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Old Time Mountain Music
When we think of old time mountain music, we conjure up images of washtub string bands and unshaved hillbillies with fiddles. We assume that the isolation of mountain life made the music there static and unchanging. What we should know is that mountain music evolved through the years and was as pliant and animated as the musicians themselves.
The Beginnings -
Old time mountain music had its start when non-native people settled in the southern Appalachian mountains in the 1700's. They were mostly English or Scot-Irish and brought along with them their old songs and ballads. Ballads are songs that tell a story and were rarely accompanied by musical instruments. Instruments were far and few in the mountains back then though three-string dulcimers and fiddles could be found. The anglo-celtic influence of mountain music adapted to include dance rhythms and folks learned to fine-tune that "high lonesome" sound that is unique to the genre. Old time mountain music was also regional. Each county or region had its own style and a good fiddler was a prize in the community.
African-American Influence -
By the early 1800's, traditional mountain music began to go in a different direction. The banjo, an instrument of West African origin, had become a vital partner to the fiddle in mountain music arrangements. The reshaping of the music was a combination of the change in instrumentation, local styles and African rhythms. The slaves brought to mountain music not only a distinct tradition of group singing, work songs and spirituals but introduced percussion, improvisation, and a joyous celebration of life.
Old time mountain music is lively and folks felt compelled to move their feet. Mountain dance began in a square dancing tradition in response to the limit of a fiddle as the main source of instrumentation. As the music evolved and more percussion and rhythm was added, step-dancing was a natural continuation of movement. Buckdance and flatfoot steps as well as traditional clogging have their roots in African dancing, stepdancing of the British Isles and Native American dancing. Stepdancers would do their own individual steps and it was only later that the organized clogging we see today would develop.
Besides the fiddle and banjo, other instruments were eventually added to the mix. The guitar, washtub bass and mandolin were often played. Many of these ensembles were referred to as "string bands" and were most seen during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Other string instruments were sometimes incorporated including the Appalachian dulcimer, the tenor guitar and the mouth bow. Depending on the location, the harmonica, accordion, jug and washboard added variety to the sound of old mountain music.
Following the Civil War, the rest of America became aware of the music of the mountains. The term "old time music" was coined in the early 20th century. Henry Ford would sponsor old time music at some of his dealerships. With the introduction of the radio, fiddling music became very popular. Eventually, the old tradition of mountain music gave way to the start of commercial county-western music and the introduction of swing and bluegrass.
But old time Appalachian mountain music never died. It just became folksy. Today there is still a vital community of old time music lovers. They are more a community of participants than fans. Not to say they are not adept and enthusiastic about what they play, but they all play something. Old time music festivals are everywhere as are fiddlers' conventions and they draw large crowds. America's music history is embedded in everything we listen to today.
Some Resources -
"A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence." Leopold Stokowski
"The mountain music...is compelling music in its own right, harking back to a time when music was a part of everyday life and not something performed by celebrities." Ethan Coen