Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Old-time debates about old-time music. What's that?

I mentioned to one of my journalism classes 15 or so years ago that on the weekends I played "old-time" music. A student responded, "You mean, like, Sinatra?" 
No, I said, I meant, like Mike Seeger and perhaps his older half-brother Pete, and the older folks from North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia that they learned from. 
Artist's rendition of old mandolin player with long beard, orange cap and 80-year-old mandolin

A Facebook discussion earlier this month has sent me down a compulsive-research rabbit hole to a Wikipedia page about "Old-Time Music," which by one of its definitions I still play every Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening at southwest Virginia jam sessions, and which -- by other definitions -- has fascinated me since I bought my first Pete Seeger and New Lost City Ramblers albums during the 1960s "folk music revival" (Or "The Great Folk Music Scare," as Utah Phillips or someone else called it.)
The 20-year-old Wikipedia page has had numerous editorial additions and changes over the years, but its most prominent feature when I got there were a few prominent "citation needed" notices and a somewhat random use of Wikipedia's "references" feature.
My own "primary sources" for learning about "folk music" were big library books, but the phrases "old-time" or "old-timey" music in the 1960s and '70s came to me mostly from LP records and their liner notes, so I've added some of those as references on the Wikipedia page, as well as more recent books I've at least browsed through. A fine CD box-set that came out a few years ago made it very clear that New York's "Friends of Old-Time Music" or "FOTM" used that name as a broad umbrella for "authentic" or "traditional" folk music concerts and records, to avoid confusion with the commercialized singer-songwriter and "interpreter" artists being marketed under the "folk music" banner in the 1960s. The New Yorkers who ran FOTM, unlike the 1920s record companies that used the phrase "old time music," included black guitar players like Mississippi John Hurt under the heading, and older bluegrass bands that had roots in older fiddle and singing styles and perhaps less influence from Nashville record producers ideas of commercial country music. French Canadian and Louisiana Cajun fiddlers also appeared in "old-time" concerts.
Nowadays, "old-time music" is more specifically a fiddle-contest and music convention category to distinguish pre-bluegrass fiddle-and-banjo playing styles in Appalachia, the Ozarks and elsewhere. And today some young players are eager to point out the segregation-area exclusion of black fiddlers and banjo players from early 20th century "old time" records, and so have been reclaiming recognition for the black performance styles that influenced white players, as well as the black origins of the banjo -- an instrument with African antecedents that fell into white hands in the early 19th century and became an international fad after white-impersonators in black makeup created the "Minstrel Show," leading music-instrument factories to mass-produce banjos, and variations on the instrument found roles in Dixieland, Ragtime and Jazz bands, even crossing the Atlantic into Irish music on tenor banjos and British pop-songs accompanied by banjo-ukuleles.  Both the banjo and old-time fiddle have separate Wikipedia pages, by the way. I'm staying away from those.
Back to "old-time music"; those early U.S. record companies had separate "race" labels and catalogs, which presented black blues and gospel performers, but the producers appear to have left the old folksongs and fiddle tunes to whites, along with most 20th century banjo playing, all featured under headings including "hillbilly," "mountain music" and "old-time" and "country"... industry distinctions that got even more complicated with the later recording categories "country and Western)," "folk music," "rhythm and blues" and "rock 'n' roll." But that's another story.

The whole Wikipedia old-time-music page seemed to assume the definition of that phrase was written in stone somewhere, but so far I haven't turned over the right rock. The page was -- and still is -- weak on citations. Its history section gave a lot of weight to a 2021 website article from the state of Washington, about as far as you can get from Appalachia, but this music has been getting around for a couple of centuries or more, and the article itself seems quite good, even mentioning a few promising book titles. It's available online for free here: 
If you save the Wikipedia "page" as a PDF file, which I've finally done, it is 13 pages long. (The banjo page is 22; the old-time fiddle page is 9 more.) I've added a few more "old-time" references at various points, but I'm hoping others with both knowledge and a compulsive attitude toward footnotes and coding Wikipedia citation styles will also come to the page's rescue. For now, I've worked more than a half-dozen sources into sections of the page, but my citation style is an inconsistent mess, which I blame on Web cutting-and-pasting while just using a smartphone part of the time... 
Pasting them into this Blogger editing system will probably create another formatting mess, because I haven't used Blogger much in years, and won't have much time today to come back and clean things up after I hit "Publish." 

But here they are: 

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

John Prine & Steve Goodman

Another Bob S, from the 3rd Street Coffee House in Roanoke, just proposed the idea of naming a section of street there for John Prine.  I don't know much about Roanoke, and I've never made it to that coffee house, even though it's only an hour or so away, but the street-naming campaign it sounds like a fine idea...

I didn't get to John's last concert there in November, 2019. I forget why. And I forget whether I apologized for missing the show when I ran into him a month later at a guitar shop in Nashville. 

But we did talk about the first time I saw him forty-some years earlier, and the pictures I took of him and Leon Redbone that day. John died of covid a few months later, before I could get back to Nashville to give him one of those pictures. 

Meanwhile, if Chicago hasn't already done it, that City should name a bunch of places after the great singers and songwriters it has produced... They could start with two intersecting streets so folks can gather at the corner of Prine & Goodman ... Maybe put a diamond shaped park there, and make the opposite corner of the intersection of Sam Stone & Flag Decal. 

And Chicago should have a footstep trail named for Steve, leading from Wrigley Field, where he watched the Cubs play, to Union Station, where he boarded the City of New Orleans.

Maybe it already does.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Amazing 90 Minute Sextet

Just had to share this after writing it for a Facebook post ... 

Wow! Last Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024 -- Meredith Axelrod and Craig Ventresco  show 1190 happened while I was off playing for the Floyd Contra Dance... 
A whole week went by before youtube offered me this recording as Saturday breakfast music! 

An amazing 90-Minute Sextet (band name potential there!) with Meredith & Craig, in the bigger Bay Area  living room of Eric (off camera, but i hear his mandolin at times) and Suzy Thompson, and duo Valerie Kirchhoff (vocals) and Ethan Leinwand (piano), a.k.a. the StLouisSteadyGrinders (dotcom). 

Meredith, Suzy and Valerie ragtime-era blues harmonies are wonderful... but it's all wonderful...

Sunday, January 14, 2024

A Zithering Web search for a musician's research legacy

I posted part of this essay in a Facebook discussion among "old time" musicians who play the 20th or 21st century compositions of the late Midwestern fiddler Garry Harrison (1954–2012) -- but sometimes without getting the tunes exactly the way he wrote them. 

Jam session players' simplified versions of his tune "Red Prairie Dawn" set off a substantial rant recently by one of his fans, passionately requesting other players to preserve the intricacies of the tune. The discussion set me off on a compulsive morning of Internet research. I don't think I had ever heard Harrison's name before.

I was happy to find that tune on YouTube, and I think I have heard it in concerts or jam sessions,  although I never knew the name or attempted to learn it... (I primarily play the mandolin in sessions focused more on old Virginia and North Carolina tunes, not contemporary tunes written in an old-time style.) 

Here is the original "Red Prairie Dawn": 

Trying to find out who Harrison was turned out to be a little harder than finding his tunes. My first Google search discovered several websites about a similarly named, but entirely unrelated, South Park cartoon character ("Gary," not "Garry") ... 

Simply adding the word "fiddler" to the search quickly sorted that out, and also revealed that along with being a much loved fiddler and composer, Garry Harrison was also a collector and organologist studying "fretless zithers." 

I have known players of some of those, so I went looking for his research, and fell into another question that fascinates me... the preservation of access to creative websites.

Harrison built an impressive website, originally at "fretlesszithers dotcom," but apparently his heirs did not maintain the registration for the web domain, although they reportedly tried to saved his writing and photographs elsewhere. There is a mention in the memorial page linked below that his instrument collection and a copy of the website were donated to an Arizona Musical Instrument Museum, but my quick search for his name there proved unsuccessful.

However, more than one copy of the original Fretless Zithers website, was saved at the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine before its original and secondary addresses expired. I was pleasantly surprised that the archived home page from 2012 even plays the site's original background music, since archive copies often are unable to maintain multimedia data, depending on file formats and other technical details. Here it is:

Also preserved, sub-pages, including his research on 1920s zither player Washington Phillips.

Here's a YouTube sample of one of  Phillips' recordings -- which may inspire you to read Harrison's research revealing what ethereal "fretless zither" family instrument he was playing:

And here is the 2013 internet archive Wayback machine copy of the introduction to Harrison's FretlessZithers research.

For anyone else who had only heard his fiddle tunes without knowing Garry Harrison...  this memorial page by another expert on uncommon instruments was the most expensive biography I found.

My browsing the Internet Archive Wayback Machine for the pages above began simply because a link from that memorial to Harrison's "fretless zithers" no longer worked. 

The memorial page does provide biographical background and the names of Harrison's various musical ensembles and recordings, which can be found with a Web or YouTube search. A search of the record-collector resource, Discogs.com, also turned up a page about Harrison, with links to other music-related websites for more information. (Screenshot below.)

Personal Motivation

Some people get passionate about preserving fiddle tunes as originally played, before people forget the original composer, and for similar reasons. On the other hand, I get a bit obsessed about preserving access to creative work on the internet, such as Garry Harrison's fretless zither website. 

That's probably because 20 years ago or so I decided to focus more on writing web pages than writing for peer-reviewed academic journals or commercial publication. As a journalism professor who wrote a doctoral dissertation about early web production, I was also frustrated to see so much of the creative work of the first 10 years of the World Wide Web disappear because creative tools and design standards changed, and publishers simply abandoned the originals.

I wonder if, someday after I am gone, readers (you?) might be finding this essay in an internet archive copy of one of my my blogs, with links to or from my original stepno.com home page!?

Jan.14, 2024, First draft, also an experiment in copying text from Facebook to an intermediary editor, and on to this "Blogger" software android app. I may have to come back with a browser-based page-editing system to correct errors, remove duplication, and make the YouTube video link turn into a video player. But so far, so good. I don't edit this blog very often, so it may be in the present condition for a good long while. But please drop me a line if you see major errors.