What is Old-Time Music Anyway? 

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Contributed by Kathy Schwar

“Old-time” usually refers to music that evolved in isolated regions of the Southern Appalachians and other places in the southern U.S., based partly on tunes from the British Isles and on the rhythm of the banjo, which was developed from a West African instrument.  Old-time music predates bluegrass.  It’s the original early-recorded “country music” of the 1920s and 1930s, played by ordinary working people in communities, before travel was easy and before recordings could be heard on the radio. Old-time was the name given to this rural music by one of the first record companies to discover it and produce recordings.

The music may be fast or slow, played by a single banjo or fiddle, or the two together, or as a whole string band once guitars entered the scene somewhere after the turn of the century. There might be lyrics, although these might be “floating verses”, common to many tunes.  There’s a great deal of syncopation, and tunes might have extra beats or bars, or missing beats or bars.  Some wonderful tunes have little melody and lots of rhythm.  There are up-tempo square-dance tunes in major keys, and slow haunting ones in modes somewhere between major and minor. There’s a lot of variation between individual players as well as differing regional styles, and no one “right way” to play any tune.

It’s quite different from bluegrass, which was developed from old-time music and other influences, even though a number of tunes of the same name are played in both genres.  Bluegrass was created to be enjoyed by an audience, and each instrument in turn stands out by playing an improvised solo break.  Old Time was never performance music; it’s participatory music to sit and play, or dance to.

The Difference Between Bluegrass and Old-time

Banjo

  • An OT banjo is open-backed, with an old towel (probably never washed) stuffed in the back to dampen overtones.  A BG banjo has a resonator to make it louder.
  • An OT banjo weighs 5 pounds, towel included. A BG banjo weighs 40 pounds.
  • An OT banjo player can lose three right-hand fingers and two left-hand fingers in an industrial accident without affecting his performance.
  • A BG banjo needs 24 frets. An OT banjo needs no more than 5, and some don’t need any.
  • A BG banjo player puts jewelry on his fingertips to play. An OT banjo player puts super glue on his fingernails to strengthen them. Never shake hands with an OT banjo player while he’s fussing with his nails.
  • A BG banjo is tuned gDGBD. An OT banjo can be in a hundred different tunings.

Fiddle

  • A BG fiddle is tuned GDAE. An OT fiddle can be in a hundred different tunings.
  • Old-time musiciansOT fiddlers seldom use more than two fingers of their left hand, and uses tunings that maximize the number of open strings played. BG fiddlers study 7th position fingering patterns with Isaac Stern, and take pride in never playing an open string.
  • An OT fiddle player only uses a quarter of his bow. The rest is just wasted.
  • The BG fiddler paid $10,000 for his fiddle at the Violin Shop in Nashville. The OT fiddler got his for $15 at a yard sale.

Guitar

  • An OT guitarist knows the major chords in G and C, and owns a capo for A and D. A BG guitarist can play in E-flat without a capo.
  • The fanciest chord an OT guitarist needs is an A to insert between the G and the D7 chord. A BG guitarist needs to know C#aug+7-4.
  • OT guitarists stash extra picks under a rubber band around the top of the peghead. BG guitarists would never cover any part of the peghead that might obscure the gilded label of their $3,000 guitar.

Mandolin
It’s possible to have an OT band without a mandolin. OT mandolin players use “A”model instruments (pear shaped) by obscure makers. BG mandolin players use “F” model Gibsons that cost $100 per decibel.

Bass

  • A BG band always has a bass. An old OT band doesn’t have a bass, but new time OT bands seem to need one for reasons that are unclear.
  • A BG bass starts playing with the band on the first note. An OT bass, if present, starts sometime after the rest of the band has run through the tune once depending on his blood alcohol content.
  • A BG bass is polished and shiny. An OT bass is often used as yard furniture.

Other Instruments
A BG band might have a Dobro. An OT band might have anything that makes noise including: hammered or lap dulcimer, jaw harp, didgeridoo, harmonica, conga, washtub bass, miscellaneous rattles & shakers, or one-gallon jug (empty).

The Music

  • OT songs are about whiskey and chickens. BG songs are about God, mother and the girl who did me wrong. If the girlfriend isn’t murdered by the third verse, it ain’t Bluegrass.
  • OT bands have nonsense names like Hoss Hair Pullers, Fruit Jar Drinkers and Skillet Lickers. BG bands have serious gender-specific names like Bluegrass Boys, Foggy Mountain Boys, and Clinch Mountain Boys
  • A BG band has 1 to 3 singers who are singing about an octave above their natural vocal range. Some OT bands have no singers at all.
  • A BG band has a vocal orchestrator who arranges duet, trio and quartet harmonies. In an OT band, anyone who feels like it can sing or make comments during the performance.
  • All BG tunes & songs last 3 minutes. OT tunes & songs sometimes last all night.
  • All the instruments in an OT band play together all the time.
  • BG bands feature solos on each instrument.
  • BG bands have carefully mapped-out choreography due to the need to provide solo breaks. If OT band members move around, they tend to run into each other. Because of this problem, OT bands often sit down when performing, while a BG band always stands. Because they’re sitting, OT bands have the stamina to play for a square or contra dance.
  • The audience claps after each BG solo break. If anyone claps for an OT band it confuses them, even after the tune is over.

Personalities & Stage Presence

  • BG band members wear uniforms, such as blue polyester suits and gray Stetson hats. OT bands wear jeans, sandals, work shirts and caps from seed companies.
  • Chicks in BG bands have big hair and Kevlar undergarments. Chicks in OT bands jiggle nicely under their dungarees.
  • A BG band tells terrible jokes while tuning. An OT band tells terrible jokes without bothering to tune.
  • BG band members never smile. OT band members will smile if you give them a drink. You can get fired from a BG band for being obviously drunk on stage.
  • BG musicians eat barbecue ribs. OT musicians eat tofu.
  • BG musicians have high frequency hearing loss from standing near the banjo player. OT musicians have high frequency hear loss from standing near the fiddler.
  • BG musicians stay on the bus or at the nearest Motel 6. OT musicians camp in the parking lot.

 

Reprinted with permission from Old-time Lewes Visit the web site for their tunes list and helpful resources.

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