Consumerism and orthodoxy in old-time?

In the mood for a rant? I am!

If you’re familiar with my feelings about tab, you won’t be surprised that the following paragraph caught my eye in a book about the American Balkan scene:

Consumerism and a museum mentality are definitely evident in the Balkan music and dance scene. “There is a lot of that collecting mentality. Oh, that tune, I want it,” Jane explained. One can collect tunes, step patterns, and musical instruments, just as one can collect folk costumes or records. There is a strong desire to possess the “objects” of one’s fascination….Whether or not this collecting appetite is utilitarian, it is often insatiable.

While it may pander to consumer cravings, the Balkan scene continues to be a living tradition, according to the author, Mirjana Laušević. How does it compare to the old-time scene in that respect?

The Balkan scene distinguishes itself from a number of American folk scenes that seem to have shifted rather decisively from “tradition” to “orthodoxy”….”A traditional society has been transformed into an orthodox one when what was a matter of course (what was once absorbed and habitual) has become subject to rules, formal teaching, and scrupulous attention to textual authority.”

Old-time rules

Maybe I’m just cranky because I hurt my wrist and can’t play for awhile. But I’m familiar with both the Balkan and the old-time scenes, and the old-time scene has far more rules — rules that I think can limit our development as musicians. A few rules I’ve learned:

  • Banjo players shouldn’t play chords. They also shouldn’t play too many melody notes, and they “can’t” be the lead melodic instrument.
  • Old-time bands shouldn’t create arrangements.
  • Fiddlers “can’t” learn a tune from a banjo or any other instrument, so if the fiddler doesn’t know the tune, the group “can’t” play it.
  • The way Big Name played a tune on Important Recording is the “right” way to play it.
  • If a fiddler introduces a new tune, the first question is, “Who did you learn that from?” The answer determines the acceptability of the tune.


People have told me that these rules protect tradition. But I have trouble believing that there never existed a clawhammer player who played chords, and there was never one who played without a fiddler. There was never a band that worked out an arrangement, and never a fiddler who picked up a tune from a banjo player or just backed someone up. And Big Name always played that tune exactly that way, and every musician in whatever period we’re preserving wanted nothing more than to sound exactly like Big Name.


I understand that if there were no rules, the community could no longer be distinguished from the mainstream. But these particular rules seem to have become unquestioned orthodoxy, and in my opinion they limit our growth as musicians.

For example, the Irish and Balkan scenes allow many more instruments to take the melodic lead, so more players are encouraged to learn new tunes and jams are less dependent on one person. It’s also considered okay for someone to play an occasional “advanced” tune that’s hard to follow, because there’s no rule saying everyone must be included all the time. I think the advanced tunes inspire newer musicians to improve their skills. Both scenes also allow some creative use of chords, and guitarists get to play something other than boom-chuck.

This kind of openness encourages musicians to grow. They want to learn some theory so they can improvise and find cool harmonies. They want to become strong melodic players so they can lead that new tune at the next jam. They want to experiment with different rhythms and arrangements so they can shape the experience of the audience or dancers.

I wish I saw more of this in the old-time scene, but then one could argue that it wouldn’t be the old-time scene anymore.

In the unlikely event that you’re still reading this: Do any of the old-time rules bug you? Or do you happily accept the rules because they help create a well-defined community?


33 Responses to “Consumerism and orthodoxy in old-time?”

  1. 1 Phil December 9, 2008 at 7:39 am

    Question: What’s the difference between a fiddle player and a terrorist?

    Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist.

    Being in the UK I can’t comment on your feelings about the Old Time scene but I have suffered the same problems with Irish sessions, particularly the fiddle player thinking he is in charge, so I guess it’s a traditional music problem rather than a specific Old Time thing.

    I’ve played melodic clawhammer since the 70’s and can’t see I have ever respected any of the ‘rules’ you catalogue.

    I guess my attitude is I play the 5 string banjo, not just Old Time music, and I’ll play any music in any way I feel appropriate to my style or limited ability.

    Anybody who insists on the rules you list isn’t preserving the music they are stifling it. Not only do these rules make it rather tedious for the player, but also they aren’t going to produce performances that win many new listeners.

    This is social music, designed to entertain the player and the audience, and, to my mind, the only rule is ensure you and the audience enjoy the performance.

    So I think you can see I agree with what you say.

  2. 2 Brentk5s December 9, 2008 at 9:04 am

    I’m no expert, but I think I fyou look hard enough and long enough you will start to see this change. Look at the new bands that are changing these norms even within “old-time.” I’m thinking specifically of the Duhks and Mark Schatz’s new stuff, and you of course. If they can get away with it and it becomes accepted others (i.e. amatures) will follow.

  3. 3 Cathy December 9, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that some musicians are stretching the genre, so maybe some of their ideas will trickle into the jam scene. And like Phil I like to think that I play music on the banjo, I don’t play just “banjo music.”

    Some strong musicians I know have left the jam scene. If they play old-time at all, it’s in a band; others have gone on to Irish. I think this steady trickle of departures keeps the jams at a more basic level than they need to be. At the same time, many people in the old-time community obviously love it just the way it is, so it’s not my call.

  4. 4 William Annis December 9, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    As much as I hate most post-modernist jibber-jabber about “identity”, I cannot help but wonder if some of this rule creation doesn’t have more to do with solidifying and making obvious the boundaries of a group one has decided to identify with.

    This is rampant in the US and Europe, is it not, where you find a hair style, a clothing style, a political outlook and a musical style all tied together into a single group identity? There might even be a reading list. I mean, the appearance of the wrong sort of instrument in a band’s album — or the expression of the wrong sorts of political views — may get them kicked from the musical Canon of this or that group.

    How many utterly urban banjo players, who have never been near a fresh cow pat, put on a hick persona if they perform in public? I think of this as Appalachian Minstrelsy.

    So, it’s not clear to me how much these rules actually have to do with the music itself.

  5. 5 Cathy December 9, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Maybe an ethnomusicologist will someday figure out which rules are truly vestiges of the culture we’re supposedly preserving and which have been added in our generation to define the group. Or has someone already done that?

    All these scenes are fabrications to some degree. The Balkan scene is more legitimately “mine” because I grew up in Chicago among the people that make up that scene, I was exposed relatively young to the music and dance, and it became a huge part of my life. It’s an urban scene that thrives on the presence of immigrant communities, and that’s where I lived.

    My first exposure to old-time was as something that you learn from books and classes. For many years, no one around me actually played it as part of their life. Maybe that’s one reason I continue to see the scene as containing unnatural rules. To people deep in the scene, it probably feels a lot more natural.

  6. 6 jeff December 10, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Love the discussion – very interesting. However, I’m interested in your wrist. First – how are YOU? Second – when will WE get another video?

    Thanks again for all you do.

  7. 7 rick Ceballos December 10, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    There were banjos long before there was old-time music and much unorthodox music was played on them That includes jigs which have been played on banjos since the mid 1800’s. This issue is not exclusive to old-timey. I’ve run into it with Irish,French and even moriss dancing. I say let it go Cathy,there are more and more of us melodic players all the time. Just keep doing what you are doing and get well soon. Thanks for your fantastic website

  8. 8 Paul roberts December 11, 2008 at 2:29 am

    Instruments and styles are merely extensions of the human nervous system. The beauty is in having the freedom to explore. That’s why I was so drawn to you music in the first place, Cathy. I thought, ah! a kindred spirit; someone who’s taking the banjo to different places. I’ve always thought the banjo had much more potential than anyone knew, and that’s being shown constantly by those, like yourself, who are on the cutting edge of their inspiration. Thanks for keeping us inspired.
    Happy plunking,
    Paul at

  9. 9 Paul roberts December 11, 2008 at 2:32 am

    “Not only do these rules make it rather tedious for the player, but also they aren’t going to produce performances that win many new listeners.

    This is social music, designed to entertain the player and the audience, and, to my mind, the only rule is ensure you and the audience enjoy the performance.”

    nice words, Phil

  10. 10 Cathy December 11, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments. The creative tension between belonging and exploring has always intrigued me, and it’s great to hear such considered comments from you.

    My wrist is getting better. I hurt it splitting wood, which is one of my favorite activities but which seems to injure me a little too often.

  11. 11 Dominic December 11, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Aloha Cathy,

    Fantastic distinction between tradition and orthodoxy: some thoughts…

    By the time something is orthodox than the contrary becomes inevitable “Heresy.” Heresy is often violently opposed and identified as “wrong” by either culturally appointed keepers of the tradition “elders” or self appointed judges. Interestingly though, a compelling heresy often spawns a new tradition/ culture/ orthodoxy.

    In terms of general culture and how traditional/orthodox it is depends on the willingness of that group to let others in it. I have been told that I can not possibly become a true old time banjo player because I never lived in Appalachia!

    This is a real irony, given that much of the old time music played today was “collected” and perpetuated by Jewish New Yorkers in the 1960s and later “reclaimed” by the traditionalists.

    Which leads me to the final point about…recorded music and commercial recorded music. I have heard the argument that traditional music stopped in 1920 because this is where it was frozen, labeled, and sold in records. Thus the Carter family who sang songs and wrote music and played very old songs became “hillbilly” or “country.” The recording was a snapshot in time that is now used as a definition and marker of “how to play real traditional music.”

    I have heard the storey recounted many times of how Tommy Jarrel waking up at a music festival claimed he heard himself being played all over the place. HIS style was mistaken as THE style of banjo playing.

    I am thrilled to have found your site and some great approaches to a sound “banjo” I find compelling in many settings.

  12. 12 Cathy December 11, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    Dominic, thanks for your ideas and for that great story about Tommy Jarrell. The “frozen in time” aspect of old-time music is probably one of its appeals to many, since we can pretend we’ve gone back in time to a simpler era. To keep something frozen in time, we have to fight change. So as a result we have musicians who are often politically progressive but can be profoundly conservative in their approach to the music.

    I have also (finally!) realized that many people go to jams mainly for the social aspect, not the music. I’ve heard people say that they never practice; they only play at the jam. There’s a ritual aspect to always playing the same tunes the same way with the same people, and any change would disrupt that.

  13. 13 Randy J. Arnold December 11, 2008 at 6:17 pm


    What a great post!

    It inspired todays post on my blog.

    Thanks again for the great site,


  14. 14 Dave Sorensen December 11, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    Points well taken Cathy. I’m new to CH banjo , so I’ve been trying to learn “the rules” before I learn how to break them, but because these folk traditions are so diverse, there really is no single set of “rules” to learn.To be a master of the obvious,that decentralization is one of the hallmarks of a folk tradition. How amazing that these OT tunes live on for hundreds of years, with melodies intact, tried and true. Yet it’s wonderful that people are making new music, or old music in new ways. This tension between old and new , between “authoritarian” (that’s the polite term) and rebel, seems like an archetypal story playing itself out wherever people play music together.

  15. 15 Dave Sorensen December 12, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Re: playing chords in OT: Having learned chord construction on guitar,the idea that chords weren’t really required for OT banjo appealed to me, so I was one of the people on BHO asking about the tradition of NOT playing chords. I just wanted to be reassured that learning tunes without chords was “valid”, as I’ve recently learned a whole bunch of them that way, which I really like. I understand the value of learning chords, and see how the forms appear while one is playing through a tune, whether one knows their names or not, but as a reformed guitar player it was refreshing not to have to think about them and I welcomed the traditional view that many OT tunes were composed before folks thought in terms of chord changes.But then I watch Walt Koken on You Tube and think “I need to get up to speed on chords”. And so it goes. Neither tradition nor experimentation is an end in itself. Your “rant” is a refreshing corrective to some of the overly tradition bound ideas in circulation. We couldn’t play like the old timers even if we wanted to.

  16. 16 Cathy December 12, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Dave, thanks for your comments. I should clarify that I agree that strumming chords doesn’t take advantage of the coolest feature of the banjo, which is the sound of melody against a drone. In fact, one of my favorite ways to play old-time is just banjo and fiddle, with no guitar to fill out the chords.

    My concern is more with the people who say that banjo players not only shouldn’t play chords, they shouldn’t know HOW to play chords. Some of the BHO heavy hitters have said this in the past, but they didn’t go that far in the most recent discussion.

    In case anyone reading this hasn’t seen the discussion on the Hangout, my position is that chords are where the melody notes live. If we know the basic chord positions for whatever tuning we’re in, it becomes easier to find the melody notes and to play them efficiently. So I’m not talking about strumming or even holding full chord shapes; I’m just suggesting that a knowledge of the chord shapes is one tool that can help us become stronger melody players. You can see that theory in action in the “D by ear” videos.

    This is a surprisingly contentious position in real life as well as online. For example, I was publicly scolded by a fiddler for showing a struggling banjo player one chord shape that would have helped her play the melody.

    When players ask me for help, I often discover that they know at most two chords in one tuning, if they know any chords at all. The ones who have had teachers have said that their teachers didn’t show them chords or talk about the underlying structure of a tune; it was all about learning individual notes, usually from tab.

    When I learned chords, I became better at picking up tunes by ear. So it seems odd to me that some teachers would fail to teach them and some leaders would say that the knowledge of chords is somehow harmful. Though I can certainly see how a former chord player would be delighted to leave chords behind and focus entirely on melody!

  17. 17 Rick Otten December 14, 2008 at 10:44 am

    It is these arbitrary rules that I find extremely intimidating about even seeking out a Jam. I’m not one of the “in” people, never have been, and never will.

    I like playing banjo and sometimes think it would be fun to play with other people. Whenever I give it a try, I find myself wondering if the others are sitting there upset because I’m not playing the tune “right” or because one of my strings might be a little out of tune (‘Tune it or DIE!’ flashes through my brain).

    Or maybe because I have a blue banjo, or the wrong color hair or something. Or maybe it is because I have a cell phone in my pocket and dress too modern.

    The only jams I have fun at are usually with people who I know aren’t being overly critical nor insisting on any rules. People I am sure are just there to have fun no matter what.

    It is danged hard enough to just try to learn the same tunes as everyone else, let alone try to adhere to the whitewashing rules too.

    Whenever I go to a banjo camp I usually have the absolute worst time at the jams. Out of the several (6?) 3-day banjo camps I’ve gone to, I can only think of one jam that was any fun.

    Whenever I go camping with my family and friends, we have a great time jamming around the campfire — even if I can’t play more than half of the folk and rock songs that they like to play.

    I think the rigid old time rules are the greatest source of anxiety about my playing clawhammer style banjo. I think it is why I usually tell people I play “folk” style rather than “old time” style (even if I play a lot of ‘old-timey’ tunes).

    I’m currently trying to build a banjo that is going to be very non-traditional in terms of styling. I’m sure those same closed minded groups would reject anything I play on it, regardless of how it sounds, simply because of how it looks. There’s no excuse for such rascism and it irks me to no end.

  18. 18 Martin December 14, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    It strikes me that the whole ‘debate’ is rather storm-in-a-tea-cup-ish. While there are rules in music, as with art, there are certainly no hard rules about which instruments can play what.

    Those who publicly scald anyone for teaching anything that’s not illegal should really just chill out a fraction and enjoy themselves more. Who is a fiddle player to tell a banjo teacher how to teach anything?

    I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that chords can be a critical thing to learn. I also think that those who are playing only at jams would do well to explore a little when they see others play.

  19. 19 Cathy December 14, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    Thanks, Rick and Martin, for your comments.

    I agree that scolders need to chill out and have fun. Unfortunately, I think that some rule enforcers meet ego needs by telling people what to do, so I don’t think they’re going to stop, especially when they see their scolding as protecting a heritage.

    I think the lack of fun is a very sad side effect of social and musical rules. I’ve been to many very different jams at festivals, in other cities, and in my current home town. In my experience, the common fun-killing factor is rigidity. For example, when someone in the jam takes control of tune choices, you can hear the great sucking sound of fun going down the drain.

    So this post doesn’t become one long stream of negativity: What can we do to get the fun back in old-time? My current solution is to treat jams as places I go to find musicians who might want to get together another time, privately, to break a few rules.

  20. 20 Clodhopper December 15, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Very interesting topic. I don’t have any actual Old Time jam session experience so probably I shouldn’t even be commenting.

    Lately I’ve been trying to figure out where I want to go with my banjo playing. I been playing clawhammer by myself for the last two years, and have enjoyed it emensely. I’ve always sort of assumed that eventually I would be seeking out jam sessions but now (not because of this discussion) I am not sure that it is something I will pursue. For one thing, I would have to travel pretty far to do so, and secondly, I have always been somewhat faux pas phobic. And if you start adding control freaks into the mix it’d probably be a deal breaker for me.

    But I’m sure if the right situation presented itself I’d give it a whirl.

  21. 21 Grant McDonald December 16, 2008 at 3:24 am

    Hi Cathy,

    Interesting discussion. I think it may have strayed from, or overlooked some of your original post. The consumer, or museum mentality about “possessing” the art, as though it is static, inert, and stuck in time. Unlike literature, or painting for example, music & dance are things that are alive, and dynamic, and retold in each interpretation and recitation. Deviation, mutation, transformation are all things we should expect, and embrace in these idioms.

    Once I heard John Hartford say that “style is about limitations.” He wasn’t saying this to embrace mediocrity. It was rather an astute observation I thought. I took it to mean, even the most celebrated artists, work within their comfort zone. They may work hard to expand their comfort zone, but ultimately, their art is bounded by their limitations. Through these limitations, both the mediocre, and the great will process differently what they hear, and what they play.

    It is the critics and blowhards that seem compelled to hold art up against some arbitrary measuring stick, be it one frozen in time on a wax cylinder from 100 years ago, and attempt, ofttimes futilely to dissect it, and draw conclusions, and comparisons. Why should it not suffice to say, ” I liked it,” “it stirred me,” “I didn’t like it,” or “it sounded poorly executed.” Such statements would be acceptable to me.

    When it comes to “you ain’t playing that right,” or “we don’t play it that way,” I imagine there may be a huge difference for someone of your caliber vs. a rank amateur like me. Although still bound by limitations, yours are much fewer. Someone like me may indeed be making blatant mistakes, and by most assessments, be deemed to doing “it wrong.” So when I hear that kind of thing, I have historically taken it on the faith that the other person was correct, and quietly reflected on their argument. However, as my abilities and confidence has grown, and having been the banjoist that has introduced the most new tunes, and led them in my regular jam group / band, I have had to switch gears personally. All I ask is that they listen first, and get the timing & changes right. If they like it great! If after several attempts they don’t or it never quite comes together, so be it. But, no-one ever has to hear that it ain’t like old so-and-so dun it, it ain’t enough this way, or too much that way.

    It is what it is. Sometimes very good, and joyful for us. Other times not so much. Our barometer seems to be the goosebump or prickle factor. If some know-it-all wants to say we ain’t doin’ it right, then maybe it’s more fun doin’ it wrong.

    Perhaps I have been lucky, or blissfully ignorant, but I have been to a few fests & jams, and I’ve never pretended to be anybody but myself, and even if I don’t remember it all, joy was almost ever-present, and what I continue to feel in my recollections of these experiences. I sincerely hope that I never become so proficient and knowledgeable, (or bitter,) in music that it makes me think everyone else sucks, and is doing it wrong.


  22. 22 Martin December 16, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    “What can we do to get the fun back in old-time? My current solution is to treat jams as places I go to find musicians who might want to get together another time, privately, to break a few rules.”

    How about getting new, talented people into Old-time music personally… away from those who wish to stifle exploration and innovation. I have played a few times with a Jazz bassist (is that a term?) who seems to be enjoying OT playing. He, being a jazz player, explores all sorts of exciting possibilities within songs, which is a LOT of fun to play with. But still old-time-ish.

    I’m lucky, though. No-one I know in the local OT scene is quite so stand-offish about playing ‘correctly’. They’re quite tolerant and encouraging. Heck, two of us introduced a new song to the group from our banjo class, which was well received. That’d be two LEARNER banjo players teaching the old-hat fiddlers how to play.

  23. 23 Cathy December 17, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    To Clodhopper and anyone else who might be hesitant to jam: I’ve focused here on what’s wrong with (some) jams. There’s a huge amount that can be right.

    For example, if you’re “faux pas phobic,” one of the best things you can do is go to a jam. You *will* make a faux pas, because you won’t know every tune and learning by ear inevitably requires mistakes. One of the greatest things we can learn from jams is how to make mistakes and let them just go right on by. This kind of unself-consciousness makes it easier to quickly get the feel of a tune and join the overall groove. It’s a much more wholistic experience than playing from tab, where we can get too focused on playing every note perfectly.

    If you haven’t jammed before, I’d recommend a big jam. The bigger the jam, the more you can relax and blend into the crowd. As you get more used to playing with others, you’ll probably want to seek out or form smaller jams, because those are tighter and can be more satisfying musically.

    And while I’ve complained about the permanent “follower” role for the banjo, it’s actually an advantage when you’re new to a jam. No one expects you to know anything. You’re just there to follow the fiddler. So you can play quietly and develop your ability to learn by ear while the fiddlers carry the responsibility of knowing the melodies.

  24. 24 Cathy December 17, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Grant and Martin, it’s really refreshing and encouraging to hear that you’re able to teach new tunes to fiddlers and other musicians, and it sounds like you’re having a great time.

    Every jam has its own culture. For example, one of our local jams tolerated my chord-learning phase quite happily (I was in banjo-uke mode for weeks!). That jam is also open to learning some new tunes and fiddlers sometimes make up new tunes. Other jams are not so open.

    I agree that a lot of this stems from the museum mentality. To preserve something, we have to clearly define what we’re preserving. That’s where we get into “right” and “wrong.”

    If I had to define a “right way to play,” it would be the way that’s fun to play and dance to. But we can’t set that kind of definition in stone, so we’ve used transcriptions and recordings to codify the details and establish a “right” style or melody.

    I like the idea of attracting new musicians from other scenes. I’m also encouraged by the new wave of younger musicians and bands like the Crooked Jades.

  25. 25 Tim December 20, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    I guess I am lucky I have only had one real teacher that’s YOU! Obviously there are many other influences besides, but they are too late now to realy define my style. I also dont have the pressure of being told by anyone i ever meet “not too”, or “how too” do anything.
    The only other banjo player i know is a Scruggs player who rarely plays now and whos style pretty much stagnated 20 yrs ago. I am half way round the world from the US oldtime scene and half way across Oz from any pockets of domestic purists we may have. No one i jam with has the slightest clue what im playing until i run them through the chords. This means… i have permition to play what i feel …always. i think this is an enviable position and puts me out side the 1920s “frozen place”. The old timey thing is MY passion not theirs.I have free reign to change, amalgamate bits of, screwup, and generaly “make music” from these tunes, not just play them.(Then when we are done with the old time stuff we flog out a bunch of 50,60,70 country/rock/blues/jug classics)
    Our tea chest bass player(think washtub here, i know you dont drink tea since that Boston thing) is coming over to my side, i dumped my oldtime mp3 collection on him yesterday and we just met a young guy 19 who plays orchestral violin at a very high level and is interested in doing some old time with us AWSOMMMME!!
    No doubt one day i will make it to some far distant jam where purists will spurn or scold me… no matter, my hide is thicker than most and my confidence in my eclectic Aussie bush style grows daily. I will do as described in a previous post… seek out other rebels and form a radical splinter group in the carpark or bathroom :D
    Thanks Cathy for your early direction

  26. 26 Cathy December 20, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    Tim, thanks for your happy and encouraging comment. I don’t know if you’ll ever run into any old-time purists in Australia. I often think of Australians as a free, creative bunch, based unscientifically on your Hollywood-free movies and Fred Pribac’s fun with the banjo.

    And even if you get to the States, you probably won’t find purists right off. The comments here and some discussions I’ve had with friends who play regularly in other regions have underscored the fact that the town I currently live in takes its old-time music more seriously than other places do. More reasons to travel!

  27. 27 cairril January 1, 2009 at 10:32 am

    My reply got so long that I turned it into a separate post:

    Blatheringly yours,
    Feral Diva

  28. 28 fred pribac January 9, 2009 at 2:40 am

    Hi Cathy,

    bumped into this blog and saw my name mentioned.

    I can confirm that the folk police exist here too (also in oldtime banjo circles). I used to have interminable discussions with highly regarded musicians both traditional and innovative about this aggravating subject.

    One particularly irksome situation is when somebody lectures on about traditional so and so … and such and such … with an opinion pulled straight out of the introductory page of some “how to play authentic folk music tutor”. Or occasionally from the liner notes from one or two popular CD’s. I’ve often found that the people who whine loudest about degradation of tradition have little understanding of how tradition is created and have never listened to field recordings let alone gone out and recorded or even talked to some old surviving geezer!

    My experience is that the folklorists who have actually sourced and collected music from past musicians have a much better appreciation for the diversity of past music and playing styles and will seldom make highly dogmatic and limiting generalisations!

    Sure if you want to play like a “modern” festival or round peak player you gotta whack this here, plunk that there and don’t strum chords too much but … when you listen to lots of old field recordings it becomes very clear, very quickly, that even the most localized traditions incorporate a spectrum of techniques, abilities and material and that the modern take on the “traditional” sound is often very different from the field recorded sound. It basically amounts too fashion!

    One example of this is the recent prevalence of outstandingly built hybrid minstrel-oldtime simple design large diameter timber hooped banjos with frailing scoops, excellent fittings and quality heads. These sorts of banjos sound great, are loud and enable very precise playing but … they are about as far from what many traditional players were playing as you can get!

    I long ago decided that there’s no point worrying about other peoples dogma in this regard because it’s a no win battle. I just occasionally point to a counter example particularly when I have the microphone and can expound a bit. Those with an open and enquiring mind will eventually ask themselves the questions that get them through the dogma. After all most of us have been dogmatic about something or other at some stage only to realise later that we were … well … being dogmatic!

    In the meantime I figure the best thing to do, is to do whatever you are aspiring too as well as possible and then maybe someday you will become the tradition that somebody else decides is the “right” way to play!

    The trouble with this approach is it needs a certain bravery and self confidance of approach and requires more degrees of freedom in your musical makeup. This can be confronting. It is much easier to accept a consensus view of traditional stylistic vagaries as is reflected in your chosen picking peer group – then all you have to worry about are technical issues and the rest is just fun. For many folks that’s all they want.

    On the issue of TAB and ownership – yes – that’s an insidious one.

    Another reason people want TAB is insecurity – they worry that if they learn soemthing by ear and vary a phrase inadvertantly or get a note or two wrong that they haven’t got the tune. Or that people will whisper about their musicianship behind their backs. Bah – humbug! If you’ve worked out something that sounds good it’s worth playing – if it doesn’t fit with what other folks are doing well you can change it until it does!

    And if you can’t play something note for note and slur for slur the way Fred Cockerham or Wade Ward did it well … you wont go to jail just yet!

    Phew – I can see that this issue still get’s me gander up! Sorry about the diatribe!!!

  29. 29 Cathy January 11, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    Fred, thanks for your thoughts. It’s too bad that the old-time police are on patrol in Australia. Probably any folk scene anywhere is going to have people who feel that their definition of “tradition” needs to be respected and obeyed. You’ve done an inspiring job of breaking out of the festival-style mold, and I love your tunes.

    I agree that it’s easiest for many people to just accept the rules of their picking peers and be happy with them. Maybe that’s why the current festival-style jam scene seems to be thriving–there are clear roles, a set repertoire, and other reassuring structures that appear to have been homogenized across the US. Once you’ve been to a few festival-style old-time jams you can pretty confidently know what to expect at another.

    For example, you could walk up to a jam at an old-time festival almost anywhere in the US and recognize the tune they’re playing, quickly figure out if another banjo might be welcome, and know that if you join the circle, you should just follow whatever the fiddlers are doing and you’ll fit in. It’s an easy formula and can be fun.

    There are currently some threads on the Banjo Hangout about jams. In one of them, it seems like the person starting the thread is lamenting the end of the “learn-at-the-master’s-knee” sort of gathering (which actually still happens here in Indiana). He seems to question whether the more democratic jams are traditional or worthwhile.

    My response would be that I haven’t seen many truly democratic jams, because the fiddlers usually choose or veto tunes, and most of the “correcting” I’ve seen has come from fiddlers. So in a sense the “master” tradition continues, with the modern fiddler as master.

    This kind of hierarchy provides structure and predictability, both of which help social events go smoothly–unless you’re a pesky weirdo banjo player.

  30. 30 Neil Barr January 29, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Taking an evolutionary approach, raditions will survive by adapting to changing environments. I’m not a claw-hammer player, but I like what I see on this site. I hope this is a ‘fitting’ mutation. You remind me of Mark Saul who has been pushing the boundaries of Highland Pipe traditions. They have tougher thought-police than old time. (For generations the c natural was ignored on the pipes as a non-traditional note). Mark has introduced Balkan rythyms to the piping fraternity, with one of his 7/8 compositions being played as an encore at the World Piping Champs by the winning band. I suspect the traditionalists were appalled, but the mutations is flourishing.
    Good luck

  31. 31 Ben Timby May 12, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. – Keats

  32. 32 Lorrin Bird December 15, 2009 at 5:58 am

    Very interesting and thoughtful discussions, which are appreciated and help a player push back the limits. Hope

    The comment about Jewish New Yorkers in the 60’s and their work with old tunes struck a personal chord, my first thirty years were spent in New York City. Exposure to my father singing Gene Autry, Hank Williams and the Sons of the Pioneers tunes, which he learned growing up near Canada, gradually lead me to country music, old time tunes and the banjo. And blues harmonica, of all things.

    Regarding tabs, it can be downright frustrating to treat a published tab as the way to play if the style isn’t what one wants to do, or is able to play.

    A recent project here, which doesn’t fit into a traditional box, is adapting Johnny Cash hits to clawhammer style. Like Folsom Prison Blues, Orange Blossom Special and I Walk the Line. They sound a little old timey to me. In 100 years they will be old timey, just like Buffalo Gals is now.

    The non-traditional banjo “style” used here (solo playing) is a bum-ditty clawhammer with chord fingering during the singing portion of a song, and then a lead instrumental break that uses chord fingering, added notes and standard bum-ditty to play the song melody. Combining chords and melody notes during the instrumental also seems to work with blues harmonia, if one accepts that it isn’t traditional blues and may not even be accepted as The Blues.

    Thanks for the site and all the great ideas. Stretches the mind.

  1. 1 “Authentic” vs “organic” music « The Wacky World of Cairril Adaire Trackback on January 1, 2009 at 10:31 am
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