March 18, 2003

Music Hath Charms

When we first moved from Alabama to Virginia in 1975, we were little acquainted with blue grass music and fully ignorant of 'mountain music' or what my new musical friends called "old time". During my first few months in Wytheville, a couple of my students invited me to a farm house on the edge of town where college kids had gathered, along with a dozen very country-looking older men in overalls and their wives. This was obviously a crowd that knew each other well, like an extended family. I was the only person there who didn't have an instrument and I felt truly conspicuous as an outsider, like a voyeur.

There I found myself in a strange crowd who enthusiastically played an unfamiliar reel that sounded just like the last one they had just played: a short verse sung by a single voice followed a long sequence of variations on the theme. They went on and on so that the rhythm and patterns of quickly changing chords soaked into your inner soul, over and over like a word repeated in prayer. And that was my first experience with old time traditional Appalachian music...'old-time' music popular from around 1900 through 1930, a blend of the tradition with parlor and vaudeville music, African-American styles, and Minstrel Show tunes.

The above is the first two paragraphs of a short assignment from class. I was just wondering if "old time" music was popular where you live. It quickly became our musical foundation when we first moved to southwest Virginia almost 30 years ago. Born of earlier music, it combined the anglo fiddle with the African instrument, the banjo, and in turn, gave rise to Blue Grass. Let Mike Seeger explain it to you in this article, What is Old Time Music?

Posted by fred1st at March 18, 2003 05:08 AM | TrackBack

I grew up in Canada with the government-run Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that brought us wondrous music from all over (and still does). I first heard what I'd call "Appalachian music" on a 60s tv show hosted by Oscar Brand. Dulcimer, harmonica, dobro, thin mountain voices singing strange words...and bluegrass!

It was familiar yet Irish roots had exposed me to music that has some similar roots. Certainly songs like Barbara Allen were common to my musical heritage ("you're British subjects") but sounded completely different from the traditional English version I'd heard.

I continued to listen to the Carter Family, Jean Redpath, the Osbornes, Bill Munroe...and still had no real idea of what it was all about. I called Christian music with an old-timey or bluegrass sound "white gospel" because I had no tradition of religious music being expressed in that way.

Then last September I attended a deepgrass festival at Pecan Ridge, Louisiana, and it all became THAT was what it was all about!

I'm glad that the people where you live are still making that music.

Posted by: Jane at March 18, 2003 07:33 AM

Fred, good to find you again! I've been living in Brazil for a number of months, and have just returned to New York. It's so interesting to see similar processes at work. Brazilians are crazy about music. I remember visiting a riverside restaurant in a fishing village accessible only by a Heart of Darkness boat upriver and sitting there listening to a group of drunken women singing sambas and forr for hours on end, without missing a word. In So Paulo, the largest city in South America, there's a growing movement to go back to the roots of samba, a ragtime-like music blending European song-forms like the polka with African rhythms, called "choro" ["crying"]. It sometimes sounds a bit like tango, too. In Salvador, Bahia, gateway to Brazil's "wild west" (the northeastern badlands called the "sertes") I was excited to meet some "repentistas," guys who play the "viola caipira," a kind of 10-string tenor guitar, and sing these ballads that remind me a lot of old bluegrass folk ballads: same sort of twangy, nasal foot-stomping stuff, somewhere between banjo and droning dulcimer. A lot of them are ballads about bandits that roamed the countryside from the 19th century up until almost 1940, called cangaceiros. They remind you of the legends of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and John Dillinger in our old-time music. When I was growing up, I had a lot of books and records of Alan Lomax's work for the Smithsonian, and my dad taught me the "hammering on" strum for the guitar, and was into the "folk revival." We used to sing "I'm in love with a big blue frog" a lot, and "Billy the Kid" ...

Posted by: colin brayton at March 18, 2003 10:22 AM

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