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West Virginia fiddler Edden Hammons, accompanied by his son James on the banjo
Old-time music is a form of North American folk music, with roots in the folk musics of many countries, including Englandmarker, Scotlandmarker, Irelandmarker and countries in 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 Canadamarker, banjo).


Reflecting the cultures that settled North America, the roots of old-time music are in the traditional musics of the British Islesmarker (primarily English, Scottish and Irish. In some regions Frenchmarker and Germanmarker sources are also prominent. While many dance tunes and ballads can be traced to European sources, many others are of purely North American origin.

The term "old-time"

With its origins in traditional music of Europe and Africa, old-time music represents perhaps the oldest form of North American traditional music other than Native American music, and thus the term "old-time" is an appropriate one. As a label, however, it dates back only to 1923.

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 Appalachia 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.

Other sources

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, minstrel, Tin Pan Alleymarker, gospel, and other popular music forms also entered the genre. While old-time music was practiced in all regions of the United Statesmarker in the 18th and 19th centuries, by the 20th century it had come to be associated primarily with the Appalachian region.


Old-time music experienced a great revival in the early 1960s in areas such as Chapel Hill, North Carolinamarker. Alan Jabbour, founding director of the Folklife Center at the Library of Congressmarker, became a leader of this revival while a student at Duke Universitymarker. Other important revivalists include Mike Seeger and Pete Seeger, who brought the music to New York City as early as the 1940s. The New Lost City Ramblers in particular took the revival across the country and often featured older musicians in their show. The band was originally Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley. When Tom left the band, he was replaced by Tracy Schwarz. Many of the musicians on the scene now acknowledge that it was because of the New Lost City Ramblers that they became interested in old-time music.


Old-time music is played using a wide variety of stringed instruments. The instrumentation of an old-time group is often determined solely by what instruments are available, as well as by tradition. The most common instruments are acoustic string instruments. Historically, the fiddle was nearly always the leading melodic instrument, and in many instances (if no other instruments were available) dances were accompanied only by a single fiddler, who often also acted as dance caller.

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 sparser 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 have been 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.

Old-time music as dance music

Because old-time fiddle-based string band music is often played for dances, it is often characterized as dance music. However, there are also long-standing traditions of solo listening pieces as well as fiddle songs, such as those that have been documented in West Virginia by Erynn Marshall in Music in the Air Somewhere: The Shifting Borders of West Virginia's Fiddle and Song Traditions (WVU Press, 2006). In dance music as played by old-time string bands, emphasis is placed on providing a strong beat, and instrumental solos, or breaks are rarely taken. This contrasts with bluegrass music which was developed in the 1940s as a form of concert music. Bluegrass music, however, developed from old-time music, and shares many of the same songs and instruments, but is more oriented toward solo performance than is old-time music.

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 Englandmarker), square dancing (Southern states) and step dancing (Nova Scotiamarker, particularly Cape Breton Islandmarker), though there is some overlap between regions.

Learning old-time music

Players traditionally learn old-time music by ear; even musicians who can read music. A broad selection of written music does exist, although many believe that the style of old-time music cannot be practically notated by written music. This is in part because there are many regional and local variations to old-time tunes, and because some of the most noted players often improvised and wouldn't play a tune exactly the same way every time.

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 Musicmarker in Chicago, Illinoismarker 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.

Regional styles

There are numerous regional styles of old-time music, each with its own repertoire and playing style. Nevertheless, some tunes (such as "Soldier's Joy") are found in nearly every regional style, though played somewhat differently in each.


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 Quebecmarker, Canadamarker).

Appalachian folk music is a distinctive genre of folk music.

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 sung 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. (See below for the strong African-American influence on Appalachian instrumental folk music.)

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 (such as Joel Walker Sweeney) in the years leading up to the Civil War. From the mid-19th century the banjo was the most widely played stringed instrument in America. 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 and Canada (as well as in 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 Airymarker, North Carolinamarker (specifically the Round Peakmarker style of Tommy Jarrell) and Grayson Countymarker/Galaxmarker, Virginiamarker (Wade Ward and Albert Hash), West Virginiamarker (the Hammons Family), Eastern 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 Carolinamarker. 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 Parkmarker in western North Carolinamarker) plays three-finger-style banjo, to which he sings in the Cherokee language.

New England

The New Englandmarker states, being among the first to be settled by Europeans, have one of the oldest traditions of old-time music. Although the Puritans (the first Europeans to settle in the region), frowned upon instrumental music, dance music flourished in both urban and rural areas beginning in the 17th century. Primary instruments include the fiddle, piano, and guitar, with the wooden flute sometimes also used. As with Appalachian folk, a number of classical composers have turned to New England folk music for melodic and harmonic ideas, most famously Charles Ives, as well as Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and John Cage, among others.


Beginning in the early 19th century, when the Midwestern states were first settled by immigrants from the eastern United States and Europe, the Midwest developed its own regional styles of old-time music. Among these, the Missourimarker style is of particular interest for its energetic bowing style.

In the Upper Midwest, especially Minnesotamarker, old-time music most typically refers to a mixture of Scandinavian styles, especially Norwegian and Swedish.

The non-Appalachian South

The Southern states (particularly coastal states such as Virginia and North Carolinamarker) also have one of the oldest traditions of old-time music in the United States.

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 Senegalmarker, Gambiamarker, Malimarker, and Guineamarker, where they are called ngoni, xalam, akonting, or various other names.

States of the Deep South such as Alabamamarker, Mississippimarker, Georgiamarker, and Louisianamarker 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.

Texas and the West

Texasmarker developed a distinctive twin-fiddling tradition that was later popularized by Bob Wills as "Western swing" music. Fiddle music has also been popular since the 19th century in other Western states such as Oklahomamarker and Coloradomarker. The National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest has been held each year in Weisermarker, Idahomarker since 1953.

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.


Among the prominent styles of old-time music in Canada are the Scottish-derived tradition of Nova Scotiamarker (particularly Cape Breton Islandmarker), the French Canadian music of Quebecmarker and Acadia, the old-time music of Ontariomarker, and the prairie fiddling traditions of the central-western provinces. It is here (primarily in Manitobamarker and Saskatchewanmarker) that the fiddle tradition of the Métis people is found. The traditional folk music of Newfoundland and Labradormarker, though similar in some ways to that of the rest of Atlantic Canadamarker, has a distinct style of its own, and is generally considered a separate genre.

Contemporary musicians

The current old-time music scene is alive and well, sparked since 2000 by the combined exposure resulting from several prominent films, more accessible depositories of source material, and the work of a few of touring bands, including: The Wilders, Uncle Earl and Old Crow Medicine Show.

A new generation of old-time musicians perform solo acts all over the country, including: Brad Leftwich, Bruce Molsky, Rayna Gellert, Riley Baugus and Leroy Troy as well as guitarist/singers Alice Gerrard and Martha Scanlan. The Appalachian dulcimer is re-emerging as a key instrument for old-time music, thanks to the influence of musicians such as David Schnaufer and Stephen Seifert.

Living elders of the music include Benton Flippen of Dobson, North Carolina and Chester McMillian of Mount Airy, North Carolinamarker, Lee Sexton of Line Fork, Kentucky, Paul David Smith of Kentucky, Clyde Davenport of Monticello, Kentuckymarker and Lester McCumbers of Nicut, Calhoun County, West Virginia.


Prominent old-time music festivals (some of which also include bluegrass, dance, and other related arts) include the Old Fiddler's Convention in Galax, Virginia (established 1935), the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention in Mount Airy, North Carolina (established 1972), the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston, West Virginiamarker (established 1977), and the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, Fayette County, West Virginiamarker (established 1990).


  1. What Is Old-Time Music?
  2. [1]
  3. [2]
  4. [3]
  5. old time fiddle
  6. Folk School of St. Louis
  7. Montgomery, Michael, The Scotch-Irish Element in Appalachian English: How Broad? How Deep?. University of South Carolina
  8. Filene, Benjamin, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  9. Farr, Sidney Saylor More than Moonshine Appalachia Recipes and Recollections. University of Pittsburgh Press: Pittsburgh, Pa, 1983.
  10. Filene, Benjamin, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  11. Appalachian Regional Commission
  12. Missouri Old-Time Fiddling
  13. Jones, LeRoi (1965). Blues People: Negro Music in White America. London: MacGibbon & Kee. ISBN 0-688-18474-X.

See also


  • Appalachian Journey (1990). Original material recorded and directed by Alan Lomax. A Dibbs Directions Production for Channel Four TV in association with Alan Lomax. Presented by North Carolina Public TV. 1991 videocassette release of an episode from the 1990 television series American Patchwork: Songs and Stories of America.
  • My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge (1994). Directed by Les Blank. El Cerrito, California: Flower Films. ISBN 0-933621-61-2.
  • New England Fiddles (1995). Produced and directed by John M. Bishop. A Media Generation production. Montpelier, Vermontmarker: Distributed by Multicultural Media.
  • Songcatcher (dir. Maggie Greenwald, 2000) is a film about a musicologist researching Appalachian folk music in western North Carolina.
  • Sprout Wings and Fly (1983). Produced and directed by Les Blank, CeCe Conway, and Alice Gerrard. El Cerrito, California: Flower Films. ISBN 0933621019
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Produced by Ethan Coen, Working Title Films, Studio Canal. Directed by Joel Coen.
  • The High Lonesome Sound John Cohen's documentary about Kentucky musician Roscoe Holcomb.

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