Searching for Truth in the Musical Crockpot of America:
Local musicians playing for a square dance at our house in Elkins, WV
Reflections on a Summer Spent Playing Old Time MusicWhen I was 18 years old, I moved to West Virginia to attend a teeny-tiny college in Elkins, Randolph County. This is where I first became interested in old-time banjo & fiddle music. I don't know what planted the seed initially; perhaps it was West Virginia's refreshing and definitive lack of concrete sprawl and low-flying military aircraft that was the hallmark of my hometown in Maryland; maybe it was having my heart broken by the right girl at the right time; or maybe it was a shift in perception that remains altogether intangible to this day. Whatever it was, I had the great fortune of learning to play banjo from Gerald Milnes, a nationally renowned folklorist, West Virginia historian, and consummate old-time fiddler, banjo player, guitarist, and singer who lived in the area and worked at my school.
By Kevin Chesser
Learning to play banjo from Gerry, who is an infinitely patient and gifted teacher, enlivened the world of music for me in a way that my childhood years of dorking on the electric guitar never even approached. Immediately, I was hooked. Playing the banjo felt pure and raw and completely liberating from the beginning.
Before continuing any further, we should talk about the distinction between 'old-time' music and 'bluegrass music,' a common misuse of musical nomenclature in our culture. Old-Time music is a broad term that can refer to many different styles of North American traditional music. For our purposes in this article, let's say that when we use the term “old-time,” we are talking primarily about the instrumental fiddle & banjo music native to the Appalachian mountains and American southeast. In these regions, the African-American down-stroke (also known as 'clawhammer') style of banjo picking merged with the Scots-Irish descended fiddling tradition. Old-Time music, in general, is not performance based; it is music made for square dancing or front porch playing, with a traditional repertoire that largely predates the Industrial Revolution. Tunes are usually played in a series of 2-4 constantly alternating parts, and there are typically no breaks or solos, save for the occasional singing of a verse during the tune. This music lends itself to a holistic sense of unity between the players, and not one single person is a standout in an ensemble; all are working towards driving the rhythm of the music together, and it is in these circles, late night jams in a friend's kitchen or wherever else you may find yourself with instruments in hand, that many different musicians can come together with a knowledge of traditional repertoires from all over the country, and simply sit down, and play.
Bluegrass music, though in certain ways similar in spirit, is a 20th century creation, pioneered by such luminaries as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. It is very performance based, with various band members taking breaks all throughout the songs and tunes. Bluegrass has influences of old-time, country, blues, gospel, and jazz in it, and much of the repertoire has been composed in the 20th century. For further elaboration on what bluegrass is all about, look it up. I am not an expert, but I will tell you that there is a considerable difference between what people consider to be old-time music and bluegrass music.
All this being said, we will be discussing old-time music in this article.
When I started playing clawhammer (down-picking style) banjo a mere four years ago, I was intending on nothing more than picking up a new hobby. Unbeknownst to me was the long-standing and immense cultural backdrop of the music played on the instrument. When I began discovering the old 78 recordings of 'hillbilly' bands from the '20's and field recordings of traditional fiddle and banjo players from West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana and more, an entirely new musical universe came alive in front of me. I also slowly began to discover that the small town of Elkins, WV, where I was living, was a veritable enclave of old-time banjo and fiddle players. The Augusta Heritage Festival happens here for 5 weeks every summer, there are community square dances each month featuring live old-time music, and a pub/music venue run out of the local college hosts performers of early country and old-time music from all over the region. Every September, the Randolph county fair sponsors a fiddle and banjo competition which draws a huge crowd and dozens of competitors from all over the state and out of state. In houses all over this region, including my own, we have gathered together for long nights of eating, drinking, playing, and talking about the old music and the musicians that came before us. I have experienced moments of playing music with my own friends in my own living room more, transcendent and joyful than any concert I've ever attended/paid too much for.
Shrine to late nights and good times at the Appalachian Stringband Festival in Clifftop, WV
There are a number of festivals throughout this region where traditional music is celebrated and preserved by people who come from all over. I planned a whole year around taking a tour of some of these festivals, which for many lovers of the music, has been standard practice for decades. For myself, it was more or less a totally new experience. In order to detail every strange encounter and musical epiphany I had would take ages, so I will do my best to capture the highlights of these events.
Starting off my summertime music jaunt was The Vandalia Gathering, held in West Virginia's state capitol of Charleston. Vandalia is a congregating place for musicians, dancers, artisans, and weirdos from all over the region. They have multiple stages featuring competitions for just about every stringed instrument you can think of, in addition to square dancing, and various pockets and formations of people gathering around to play tunes underneath the shady trees that dot the capitol center grounds. The talents of traditional musicians and artists young and old are out in force; everything from 10-year virtuoso guitar flatpickers to the oldest living fiddlers playing in the oldest existing style, chain smoking lap dulcimer players, banjo and mandolin pickers of all styles, flatfoot dancers, dweeby guys with thick-framed glasses and Melt Banana stickers on their banjo case, hardcore Republicans, hardcore Liberals, people from the mountains, people from the city. You name it, people show up bound together by a singular love for the old music.
I showed up and met some friends down there, played in the banjo competition (of course not standing a chance against the unimaginable talents aiming for the title in the 'adult' category), and wandered all around taking in the buzz of music, singing, and dancing all around me.
Of course, the Vandalia Gathering is right in the middle of the city so you have more than your fair share of screaming children, lurkers with neck tattoos, drunk British dudes who will talk your ear off for a half-an-hour (at least one who I had an encounter with) and all kinds of assorted guys, gals, dogs, families, octogenarians, loners, stoners, and so on and so forth. I recall the old biker guy I saw walking around carrying an American Flag with a wolf and a dream-catcher on it, doing strange turkey walk moves on the square dance pavilion and blowing cigarette smoke in the faces of small children. Everything at the weekend-long festival is free. Nothing will bring people together more than a common love of not having to shell out cash.
After bearing the sweltering heat of the day, with my entourage of friends and roommates from Elkins having split off in separate directions for the night, I headed for the capitol center parking lot, where musicians post up with lawn chairs and beer coolers for late night music and communing. I wandered around through the maze of RVs and cars, hit the 7-11 for a six pack and cigarettes, and idled by my vehicle before some familiar faces arrived and the music started flowing. The vibrant melodies of the fiddle, which evolved from traditional Scots-Irish music, paired with the African-thump of the banjo and the percussive pulse and slash of an acoustic guitar make up the basis of much of the old-mountain music that we hear and play today. At times, I find myself struggling to keep up with the older veterans of the music; as they blaze through a wild square dance tune or pull out an archaic, eerie piece with strange rhythmic hitches and odd timing, I do my best to keep up with it. My abilities to do this are directly related to how soused I am. It seems for some folks, as the music starts to flow, the alcohol does as well, and it allows them lose their inhibitions and give in to the music completely. For me, it has quite the adverse effect on my motor skills, which is unfortunate for those who happen to be in close proximity to me as I play.
In between tunes, there is good talk, whether be it an hour of people trading stories back and forth, or discussion of the old musicians who were alive and playing in pre-industrial times. It becomes a platform for friendly interaction and active engagement with your fellow humans. I spoke to John Gallagher, a veteran old-time fiddle/banjo player who has been living in my adopted hometown of Elkins, WV since the late '70's, about what it is that draws people into this music with such force and intensity: “What is attractive is that I think that there's something about, even an abstract thing like a fiddle tune, I think there's something about whoever came up with these individual tunes, the person that made it up initially was expressing something of their own life in the music. . . maybe the joy of getting married, or maybe some sense of loss, the death of somebody they loved, and that music is an expression, I feel, of the transitions that life is inevitably going to present.”
It is the “people's” music in every sense of the word. As traditional music evolves, there are tiny brush-strokes of soul, talent, and fervor embedded in the music put there by each person who played it in decades or centuries past. Traditional music is an ever-growing and changing dialogue within which everyone has their own small contribution, infinitesimal in comparison to the breadth of the tradition itself, but important all the same. Many people argue about whether or not this particular kind of music belongs to natives of Appalachia and the American South-East, which, of course, it does. But our society has transformed, and the rise of industry, technology, mass transportation, and mass media has made this kind of music known and available to people all over the country and world. Some people view this as a negative cultural process; the dilution of a once-unique artistic heritage by ignorant outsiders, 'poseurs' if you will, and some view it as a more organic, somewhat inevitable blending of cultural and regional identities. You could launch into a 500 page political diatribe about this subject, and there are plenty of people who have. I believe that essential to the beauty of the music is the preservation of its history and the celebration of the heritage that it represents, and that the traditional music of the United States is an essential part of our nation's discourse. But whether or not you view it's appeal to people from far and wide as good or bad, you're not going to keep the 'outsiders' away. The shift has already happened. No matter what side of the fence you are on, both sides agree that the music deserves our close attention, reverence, and respect; the argument is what those 3 nouns actually mean.
The West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville, WV, is a good example of a folk music gathering where local and regional heritage is celebrated just as much as the music itself. For a few magical and drunken evenings, musicians take over the streets of the small town of Glenville. The WV State Folk Festival is one of the longest running traditional music gatherings in the country. The handiwork of local craft-makers is displayed all around, and people play music in every tiny corner of the block-and-a-half radius that comprises 'downtown' Glenville. We stayed up most of the night playing music in the bed of our friend's pickup truck, often times testing its suspension with the stomping of our feet. We conversed with locals as the bar let out at 1AM, and watched as various female members of our party were hit on by an old wheelchair bound man, brain so pickled by years of alcoholism that though one could not really discern the words he was saying, though we knew it was probably pretty filthy. In the evening concerts, musicians young and old are invited out to play, and there are places where people gather around for storytelling and talks about the history of the area. There is also a long running square dance tradition at Glenville, and the evening dances, held on an open air wood pavilion in the middle of town, are filled with a nearly extinct population of older and elderly folks who have been square dancing all their lives and will probably continue to until the wear and tear of time upon their bodies stops them.
I talked to my friend Greta Fitzgibbon about the role that dancing plays in old-time music. Greta is a clawhammer banjo player, flatfoot dancer, and organizer of community square dances in our town of Elkins. Square dancing is a simple and energetic form of dancing that most people have trouble distancing from their experiences in middle school gym class. “The point of it,” Greta said, ”isn't to have this top level of excellent dancing, it's just so a bunch of people can get together, have a good time, and dance to some good music.”
Furthermore, the square dance tradition, same as the old-time music tradition, brings people of all ages together: “It feels like these days in our culture so much of our society is spent separating different age groups; like you go to school, you're with the same age group, you go to college, it's all the same college aged kids, and you're not around younger kids or older folks, and it's not a natural sort of thing to have a society where everything is separated out. . .The thing about old time music is that it's a kind of music that's meant to be danced to, so if you don't have the dancing going on, then the music is missing something.” Greta lives in Elkins with her husband Andy, an old-time fiddle and banjo player as well. When they got married this past October, they played a fiddle and banjo tune together as part of their vows. They had no need to hire a band because so many musicians showed up to their wedding that they just kept forming rotating square dance bands the entire night. It was a beautiful and inspiring celebration of love, a sentiment which I spent over 15 minutes expressing to Greta and her entire family in my state of euphoric shitfaced-drunkenness.
Some of my other festival exploits from this past summer were more of a mixed bag, to say the least. Take the Mt. Airy Fiddler's Convention, held in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, which is the real life Mayberry, where the Andy Griffith Show was filmed and based upon. The storefronts in Mt. Airy are plastered with Andy Griffith and Don Knotts paraphanelia, creating a strange dystopia-by-way-of-nostalgia feel. The 'convention', festival, gathering, whatever you choose to call it, takes place in a fenced-in campground roughly on the edge of town. For close to a week, I sweated my ass off in the brutal North Carolina heat and wandered around aimlessly through the festival searching for tunes, pot and camaraderie. Y'see, at Mt. Airy, people play music all day and all night. Gathered in intimate circles of fiddlers, banjo players, guitarists, upright bassists, and flatfoot dancers on wooden boards, there is music coming from all directions of the campground for probably twenty-hours a day, played by diverse personnel. The convention is populated by everyone from flag-waving Republicans in climate-controlled RVs to strange tribes of bearded and tattooed grunge-punks, whose modus operandi, besides playing fiddle and banjo music, is the home-building of stringed instruments, living close to the land, and moving about as the transient bohemians of Jack Kerouac's generation once did.
The energy and vitality with which the music is played at this festival is inspiring and intoxicating. In my case, arriving at this festival knowing very few people and oddly intimidated by tightly solidified circles of people I'd never met before intensely playing music all around, I spent most of my time drunk as hell. I recall one evening being so ripped that I fell directly on my face with my banjo strapped around me, attracting minimal attention from the highly focused musicians who I was standing near. One night, arriving without a tent or sleeping bag, I slept on a blanket underneath the stars directly on top on the spot where 30% of the festival-goers would piss and hock loogies. My friend Anna and I smoked a carton of cigarettes between the two of us that week. We were too lazy/incapacitated to get fresh ice for our cooler, so we ate wet tortillas and lukewarm clumps of cheese for most meals.
And I say this not necessarily to complain; though we were doing a lot of it at the time. I feel like part of the whole experience of these kinds of events, those centered around traditional, communally played music, is that there is time for an ad hoc culture to form, which bonds the people together powerfully. As opposed to going to see a rock and roll show, where performers are idolized and the audience is separated from the music as though they were livestock, the act of playing old-time music is 100% participatory, and this goes for not only the act of playing the music or dancing to it, but also being enveloped in the atmosphere created by it. It is truly one of the last holdouts in our society where entertainment becomes active, as opposed to passive. I feel like it is this that attracts so many different kinds of people to old-time music; people who are seeking freedom the constraints of their workaday job, or people who are looking back to the days of their ancestors when music was an organic extension of everyday life. Whereas rock n' roll, heavily laden with themes of rebellion, must plug into the 'man's' power grid in order to amplify their battle-cry, old-time music is acoustic, portable, and not even subject to the same dialogue of angst and anti-authoritarianism. People do it because it feels right, because it's positive, because it brings individuals together on the common platform of searching for simplicity and honesty in an ugly, industrialized world.
More succinctly, John Gallagher, in the same interview quoted from earlier, put it like this: “I think that's why (old-time music) is always going to be in style for anybody who's got ears that can really listen to it, because it is about humanity, ultimately.” Sometimes, the hellacious experience of drinking warm beer for four days and sleeping on the ground getting devoured by ants is cathartic, and though it may not be climate controlled or creature comforted, we go through these things and really feel like we've had a true human experience; sharing stories, sharing music, sharing bad drunken decisions, all of these things are part and parcel to one another. For many, the sawing, pulsating sounds of American fiddle & banjo music represents not what most of our culture may perceive it to be; an attempt at being ironic by adopting the now considered 'backwards' ways of a nearly extinct group of rural Americans. For those who love it, it couldn't be farther from irony. Old-Time music is pure soul, imbued with a raw life-force that crashes through the barriers of history, and more and more, has come to represent one of the last conduits for free expression in our society. If you're having a hard time picturing it, go out to where it happens, and see the real, breathing thing: the roots of our American music.
Young old-time musicians from Virginia playing the hell out of an old Doc Roberts tune.
Fiddler from Kentucky playing a very distinct version of a common tune.
There are many videos from this same concert available on youtube and they are all excellent.
Melvin Wine was a fiddler from Braxton County, West Virginia, who was a mentor and teacher to many musicians in the region.
Lester McCumbers, from Calhoun County, WV, playing fiddle with Kim Johnson.
Lester is one of the last of a dying breed of fiddlers playing in a very old style, and Kim Johnson is a great example of the clawhammer banjo style.
Field Recorder - Website where you can purchase recordings of old fiddle and banjo players. WV Division of Culture & History website for the Vandalia Gathering Website for the Mt. Airy Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina. Digital Library of Appalachia - Free, multi-media database of Appalachian music and culture archives. Juneberry 78s - Website where you can stream 78 RPM recordings of early recorded stringbands, blues singers, and country musicians.
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