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February 2009 · Bimonthly

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Listening to the Tradition

by Missouri Girl

Over the years I have often heard old-time fiddlers of a certain age deplore the lack of interest shown by younger (often technically gifted) fiddlers either in playing old-time music at all, or in playing the music in a style they considered genuinely “old-time.” These younger fiddlers (it is said) play “souped-up” old-time, ignoring the rich stylistic legacy of the older generations of fiddlers before them. The older fiddlers, who grew up playing old-time dance music, are chagrined to see younger fiddlers from their home regions favoring bluegrass and competition-style fiddling over the older styles. Some of these musicians (many now deceased), however, managed to inspire a number of younger players to either literally or figuratively apprentice themselves to older fiddlers or fiddle-styles and to carry on the tradition in a way that these elders could approve. For instance, Tommy Jarrell, Edden Hammons, Earl Collins, Dwight Lamb, and Bob Holt—to name a few--influenced a number of superb “revival” players, some of whom moved from major cities to live near and learn from their musical mentors. Others made do with recordings of these living fiddlers, as well as those of legendary figures like Marcus Martin, W. E. Claunch, Ed Haley, Arthur Smith, Clark Kessinger, and so on.

But with the passing of the older generations—the tangible living sources of tradition--the oldest of the revival players are themselves fast becoming the old-timers (or at least feeling like them!); yet their complaints about stylistic continuity among fellow revival players (some younger, some not) seem more often to fall upon deaf ears. Part of this, I believe, comes not simply from the lack of interest such fiddlers have in older styles, but perhaps more importantly—at least in the case of the professional and semi-professional players--from the pressures of making a living in music in the present commercial climate. The excitement of the folk revival is over, and with it the built-in market for traditional music, as well as the accompanying drive (and more and more the opportunity) to learn traditional styles from the sources—a drive that impelled people to immerse themselves not only in the music but the culture that surrounded the old-time tradition. The popularity of musical fusion and the (relative) success of some newer-style players may, however, have a lopsided effect on those just learning the instrument—and perhaps it is the latter players whom we older ones are in a position, well, not to preach to, but to advise. And the advice is this: listen to the old fiddlers and steep yourselves in their music. If you don’t have access to “source” musicians, read and learn as much as you can from those who did, as well as from recordings, which are becoming increasingly abundant, comprehensive, and available. Labels like Document and the Field Recorders’ Collective are constantly unearthing new material. If you live in an area with its own regional style, you might focus on that; if not, listen widely and choose a regional or individual style that you feel drawn to. You don’t have to be a clone, but all art begins with imitation; and, like all good artists, you will absorb the music and eventually put your own stamp on it. But before you can do that you have to listen—and keep on listening.

This advice sounds simple, but it means that there are no short cuts to learning a musical tradition. Classical Indian musicians study for years to master their art; why should we consider old-time music less worthy of such commitment? Ozark fiddler Bob Holt’s students come to mind: although they were lucky enough to learn directly from a master, without constant listening, practice, and dedication, these young players wouldn’t have a style that sounded rich, grounded, and, yes, old. What’s so great about a style sounding old? Nothing in itself. Contrary to what many believe, this is not question of authenticity for authenticity’s sake. It’s just that these older styles have a depth, richness, and variety to them that it would be a shame to lose. It’s an aesthetic question, like jazz versus free jazz; although you can probably predict which one I prefer, I would argue (along with many others) that from an aesthetic perspective, free jazz departs too radically from the idiom to be considered part of the same genre. The same thing can occur with any tradition: innovations occur constantly in traditional music, but if you take it too far from its musical and stylistic base, it becomes something else. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you really do want to play old-time fiddle, listen to a lot of older (and dead) fiddlers; in other words, listen to the masters. Finally, play for yourself; then you can play like you really love it. That’s what music’s all about, anyway.

About the Author
“Missouri Girl” is the pseudonym a musician and folklorist from southwest Missouri who specializes in old-time and traditional Irish music. She sings and plays five-string banjo, guitar, and fiddle. She has contributed to The Old-Time Herald and currently performs in The Missouri Girls.

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