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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. 


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