Skip to main content

Who's Making That Racket!

The popularity of Old-Time music follows a cyclical trend. When the record industry was created in the 1920s, it was this traditional music that topped the charts. When Bill Munroe created Bluegrass, his repertoire was based in this earlier style. During the 1950s, when Pete Seeger was freaking out Joe McCarthy, Old-Time revivalists were forming the basis of the Folk Boom of the '60s. Nearly every decade has had some form of resurgence in American Folk music. The past few years seem to be showing another up-tick in this raucous music.

So, just what the heck is Old-Time? That seems to stump many people. To the layman, Old-Time gets lumped in with Bluegrass as one in the same. In fact, I didn't know the difference between the two styles until I was about a year into playing the banjo. The late Mike Seeger tried to explain it in an essay from 1997, appropriately called "What Is Old-Time Music?"

I like to think of the difference between Old-Time and Bluegrass as my parents might think of the difference between the Rolling Stones and Primus. That new stuff might be faster and "cooler," but I can't dance to it. 

The confusing thing about Old-Time is that it seems to have always been called Old-Time or Old-Timey. That's probably because many of the tunes predate American settlers, as the tradition has roots in English, Irish and Scottish folk music, as well as some African influence. Like American culture, Old-Time is a melting pot of heritage and constant evolution, as the music is passed from generation to generation. 

While there are innumerable past musicians whom you should listen to if you're interested in this music, there are an increasing number of contemporary Old-Time groups that are worthy of your attention. Furthermore, these are groups that are touring now, which means you can actually see them play. 

The Dust Busters of Brooklyn, N.Y., just completed a winter tour; the Foghorn Stringband (and Trio), of Portland, Ore., is currently making the rounds; Old Sledge, of Eggleston, Va., has dates set up for early Spring; and recent Grammy winners the Carolina Chocolate Drops never seem to stop, even with a recent lineup change

These groups are just a snippet of the young bands at the heart of the current Old-Time community, whereas you'll find many more in various pockets throughout the United States. In future posts, I'll try to profile the individuals and groups that are essential listening for fans of Old-Time.

Uncounted are the musicians who gather regularly at local jam sessions and at seasonal festivals, forming impromptu bands that are at once brilliant and fleeting. If you want to know who is making Old-Time music today, scour the coffee shops and bars, college campuses and church basements, festival grounds and park areas -- these are the venues where the music is truly alive. 


Popular posts from this blog

Getting Blitzed with Tom Collins

A little more than a year ago, Salem, Massachusetts-based banjo player and teacher Tom Collins embarked on a yearlong project he called Banjo Blitz. The weekly YouTube series provided short banjo lessons on technique. Each video is about five minutes long, give or take, and presents a short pattern — or “ostinato” — designed to teach and improve a specific aspect of banjo playing.

The mission was to get the audience “to practice clawhammer in discrete chunks every day without the burden of trying to memorize tunes,” Collins says. He wanted to build skills rather than repertoire.

“Let’s take the tune off the table,” says Collins, who has been teaching banjo for 11 years. “Let’s focus on a simple, mantra-like ostinato that can train your body how to execute a technique properly, while training your ears how to hear it properly. Let’s also make it so that you can do this every day without it sucking every spare minute from your life. The big dirty secret about learning how to play an ins…

Clawhammer Picks and You: A Review

Clawhammer picks are a useful tool for increasing volume or to overcome fingernail challenges, such as broken, too short or weak nails. There are all sorts of commercial and homemade solutions available for banjo players, but it can be difficult to decide which options to choose. Thankfully, I've already done some of the work for you.
Just to be clear, I prefer my natural fingernail for frailing. However, there was a time when I experimented with regularly using a pick, and there are instances now where I find that a pick is necessary. Today, I'll take you through the five options I've tried. These are all available online at prices ranging from about $1 to $13.

Reversed/Reshaped Dunlop Pick ($0.75)
This was the most common suggestion before other companies started addressing the gap in the clawhammer pick market. Take a bluegrass pick, flatten it out and wear it backwards. The problem is that it's hard to get the fit right. While Dunlop picks are cheap and readily avai…

Erynn Marshall, Mark Olitsky, Doug Unger: An Old-Time Smorgasbord in Peninsula, Ohio, for Music on the Porches, Sept. 23

Old-time music and banjo fans alike would do well to aim their GPS units toward Peninsula, Ohio, the historic village nestled in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Cleveland and Akron. This Saturday is Music on the Porches, which features a number of musical acts playing all around town, starting at 11 a.m. 
The showcase event is Saturday night at the G.A.R. Hall, an evening concert that will feature fiddler Erynn Marshall and multi-instrumentalist Carl Jones, the married old-time duo based in Galax, Virginia; followed by Sean Watkins, formerly of the progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek; and finally headliner Tim O'Brien, who has recorded with everyone from Steve Martin to Dirk Powell, including the excellent "Songs From the Mountain" album with Powell and John Herrmann (one of my all-time favorites). Doors open at 6:30 p.m., with Marshall and Jones set to start at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online via Eventbrite
But wait, that's not all! 
Marshall wi…