Old-Time Appalachian Fiddle Tunes

In the early days of European settlement in North America and the United States, the violin was the most commonly played musical instrument. The instrument is small and portable, so people easily carried it along as they migrated into the Appalachian Mountains and to the West. It is versatile enough to play classical art music as well as lively dance music. Fiddling remains one of the most vital folk music traditions throughout the United States. This post focuses on old-time fiddle tune traditions in Appalachia.

Fiddle tunes are primarily instrumental melodies, though some have words that can be sung optionally. Most originated as tunes for dancing, but people often play them today in social settings and performance that do not include dancing. Most fiddle tunes consist of two melodic parts, often referred to as the A and B part. Frequently the tunes are played in A A B B form, that is, playing the A part twice, then the B part twice. This form is repeated for as long as the musicians, or the dancers, care to continue.

Violin or Fiddle

What is the difference between a violin and a fiddle? According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music, a fiddle is “a generic term for any chordophone played with a bow.” This includes a variety of exotic stringed instruments played throughout the world. In popular usage in the United States, the word “violin” is used to describe the instrument when it plays classical and art music, and the word “fiddle” is used to describe a violin (and sometimes other bowed stringed instruments, such as viola or cello) when it plays dance, folk, country, and bluegrass music.

There can be also be differences in the way the instrument is physically adjusted (or set up) to play in one style or another, but it’s essentially the same instrument. Violinists hold the instrument between the chin and shoulder. Many fiddle players hold it this way, but some hold the instrument against their chest, which makes it easier to sing while playing.

There is one more important distinction. When you are buying one, it’s a fiddle. When you are selling one, it’s a violin.

Fiddle Tunes from the British Isles

Most ethnic groups in the United States have fiddle traditions. The majority of people who settled in the American colonies were from the British Isles. Immigrants from the British Isles played a stock of dance tunes and other melodies from England, Ireland, and Scotland. These tunes persisted in North America, and they became the basis for variations and new tunes that emerged in the United States. Irish and Scottish tunes and playing styles became the dominant influence on Southern American fiddle tunes.

Fiddle tune from England – “Jacob”

Fiddle tune from Ireland – “Swallowtail Jig”

Fiddle tune from Scotland – “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay”

Fiddle Tunes in Appalachia

During the 1700s, more than 200,000 people emigrated from the Irish province of Ulster to the British colonies in the New World. The origins of the Scots-Irish, as they are called, lie primarily in the Lowlands of Scotland and in northern England. They had been relocated to Ireland’s northern province of Ulster starting in 1606, primarily to strengthen royal control over the North of Ireland. Most of the Scots-Irish emigrants settled initially in Pennsylvania. From there, many followed the Great Wagon Road to make their homes in the Appalachia Mountains – Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas.

Much of the work there on the American frontier, including barn raising, molasses making, corn husking, and apple peeling, was done communally. At the end of the work day, people danced the old Scottish and Irish reels and jigs, with the music provided by a fiddle or fiddles. (See A Brief History of Southern Square Dance for more on dancing in Appalachia.)

Fiddle and Banjo

Initially, fiddle tunes were played with no other instrumental accompaniment. Both black and white fiddlers played to accompany dances.

Fiddle solo – “Sallie Gooden”

In the mid-19th century, the pairing of fiddle and banjo became common. The banjo developed in the Caribbean from African roots. In the United States, the instrument was played almost exclusively by African Americans until the 1830s when touring minstrel banjoists began popularizing it among whites. (See Banjo Roots and Branches for more about the banjo.)

In Southern Appalachia, where white and black people often lived in close proximity, musicians adopted music from each other. Many common fiddle tunes originated with African American fiddlers. The fiddle and banjo combination melded European American and African American musical traditions.

Ben and Lew Snowden
Bano and fiddle – Ben and Lew Snowden
Fiddle and banjo duet – “Old Bunch of Keys”

Old-Time String Bands

In the late 19th and early 20th century, other stringed instruments were added to the fiddle and banjo duos. These might include guitar, mandolin, harmonica, and either double bass or washtub bass. In the 1920s and 1930s, many string bands recorded fiddle tunes for record companies. These early recordings are common source material for contemporary fiddle players and string bands to learn tunes. The string bands are also the forerunners of the bluegrass bands that came about in the 1940s.

Old-time string band – “Rock That Cradle Lucy”

Types of Fiddle Tunes

The Appalachian old-time fiddle repertoire began with reels and jigs that originated in the British Isles. Because tunes were generally played and passed on by ear, not printed music, variations of those tunes appeared. Sometimes the variations became so different from the original that they were essentially new tunes.

“Hop High Ladies” is an Appalachian version of the Scottish reel “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay,” aka “Miss McCloud’s Reel” or “Mrs. McCloud’s Reel.” Compare the “Hop High Ladies” recording below by the Zinc Kings to the “Mrs. Macleod of Rassay” recording above by Patrick Doyle from the Whisky Galore! soundtrack.

The terms reel and jig refer both to the type of dance and to the type of tune played to accompany the dance. Reels originated in Scotland and were introduced to Ireland in the late 18th century. Jigs, which are played in 6|8 time, are not very prominent in old-time Appalachian traditions today. The recording of “Swallowtail Jig” above is an example of a jig.

The reel “Soldier’s Joy” is probably the most widely-known fiddle tune in North America. It most likely originated in Scotland in the 18th century.

Reel – “Soldier’s Joy”

Other European dance styles that became popular in the United States during the 19th century provided new tunes and additional fodder for original tunes. These included the quadrille, polka, schottische, two-step, and waltz. New types of fiddle tunes emerged in the United States, including breakdowns, blues, and rags.

A breakdown is a general term used primarily in the American South to refer to a wide range of up-tempo old-time and bluegrass tunes in duple 2|4 or quadruple 4|4 meter. They are often played for fast dancing, such as clogging and flat-footing. The playing style frequently includes the bowing of two adjacent strings simultaneously.

Breakdown – “Sally Ann”

Carrying on the Traditions

Old-time Appalachian fiddle tunes now reach far beyond Appalachia. The string band records of the 1920s and 1930s started the process. These recordings gained new life in the 1950s and 1960s with a segment of the folk music revival. A generation of young urban musicians became interested in fiddle tunes and other forms of old-time music and learned to play the instruments and tunes themselves.

Many revivalists and folklorists sought out the living masters in Appalachia. They learned the tunes and traditions directly from musicians like Tommy Jarrell, Henry Reed, and the Hammons Family. They also made invaluable recordings of these musicians that have served as source material for others to learn the tunes. These recordings are still available from sources like The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, The Field Recorders’ Collective, and Digital Library of Appalachia.

Tommy Jarrell (right), 1982, Courtesy Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution

Today, Appalachian fiddle tunes are played at weekly or monthly old-time music jams in communities across the United States and elsewhere in the world. Musicians can learn to play the tunes from videos at Homespun Music Instruction, YouTube, and other sites. Students can learn in person from masters at music camps, including Old-Time Week at Warren Wilson College’s Swannanoa Gathering (North Carolina), Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College’s Old-Time Week (West Virginia), and Mars Hill University’s Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week (North Carolina). There are also old-time music festivals held around the world. Oldtime Central offers the Oldtime Central Festival Guide, which lists more than 200 old-time music festivals, for free on their website.

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The Evolution of Spirituals (2 of 2)

This is post 2 of 2 in the series The Evolution of Spirituals.

African American spirituals are often called “sorrow songs.” While sorrow permeates many of the songs, spirituals are much more than that. They are faith songs. They strength songs. They are hope songs. They are unity songs. They are resistance songs.

Camp Meetings

The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival that occurred roughly from the 1780s through the 1850s. Initially, it was led by Evangelical Protestant preachers. After the first few decades, Baptist and Methodist preachers became active leaders of the movement.

Outdoor religious services called camp meetings were one of the most common ways to preach the revival message during the Second Great Awakening. Camp meetings were held in tents in the countryside, on the frontier, or in the backcountry. They could last for days and include thousands of participants. The participants, mostly rural farmers and their families, sang and prayed in a large tent and often slept in smaller tents nearby. Camp meetings were highly emotional events with preaching about sin and Jesus as the only path to save one’s soul from the fires of hell.

Religious Camp Meeting
Religious Camp Meeting, watercolor by J. Maze Burbank c. 1839

African Americans took part in camp meetings, even in slave states, though often in segregated sections. Some black ministers preached at the meetings. In 1818 the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church held the first camp meeting organized by and for African Americans. (See post 1 in this series for more about the AME Church, the first independent Protestant denomination founded by African Americans.) Other black churches, primarily Methodist and Baptist, sponsored camp meetings throughout the 19th century.

Spiritual Songs/Camp Meeting Hymns

There were generally no hymnbooks in the early years of camp meetings. People sang from memory or learned songs at the meetings. From the energetic, highly emotional, noisy atmosphere of the meetings, a new kind of hymn and style of singing emerged.

Camp-meeting hymns sometimes used popular or folk song melodies to accompany isolated lines from prayers and scriptures. They often incorporated call-and-response singing, with a leader singing a verse and the congregation joining on the chorus or refrain. The new hymns also had wandering refrains and verses that appeared in multiple songs.

Both call-and-response singing and wandering refrains were African American innovations that first appeared in print in Richard Allen’s 1801 hymnal “A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister.” Allen’s hymnal was the first song collection published expressly for a black congregation. (See post 1 in this series for more about the ways in which the songs in Allen’s hymnal differed from earlier European American hymns and psalms.)

Contemporaries wrote about differences between traditional European American and African American religious singing. A report from an 1838 camp meeting held in Pennsylvania noted, “Their shouts and singing were so very boisterous that the singing of the white congregation was often completely drowned in the echoes and reverberations of the colored people’s tumultuous strains.” Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer wrote of a camp meeting in Georgia, “A magnificent choir! Most likely the sound proceeded from the black portion of the assembly, as their number was three times that of the whites, and their voices are naturally beautiful and pure.”

More than a dozen writers reported that African Americans sang long into the night on their own segregated “shouting-ground” after other participants had gone to bed. Wesleyan Methodist John F. Watson was disdainful about African American singing practices, but his 1819 writings are very informative. According to Watson, “In the blacks’ quarter, the coloured people get together, and sing for hours together, short scraps of disjointed affirmations, pledges, or prayers, lengthened out with long repetition choruses. These are all sung in the merry chorus-manner of southern harvest field, or husking-frolic method, of the slave blacks.”

Watson is describing the performance of songs that were coming to be known as camp-meeting hymns or spiritual songs. Some of the songs were improvised on the spot, fitting lines from the Bible, references to everyday experiences, and wandering verses and refrains to familiar tunes. Some of the wandering verses and refrains improvised in these new spiritual songs had been printed in Allen’s 1801 and 1818 hymnals. Some were also present in later spirituals.

The songs and performance practices of African Americans at the camp meetings were having an influence on the white participants. Watson writes, “The example has already visibly affected the religious manners of some whites. I have known in some camp meetings, from 50 to 60 people crowd into one tent, after the public devotions had closed, and there continue the whole night, singing tune after tune, (though with occasional episodes of prayer) scarce one of which were in our hymn books.”

The Ring Shout

Watson also provided the earliest written account of a ceremony of African origin called a ring shout, or shout. A shout is an event in which participants sing a spiritual with strong rhythmic drive while shuffling in a ring formation. Watson observed “With every word so sung, they have a sinking of one or other leg of the body alternately; producing an audible sound of the feet at every step, and as manifest as the steps of actual Negro dancing in Virginia, etc. If some, in the meantime, sit, they strike the sounds alternately on each thigh.”

Ring Shout

Ring dances were common in many parts of Africa. In the United States, shouts often took place on Sundays or praise nights in the praise house or cabin after the regular meeting was over. They were also seen in New York City markets and in Place Congo, or Congo Square, in New Orleans. Shouts could last four or five hours, with the song taking on the character of a repetitive chant.

“Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah)” is a ring shout spiritual sung by Joe Washington Brown and Austin Coleman. Folklorists John and Alan Lomax recorded it in 1934 in Jennings, Louisiana, for the Library of Congress.


The improvised religious songs sung by African American Christians at camp meetings, on rural plantations, and in urban churches resulted in a large body of spirituals. Some spirituals were intended to be sung in worship services, others for ring shouts, funerals, or “jes’ sittin’ around.” The word “spiritual” appears to have been commonly used to refer to these songs by the 1860s.

Spirituals were the result of improvisation. A lead singer would sing a line, and others would repeat it or reply with a chorus or refrain. Anyone could interject a new verse. Some lines might be repeated, remembered, and sung the next time. Material from multiple songs or scriptural readings were combined with ideas from personal experiences. Wandering phrases, verses, or refrains appeared in more than one song. The melodies were also born of improvisation, and some tunes might be used for multiple sets of lyrics.

Perhaps the most important element of the spiritual was the performance itself. This was participatory music not intended for an audience. Spirituals demonstrated many characteristics of African music: intense emotion, call and response, polyrhythms, bent notes, blue notes, repetition of rhythmic figures, off-beat phrasings, and body percussion.

Spirituals turned biblical stories into songs. Many centered on faithful servants of God, like Noah, Daniel, and Jonah, who were saved from a sinful world of oppression. One of the most commonly-referenced people in spirituals is Moses. His story of delivering the Israelites from bondage in Egypt resonated with the enslaved African Americans.

“Go Down, Moses” is one of the best-known spirituals. Harriet Tubman said that she used the song to signal that she was nearby and able to help those who wanted to escape. Some slaveholders forbade the singing of it, feeling threatened by the call-and-response message “Let my people go!”

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Coded Messages

Many spirituals had messages that were not as direct as that of “Go Down, Moses.” “Steal Away” could be an invitation to escape from bondage. It could also be a call to meet in the woods for a secret meeting to pray or to make plans to run away. Some reports indicate that Nat Turner, who organized a violent uprising of enslaved people, used the song as a call to action.

Steal away, steal away
Steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home
I ain’t got long to stay here

Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to tell escaping slaves to literally put themselves into bodies of water to avoid being seen and to ensure that the slave-catchers’ dogs couldn’t sniff out their scent.

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water

The lyrics to spirituals have vivid imagery and symbolic language. Moses represented deliverance from bondage. Egypt and Babylon were the American South. Hell was the Deep South. Slave owners were Pharaoh. The River Jordan was the Ohio River, or any body of water across which lay freedom in the North. The many modes of movement – chariots, wheels, shoes, trains – represented escape.

While spirituals often had these hidden subtexts, they were also beautiful songs of Christian faith, hope, and spirit.

Spirituals in Print – “Slave Songs of the United States”

As early as 1800, observers wrote down lyrics to songs they heard enslaved people singing. The first spiritual to be published in print was “Let My People Go. A Song of the ‘Contrabands’,” a version of “Go Down, Moses.” The song was issued in a Northern abolitionist newspaper in December of 1861. It had been learned and written down by the Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood, a missionary to the ex-slaves who took refuge from the Civil War at Fortress Monroe, Virginia.

During the Civil War, three northern abolitionists were educating freedmen on the Sea Islands near Port Royal, a harbor commanding the approach to Charleston, South Carolina. Fascinated by the singing of the newly-freed African Americans, Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison, and Charles Pickard Ware wrote down the texts and notated the music of the songs they heard. They published the songs and their observations in the 1867 book “Slave Songs of the United States.” The book was the first published collection of African American plantation songs. It included melodies and text for 136 songs, most of which were spirituals.

Slave Songs of the United States
Slave Songs of the United States

The editors acknowledged that it was impossible to capture the nuance of the singing and melodies in printed form. “The voices of the colored people have a peculiar quality that nothing can imitate; and the intonations and delicate variations of even one singer cannot be reproduced on paper. There is no singing in parts, as we understand it, and yet no two appear to be singing the same thing.” Nevertheless, since recording technology was not yet developed, “Slave Songs of the United States” provides a vital repertoire and in-depth representation of what spirituals sounded like during the time of slavery.

Spirituals on Stage – The Fisk Jubilee Singers

In 1866 Fisk University was established in Nashville, Tennessee to educate newly-freed African Americans. Treasurer and music professor George L. White formed a choral ensemble at Fisk that specialized in singing spirituals. White, a white Northerner, arranged the songs in a way that refined them for the concert stage and maintained the essence of their unique power and beauty.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1882

In 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers began performing on tour to raise money for the struggling university. In the United States and in Europe, they earned standing ovations and praise from the media. Theodore Seward’s song arrangements were published in books and sung by black and white congregations in the North and South. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were instrumental in introducing spirituals to the world. A version of the ensemble is still active today.

Since audio recording technology had not yet been developed by the time slavery ended in the United States, we will never hear the spirituals as they were originally sung. Their sounds can be imagined through song books like “Slave Songs of the United States” and descriptions from other contemporary sources. The echoes of spirituals can be heard in the singing of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the many other artists who have since performed and recorded them. Their pulse can be felt in gospel music, freedom songs from the Civil Rights Movement, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and hip hop.

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The Evolution of Spirituals (1 of 2)

Spirituals are African American religious songs that evolved in the context of slavery primarily in the Southern United States. They were a mechanism for survival – a potent example of how humans can endure the worst of conditions. Spirituals combine elements of European American religious music with African musical characteristics. Their influence can be felt in virtually all subsequent forms of American music, including jazz, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, country, rock and roll, and hip-hop.

Music in Africa

Most people who came to America in slavery were taken from the west coast of Africa. While they hailed from a wide variety of kingdoms, states, city-states, clans, tribes, and kinship groups, music was integral to everyday life throughout the region. “We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets,” writes Olaudah Equiano, one of the first Africans to write a book in the English language.

Through the slave trade, elements of music and dance traditions from Africa were integrated into American culture. This includes African musical and performance characteristics that were elemental to spirituals. Both musics were very emotional. The singing was often highly intense and included falsettos, shouts, and groans. There was call and response singing, with a song leader singing a phrase and the rest of the group singing a reply. Refrains were repeated and sung as choruses. Percussive sounds were added with hand claps and foots stomps. Words were improvised. Dancers shuffled in ring formations.

European American Religious Music

Early Protestants in the New World sang a type of religious song called a psalm. Psalms had lyrics that were taken directly from biblical scripture. They were sung at a slow tempo without instrumental accompaniment. In New England during the colonial era, some African Americans attended Sabbath services in segregated seats and joined in the singing of psalms. Psalm singing was led by a precentor who “lined out” the psalm and “set the tune” so that those who couldn’t read or didn’t have the psalm book could join in the singing. The most popular early psalter was the “Bay Psalm Book,” first published in 1640. It was the first book printed in the English colonies.

The Bay Psalm Book
The Bay Psalm Book title page

“Psalm 100,” also known as “Old Hundred” was one of the best known and most commonly sung psalms.

In the 1730s and 1740s, a series of emotional religious revivals called the Great Awakening swept across the American colonies. Along with the Great Awakening came a new, livelier form of religious song called a hymn. While the words to psalms came directly from the Bible, hymns were religious poems based on scripture. English minister Dr. Isaac Watts published the book “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” in 1707. The book was very popular in the colonies, especially with African Americans. The new hymns gradually replaced the old psalms among the Protestant denominations.

African Americans and Christianity

People in the American colonies disagreed over whether to encourage, discourage, enforce, or prohibit the conversion of African Americans to Christianity. In the North, Christian denominations generally supported and facilitated conversion. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), the Church of England’s missionary organization, formed in 1701 to convert African Americans to Christianity. They founded schools, including one at New York’s Trinity Church, to provide religious instruction, which included psalm singing. Schools that taught Christianity and psalm singing also formed that were independent of established churches.

In the South, religious conversion was much less common than in the North. Large plantations were relatively isolated, and it was up to individual plantation owners whether or not to convert their slaves. Some believed that religious instruction made enslaved people “proud, and not as good servants.” Others used passages from the Bible to justify the existence slavery. They attempted to leverage these passages to make slaves more docile and subservient. After some people in slavery used their status as Christians to argue for their freedom, Virginia and other states passed laws specifying that baptism does not bring freedom to blacks.

The SPG was active in the South, and the Church of England had a strong influence on Southerners. Some slaves attended church with their masters. They sat in segregated galleries, on the floor, or listened from outside through an open window. The Reverend Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia noted in 1751 that he was able to attract African Americans to his ministry through congregational singing. “The Negroes, above all the Human Species that I ever knew, have an Ear for Musick, and a kind of extatic Delight in Psalmody; and there are no books they learn so soon or take so much Pleasure in.” The songs and hymns of Dr. Watts were favorites.

Black Churches

When worshiping in white churches, African Americans were generally segregated and subject to discrimination. By the late 18th century, African Americans began forming their own congregations that were part of the established churches. Whites were divided over their support of separate black congregations. The First African Baptist Church at Savannah, Georgia, formed in 1788. It was the earliest permanent African American congregation in the United States. Blacks in the South formed other congregations, generally Baptist. By the 1790s, there were separate black congregations in the North, most of which were Methodist.

Particularly in the South, most black congregations had white ministers and were governed by white councils. Following the Denmark Vesey uprising in 1822 and the Nat Turner insurrection in 1831, most black congregations were dissolved. As both revolts were led by preachers, whites placed blame on religious organizations. After the Civil War, blacks again formed independent congregations in the South.

Richard Allen’s Hymnals

In 1784, Old St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia issued former slave Richard Allen a preaching license. He was one of the first two black men to receive such a license from the Methodist Church. To overcome the discrimination blacks faced in white churches, Allen organized the first congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1794.

Richard Allen
Richard Allen

In 1801 Allen published a hymnal for the AME Church. “A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister” included 54 hymn texts without tunes. Many of these were drawn from the hymnals of Dr. Watts and other favorite Methodist and Baptist hymnals. Others had been in oral circulation, and some may have been original Richard Allen compositions. The book is invaluable as a reference of songs that had were favorites of African Americans before and after it was published.

“A Collection of Spiritual Songs” was the first song collection published expressly for a black congregation. The hymnal is also significant because it included refrains that both supported and contrasted with the message in the stanza. Refrains can be found in only one previous hymnal. Sung as a call and response, they were an element of African music that became common in later spirituals. Some refrains appeared in more than one song. Wandering refrains such as this appear to be unique to African American singing at the time. They were also frequently found in later African American spirituals.

The spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning” is an adaptation of a hymn from Allen’s “A Collection of Spiritual Songs.”

Despite the relative freedom enjoyed by the independent black congregations, they were still controlled by white elders and subject to discrimination. In 1816, following a battle in court, several black Methodist congregations separated from the church and established the African Methodist Episcopal Church as the first black denomination. As the Church’s first bishop, Allen published a new hymnal in 1818. It was larger than his previous hymnal and still contained favorites by Dr. Watts and others.

Many of these hymns would soon become favorites at the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. These camp meetings would provide fertile ground for the further development of spirituals.

Part 2 of this 2-part series explores how spirituals continued to develop in the 19th century.

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What is Old-Time Music?

When I first started performing traditional American folk music in the early 2000s, I shared a bill once with The Flying Turtles String Band. Tom and Ellen Hogan, founders of the band, told me that they host an old-time jam every Tuesday evening in the Boca Raton warehouse in which they build furniture for a living. I had no idea what an old-time jam was, but it sounded like it was probably for me. It was. As I walked into the unfinished warehouse, I was enveloped in the reverberating, yet unamplified, sounds coming from some twenty people playing tunes that were more than a hundred years old on fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins, and bass fiddles. This was my introduction to the living tradition of old-time music.

Old-time music is alive and well in communities around the United States and other parts of the world. But just what is old-time music? There is no single definition, so I have culled the following thoughts from various articles and my own observations and experiences.

Old-time music encompasses various styles that originated in rural America before recorded music and radio were widely available. This was music made in the home and in community spaces, generally for personal entertainment or dancing. It emerged from the synthesis of European and African musical sensibilities, particularly fiddle traditions from Scotland, Ireland, England, France, and Germany; ballad traditions from Scotland and England; and vocal, rhythm, and instrumental styles from West Africa. Much of this is embodied in the union of European fiddle and African banjo music.

The American southeast has been an especially productive incubator for old-time music styles. Today, the music remains unusually concentrated and persistent in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Other parts of the United States also have their own regional old-time music styles.

Old-Time Music Recordings

Though I stated earlier that old-time music originated before recorded music and radio were widely available, recordings from the late 1920s through the mid 1930s are among the best sources to hear old-time music. These recordings were generally made by and for white rural Southerners. Record labels marketed these records as “old familiar tunes,” “old time tunes,” and eventually “hillbilly.” As one might infer from these descriptions, most of the songs were already old and familiar at the time they were first recorded in the ’20s and ’30s.

Advertisement for Old Time Tunes from Paramount Records
Advertisement for Old Time Tunes from Paramount Records

These original old-time music recordings included:

Fiddle tunes

Old British ballads

Newer American ballads

Tin Pan Alley/sentimental songs

Religious music

Bluegrass and Old-Time Music

Though they share similar instrumentation and even some repertoire, bluegrass is not considered old-time music. Old-time music laid the foundation for bluegrass. Early bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers played and listened to old-time music before bluegrass emerged in the 1940s. Bluegrass is a more modern form of Appalachian music that incorporates improvised solos, which are generally not part of old-time music traditions. Bluegrass also tends to be music for performance, whereas old-time music is connected to social events like dancing.

Old-Time Music Today

Old-time music is a living tradition. Some people who play it today prefer to stick close to the styles of the original source material, while others use the older styles as a springboard for creativity and innovation. These more contemporary adaptations are sometimes referred to as neo-traditional.

Weekly or monthly old-time music jams occur in many communities across the United States. These communities develop a shared repertoire of tunes that they play together in an informal setting. Contradances and square dances, accompanied by live old-time music, are also present in many parts of the United States. Many of the jams and dances focus almost exclusively on fiddle tunes.

Old-time music is also shared and passed on in more formal settings, such as fiddle contests and music camps. While fiddle contests are a place for players to compete, they are cherished by participants for the opportunity to jam and interact with like-minded musicians. The website Oldtime Central offers the free Oldtime Central Festival Guide, which lists more than 200 old-time music festivals around the world. The largest old-time music event in the United States is the Appalachian String Band Festival held every August in Clifftop, West Virginia. Approximately three-thousand musicians participate in this five-day mountaintop gathering, which features contests, concerts, workshops, square dances, and perhaps most importantly, informal jams at the campsites.

Musicians and non-musicians alike can learn how to play old-time music at a number of music camps, including Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College’s Old-Time Week (West Virginia), Mars Hill University’s Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week (North Carolina), Old-Time Week at Warren Wilson College’s Swannanoa Gathering (North Carolina), and Ashokan Music & Dance Camps (New York). These camps provide excellent opportunities to learn directly from experts in old-time music traditions and to interact with other enthusiasts. In one-week or weekend sessions, they offer classes ranging from beginning to advanced fiddle, banjo, guitar, singing, mandolin, dance, and more.

This 3-minute trailer for the documentary Why Old Time? provides a nice overview of why people are still drawn to play old-time music. For more on the subject, you can find the entire film on many online movie sites.

Old-Time Music Artists

Here’s a short list of artists for further exploration. Search for them on your favorite sites (YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Wikipedia, etc.)

Old Old-Time Artists
(recorded primarily in the 1920s – 1930s)

  • Clarence Ashley
  • Fiddlin’ John Carson
  • Grayson & Whitter
  • Uncle Dave Macon
  • Charlie Poole
  • Eck Robertson
  • The Skillet Lickers
  • Ernest Stoneman

Mid Old-Time Artists
(recorded primarily in the mid 20th century)

  • Highwoods String Band
  • The Hollow Rock String Band
  • Tommy Jarrell
  • New Lost City Ramblers
  • Doc Watson

New Old-Time Artists
(recorded in the 21st century)

  • Crooked Still
  • Dom Flemons
  • Foghorn Stringband
  • The Mammals
  • Uncle Earl
  • The Wailin’ Jennys

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Anthology of American Folk Music (5 of 5): Volume Three – Songs

This is post 5 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

Singer/songwriter Elvis Costello noted, “First hearing the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music is like discovering the secret script of so many familiar musical dramas. Many of these actually turn out to be cousins two or three times removed, some of whom were probably created in ignorance of these original riches.” Folkways Records released the Anthology on six long-playing records in 1952, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings re-released it on compact disc in 1997.  It consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Three – Songs.

All three volumes of the Anthology contain “songs” by most definitions of the word. Volume One – Ballads focuses on songs that can be more specifically identified as ballads because of their strong narrative line. Volume Two – Social Music is dedicated to songs that serve community gatherings of dance or worship. Volume Three features non-narrative folk songs, including blues, cowboy, jug band, and other forms that don’t quite fit within the parameters of the other two volumes. Many are of the type that Harry Smith, editor of the Anthology, categorizes as “folk-lyric.” These are songs made up of verbal fragments or floating verses that have been shared among multiple songs and don’t necessarily connect logically to each other within a song.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a country lawyer and musician from Madison County in western North Carolina. Known as “The Minstrel of the Appalachians,” he traveled extensively through the mountains collecting folk songs. Lunsford recorded a few songs for the Brunswick record label in 1928, including “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” In later years, he recorded 350 songs for the Library of Congress.

Novelist Robert Cantwell wrote the following about Lunsford’s recording of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.”

Listen to “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” again and again. Learn to play the banjo and sing it yourself over and over again, study every printed version, give up your career and maybe your family, and you will not fathom it.

This writer can attest to that statement, having engaged in most of the aforementioned activities.

Lemon Henry “Blind Lemon” Jefferson was one of the first rural or country blues artists to achieve popular success with just guitar and voice. Born blind in Wortham, Texas, Jefferson earned money busking in the streets of Dallas. He also traveled extensively, sometimes in the company of singer/guitarists Josh White or Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. He made a series of successful recordings for Paramount Records between 1926 and his death in 1929. Jefferson recorded “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” in 1928 at his last recording session. He died a short time later in Chicago.

The Memphis Jug Band, led by singer, songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica player Will Shade, recorded “K.C. Moan” in 1929. Jug bands flourished in the first decades of the 20th century, especially in cities along the Mississippi River. Their styles mixed jazz, blues, ragtime, and string band music. Jug bands played homemade instruments such as the jug, washtub bass, washboard, spoons, comb and tissue paper kazoo, in addition to manufactured instruments that might include guitar, banjo, harmonica, and mandolin.

We’ll leave the Anthology with the track that closes the set – Henry Thomas’ 1929 recording of “Fishing Blues.” Author Greil Marcus notes that there is an “almost absolute liberation” in the song. Thomas plays guitar and quills, a form of pan-pipe made from cane that has its origins in Africa. You may recognize the sound of the instrument from the Canned Heat hit “Goin’ Up the Country.”

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Three – Songs. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.

Anthology of American Folk Music (4 of 5): Volume Two – Social Music

This is post 4 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

Anthology of American Folk Music has inspired countless musicians and songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Jerry Garcia, John Sebastian, and The Fugs. Folkways Records released the Anthology on six long-playing records in 1952, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings re-released it on compact disc in 1997.  It consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music.

Social Music focuses on music as a part of community events, specifically dance and worship. The first fourteen tracks include various forms of dance music, and the remaining fifteen songs are church and religious music.

Dance Music

The first track on Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music is a 1926 unaccompanied violin recording of “Sail Away Lady” by “Uncle Bunt” Stephens. Harry Smith, editor of the Anthology,  notes that the style of this performance is probably typical of American dance music between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Early European settlers generally used unaccompanied violin for dancing.

The African-derived banjo became a common accompaniment to the violin during the mid-19th century. The Spanish-derived guitar came into the mix in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. String bands consisting of fiddle, guitar, banjo, and sometimes mandolin and double bass, were popular in the 1920s and 1930s, laying the foundation for bluegrass and country music. “Brilliancy Medley,” recorded by Eck Robertson and Family in 1930, features violin with banjo and two guitars. Smith notes that this “medley of traditional tunes is more suited to the popular dance steps of the 1920s than for the square dance.”

Social Music also includes a few Acadian dance tunes, a jug band song, and a jazzy song that is “one of the musical ancestors of Spike Jones.”

Religious Music

The religious set of songs on Social Music begins with two “lining hymns” from Rev. J.M. Gates. In a lining hymn, the leader chants a phrase which is then sung by the congregation or choir. Smith identifies this style of  song as “one of the earliest modes of Christian religious singing in this country.”

The lining hymns are followed two shape note songs from The Sacred Harp song book, first published in 1844. Shape note singing originated in New England and was perpetuated in the American South. Shape note songbooks represent the notes of the melody with different shapes to identify the appropriate pitch. The method was devised so people who don’t read standard musical notation can join the singing. In the first part of the song, instead of the lyrics, singers sing the name of the scale position – fa, sol, la, or mi.

Other unaccompanied vocal performances follow in addition to some with instrumental accompaniment. Blind Willie Johnson recorded “John the Revelator” in 1930. Johnson made some of the most popular African American religious song recordings of the time.

Social Music concludes with Rev. D.C. Rice and His Sanctified Congregation’s notably contemporary, jazz-inflected performance of “I’m in the Battle Field for My Lord” from 1929.

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.

Anthology of American Folk Music (3 of 5): Volume One – Ballads

This is post 3 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

The popularity of Americana and roots music today can, in no small measure, be credited to Anthology of American Folk Music. Writer Greil Marcus called the Anthology “the founding document of the American folk revival.” It was released by Folkways Records on six long-playing records in 1952 and re-released on compact disc by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1997.  The Anthology consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume One – Ballads.

British Ballads

Ballads are narrative, or storytelling, songs. It’s impossible to determine exactly how long humans have been telling and singing stories. The ballad tradition as we know it today is traceable to the minstrels and troubadours who traveled and entertained throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages. A repertoire of common ballads evolved in the British Isles from the 15th through the 18th century. While most may have originated from single composers, who are unknown to us today, these ballads evolved and developed variants over time through the singing of many different people.

The old British ballads tell stories of nobility, romance, love, family strife, heroes, monsters, ghosts, death, and damsels in distress. Many of these ballads were carried in the hearts and minds of immigrants to Colonial America. They were commonly sung in America and passed down to subsequent generations orally. By the early 19th century, Americans were composing new ballads to tell stories relevant to their lives in the United States.

Child Ballads

Harry Smith, the creative force who almost single-handedly assembled the Anthology, starts volume one with a series of five Old World ballads that can be found in Francis James Child’s seminal work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The books, published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898, catalog the texts of 305 distinct ballads and 1,660 variants. Most of the Child ballads, as they are now commonly called, originated and circulated orally in the British Isles during the 17th and 18th centuries, though some have remnants and influences that can be traced as far back as the 13th century. The Child ballads are the cornerstone of the Anglo-American ballad tradition.

In North America, the Child ballads went where the British settlers went and have most frequently been found and collected in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, New England, the southern coastal states, and the Canadian maritime provinces. Originally sung unaccompanied, by the 1920s and 1930s when the recordings on the Anthology were made, they were often sung with instrumental accompaniment that might include guitar, banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, or any combination of these and other instruments in a small string band.

The Anthology includes Child Ballad #243, “The House Carpenter,” recorded in 1930 by singer and clawhammer banjo player Clarence Ashley. All versions listed by Child are of Scottish origin, though details of the story differ. Ashley is from Shouns in East Tennessee and sang with medicine shows in the 1920s and 1930s. He is one of several Anthology artists who had a second career performing and recording music in the 1960s after being rediscovered by young folk revivalistswho had initially assumed all the artists from the Anthology had long since passed. Ashley was only 35 years old when he recorded “The House Carpenter,” though he sounds as though he might have been 135.

Heavily influenced by the music of the Anthology, Bob Dylan recorded “The House Carpenter” during the November 1961 recording sessions that produced his first album. This recording was not included on the Bob Dylan album, which consisted almost entirely of traditional folk songs. His recording of “The House Carpenter” was eventually released as part of The Bootleg Series Volumes 1 – 3, issued in 1991.

Indigenous Ballads

Following the five Child ballads, the Anthology moves into indigenous ballads that were born in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They generally recount actual events and were composed soon after the events occurred. Indigenous ballads, like British ballads, are often of unknown origin and developed many variants through the singing of people who transmitted them orally over the years. They tell stories of crime, love, natural disasters, and change brought about by the industrial revolution. On the Anthology, the songs aren’t sequenced chronologically, which would have been all but impossible. Part of Harry Smith’s genius is evident in the way the songs fit together, following sometimes intangible thematic, lyrical, or harmonic threads.

“Kassie Jones” recounts events related to an actual train wreck that occurred on April 30, 1900, killing engineer John Luther Jones. Jones was from the town of Cayce, Kentucky, which is how he attained his nickname, usually spelled “Casey.” The song was written by Wallace Saunders, a close friend of Jones, a few days after the wreck. It might more accurately be identified as a blues ballad, because it does not strictly follow the events of the story, as ballads generally do. The version of “Kassie Jones” on the Anthology was recorded by Memphis bluesman Walter “Furry” Lewis on August 28, 1928. Like Ashley, Lewis had a second career in music later in life after being rediscovered during the folk music revival by disciples of the Anthology.

The first video below is Lewis’ recording of “Kassie Jones” from the Anthology, followed by a video of him performing it in 1968.

Joni Mitchell wrote “Furry Sings the Blues,” after meeting the singer in a Memphis boarding house in the 1970s.

“The House Carpenter” and “Kassie Jones” are just two of the twenty-seven ballads on volume one of the Anthology.

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume One – Ballads. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.

The Carter Family and the “Big Bang” of Country Music?

Browsing through the country music section of a music store in the late 1990s, I happened upon a CD by the Carter Family. Country music sections of music stores were new to me, and I was wholly unfamiliar with the Carter Family. As I was seeking new experiences in old country music (see my previous post How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music), the photo on the cover of the album intrigued me.

Best of the Best of the Original Carter Family

The text on the back of the CD referred to the Carter Family as the “First Family of Country Music.” There was also reference to them being discovered at a 1927 recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, that has been called the “Big Bang of Country Music.” The Bristol sessions were conducted by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company. He was seeking rural musicians to record for what was a growing “old-time” or “hillbilly” music market in the record industry during the 1920s.

The Carter Family came from Poor Valley at the foot of Clinch Mountain in southwest Virginia. They were a trio consisting of Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle. The first vocal group to become country music superstars, the Carter Family carried on in various forms with two generations of offspring, which included Maybelle’s daughter June, who eventually married Johnny Cash. Maybelle’s distinctive guitar style, playing melody notes interspersed with chords (“the Carter scratch”), was hugely influential and can still be heard today in many genres of music.

So I had found the “First Family of Country Music” from the “Big Bang of Country Music.” At the time, it appeared that my search for the roots of country music, which began with the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, had reached its end. I had found the source. Or had I?

I eagerly removed the shrink wrap, inserted the CD into the player, and hit the play button. From the opening guitar notes on the first track I was hooked. And when the three-part vocal harmonies kicked in on the chorus… just listen.

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How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (4 of 4): Traditional

This is post 4 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

One song on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, “I Am a Pilgrim,” has a songwriting credit that attributes it to “traditional.” My understanding at the time I first heard the song was that traditional meant it was so old that no one remembers who wrote it.Later I learned that “traditional” is a term, like “folk music” and “old-time music,” that has been defined in different ways. Some people spend a lot of time and brainpower discussing, dissecting, and debating the minutiae of these definitions. Fortunately for you, I am not one of those people.

For our purposes, let’s just expand my original definition a little. A song can be traditional even if the name of the songwriter(s) is known. Traditional songs are those that are performed by custom in a community and have been passed down orally, or aurally, over a period of at least a few generations. Close enough.

“I Am a Pilgrim” is of unknown origin. It seems to be related to many different 19th century song texts. It was possibly an African American spiritual from the time of slavery. Trying to determine the origins of a traditional song of unknown origin is part of the fun and frustration of folk music.

The earliest recording that I have been able to identify is by the Heavenly Gospel Singers, recorded on February 13, 1936 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The song has been recorded by many others, including Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, Alabama, Willie Nelson, and Doc Watson. Some people mistakenly attribute its authorship to Merle Travis, possibly because his version provided the blueprint for some of the versions to follow. In the spoken introduction for his 1946 recording of “I Am a Pilgrim” (below), Merle indicates that he learned the song in his youth at the camp meetings and Brush Arbor meetings (religious gatherings) presumably in or near his hometown of Rosewood, Kentucky (Muhlenberg County). Depending on how old Merle, who was born in 1917, was when he “first got big enough to start running around by myself at night,” this supports the idea that the song was in circulation prior to the recording by the Heavenly Gospel Singers.

Here is the 1968 recording from the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album started me traveling down a most unexpected road that led to country and folk musicians the Louvin Brothers, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Merle Travis. This was only the beginning of my journey into American heritage music. Little did I know how far the road would go, how many forks it would have, and how long I would travel it. It’s been more than two decades and I’m still fascinated by what I find around every bend.

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