“The myth that bluegrass is the lineal descendent of oldtime music, comments of Allen Feldman”

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edited from Allen Feldman (from three email posts to Banjo-L ):

I, for one, do not accept the myth that bluegrass is the lineal descendent of oldtime music. Rather, bluegrass is a modern very urbanized genre, connected to the 1930s-50s industrialization of rural Southerners, that drew on a diversity of musical genres that were available through radio and phonograph such as oldtime, western swing, gospel, big band jazz, blues, parlor songs, Hawaiian music, etc in order to create something new that expressed the experience of mountain folk in urban exile.

Ralph Stanley describes the bluegrass sensibility exactly in those very terms. It’s the music of folk who were losing their traditions and past and used this form to hold on to and recapture their memory of a pre-industrial lifestyle.

In oldtime music the tradition has not been lost, it may be resisting change but it has not been displaced, it is not a modern music. I for one celebrate the fact that oldtime music is not bluegrass or dawg music or new grass or even claw grass (which sounds like an agricultural disease or killer weed). Oldtime works from different tonal centers, it uses open tunings and harmonic resonant overtones and incidentals, it mixes non-tempered scales with harmonization or it’s completely modal.

Compared to bluegrass or country western its largely dance centered and not song centered, many of its songs are verses to dance tunes, and most of its songs were meant for solo and unaccompanied performance in their oldest form. It is often not strictly symmetrical in its rhythms; a-rhythmic fiddle and banjo tunes are common particularly in West Virginia and Kentucky. Drones, bowed or fifth stringed, are central and not incidental to the music

It is true that oldtime was crudely adapted to the proscenium stage and to mass media very late in its 250 year history, 1920-40, but only for a rather short period of 20 odd years less than 1/10th of its history. The commercial success of oldtime music of the 78 records was short lived, it presented 200-year-old sounds and modified these somewhat for mass media markets. But this commercialization was not the final evolutionary moment of oldtime music, nor was it a summing up, many more traditions and styles did not get recorded than did.

And the commercial string band ensemble sound was not pervasive everywhere only in certain locales. In Kentucky, West Virginia, Round Peak other ensemble and performance formats endured and were not displaced by commercial sounds. For instance Wade Ward two finger picked up the neck when he recorded with the Bogtrotters, considering it a more appropriate modern style of banjo picking, and we only have recordings of him playing the archaic 200-year-old clawhammer style because of field collectors.

What was commercially recorded of oldtime music in the 1920s was highly selective and some of this selective material contributed to the development of bluegrass. Like a runoff into a large rising river but a lot stayed in isolate puddles with their own separate currents resisting homogenization and standardization.
Allen Feldman has been playing oldtime and Irish music on clawhammer banjo and cittern since the 1960s. He is the author of the Northern Fiddler: Music and Musicians of Donegal and Tyrone, Blackstaff Press, 1980.

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2 Responses to ““The myth that bluegrass is the lineal descendent of oldtime music, comments of Allen Feldman””

  1. Ron or Donna Says:

    While Alan Feldman’s observations are interesting and largely true, one senses a prejudice against the evolution of musical style that simply always happened and always will, whether we care to admit it or not. Much of what “mainstream” old-time revivalists like to consider old-time music ignores the influence of the real antecedents of the actual sources of most of the repertory – printed music. We can idealize all we like but it is a fact that most of the 18th- and 19th-century immigrants to North America were musically literate. Much of their music was written down in printed or manuscript tunebooks. Likewise, their songs were printed on broadsheets until memorized – and altered in the process whether through faulty memory of intentional variation.

    Just a few remarks on specific statements:

    “Compared to bluegrass or country western its largely dance centered and not song centered, many of its songs are verses to dance tunes, and most of its songs were meant for solo and unaccompanied performance in their oldest form.”

    If we dig a little beneath the surface, we’ll discover that a great many of the “crooked tunes” that have entered the fiddler’s rep are derived from songs, the odd phrasing having more to do with poetical meter than with a mystical inventiveness on the part of a given fiddler. And take the recordings of DaCosta Waltz’s Southern Broadcasters. While one could argue that they chose to record more commercially viable music, they had a distinctive archaic quality in their approach – and either recorded songs or tunes based on songs.

    “The commercial success of oldtime music of the 78 records was short lived, it presented 200-year-old sounds and modified these somewhat for mass media markets. But this commercialization was not the final evolutionary moment of oldtime music…”

    This statement presumes a little too much. While there may have been a handful of 200 year-old tunes recorded in the circa 15-year blip of commercial old-time recordings on 78s, much of the song rep was based on more recent 19th-century parlor music of the previous generation, probably learned from sheet music. Also, it’s a little odd to speak of isolating a point in time when music was somehow “pure” and to counter one’s own supposition by mentioning “evolutionary moments” of old-time music as a given.

    “…Wade Ward two finger picked up the neck when he recorded with the Bogtrotters, considering it a more appropriate modern style of banjo picking, and we only have recordings of him playing the archaic 200-year-old clawhammer style because of field collectors.”

    There you have it. The field collectors manipulated Wade Ward in order to record “archaic 200-year-old clawhammer style.” Um, the American banjo tradition isn’t quite that old. And “stroke-style” playing is just one the traditions. If you do a little research you’ll find the banjo as we know it was developed and promoted along with a published repertory, and there was just as much concentration on finger-style playing as stroke-style from the beginning. If you pay attention to the music of most banjo players whose music was captured on field recordings, most of the rep is finger-style playing. With the exception of one tune, all the banjo playing on the archaic-sounding Southern Broadcasters recordings was finger-style.

    When Wade Ward was recorded by field recorders, it was they who made the choice to call the clawhammer style archaic and it was they who requested that he play only tunes in that particular style. But he fooled us all by playing so cleanly that it doesn’t really sound archaic after all.

    We have a habit of conjuring and recreating the past in an image that suits our present ideals, and old-time revivalists are some of the worst offenders.

  2. Jim Says:

    Well put.

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