Old-time music is a style of traditional American music that predates jazz, bluegrass, and blues. The roots of old-time can be found in the African slave influence on traditional Irish and Scottish music. It reached its zenith of popularity in the late 1920's, when record companies released millions of 78 RPM recordings of rural stringbands into living rooms across America, capitalizing on the craze for authentic "Hillbilly" music. Bands such as The Skillet Lickers, The Georgia Yellowhammers, and the Leake County Revelers were propelled from rural obscurity into national prominence, and then consigned back to rural obscurity in a matter of a decade. Other old-time acts, such as the Carter Family, were able to maintain their popularity long after the Hillbilly craze faded, and in the process left indelible and influential marks on the history of American country music.

Old-time stringband music is characterized by rhythmically complicated but melodically simple fiddle playing, bass-run centric guitar backup, and a style of five-string banjo playing known as "clawhammer", "frailing" or "drop-thumb". Occasionally the bass or cello makes an appearance, and a smattering of mandolin, dulcimer, harmonica, banjo-ukulele, or zither can be found in certain recordings. It evolved primarily as dance music in Appalachia and the southern states, but there exists a long tradition of solo fiddle, banjo, guitar, and vocal performance throughout America that qualifies as old-time. The continuous westward expansion of the American frontier resulted in a musical diaspora and a subsequent evolution of highly distinct, regional styles of traditional old-time music.

The music distinguishes itself from bluegrass in style, instrumentation, presentation and chronology. Bluegrass is highly melodic, relying on extensive(and technically difficult) variations/improvisations on a basic theme. Old-time music, by contrast, relies on intricate and difficult rhythmic technique and involves little melodic improvisation. Similar to jazz, bluegrass involves "breaks" during which individual musicians elaborate on a theme while the other members of the band play quietly. These "breaks" are entirely absent from old-time music, where the fiddle is a prominent and indispensable component of the stringband and all members play continually. Instruments other than the fiddle typically play a backup or support role. The style of banjo playing in old-time music is radically different from bluegrass, where finger-picks are used and the strings are plucked with three fingers. Old-time banjo players almost universally play clawhammer, a style very close to the African roots of the instrument, and which makes use of the percussive drum-like capacities of the banjo. Occasionally, a more primitive version of Scruggs-style that involves the use of only two fingers is employed. The presentation of old-time music differs from bluegrass substantially. Bluegrass was developed primarily for performance on stage, and for records and live radio. It is tailored for an audience and relies on rehearsed arrangements and much singing. Old-time music, by contrast, is a participatory music, meant to be played spontaneously by groups for parties and dances. As a result it has less of a vocal tradition than bluegrass and is not particularly suited for presentation and commercial distribution. The tailoring of bluegrass to radio and studio performance quickly propelled it to the forefront of American music, and ultimately led to the near-obliteration of other traditional forms.

Like most American art, old-time music is the product of a variety of cultures that fused in the now proverbial melting-pot. African slaves were exposed to the music of the Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants (under extremely unfortunate circumstances), and vice versa. The syncopations of African music found its way into the musical tradition, and the use of the gourd instrument known as the banjar gave birth to the modern banjo. New styles and variations of tunes were born on the plantations of the old South. The Irish set dances and English line dances were also duplicated and transformed into the American square dance and contra dance, and Clogging (or flatfooting) was introduced and set to the new music to compensate for down-time in the squares.

The African influence on the evolution of old-time music should not be understated. In addition to the radical changes in rhythm, instrumentation, and accompanying dance effected on traditional Celtic music by African-Americans, many of the early and influential performers of the music were either slaves, former slaves, or direct descendants of slaves. As rural whites began to gain recognition through performance (and began to appropriate the music as their own), blacks still were commonly found performing for dances, parties, and making a living as itinerant musicians. Many notable musicians from the golden era of old-time music (Fiddling Doc Roberts, Ed Haley, Clark Kessinger, The Stripling Brothers, and Fiddling John Carson to name a few) attribute their repertoires and styles to local, unknown black virtuosos.

Recipe For Old-Time Music
Into one large, racially and ethnically diverse melting-pot add:
  • 1 cup of traditional Irish music
  • 1 cup of traditional Scottish music
  • 2 handfuls of African slave influence
  • 1 quart of rural isolation
Bring to a boil, and let simmer for 250 years. Do not stir! For additional flavor add German and/or French culture in moderation (or to taste)

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