«Photo by Dave Gahr Labels are necessary components of the ideas and experiences we fit into our lives. With labels, we differentiate. Where would ...»
LEGENDS OLD TIME MUSIC
by Mark Humphrey
Photo by Dave Gahr
Labels are necessary components of the ideas and experiences we fit into our lives. With labels, we differentiate.
Where would marketing be without them? Some labels have
the ability to be simultaneously pleasing and/or pejorative,
depending on one’s point of view. Such a label is ‘old time
music.’ We may interpret it to denote (A) hopelessly outdated music or (B) deeply authentic music. Could it be both, music rooted in pre-video (even pre-radio) rural America and thus heroically anachronistic?
‘Old time music’ may suggest sounds rooted in pre-mass media Americana, but it is no less a marketing label than is ‘urban’ (contemporary black music) or ‘young country’ (postGarth Nashville pop). It’s just an older sales hook. This one can be traced to 1923, when Georgia’s Fiddlin’ John Carson waxed The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane and The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow for the OKeh label.
Legendary A&R man Ralph Peer deemed Carson’s performance “pluperfect awful,” but enough rural Americans disagreed to make the record a hit, the first in the history of what’s now called country music. (Ever the pragmatist, Carson remarked at his first whiff of success: “I’ll have to quit making moonshine and start making records.”) Carson’s paean to barnyard fertility rites and bucolic cabins initially appeared in OKeh’s popular music catalogue, where it kept uneasy company with slicker stuff. Where to put such downhome keening and sawing? The company which had three years prior pioneered ‘race’ recording with Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” opted for ‘old time music’ as a descriptive moniker for records by artists of Carson’s ilk, and OKeh’s label has prevailed.
But just what was a 1920s commercial record company selling with ‘old-time music’? Something not jazz age surely, but what specifically? Clarence Ashley’s observations in this video suggest that the record companies, at least from the artists’ viewpoint, had a dim understanding of this music, though we sense a general ‘grasp of genre’ when reviewing vintage ‘old time music’ recordings today. A few obvious generalizations bear witness to this. Most of the ‘old time’ musicians were white rural agrarian Southerners. Their singing, by European art music standards, was unschooled (though not necessarily ‘artless’). The same might be said of their musicianship, expressed primarily via strings. Their song repertoire could be broadly divided between secular and sacred and further subdivided into categories of traditional, commercial (often of sufficient vintage to have entered oral tradition), and original (often topical and tragic) songs. These general elements are found equally in the commercial ‘old time music’ recordings of the 1920s and in the performances captured decades later which appear on this video.
‘Old time music,’ then, is a music rich in cultural continuity. Alan Lomax has written in his essay “Folk Song Style” (American Anthropologist, LXI, No. 6, December 1959) that such music is intent to “give the listener a feeling of security, for it symbolizes the place where he was born, his earliest childhood satisfactions, his religious experience, his pleasure in community doings, his courtship and his work – any or all of these personality-shaping experiences.” Such music, drenched deep in its listeners’ “personality-shaping experiences,” is inherently powerful, and was especially so in a culture, marginally literate and pre-electronic, where it was among the strongest threads of the social fabric. Religious faith and fable (Daniel Prayed) were underscored in song.
Socially accepted pleasures (square dancing) were set to brisk rhythms and tunes. Balladic sagas of the bad (John Hardy) and the beautiful (The Four Marys) were more readily rePhoto by George Pickow membered (and strikingly heard) when sung. Resonant in meaning and methodology, ‘old time music’ had been the heartbeat of Anglo-Celtic Southern America for many generations. By the time it became a marketing label which celebrated its own quaintness, its days were numbered. The technology which enables us to savor Fiddlin’ John Carson 70 years after his heyday also heralded the demise of the charmed circle of oral tradition and relative isolation which had nurtured old time music since the coming of the South’s first Anglo-Celtic settlers.
The notion that this tradition was simultaneously endangered by twentieth century modernity yet preserved in the remote South was dramatized by English folklorist Cecil Sharp’s 1916-1918 song-collecting field trip, the fruits of which were published in 1919 as English Folk Songs From the Southern Appalachians. Sharp found American variants of many hoary British ballads with impressive pedigrees.
Songs scarcely remembered in their land of origin still held a kind of ‘racial memory’ spell over Southern descendants of
expatriated yeomen. But the ballad tradition was not static:
newer songs of outlaws and train wrecks sprang up alongside old ones of knights and ladies. In a rural society where newspapers were rare outside cities and literacy limited, the ballad makers filled the role of dramatist/news anchor. This Southern penchant for story songs, often of a morbid bent, remained a striking element of even commercial country music until fairly recently.
If a half dozen of the performances on this video are of ballads, plenty more illustrate varied instruments and instrumental styles. By far the oldest type of instrument played here is Jean Ritchie’s Appalachian dulcimer, though technically this ‘mountain dulcimer’ is misnamed: true dulcimers are struck with beaters (thus ‘hammered dulcimer’ is redundant). A plucked zither, the Appalachian dulcimer’s basic design is ancient: the legendary Pythagorean Monochord, from whence the rudiments of the diatonic major scale were supposedly derived some 2500 years ago, may have Iooked similar. The instrument’s antiquity belies the fact that it was a relative latecomer to the American South. It didn’t come over on the Mayflower or any other ship of British origin.
Germans and other Northern Europeans apparently brought such instruments in the 19th century, when they were spread via the Pennsylvania side of the Appalachians into the American South. A newcomer as late as the 1890s, the Appalachian dulcimer’s apparently medieval design and penchant for modal tunes disguised the fact that it was, among folk instruments in the South, a new kid on the block.
Though more modern in design and far more difficult to play, the unchallenged favorite instrument for generations of Americans was the fiddle. The first documented fiddle contest in America took place in 1736; for two centuries fiddlers were necessary components of most successful social functions, especially anywhere dancing might occur. Often deemed a mite disreputable, the fiddler was a living repository of tradition who imbued venerable tunes with fresh fingerprints, a characteristic assertion felt variously here in the gloriously unpolished Tommy Jarrell and the more disciplined (but no less spirited) Marion Sumner.
Despite the European background of much of this music and of such instruments as the fiddle, the influence of African-American phrasing and syncopation profoundly affected old time music. (This influence becomes particularly striking when you compare American stringband music to that of Canada, a New World culture which lacked a significant African-American presence.) The banjo is the most obvious legacy of African-Americans in old time music, for the instrument itself is African in origin. It came to white SouthKirk McGee, Roscoe Holcomb & Eck Robertson, photo by Dave Gahr erners via the nineteenth century minstrel show, vestiges of which echoed in such performers as Uncle Dave Macon, an early Opry star imitated here by his longtime accompanist, Sam McGee. Compared to the banjo, the guitar was both a latecomer and a folk instrument by commercial fiat. It was in the late nineteenth century that such mail order catalogues as Sears & Roebuck made inexpensive mass-produced guitars widely available, and it was by such prosaic means that the guitar and mandolin entered Appalachia. The emergence of a Doc Watson was unforeseen by the catalogue dispensers.
There is a sketchy background of old time music and the means by which it was made. The social and natural environments which nurtured this music are no less important to understanding it than are matters of instruments and ethnicity, but the interested reader will look elsewhere to learn of them. During the folk music revivals which spanned the late 1950s-70s, much of the extraordinary music recorded by commercial labels in the 1920s was reissued, legendary artists were rediscovered, and previously unheard exponents of the ‘old time’ tradition were likewise found and brought to perform at folk festivals. It was an exciting epoch which coupled ‘living legends’ like Clarence Ashley and Tommy Jarrell with younger incarnations of the ‘old time’ spirit (New Lost City Ramblers, Red Clay Ramblers, etc.). Some fine music was played and a fitting ‘last hurrah’ was sung to a final generation of musicians who absorbed this music by osmosis as their primary music, a core “personality-shaping experience.” By the time men like Roscoe Holcomb were passing from the scene such young rural Kentuckians as Ricky Skaggs were aggressively moving into Nashville’s commercial mainstream. Skaggs made it in 1981 (the year of Holcomb’s death) with a country-rock version of Lester Flatt’s Don’t Get Above Your Raising; by then a Kentucky boy’s raisin’ was more apt to include Led Zeppelin than the ‘lassy-makin’ tunes’ of Clarence Ashley’s youth. The heavy metal hillbilly rant of the Kentucky Headhunters soon followed (their first hit was a buckskin-and-downers version of Bill Monroe’s Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine), and the ‘old time music’ embodied in this video receded like dream fragments of ancient ballads saved fast in the memories of a dwindling few tradition keepers.
THE PERFORMANCES ROSCOE HOLCOMB The unalloyed pure
Photo by Dave Gahr spirit of old time music never had a stauncher exponent than Roscoe Holcomb. His stewardship of the True Faith came naturally (though not effortlessly); he didn’t seek his missionary role but nonetheless embodied it like no other. Given his deep and implacable uniqueness, it comes as little surprise that Eric Clapton once referred to Holcomb as his favorite singer, or that Bob Dylan lauded similar praise on Holcomb’s album, “The High Lonesome Sound” (Folkways FA2368). There was something almost supernaturally intense about Holcomb’s engagement with his material: not only did he move others to tears but on occasion was himself so affected by a performance (like that of Little Bessie on the aforementioned album) that he would enter a days-long seclusion from music-making. It wasn’t an activity Holcomb took lightly; given his shamanic wrestling with his music’s essence, how could he? ‘Soul singer’ is a sobriquet that fits Holcomb, for he sang from his tradition’s core. Black fiddler Howard Armstrong noted this quality, calling Holcomb’s music devoid of decorative artifice, “pure.” His discoverer and champion, John Cohen, wrote this elegiac appraisal of Holcomb’s hard-lived art: “In his singing some heard the blues, others a medieval chant, as well as the wail of Old Baptist unaccompanied hymns and the long ballad tradition.
His banjo and guitar introduced an element in the music which was full of individualistic rhythmic patterns answering more to a continuous pulse than to a big beat...He confirmed our belief that such a profoundly moving musician could grow and exist in America apart from the commercial and art music which surround us. His homemade music and voice conveyed a precise clarity which reached people far beyond his immediate home in eastern Kentucky.” (Old Time Music # 36, Summer 1981.) Daisy, Kentucky, Holcomb’s remote mountain homeplace in Perry County, won’t be found on many maps. Nearby Hazard, infamous for family feuds and labor violence, is the closest town of note, and it was on a field trip there that John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers discovered and first recorded Roscoe Holcomb in 1959. Then 47, Holcomb had lived a hard life (coal mining, lumber milling, construction) typical of the region. No less typical was the strong presence of music in Holcomb’s life. Fascinated by the harmonica as a boy, he was given a homemade banjo by a brother-in-law which served him through his teens. Holcomb recalled turning to music as more than a hobby during the grim Depression year of 1932. “Pretty hard times,” he recalled. “The year I started learning to play the banjo I learned 400 tunes and could sing practically every one of them...” He teamed with a fiddler to play local dances, a role reprised in the Sumner, Young & Holcomb performances here.
Religious conviction and regular employment both curtailed Holcomb’s secular music-making for many years, factors which preserved a style little-changed at the time of his 1959 discovery from its Depression-era development.
Holcomb’s Folkways recordings and subsequent performances at the Newport Folk Festival and similar events caused something of a national stir, though not enough to really alter his fortunes. Despite respiratory ailments (asthma, emphysema, black lung) and a broken back which would have qualified him for disability benefits, Holcomb continued to seek odd jobs as long as he was able. (“All my life I’ve worked hard,” he said. “I don’t know what to do when I’m not working.”) “Upon meeting him,” Cohen wrote, “someone commented that they weren’t sure whether he was a very simple man from a great tradition, or a giant among men.” Holcomb’s five featured selections here demonstrate the contours of his secular repertoire, which incorporated African-American elements into an Anglo-American framework.