America Unfiltered: The World Of Old-Time Music

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illustration by Courtney Spencer

This article appears in our September/October 2015 issue, now available on newsstands. 

Ruth Ungar understands that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between bluegrass and old-time music. Anytime they see a group with a fiddle and banjo, they call it a bluegrass band. It’s like older people who think all hip-hop or punk rock sounds the same, she says; it’s like people from the city who think all trees are the same.

But once you start paying attention, you learn the difference between oaks and maples, between gangsta rap and backpack rap, between bluegrass and old-time. And the more you know, the more pleasure you can pull from the forest or from the music.

Ungar should know. She’s the daughter of Jay Ungar, the legendary old-time fiddler and composer of the PBS standard “Ashokan Farewell,” and she was co-founder of The Mammals, one of the new-wave old-time bands formed by twentysomethings at the turn of the century. Those groups — which include such success stories as the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show and Uncle Earl — were often started by punk-rockers who traded in their electric instruments for fiddles and banjos. They embraced old-time more than bluegrass, because the older style seemed an easier transition from what they were already doing.

“Bluegrass is faster and tighter,” she says. “Everyone takes a turn being the lead or the supporting role. It’s about virtuosity, and that’s cool. In old-time, it’s more that everyone’s playing at once and the parts fit together; there’s not as much soloing. It’s not as flashy. Bluegrass banjo can sound so macho to me. Clawhammer banjo is so much more sensitive and subtle. Even if you don’t know what clawhammer banjo is, you feel that something different is going on; it sounds real twinkly.

“You don’t prepare for old-time the way you prepare for other music. You take a sip from the jar, begin to play and maybe in half an hour it starts to sound good. We’re doing this to please ourselves and each other and if you like it, come sit next to us. It’s not about, ‘Let me show you all the things I can do.’”

Ungar and her husband Mike Merenda, an ex-rocker and another former Mammal, now lead the Mike + Ruthy Band, whose new album Bright As You Can is dominated by original songs, often pumped up by electric bass and drums. But even on those songs, you can hear the arrangements’ grounding in old-time music. You can hear the emphasis on front-porch aphorisms, ensemble playing and relaxed tempos. Ungar acknowledges that “Rock On Little Jane,” written for her daughter Opal, is the descendant of the old-time standard “Rock About My Saro Jane” and that “Simple & Sober” is her attempt to write a Carter Family song.

“We use these archaic instruments,” Merenda told me in 2006, “but we do new things with them. We all try to push boundaries and challenge the audience while at the same time respecting the tradition of all the people who played on that stage before us. We have a desire to express something inside of us but these old songs show us how to do that.”

Many definitions have been offered for old-time music, so let’s offer one more: It’s the acoustic, community-based music of pre-World War II Americans in the rural South, based on the folk traditions brought here from the British Isles, France and West Africa. Or, to put it another way, it’s anything that sounds like the 84 songs on Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music.

That six-LP set included recordings from the ’20s and ’30s of Appalachian singers and fiddlers, hillbilly bands, blues musicians, songsters, Cajun bands, jug bands and gospel groups. Some of the performers, such as The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, The Stonemans and Charley Patton, are well remembered; most have fallen into obscurity. They were united by a common aesthetic: the traumas and aspirations of poor, rural Americans sung in unpolished, rural accents and accompanied on cheap, rural instruments. Even when the musicians moved to the cities, they retained that sound. That’s old-time music.

When the Anthology was reissued on CD in 1997, I interviewed an older generation of musicians about the set’s impact in the ’50s and ’60s. “We were like kids in a candy store,” Dave Van Ronk told me. “We had known some of the songs before, [but] what we hadn’t had access to were the traditional styles in which these songs were sung and played. For us this was incredibly important. If you heard Burl Ives sing ‘Boll Weevil,’ you thought it was a cute, little song, but to hear Charley Patton sing it was a whole other thing. That collection turned around the folk movement. The Anthology became our bible.”

“This was music that still had the scariness in it,” the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian added. “There had been an element of strangeness in the early days of our culture, but it had been given a wash-up and a spruce-up by the time it reached us. John Philip Sousa and Broadway tunes were considered American music in those days, and to hear these African modes coming off Mississippi plantations or these Irish tales about women gone wrong revealed a different America without the filter on.”

If the 1952 LP release kick-started a revival of deep-roots folk music, the 1997 CD reissue similarly launched dozens of young string bands playing old-time music, most notably The Mammals, Old Crow Medicine Show, Hackensaw Boys, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ollabelle, Uncle Earl, Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, The Freighthoppers, Duhks, Crooked Still, Wailin’ Jennys, Be Good Tanyas and Foghorn Stringband.

“I was playing some punk-rock when I got started,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor told me in 2006. “But we wanted to play on the street and see if we could find a place to sleep or a girl to take us home. We learned quickly that amplifiers weren’t the way to go. You had to drag them everywhere and you needed a power strip and you can’t find those on a street corner. It was much easier playing these old wooden instruments. The old-time songs fit those instruments, and you could play them with the same fierceness as punk-rock.”

“Old-time and punk align in a number of ways,” the Hackensaw Boys’ Rob Bullington told me in 2007. “There’s the do-it-yourself attitude, the supposition that the music would be happening whether people were getting paid or not. At the risk of sounding overly romantic, they’re both ‘people’s music.’ Not everyone can play bebop or bluegrass, but you don’t have to be a genius to play punk or old-time; you just have to really want to play it. If you do, you usually have those moments every night where it sounds as powerful as Nirvana or the Replacements — without having to carry around those heavy amplifiers and big drum kits.”

The Anthology makes clear that you can’t limit the term “old-time music” to the white string-band music of the southern Appalachian Mountains, as some try to do. It’s nearly impossible to disentangle that music from black musicians and from musicians throughout the South. The Carter Family learned many of its songs from their African-American friend Lesley Riddle. In his pre-bluegrass days, Bill Monroe learned blues numbers from a black neighbor named Arnold Schulz. On the other hand, Lead Belly sang the songs of the white cowboy star Gene Autry.

“If you investigate old-time bands,” points out Dom Flemons, co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, “you always hear these stories about musicians knowing or hearing a black musician, like Dock Boggs who met Old Lightnin’ who was traveling through his town. He’d follow this guy around and learn some music from him. Hank Williams and Earl Scruggs had similar stories. I was drawn to all these interconnections. Isn’t it interesting how this piece fits with this piece?

“As a biracial person, that’s something I grew up with: the idea that multiple communities can live together. I didn’t come in with an agenda like a lot of people before me. People should be smart enough to know that black and white people can live together in the same community. Especially if they’re in a poorer community; there’s only so much isolating people can do before they have to talk to their neighbor. Once you live in the South, that becomes more apparent.”

Flemons first met his future bandmates Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson at the First Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina in 2005. The three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops encountered the living embodiment of the neglected black string-band tradition when they met African-American fiddler Joe Thompson that same year. Soon Flemons, Giddens and Robinson were visiting the old man’s North Carolina home every Thursday to learn tunes and technique. The three youngsters dedicated themselves to carrying that heritage forward into a new generation.

Since leaving the group in 2012, Flemons has been billing his solo act on stage and on his 2014 album Prospect Hill as “The American Songster.” That’s a reference to the old-time African-American solo singers who presented a lot more styles than just the blues; they would also do religious songs, dance tunes, children’s songs, story ballads and Tin Pan Alley hits. This appealed to Flemons, whose curiosity ranged far and wide.

“I wanted to be a folk singer originally,” he explains, “but in the ’90s they’d go running for the hills if you said you were a folk singer, because they thought it was just very slow, singer-songwriter stuff. So when I heard about these songsters — guys like Pink Anderson, Henry Thomas, Mance Lipscomb and Lead Belly — who sang and played a variety of songs with strong rhythms, that appealed to me. With my background in black string music, I knew there’s a lot more to the African-American aesthetic than just the blues. Calling myself an old-time songster allowed me to do it all.”

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