to shape what became bluegrass. Monroe cited his uncle and African-American blues guitarist named Arnold Schulz as his principal influences.

But although old-time music began to disappear from the larger radio shows, it still had solid roots in the southern Appalachian region and in other areas of the country, from the Midwest, especially Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, to Texas, and even California. As part of the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, old-time music developed a following in many regions of the country. Younger musicians began visiting and recording traditional old-time musicians and learning to play their music. Fiddler Tommy Jarrell, who lived close to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and his fellow musician, Fred Cockerham, attracted many young people who came to learn from them and their music. Banjo player George Pegram inspired some young college students to start what became Rounder Records.

Bands such as the New Lost City Ramblers and later the Highwoods Stringband toured widely. Many festivals and contests have drawn musicians from far away to hear old-time music. A festival in Union Grove, North Carolina, for example, was held for the 71st year in 1995. (The festival has changed in name, location, and character but is run by the same family that organized the original festivals.) Some other influential bands from that period were the Hollow Rock String Band, Fuzzy Mountain String Band, the Gypsy Gyppo String Band, and the Possum Trot String Band.

Today there are very lively and active communities of old-time musicians and enthusiasts all over the country and around the world. (There's a monthly old-time jam in London, and there are old-time bands in Japan and Australia.) A few of the best-known elder statesmen and stateswomen of contemporary old-time music include Melvin Wine, Woody Simmons, and (the late) Wilson Douglas of West Virginia, Etta Baker, Joe Thompson, and Benton Flippen of North Carolina, Bob Douglas, Ralph Blizard, Will Keys, and Charlie Acuff from Tennessee, the late Matokie Slaughter from Virginia, and Clyde Davenport from Kentucky (recently moved to Tennessee). J. P. Fraley belongs here, too, along with Mel Durham and Marvin Gaster and others.

A few of the better-known younger old-time musicians and bands include Bruce Greene, Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, Paul Brown, Bruce Molsky, Dwight Diller, David Holt, Ginny Hawker and Kay Justice, Hazel Dickens, Dirk Powell, John Herrmann, Tom Sauber, Bob Flesher, Clarke Buehling, the Volo Bogtrotters, the Boiled Buzzards, the Heartbeats Rhythm Quartet, the Horseflies, Brad Leftwich and Linda Higginbotham, the Critton Hollow String Band, the Red Mule String Band, the Indian Creek Delta Boys, Alice Gerrard, James Bryan, Double Decker String Band, the Ill-Mo Boys, and the Hillbillies from Mars. Bob Carlin always feels left out, and since I left him out above, I'll add him back here. I should add the Red Mountain White Trash. Rafe Stefanini and Bob Herring belong in the above list. The above list is now somewhat dated. Eventually, we will update it. However, We also have scholars devoted to the study of old-time music, such as Charles Wolfe, Richard Blaustein, Tony Russell, Joyce Cauthen, and others.

Fiddle music in some northern parts of the United States and in Canada may derive more directly from European sources (Scottish, English, Irish, German, French) but is definitely a related form of music. Canadian and American Indian and Metis fiddlers in the prairies and the upper Midwest, for example, picked up the fiddle from early French travelers and have developed their own unique style, which also is influenced by Scottish fiddling.

There are too many forms of old-time music to come up with a simple description (from solo ballads to full bands, for example). A good place to start is the Rounder CD 0331 "Old-Time Music on the Air, volume one," which came out in 1994. A second volume was released in 1996. Rounder also released a CD called "Young Fogies" with a similar broad representation, and a second is now out.

Books on Old-Time Music (sorted roughly by title)

African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions, Cecelia Conway, Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1995, ISBN 0-87049-893-2.

American Folk Songs for Christmas, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Oak Publications OK 64957, reviewed by Paul Brown, OTH Winter 1992--93, Music Sales Corp., 225 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003.

169 Brand New Old Time Fiddle Tunes, Volume 3--Jigs, Reels, Polkas, Waltzes, Marches, Two-Steps, Hornpipes, Schottisches, Bluegrass Tunes by American and Canadian Composers, Edited by Vivian Williams, 1990, Voyager Publications, 424 - 35th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122, reviewed by Art Rosenbaum in OTH, Summer 1992.

Communities in Motion, ed. by Susan Spalding, Greenwood Press, 1995 (traditional dance).

Contra Dancing in the Northwest, Penn Fix, 1991, W. 703 Shoshone Pl., Spokane, WA 99203 reviewed by Phil Jamison, OTH, Summer, 1992.

Frank B. Converse's Banjo Instructor, Without a Master: Containing a Choice Collection of Banjo Solos, Jigs, Songs,. Reels, Walk Arounds, Etc. Progressively Arranged, and Plainly Explained, Enabling the Learner to Become a Proficient Banjoist without the Aid of a Teacher, Frank B. Converse, 1865, reprinted in 1990 by Cleff'd Ear Productions, P. O. Box 13075, Lansing, MI 48901.

Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife: Instrumental Folk Tunes in Pennsylvania, edited by Samuel P. Bayard, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982.

DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music, David C. Morton, with Charles K. Wolfe, 1991 University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN 37996-0325, reviewed by Jack Bernhardt, OTH, Fall 1992.

The Devil's Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling, Charles Wolfe, Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8265-1283-6.

Farmhouse Fiddlers: music and dance traditions in the rural midwest, Philip Nevin Martin, 1994 ISBN 1883953065, reviewed by Jim Nelson, OTH Summer 1995.

Finding Her Voice--The Saga of Women in Country Music, Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993, reviewed by Toni Williams, OTH, Summer 1994.

The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History, Dena J. Epstein, Los Angeles: John Edwards Memorial Foundation at the Folklore and Mythology Center, University of California, 1975.

Hill Country Tunes: Instrumental Folk Music of Southwestern Pennsylvania, edited by Samuel P. Bayard, American Folklore Society, 1944.

Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, Nolan Porterfield, University of Illinois Press, 1996 ISBN 0-252-02216-5.

The Old-Time Fiddler's Repertory, 2 volumes, R. P. Christeson, University of Missouri Press, 1973-1984. (A two-cassette collection of these recordings is available from MSFOTFA, see below.)

Old-Time Fiddling Across America, book and tape by David Reiner and Peter Anick, Mel Bay Publications.

Play of a Fiddle, Gerry Milnes, University of Kentucky Press, 1999 ISBN 0813120802.

Rambling Blues: The Life & Songs of Charlie Poole, Kinney Rorrer, Danville, VA: Kinney Rorrer, 913 Vicar Road, Danville, VA 24540, 1982.

Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, Dena Epstein, University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Singing Family of the Cumberlands, Jean Ritchie, Oxford University Press, 1955.

Singing the Glory Down: Amateur Gospel Music in South Central Kentucky, 1900--1990, William Lynwood Montell, 1991, University Press of Kentucky, reviewed by Ray Bowman, OTH, Winter 1992-93.

The Stonemans--An Appalachian Family and the Music That Shaped Their Lives, Ivan Tribe, University of Illinois Press, 1993

That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture, Karen Linn, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1991, ISBN 0-252-01780-3, reviewed by Art Rosenbaum, OTH reviewed by Dale Morris, OTH Summer 1994.

Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music, John Wright, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Truth is Stranger than Publicity, Alton Delmore, edited by Charles K. Wolfe, Country Music Foundation Press, 1977.

Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Southern Anthem, Howard Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow: Old-Time Fiddling in Alabama, Joyce H. Cauthen, University of Alabama Press, 1989. [Now available in paperback. Amazon has it.]


Banjo Newsletter, Box 364, Greensboro, MD 21639

Fiddler Magazine, PO Box 125, Los Altos, CA 94022 415/948-4383

The Devil's Box, 305 Stella Dr., Madison, AL 35758, $13/year.

Old-Time Music on CD Database

Record Labels issuing old-time music (recordings and videos)

Bear Family Records

Chubby Dragon

Copper Creek Records


Old Hat Records

Smithsonian/Folkways: Best address for ordering: Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings 414 Hungerford Drive, Suite 444, Rockville, MD 800/410/9815-fax 301/443-1819 Office of Folklife Programs, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, Suite 2600, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560 Ask for the Whole Folkways Catalog. 202/287-3262-fax 202/287-3699 web site

Vestapol, Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop, P. O. Box 802, Sparta, NJ 07871

Voyager Records web page