WHAT IS OLD TIME MUSIC?
Labels are necessary components of the ideas and experiences we fit into our lives. With labels, we differentiate. Where would marketing be without them? Some labels have the ability to be simultaneously pleasing and/or pejorative, depending on one’s point of view. Such a label is ‘old time music.’ We may interpret it to denote (A) hopelessly outdated music or (B) deeply authentic music. Could it be both, music rooted in pre-video (even pre-radio) rural America and thus heroically anachronistic?
Old time music may suggest sounds rooted in pre-mass media Americana, but it is no less a marketing label than is ‘urban’ (contemporary black music) or ‘young country’ (post-Garth Nashville pop). It’s just an older sales hook. This one can be traced to 1923, when Georgia’s Fiddlin’ John Carson waxed The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane and The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow for the OKeh label. Legendary A&R [Artist and Repertoire]-man Ralph Peer deemed Carson’s performance “pluperfect awful,” but enough rural Americans disagreed to make the record a hit, the first in the history of what’s now called country music. (Ever the pragmatist, Carson remarked at his first whiff of success: “I’ll have to quit making moonshine and start making records.”) Carson’s paean to barnyard fertility rites and bucolic cabins initially appeared in OKeh’s popular music catalog, where it kept uneasy company with slicker stuff. Where to put such downhome keening and sawing? The company which had three years prior pioneered ‘race’ recording with Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues opted for ‘old time music’ as a descriptive moniker for records by artists of Carson’s ilk, and OKeh’s label has prevailed. Tony Russell, a leading authority on old time music (he once edited a magazine named Old Time Music), reports that several other record companies took up the ‘old time tunes’ tag in their record catalogs, or variants such as ‘Old Familiar Tunes.’ 78s of this music were often labeled ‘old time singing and playing.’ As a generic description, ‘old time music’ in those exact words may not have become common till the folk revival decades later, though John McGhee recorded Bring Back the Old Time Music in 1928.
But just what was a 1920s commercial record company selling with ‘Old Time Tunes’? Something not jazz age surely, but what specifically? Though it may be argued that the record companies had only a dim understanding of this music, we sense a general ‘grasp of genre’ when reviewing vintage ‘old time music’ recordings today. A few obvious generalizations bear witness to this. Most of the ‘old time’ musicians were white rural agrarian Southerners. Their singing, by European art music standards, was unschooled (though not necessarily ‘artless’). The same might be said of their musicianship, expressed primarily via strings. Their song repertoire could be broadly divided between secular and sacred and further subdivided into categories of traditional, commercial (often of sufficient vintage to have entered oral tradition), and original (often topical and tragic) songs. These general elements are found equally in the commercial ‘old time music’ recordings of the 1920s and in the performances captured decades later by the likes of Tommy Jarrell, Roscoe Holcomb, Morgan Sexton, and others discovered (or, in the case of Clarence Ashley, rediscovered) circa the 1960s.
‘Old time music,’ then, is a music rich in cultural continuity. Alan Lomax has written in his essay “Folk Song Style” (American Anthropologist, LXI, No. 6, December 1959) that such music is intent to “give the listener a feeling of security, for it symbolizes the place where he was born, his earliest childhood satisfactions, his religious experience, his pleasure in community doings, his courtship and his work – any or all of these personality-shaping experiences.” Such music, drenched deep in its listeners’ “personality-shaping experiences,” is inherently powerful, and was especially so in a culture, marginally literate and pre-electronic, where it was among the strongest threads of the social fabric. Religious faith and fable (Daniel Prayed) were underscored in song. Socially accepted pleasures (square dancing) were set to brisk rhythms and tunes. Balladic sagas of the bad (John Hardy) and the beautiful (The Four Marys) were more readily remembered (and strikingly heard) when sung. Resonant in meaning and methodology, ‘old time music’ had been the heartbeat of Anglo-Celtic Southern America for many generations. By the time it became a marketing label which celebrated its own quaintness, its days were numbered. The technology which enables us to savor Fiddlin’ John Carson 80 years after his heyday also heralded the demise of the charmed circle of oral tradition and relative isolation which had nurtured old time music since the coming of the South’s first Anglo-Celtic settlers.
The notion that this tradition was simultaneously endangered by twentieth century modernity yet preserved in the remote South was dramatized by English folklorist Cecil Sharp’s 1916-1918 song-collecting field trip, the fruits of which were published in 1919 as English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Sharp found American variants of many hoary British ballads with impressive pedigrees. Songs scarcely remembered in their land of origin still held a kind of `racial memory’ spell over Southern descendants of expatriated yeomen. But the ballad tradition was not static: newer songs of outlaws and train wrecks sprang up alongside old ones of knights and ladies. In a rural society where newspapers were rare outside cities and literacy limited, the ballad makers filled the role of dramatist/news anchor. This Southern penchant for story songs, often of a morbid bent, remained a striking element of even commercial country music until fairly recently.
Despite the European background of much of this music and of such instruments as the fiddle, the influence of African-American phrasing and syncopation profoundly affected old time music. (This influence becomes particularly striking when you compare American stringband music to that of Canada, a New World culture which lacked a significant African-American presence.) The banjo is the most obvious legacy of African-Americans in old time music, for the instrument itself is African in origin. It came to white Southerners via the nineteenth century minstrel show, vestiges of which echoed in such performers as Uncle Dave Macon. Compared to the banjo, the guitar was both a latecomer and a folk instrument by commercial fiat. It was in the late nineteenth century that such mail order catalogues as Sears & Roebuck made inexpensive mass-produced guitars widely available, and it was by such prosaic means that the guitar and mandolin entered Appalachia. The emergence of a Doc Watson was unforeseen by the catalog dispensers. By far the oldest type of instrument in this tradition is the Appalachian dulcimer, though technically this ‘mountain dulcimer’ is misnamed: true dulcimers are struck with beaters (thus ‘hammered dulcimer’ is redundant). A plucked zither, the Appalachian dulcimer’s basic design is ancient: the legendary Pythagorean Monochord, from whence the rudiments of the diatonic major scale were supposedly derived some 2500 years ago, may have looked similar. The instrument’s antiquity belies the fact that it was a relative latecomer to the American South. It didn’t come over on the Mayflower or any other ship of British origin. Germans and other Northern Europeans apparently brought such instruments in the 19th century, when they were spread via the Pennsylvania side of the Appalachians into the American South. A newcomer as late as the 1890s, the Appalachian dulcimer’s apparently medieval design and penchant for modal tunes disguised the fact that it was, among folk instruments in the South, a new kid on the block.
Though more modern in design and far more difficult to play the unchallenged favorite instrument for generations of Americans, was the fiddle. The first documented fiddle contest in America took place in 1736; for two centuries fiddlers were necessary components of most successful social functions, especially anywhere dancing might occur. Often deemed a mite disreputable, the fiddler was a living repository of tradition who imbued venerable tunes with fresh fingerprints, manifest variously in the gloriously unpolished Tommy Jarrell and the more disciplined (but no less spirited) Marion Sommers.
There is a sketchy background of old time music and the means by which it was made. The social and natural environments which nurtured this music are no less important to understanding it than are matters of instruments and ethnicity, but the interested reader will look elsewhere to learn of them. During the folk music revivals which spanned the late 1950s-70s, much of the extraordinary music recorded by commercial labels in the 1920s was reissued, legendary artists were rediscovered, and previously unheard exponents of the `old time’ tradition were likewise found and brought to perform at folk festivals. It was an exciting epoch which coupled ‘living legends’ like Clarence Ashley and Tommy Jarrell with younger incarnations of the ‘old time’ spirit (New Lost City Ramblers, Red Clay Ramblers, etc.). Some fine music was played and a fitting ‘last hurrah’ was sung to a final generation of musicians who absorbed this music by osmosis as their primary music, a core “personality-shaping experience.” By the time men like Roscoe Holcomb were passing from the scene such young rural Kentuckians as Ricky Skaggs were aggressively moving into Nashville’s commercial mainstream. Skaggs made it in 1981 (the year of Holcomb’s death) with a country-rock version of Lester Flatt’s Don’t Get Above Your Raising. By then a Kentucky boy’s raisin’ was more apt to include Led Zeppelin than the ‘lassy-makin’ tunes’ of Clarence Ashley’s youth. Inevitably, the sounds of ‘old time music’ receded like dream fragments of ancient ballads saved fast in the memories of a dwindling few tradition keepers.
Mark Humphrey, copyright 1995, revised and edited 2009, Used by permission