Old Time 101


Photo courtesy Ray AldenToday we call the kind of music that Rhys Jones, Jeff Miller, and Jim Nelson play “old-time music,” though that wasn’t always ever thus. Prior to the 1920s, it was just called music, and it came to America with the English, Scottish, Irish, and German settlers. In the US the music naturally kept growing, changing, and evolving, creating a number of variant styles throughout Appalachia. In time, musical styles throughout the eastern United States were as unique and clustered as English accents are even today. You could tell, within a few miles at times, where a player was from just by hearing them play.

However, in the 20th century the sound of old-time music became more homogenous. So much so that these days, wherever you go—from Japan to Norway, North Carolina to St. Louis—the old-time style that you are most likely to hear is the Round Peak style, a highly influential music that comes from Surry County, North Carolina. Surry county is, let’s say, small. Round Peak, the town that gives its name to the style, is even smaller. But, if we wanted to stretch a point, we could say that for much of the 20th century, the epicentre of the Round Peak style was an address: Tommy Jarrell’s house, a small, white clapboard bungalow in Toast, NC, a town just west of Mount Airy. Jarrell was a great teacher, a lively personality, and a magnet for young players who wanted to learn old-time music. Some, such as Mike Seeger and Bob Carlin, made the drive down from New York City; others, such as Riley Baugus and David Holt, arrived from within Appalachia. But they came in the hundreds for the same reason: to sit at the feet of the master.

There are lots of indirect descendents, too, and Rhys Jones, Jeff Miller, and Jim Nelson are terrific examples of that. They play lots of classic tunes, including “Blackberry Blossom” and “Red Bird” and they remain close to the traditional style. Up front is the fiddle, taking the melody and embellishing it through bow work and all those beautiful drones. The banjo is played clawhammer, and supports the syncopation of the fiddle melody. The guitar is largely relegated to a back seat, mostly providing rhythm for the fiddle and banjo.

For people new to the style, it can take some getting used to. Old time music is social music, meant for dancers to dance to, and for players to participate in, more than it is to be sat in front of and listened to. It’s about being together, not showing off. While instruments will take turns with the melody, they don’t solo in the way that bluegrass, blues, and jazz musicians do. Instead, they play the melody straight, pretty much, which can make the music sound repetitive (and, well, it is).

What’s wonderful about the music, though—and I realise that this might take a bit of a leap of imagination for the uninitiated—is the subtlety. Slight variations have meaning. (For a great primer on the variations within the music, see Jens Kruger’s demonstration of old time banjo styles )  The social aspects of the music are what make it truly unique, and perhaps are the reasons that the music persists today. You are more likely to see Jones, Miller and Nelson playing music for dancers rather than a seated audience. And while they are a delight on a recording, the best case is to be in the room with them live. They are in town, and you owe it to yourself to go check them out sometime and, if so moved, to get up and dance along.

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