Some of you who’ve landed at this site may not be entirely familiar with old-time music and the concept of an old-time jam, so this part is for you!

What is Old-Time Music?

If you ask ten different old-time musicians to define old-time music, you’re liable to get ten different answers.  Definitions range from narrow to broad, the borders are fuzzy, and its meaning has shifted over time.  What follows is my own definition of old-time music.  It is admittedly an oversimplification, and what I describe might more aptly referred to as Southern Old-Time Music, though to many the two terms are synonymous.

In its broadest sense, old-time music is the music folks in America played in their homes prior to recorded music and the radio.  Back then, a lot more folks played music.  They didn’t play for fame and fortune, because radio was what made such a thing possible.  This was before the world of music had been rigidly divided into the “performers” and the “listeners”, the “talented” and the “ordinary”.   Before we’d lost sight of the fact that we’re all born to make music.  Back then, people played music simply because they loved it.

They most commonly learned from other family members who played, and so the music was passed from one generation to the next.  For many years, the primary instruments available in people’s homes were violins (aka “fiddles”) and banjos, and it is arguably this unique union of instruments, this synthesis of European (the violin) and African (the banjo) sounds and styles which led to something completely new.  And uniquely American.  This interplay occurred in many places throughout the country, but perhaps most significantly (and well documented) in the southern Appalachian region.  As such, some also refer to this as “mountain music”.

The guitar was added to the mix around the turn of the 20th century.  Of course, folks also made music with just about anything else they could coax a pleasing sound from (washboards, bones, spoons, washtubs, saws, their bodies, etc.).

Much of this music was played for dances in the form of “fiddle tunes”.  And in fact the combination of the fiddle playing the melodic lead and the banjo providing rhythmic accompaniment is considered by many to be the quintessential form of old-time music.  These dance tunes now form the bulk of the old-time jam repertoire, though as discussed represent just one part of the “old-time music” spectrum.  Fiddlers, who would often play solo for a room full of dancers, would often take advantage of alternative tunings that enhanced the fiddle's resonance and volume and allowed for the abundant usage of drone strings.  These alternative tunings typically dictate the use of a certain key, which is why certain keys (D, A, and G) predominate in the old-time music repertoire.

 The Fiddle and Banjo

To me, old-time music is also in part a story about the fiddle and the banjo.  And a brief, oversimplified version of that story is as follows.

The fiddle was brought to the states from Europe.  Naturally, the European settlers initially played tunes from the “old world” on their fiddles.  These were tunes with lovely and ornate melodies.  Tunes that were composed to delight the ear.  This was pretty, sometimes haunting music, passed down through generations.  Some of this was dance music, but melody was always paramount, not to be sacrificed for rhythm.

The banjo was brought to the states from Africa, initially carried on slave ships.  In its original incarnation it was in the form of a hollowed out gourd with an animal skin stretched over the top, strung with various materials.  The most common style of play involved striking the strings downward with the back of the nail of the index or middle finger, creating a rhythmic, percussive effect.  Its music was for dancing and tapping feet.  Rhythm was paramount, not to be sacrificed for melody.

Eventually, fiddle met banjo.   They sounded great together.  In fact, it seemed as though they were made for each other.  But there was a problem.  The tunes they knew were quite different.  Fiddle thought banjo’s tunes needed more melody.  Banjo thought fiddle’s tunes needed a more driving rhythm.  But the sound of them together was sooo nice.  Surely they could find a way to make it work.

They did find a way, of course.  And in doing so created a type of music nobody had heard before - a perfect union of rhythm and melody that was greater than the sum of its parts.  A fresh and new type of music that today is now ironically referred to as “old time”.  A style that embodied the very best of what American culture could be.  A style that was the direct ancestor of bluegrass music, a more commercialized form of old-time, but that was in many ways a forerunner to the entire rich tapestry of American music (ragtime, country, blues, jazz, rock & roll) that would one day spread throughout the world.

Europe and Africa.  Melody and rhythm.  Fiddle and banjo.

Old-Time Jams

An old-time jam is, naturally, a place where folks get together to play old-time music.  As mentioned above, "fiddle tunes" form the bulk of the old time jam repertoire, but songs may be played at some jams as well.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of potential tunes in that repertoire.  This varies to some extent by region, but there are several dozen "standards" which will be known anywhere.  Banjos, fiddles, and guitars comprise the primary instruments, but don't be surprised to find someone playing the bass, washboard, spoon, bones, jug, etc.  You're bound to find people of all ages, walks of life, and ability levels.  The atmosphere will almost always be welcoming.

People usually sit in a circle at a jam.  They take turns calling out a tune to play, and then the playing begins (the tune is either started by whomever called it out, or a fiddler who knows it).  At most old-time jams players don't take "breaks" (i.e. - instrument solos) as is the case typically at a bluegrass jam.  Rather, everyone plays in unison.  The tune will usually be repeated multiple times (anywhere from 5 to 50!) so that everyone can get into a nice groove, and to help those unfamiliar with it learn it.  Since most banjo and fiddle players re-tune to get into different keys, jams will typically stay in one key for a while.

Go here for a few of my favorite old-time related links around the web.