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Old-Time Music


Revival

Old-time music experienced a great revival in the early 1960s in areas such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Alan Jabbour, founding director of the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, became a leader of this revival while a student at Duke University. Other important revivalists include Mike Seeger and Pete Seeger, who brought the music to New York City as early as the 1940s. The New Lost City Ramblers in particular took the revival across the country and often featured older musicians in their show. The band was originally Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley. When Tom left the band, he was replaced by Tracy Schwarz. Many of the musicians on the scene now acknowledge that it was because of the New Lost City Ramblers that they became interested in old-time music.

Instrumentation

Old-time music is played using a wide variety of stringed instruments. The instrumentation of an old-time group is often determined solely by what instruments are available, as well as by tradition. The most common instruments are acoustic string instruments. Historically, the fiddle was nearly always the leading melodic instrument, and in many instances (if no other instruments were available) dances were accompanied only by a single fiddler, who often also acted as dance caller.

By the early 19th century, the banjo (an instrument of West African origin originally played only by people of African descent, both enslaved and free) had become an essential partner to the fiddle, particularly in the southern United States. The banjo, originally a fretless instrument and frequently made from a gourd, played the same melody as the fiddle (though in a lower register), while simultaneously providing a rhythmic accompaniment incorporating a high drone provided by the instrument's short "drone string." The banjo used in old-time music is typically a 5-string model with an open back (i.e., without the resonator found on most bluegrass banjos). Today old-time banjo players most commonly utilize the clawhammer style, but there were originally several other styles, most of which are still in use, loosely grouped by region. The major styles were clawhammer (which also went by a number of regional names), two-finger index lead (also called "North Carolina picking"), two-finger thumb lead (Kentucky), and a three-finger "fiddle style" that seems to have been influenced in part by late-19th century urban classical style. Generally, a young player would learn whatever style a parent or older sibling favored.

Because playing with more fingers meant being able to put in more notes, three-finger styles intrigued many players. Individualistic three-finger styles were developed independently by such important figures as Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, and Snuffy Jenkins. Those early three-finger styles, especially the technique developed by Jenkins, led in the 1940s to the three-finger Scruggs style created by Earl Scruggs and which helped advance the split between old-time and the solo-centric style that would become known as bluegrass. Jenkins developed a three-finger "roll" that, while obviously part of the old-time tradition, inspired Scruggs to develop his smoother, faster, more complex rolls that are now standard fare in bluegrass music.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, other stringed instruments began to be added to the fiddle-banjo duo; these included the guitar, mandolin, and double bass (or washtub bass), which provided chordal and bass line accompaniment (or occasionally melody also). Such an assemblage, of whatever instrumentation, became known simply as a "string band." Occasionally the cello, piano, hammered dulcimer, Appalachian dulcimer, tenor banjo, tenor guitar, mouth bow, or other instruments were used, as well as such non-string instruments as the jug, harmonica, Jew's harp, concertina, accordion, washboard, spoons, or bones.

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