published in Penguin Eggs, issue #69
On the face of it, Ben Nesrallah is the height of improbability. He’s 26 years old, has grown up in Montreal, and he plays old-time music in a duo with a friend he’s had since childhood, Trevor Pool. Together they make up The Noisy Locomotive. Their latest release, “All Nature Soon Will Settle Down to Rest,” isn’t just a lot of fun, it’s also a quick , adept tour of the form and its history.
For many Canadians, the music is unfamiliar, confusing. It’s associated with the movie Deliverance or the frantic dancing that George Clooney did, complete with fake beard and bib overalls, in O Brother Where Art Thou. Certainly, it’s easy to make fun of, and people laugh even when they don’t quite get the joke.
The fact is that there is much more here than most people think, and it’s the tradition, more than anything, that Nesrallah and Pool seek to promote. And, as they make clear in their shows and their work in schools, it’s truly one worth promoting, perhaps now more than ever.
Prior to the 1920s, there wasn’t such thing as old time music, or at least it wasn’t called that. It was just called music. It came to America with the English, Scottish, Irish, and German settlers, and once in the new world, took off on its own. Over time, it continued to change and evolve, creating a number of variant styles throughout Appalachia. In time, musical styles across 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.
Through the 20th century the sound of old-time music became more homogenous. So much so that these days, wherever you go—Tulsa to Tokyo, San Diego 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, um, small. Round Peak—the town that gives its name to the style—is even smaller still. But, if we wanted to stretch a point, we could say that for much of the 20th century, the epicenter of the Round Peak style was even more exact than that: 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 descendants, too, and Nesrallah and Pool are terrific examples of that. They play lots of classic tunes, including “Jimmie Brown the Newsboy” and “Lulu Walls” and they remain close to the traditional style. Fiddle often is forward in the mix, we might say these days, taking the melody and embellishing it through bow work and all those beautiful drones. The banjo is played claw hammer, and supports the syncopation of the fiddle melody. In much old-time music guitar is relegated to a back seat, providing rhythm for the fiddle and banjo. Here, that’s what it does for the most part, providing the accompaniment to the fiddle and mandolin.
“It’s music at a human level,” says Ben. “We’re all just so plugged in these days, in our own little worlds. The idea of sharing music by actually sitting down and playing with each other and learning from each other. It’s kind of a lost art form.
You can sit in a circle with a bunch of folks here, and I like that it’s not about ego or one person over another. It’s about sharing and having a good time and building something together. It has a lot to do with the idea that it’s not about the individual, it’s about the community, building a sound, and being in the moment.”
For many people, particularly in Ottawa and Montreal where Nesrallah and Pool come from and play, 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 also wonderful about the music (and I realize that this might take a bit of a leap of imagination for the uninitiated) is the subtlety. Slight variations have meaning. Sometimes, delightfully so. “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” certainly has a home within old-time music, though we know it today perhaps largely because the Carter Family had a hit with it in 1931. On the recording by Noisy Locomotive the mandolin intro and turnarounds—the bars that Earl Scruggs added to the arrangement—quote another Carter tune, “You are my Flower.” (There are five Carter songs on the Noisy Locomotive’s latest disc, All Nature Soon will Settle Down to Rest. Can you spot them all?)
It’s delightful to have those kinds of nods and winks. For many people, these songs aren’t just songs, they’re like favourite bedtime stories, full of drama, history, interesting turns, and familiar faces. Tommy, Earl, Maybelle, AP, Charlie, Mac, and Bill. (And look, there’s good old Jimmy Brown, still not wearing any shoes!) This is music that comes to us through various filters, voices, and years. Like the steps of the Agora, they’ve been shaped and burnished over the years by all the people they have supported. Even if you don’t know all the details, you still can have a sense of that a lot of people have been here before, and there are hints of all lives that these songs have touched.
Those kinds of historical details, or whatever they are, aren’t essential though they can add some of the charm. When used best, of course, the songs aren’t presented for the nostalgia, but in order to say something new. “We’re bringing in old songs for a reason,” says Ben. “They’re songs that happen to be resonating with us at a certain point in time.” No, you can’t buy a table for 15 cents, as in the lyric of “Stern Old Bachelor.” For that matter, bachelor probably doesn’t mean the same thing it did in the 30s, when the Carter’s recorded it (at a time when AP and Sara were estranged, still singing together even when they couldn’t speak to each other anymore).
But the messages are larger than the details. The music is about austerity, disappointment and, as Ben says, “the struggles and the grief and the good times too.”
“Old time and the old country tunes, it’s just a style of music that resonates within us. And with any traditional genre, it’s got that soul in it,” he says, then adds with a chuckle, “And, hey, it’s just a lot of fun.”