Some fiddle music from Kentucky (or Why Traditional Music #937)

Here’s a nice old video featuring Kentucky fiddler Marion Sumner accompanied by David Holt on guitar….

Harrington Valley Two-Step

Often when we talk about old time music traditions, the conversation is about players from West Virginia or Virginia or North Carolina, the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge and so on, and for some people it’s all about music from certain counties or one side of the mountain vs the other side.

When I was at the Midwest Banjo Camp in the spring I was introduced to another old time tradition – from “Little Egypt” in Southern Illinois, and I started listening to players like Garry Harrison and Chirps Smith. Aha, old time music is everywhere.

Here in Canada, it’s been my experience that many people are unaware of our own old time traditions, from Cape Breton, from Quebec, from the Ottawa Valley, and the fantastic Metis fiddle tradition in the west.

Here is a taste of Metis fiddle – it’s a video I found on YouTube featuring the wonderful fiddler Patti Lamoureux (aka Patti Kusturok). When I hear her music, I just want it to go on and on and never stop.

Another Western Canadian fiddle master (or why traditional music # 877)

I featured Calvin Vollrath the other day. Now let’s here Manitoba fiddler Patti Lamoureux (Kusturok) along with Sabin Jacques on accordion and Jeremy Rusu on guitar, performing a Quebecois medley.

Old Time vs old time

The musical focus of this blog has shifted somewhat this year. Although it has long reflected my general interest in what I jokingly call folky-dolky music, I had been focusing on the button accordion, because that is the instrument I was playing. Somehow or another I began romancing the banjo, and back around Christmastime, I made my first oil can banjo and started teaching myself to play in the manner known as clawhammer or frailing. Since that time, the music I’ve shared and written about here has had a lot more to do with banjo than button accordion. This isn’t to say that I have lost interest in button accordion music – not at all. It’s simply that my current infatuation with the banjo, particularly the open-backed banjo, is infectious and I can’t help but share it.  It could be simply coincidence that this shift has coincided with a decided drop in interest and comments on this blog (that’s my story folks, and I’m sticking to it).

I realize that I have thrown the term Old Time music around freely in the past several months, and some people may think I mean old time, without the caps. I should be clear that by Old Time, I’m talking about a genre of music, one that was called Old Time, even when it wasn’t so very old. I don’t mean old time in the generic sense, like this is music that old timers enjoyed, although this is sometimes the case. So what is this Old Time music anyway?

If we are to believe Wikipedia, the label dates to 1923, a record company called Okeh and a performer named Fiddlin’ John Carson. It figures that a record company would be involved. To quote the entry in Wikipedia, “Okeh, which had previously coined the terms “hillbilly music” to describe Appalachian and Southern fiddle-based and religious music and “race recording” to describe the music of African American recording artists, began using “old-time music” as a term to describe the music made by artists of Carson’s style.”  Old Time is dominated by rural dance music, music for clogging or buck-dancing or flat-footing, or square dancing. It also includes some ballads and solo or band music not specifically for dancing, but let’s not make things seem even more confusing. Old Time is often played by groups called string bands on instruments including fiddle, banjo (usually open-backed rather than resonator, but not always), mountain dulcimer, acoustic guitar, and sometimes bass.

All that said, it is a loose genre. Is Ottawa Valley fiddle music Old Time? I’d say so. Is Newfoundland button accordion music Old Time? That’s harder, but I’d say no. How about Cajun music? Let’s keep that separate, even though there are plenty of similarities. There are lots of regional styles that have their own characteristics. Some people will tell you that Old Time means Appalachian but it would be hard to exclude New England Contra Dance music or Texas Old Time music and so on. There are folks who will tell you that Old Time music is more strictly Appalachian or that the centre of the Old Time universe is Mount Airy in NC and Galax in Virginia. I love that music, but I choose to stick with a broader definition.

Here’s a fun video featuring some Old Time clogging or flat-footing.

Now here’s April Verch demonstrating Ottawa Valley step-dancing – a little different, but I think we’re talking the same language here.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I go on about Old Time music. I’ve been trying to learn a bunch of the Old Time standards on banjo. There is quite an extensive catalog of tunes that lots of players know and these have become the basis of jams. Within the broader matrix of this music, there are a variety of approaches to playing the banjo. I’d say that some of these are regional, and some are more individual. These styles have to do with how you pluck or strike the strings. I’m learning clawhammer, but there are also two-finger and three-finger approaches.

Clawhammer is a style in which you make your picking hand into the shape of a claw (more or less), and attack the strings by striking them with the nail of your index or middle finger, downward. Clawhammer is played on a 5-string banjo. The fifth, or short string is normally played as a drone, and you use your thumb to pick the drone string.  When I started learning this, I found it to be very awkward and I thought, man I’ll never get this. If you look at teaching videos on YouTube, some teachers will strongly urge students to do nothing but try to sound a single string and the drone string in a simple rhythm (known as bum-ditty) for a week or two until the student gets it right. That is probably a good approach. Once you get used to the basic way of making sounds, it gets a lot easier, but it takes time to get your hand used to the motion.

Here’s Kurt Sutphin, a player from North Carolina. In this video, he’s interviewed by David Holt and then plays a tune called Sugar Hill. He’s playing a fretless banjo here. Once upon a time all banjos were fretless.

I think it would be really interesting to study all the different styles and tunes that fall under the broad Old Time umbrella, but I bet it would a mind-bending life’s work. I’m learning as I go, and I’m having a great time listening to many players and approaches.

Cotton-eye Joe

This is an old tune, going back at least to the 1880s in America. What does cotton-eyed mean? One story is that bad moonshine cause a drinker’s eyes to turn milky white. Another story says someone is cotton-eyed if his eyes turned milky from any number of diseases, including syphilis. There are lots of different verses for this one, as with many old time tunes. According to Wikipedia, these lyrics were published in 1882…

Cotton-eyed Joe, Cotton-eyed Joe,
What did make you sarve me so,
Fur ter take my gal erway fum me,
An’ cyar her plum ter Tennessee?
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d er been married long ergo.

“His eyes wuz crossed, an’ his nose wuz flat,
An’ his teef wuz out, but wat uv dat?
Fur he wuz tall, an’ he wuz slim,
An’ so my gal she follered him.
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d er been married long ergo.

“No gal so hansum could be foun’,
Not in all dis country roun’,
Wid her kinky head, an’ her eyes so bright,
Wid her lips so red an’ her teef so white.
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d been married long ergo.

“An* I loved dat gal wid all my heart,
An’ she swo’ fum me she’d never part;
But den wid Joe she runned away,
An’ lef’ me hyear fur ter weep all day.

O Cotton-eyed Joe, O Cotton-eyed Joe,
What did make you sarve me so?
O Joe, ef it hadn’t er ben fur you,
I’d er married dat gal fur true.

Here’s a Western Swing version by Asleep at the Wheel. Very nice pedal steel work in this one and a fiddle break that sounds like Shortenin’ Bread.

Now here’s more of a hard-core Old Time version by Jorsh123

Finally, here are the Skillet Lickers

Sourwood Mountain

Chickens a-crowin on Sourwood Mountain –
Oh diddle di di diddle di do
(or Hi ho diddle I day…take your pick)

So many pretty girls I can’t count-em –
Oh di diddle dee Diddle di do

Climbing up old Sourwood Mountain –
Oh diddle di di diddle di do

Find me a pretty gal and I’ll go courtin –
Oh diddle di di diddle di do

As with so many “Old Time” tunes, there are countless versions and verses. I’m learning a clawhammer version now, so I’ve been studying up different approaches to the tune. Here are some I really like…

Here are Carolina Chocolate Drops. We saw this group a few years ago at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. They’re great fun to watch and listen to. This is from a show down in Florida.

This next video is a fellow named Andy Sayers playing the tune on a fretless banjo. Once upon a time all banjos were fretless and then everything went to hell.

Now check out American honey with an excellent buckdancer! A lot of groups play this tune at lightning speed. I like the lazy pace of this version.

The Four String Polka

Here’s another Canadian old time gem, featuring two of our great fiddlers, Graham and Eleanor Townsend..

I’m amazed at how much fantastic music we have immediate access to these days…

Cumberland Gap

The Cumberland Gap, a mountain pass in the Appalachians located where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia meet, is also the name of a song first recorded in 1924. There are countless versions. Here are a few that I really like.

Let’s start with bluegrass, and Flatt and Scruggs.

Now on to Old Time and Tommy Jarrell on the fretless banjo

Here’s a combo called Notorious. Very nice playing

And finally, the Rockridge Brothers


Regular readers know the truth. I’m an unrepentant folk music freak enthusiast. That’s just the way it is. I think it was squeezebox king Flaco Jimenez who said something about folk music being very simple music dressed up to seem really complicated. Still, there are nuances that create firm separations between various strains.

For instance, polka freaks could argue all day about the differences between Conjunto, Push, Honky and Slovenian polka styles and never get bored. Or step back and start talking about polkas and paso dobles and Cajun two steps and Portuguese marches.

Recently I’ve immersed myself in fiddle and banjo music after years lost in the land of the free reed. This naturally leads to a discussion of the various forms using that instrumentation. My brother the trout, Salvelinas Fontinalis was kind enough to send me an article that clearly explains the differences between Celtic, Old Time and Bluegrass music and as an educational service I’ll share it with you here. There will be a quiz later. This came from the National Folk Festival website.

A taste: An Old Time banjo player can lose 3
 right-hand fingers and 2 left-hand fingers in an industrial accident without 
affecting his performance.

 A Celtic banjo player flat picks everything. A Bluegrass banjo player puts
 jewelry on his fingertips to play. An Old Time banjo player puts super glue 
on his fingernails to strengthen them. Never shake hands with an Old Time 
banjo player while he’s fussing with his nails.