OTR-67 "Why Old-Time?"

So I'm cruising Facebook® (I don't really think that ® is necessary, I just wanted to see if it would translate when I uploaded this latest collection of characters.) and I see a posting for a new documentary video about the Highwoods String Band ("Touched With Fire: The Highwoods String Band Story"). It won't be ready to ship for a couple of months, but I got the "early bird" price (and, hopefully, a free tapioca dessert) for ordering now. It all happens on the "Why Old Time?" website, http://whyoldtime.com/. I also ordered and just received another video of theirs called (wait for it) "Why Old Time?", and it is a simply wonderful 90 minute documentary featuring current old-time players explaining (or trying to) why they like old-time music. If you have even a little curiosity about old-time music, at least take a look at the excellent 3 minute trailer on the website.

This is a very professionally done video--excellent camera work and editing, paced very comfortably, easy to watch, and very engaging. I think you could "spring" this video on someone with no prior explanation, and because of the production values it would hold their interest for its full length. It's a series of short interview segments shot at festivals, camps, living rooms, porches, etc. with old-time musicians talking and playing the music. The structure of the video communicates the feel of old-time music, its inclusiveness, its "old"-ness. It's so obviously enjoyed for its fun.

The premise of asking players, "Why old-time?" is perfect for drawing out descriptions of the music and its attraction, even if the "why" doesn't always bring out a clear "because" answer. One aspect where there's pretty much universal agreement is that the instrumental tunes are dance tunes, so rhythm is crucial. But that dance rhythm can be produced by a solo fiddle or solo banjo, which, in the rural settings before mass media or even easy transportation, sometimes were the single-instrument "band" for dances.

The video starts with the great Mike Seeger saying (and wincing a little), "I remember somebody saying about one of my favorite old-time early bluegrass musicians, 'That's all he knows.'" Then he goes on to talk about how accessible and yet complex old-time music is, that you can sing an unaccompanied ballad while doing the dishes, or just reach for an instrument and play, by yourself if you're alone. With other genres, like symphony or concert music, or even bluegrass, you need a larger group, but the "requirements" for old-time are much more varied.

Later, Adam Tanner enlarges on how there isn't really a "recipe" for what you need to make old-time music. He starts listing a bunch of possibilities: "Solo vocal, solo fiddle, banjo/fiddle, solo banjo, mandolin/guitar, guitar/fiddle, duet, trio, quartet, string band with no bass, string band with bowed bass--in some cases you've got field recordings where there's piano, and harmonium, and all kinds of things--cello, tipple…" So the tradition is wide open in terms of what qualifies as old-time.

The "chapter" titles of the video give a nice overview: What Is Old-Time? How Did You Come To Find It? What Struck You About It? Technical Aspects And Style. Bluegrass Vs. Old-Time. Ballad Singing. Old-Time Dance. Teaching And Mentoring. Festivals And Conventions. The Jam Moment. Community. New Old-Time. The Internet. Future Hope For Old-Time. Why Old-Time?

The tone of people's comments really communicates a love for this kind of music. You can see in their faces how deeply people are attached to playing it. The distinction between performing and just playing for enjoyment is remarked on by a lot of the people interviewed, and the point is made often that old-time and bluegrass are certainly related, but bluegrass is heavily oriented toward performance, where old-time is heavily oriented toward playing just for enjoyment. Even at a dance with amplification, the band, the caller, and the dancers are all simultaneously "playing" their "instruments"--there really is no audience, only participants.

The musicians chosen for interviews are familiar faces to anyone who goes to old-time festivals and camps. You do get the feeling that while they're happy to answer questions, they'd really rather be playing tunes. The segment called "The Jam Moment" really illustrates that, as several players try to explain not just the jam details (everyone playing together, no solos, tunes that go on a long time and produce a trance-like state, etc.), but how it feels to play in a jam. There's a whole lot of groping for words in their answers, which is an answer in itself.

In the "Special Features" section of the DVD, there are 14 clips of old-time musicians each playing a tune: Bruce Molsky, David Holt, Don Pedi, Mike Seeger, Thornton Spencer and Chris Via, James Leva, Bob Gregory, Reed Island Rounders, Laura Boosinger, Roger Howell, Full Nelson, Isaac Akers, The Stuart Brothers, and The Wolfe Brothers. Also, there's a segment of interviews with the production crew, some of whom didn't know what old-time music was before they filmed and edited this video. Their reactions to learning about old-time music are lots of fun to watch.

I highly recommend this video if you want to know what old-time music is, if you want to explain it to someone else in a very entertaining 90 minutes, if you're already a convert, or if you're just thinking of converting. There's no exam--all you have to do is learn one phrase: "Wanna play some tunes?"

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Posted By:  Geff Crawford

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