Keeping Old Time, Or: The Search for Authenticity in Post-Millennial America


From O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Buena Vista Pictures, 2000

by John Crutchfield

If in the last ten years your travels have brought you through Asheville, North Carolina, you will have noticed something odd: for such a small town (pop. 85,700), Asheville has a disproportionate number of street musicians. Many of these are quite awful — typically a man aged 30 to 50, with a broken harmonica or a guitar he hasn’t bothered (or doesn’t know how) to tune, playing a classic rock cover. Or else strumming/blowing more or less doggedly, in the hopes of eventually remembering the chords to a classic rock cover. Or perhaps simply trying to stave off whatever demons lurk about in the shadows of a bad trip –– which might actually be the subject of the classic rock cover whose chords our man is hoping to remember.

Be that as it may, the end result is not always pleasant to hear.

But in fair weather, and particularly through the long tourist season (which lasts more or less from Easter through All Saints Day), one finds such would-be troubadours on nearly every street corner of downtown. Many of them look as bad as they sound, and to anyone who already lives close to the poverty line and in fear of the car trouble, medical emergency, or foreclosure that will precipitate the drop through it, these spectacles of human life “on the fringe” are sobering indeed. For as that great philosopher Sancho Panza once remarked, we are no better than God made us, and many of us much worse. What he neglected to mention of course is that we ourselves generally don’t realize just how much worse we are.

But music, even bad music, is a symptom of hope, is it not? Naturally one would prefer the music to be good, but any kind of music is better than despair. The semi-conscious busker crumpled full-fathom-five over his abused guitar, hat out flat on the pavement in front of him, mangy dog asleep to one side, half-eaten bag of Oreos to the other, and brightly-dressed tourists streaming past like tropical fish up above: at least he is creating something rather than, say, selling weapons to Somali warlords; at least, instead of victimizing his fellow human beings, he has the courage to place himself at their mercy. And many of them do in fact show mercy, tossing a few casual coins into his hat. And though the sounds he produces with wire, wood and voice may be an affront to civilized ears, at least he’s not insisting, at least he’s not persecuting you with it. Anyone who’s sat in an outdoor café in Paris knows what I’m alluding to here. It’s just not nice to be assaulted in the middle of your meal by a band of accordion-wielding gypsies singing at the very tippy top of their very robust lungs, regardless with what musical skill they do so.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the music our man makes, qua music, is pretty awful. To the degree that he represents the Asheville average, one wonders how the town could ever have earned its reputation as a center for American “roots music,” and whether this reputation might not perhaps need to be revised.

But an average is just that: an average; and what we’ve said of our acoustic rocker is by no means true of all Asheville street musicians. On the contrary. For just around the corner, in the entrance alcove of the old Woolworth Building, or up at the Flatiron Monument, or down at the corner of College Street and Haywood Street at the edge of Pritchard Park, you will also see musicians of quite a different breed.

At first glance, however, the uninitiated may be deceived by appearances, for the musicians I have in mind also, generally, look like hell, only slightly younger. They too are heavily and somewhat haphazardly tattooed, they too wear clothes that appear not to have been laundered in many weeks, their hair has an equally greasy, slept-in-a-culvert sort of look, and their instruments are likewise suffused with the aura of Grandma’s attic or Uncle Bill’s garage, or Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop.

But let’s take a closer look at these instruments, since that’s where we’ve landed for the moment: here we have a fiddle, there a fretless banjo; in back is a massive string-bass, and beside it a big dreadnaught guitar. At this point, the uninitiated –– in fact, let’s go ahead and give him a name –– at this point Oswald will think to himself, Oh yeah. Like at the whatsit. The State Fair. The music they had. Bluegrass! That’s it! Steve Martin! The Jerk! Now that was a damn entertaining movie…

Poor Oswald Milliken of Atlanta, Georgia, staying with his wife Nancy in casual elegance over at the Grove Park Inn. He really has no idea.

But we shall soon have occasion to enlighten him, for our quartet is just now tuning up, and we notice, for example, that while they have no electric amplification of any kind, they use discrete battery-powered digital tuners clipped to their instruments. Already this should raise a red flag. Furthermore, though they may very well be, along with much of the rest of Asheville’s citizenry, stoned out of their gourds (for after all, it is already mid-morning and the weather is fine), they give no sign of being incapacitated, delirious, confused, or narcoleptic. And what’s this? The bass player just pulled the latest iPhone out of his Carhartt overall bib pocket, and seems to be firing off a text. The guitar player turns to him and says something amusing. They both laugh, and –– Whoa. Wait a minute. These guys have clean, orthodontically correct teeth! And their footwear! Frye, Chippewa, Alden, Red Wing. Even Oswald knows, from having perused this season’s J. Crew catalogue, that these are not the sort of boots one obtains for less than a couple hundred bucks. ––Uh, oh. Do these kids shoplift? Now Oswald’s guard is up for sure, and his hand goes to the billfold in the pocket of his canary-yellow golf shorts. Something just doesn’t add up with these kids. It’s very confusing.

And now the music starts.

Huh, thinks Oswald, after listening for a moment. That doesn’t actually sound like bluegrass. I mean, it does and it doesn’t. It’s boring like bluegrass, except maybe even more boring. And something else, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the banjo. You know, I think it is the banjo. It just doesn’t sound right. Plus, the fellow’s playing it like he can’t move the fingers on his right hand. Maybe he’s a cripple? And anyway, it sounds like they only know one song.

Thus far, alas, and no further will Oswald progress in his musicological analysis; and so we must leave him here, or rather, be left by him, for now he has moved on up the street toward Malaprops Bookshop, which he remembers visiting last time he and Nancy were in town. In fact, isn’t that where he bought that Deluxe Collectors Edition of Look Homeward Angel? Talk about a waste of money. Everybody said the book was a classic, but he read the first ten pages and got such a headache, he handed it off to Nancy, who got through twenty and handed it off to the bookshelf at the beach house, where it remaineth unmolested unto this day. Who needs a book where the sentences hurt your brain? Reading’s supposed to relax you.

Farewell for now, Oswald. Godspeed to you, and warm regards to Nancy, whose color is just about finished down at Adorn Salon. (It looks great, by the way.) What you don’t know and may never comprehend is that you have just witnessed a significant moment in the endlessly fascinating and bizarre Cultural History of America. These bearded millennial shoplifters are playing not bluegrass, but something much older, a style of music that is the folk-musical great-grand-pappy of bluegrass, variously called “mountain music,” “fiddle music” and now more broadly “old time string band music,” “old time music,” or simply “old time.” And if your father was sufficiently embarrassed of it to conceal its existence from you, your son is secretly obsessed. So watch out.

* * *

Lest you, Dear Reader, should inadvertently offend a bluegrass or old time musician by confusing their faiths, a brief lesson in the History of American Music is now in order. Certain rather fine distinctions need to be made.

Where bluegrass stems from the late 1940s, and is in its origins a popular music phenomenon – unthinkable without recording studios, radio and concert stages – the origins of old time are lost way back in the dark hollars of Appalachia in the early Nineteenth Century. Where bluegrass, with its tight vocal harmonies and often hyperkinetic tempo, serves to showcase virtuoso musicianship (the performers taking turns soloing almost like in a jazz combo), old time is something anyone with a reasonably good ear and a little practice can learn to play well enough. True: the old time fiddle typically “leads” the tunes, as does the bluegrass fiddle; but there’s little in the way of soloing here. Everyone just plays – fiddle, banjo, maybe a guitar or two. Bass if there is one. Mandolin? Well, if you must. Singing? Sure, if you know a singing tune and the lyrics are either funny or tell a story about killing. But by the thrice-blessed jowls of Tommy Jarrell, don’t feel you have to stack your four-part harmonies with a dissonant modal on top and reach that “high lonesome sound” the bluegrass people go on about. Just sing a verse every now and then if you can remember one.

The point throughout is not to impress anybody, as with bluegrass, but just to have fun playing music. If there is a job to do – providing a little background music at a picnic or accompaniment at a contra-dance – then one does the job. But the focus is never on the performer per se. The last thing you’d see old time musicians doing is gathering around a microphone in their identical Gene Autry uniforms. If they perform in public at all, it’s gathered in a circle, wearing whatever they happened to be wearing when they got off work. In contrast to bluegrass, in other words, there’s really no such thing as a “professional old time musician.” Everybody has a day job, if they’re lucky. The music is what you do for fun.

Nor is this all. The way the instruments are played bears only a superficial resemblance to bluegrass. Take the fiddle, for instance. Where the bluegrass fiddler, like the old time fiddler, will rely to some extent on bowed 2-string chords, his attack is more aggressive, his tone purer, the notes of the melodies cleaner and more distinct. His style of playing is, with certain qualifications, not all that far from classical violin. He may even have actual conservatory training. Bluegrass fiddling, in fact, can sound quite pretty.

Old time fiddling is a different thing altogether. To most ears it sounds rough, primitive, archaic if not to say outright barbaric. In a word, it is full of noise, or what the bluegrass fiddler no less than the classical violinist would perceive as noise: squeaks and scrapes, weird overtones, all the roughness of the materials – wood, wire, horsehair – those very impurities the trained musician spends hundreds if not thousands of hours trying to purge from his or her playing. I’ve heard old time fiddling described as “mossy”; though as a matter of personal preference, I would choose “lichen-crusted.”[1] But here the words of one well-known Asheville fiddler come to mind: It’s not pretty; but it’s beautiful.[2]

The Sources of Country Music, Thomas Hart Benton, 1975

How can this be? On one level, old time fiddling can be perceived as beautiful only if one is willing to accept the possibility that “noise” can be expressive. And if it is expressive – in the same way that, for instance, the peculiar and to a large degree unconscious imperfections of an individual person’s speech are expressive – then it is not really noise at all, but music of a different kind. It is not pretty, according to the standard aesthetic definition; but it is beautiful because it is an authentic expression of an individual human being. We’ll return to this later.

For now, let’s take a look at the other instruments. Here we have the banjo, played in a style alternately called “frailing” or “claw-hammer.” Contrary to what the casual bluegrass listener might think, this is something like the “original” technique on the instrument. What most people likely associate with the banjo the bright, accelerated, “rolling” arpeggio sound – is the invention of one man, Earl Scruggs, who seems to have sprung fully-formed from the red clay of Cleveland County, North Carolina, with his finger-picking banjo technique already perfected. Soon thereafter, toward the end of 1945, he met up with one Bill Monroe of Ohio County, Kentucky and one Lester Flatt of Overton County, Tennessee; and thus bluegrass as we know it was born.

And the banjos you see bluegrass musicians playing are eloquent expressions of what is in fact the core value of the genre: showmanship. A bluegrass banjo looks like a big silver lollipop: it has a shiny metal face, a big “resonator” on the back, and pearl inlays on the fretboard. The headstock looks like a royal scepter. Everything about the instrument is bright and loud.

But the first banjos to appear in this country were neither bright nor loud. They were made from a gourd, a stick, and a couple of gut strings, and were brought here –as both object and idea –by African slaves. The banjo is in fact a West-African instrument, and its precursors can still be seen in that part of the world today. (White musicians seem not to have shown much interest in it until a decade or two before the Civil War.) The technique by which it is played there resembles not Earl Scruggs’s finger-picking style, but the three-part claw-hammer stroke familiar from old time music.[3] The strumming hand is essentially immobile, though not rigid, the fingers held in something like a “claw” shape, while the forearm hinges from the elbow. For the outsider, it’s often difficult to connect what one sees (hardly anything, really, apart from the forearm, wrist and hand moving together up and down and the thumb seeming to flop around a bit on the strings) with what one hears (often mind-bogglingly intricate rhythmic-melodic runs). The key to this technique is something beginners on the instrument will often be told, i.e. to “relax” the hand. In contrast to bluegrass picking, old time banjo actually requires laziness, or rather: a willingness to do only the absolute minimum and no more. This could be viewed as a rigorous moral discipline, as it were, a kind of musical asceticism. Even the “claw” of the claw-hammer is not really a claw as your standard b-film vampire might conceive it (i.e. flexed and threatening), but rather simply the natural shape the human hand takes when completely relaxed.[4]

Even the good old red-blooded American guitar gets played in a way that embodies a rigorous minimalism. You have to know six or eight chords (fewer if you use a capo) and be able to hold a flat-pick. That’s about it. You don’t even have to play an upstroke – only downstrokes – and keep a steady rhythm. On the bass, even less is required – though there the “steady” part is all the more essential: one plays the root of the chord, pizzicato and only on the beats; and this is the real “pulse” of the music. Watch (and feel) what happens in an old time jam when someone with a bass finally shows up and joins the group. All of a sudden, the music has a solid floor, and people want to get up and dance on it.

In short, this is folk music in its truest sense. Virtually anyone can do it. You don’t even have to read music. Hell, you don’t have to read at all. Moreover, you don’t need a “nice” instrument. Your strings can be as dead as Abe Lincoln, and they don’t even really have to be tuned to pitch, as long as they’re tuned approximately to what everyone else in the group is tuned to. Approximately being the operative word.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about the music itself yet. With the notable exception of Native American music, old time is arguably the oldest form of traditional music in North America. And it embodies, in a profound and complex way, the “melting pot” idea that defined America’s image of itself for a long time. The influence of the British Isles and Ireland is easy enough to hear for anyone familiar with those traditions. But immediately there are differences – perhaps the most important being the mere presence of the (African) banjo, and along with it the sliding tones and “blue notes” (3rds and 7ths) that are more fully developed in American Blues.

The “tunes,” moreover, are from a structural standpoint incredibly simple, consisting of only two parts of equal length: an “A” part and a “B” part, which alternate almost like the verse and chorus of rock-‘n-roll, and which can go on indefinitely.[5] At a contra-dance, depending on the caller’s wishes, a single tune might go on for ten or fifteen minutes. Left to their own devices, and especially if the jam has reached that level of hotness known as the “beehive,” the musicians might choose to go on this long anyway; but no one simply sitting and listening would necessarily desire this – unless, of course, he or she were also “watching” to learn how a particular fiddle player or banjo player does this or that.

To the untrained ear, however, these tunes “all sound the same”; and even old time musicians are fond of joking that there is in fact only one old time tune – it just sounds different sometimes because people misremember it. The fact of the matter is that there are hundreds of old time tunes, as well as regional variations on those tunes. Some of these variations are traceable to particular musicians – to John Carson or Fred Price, Tommy Jarrell or Wade Ward. Many fiddlers will tell you exactly whose version of a tune they like to play, and where they learned it. These variations, furthermore, are apparently not always an expression of conscious artistic choice (e.g. “I think this part would sound better this way…”), but are often a function of the fact that tunes are learned by ear and sometimes erroneously. To complicate matters, old time musicians tend not to play the same tune the same way every time, or even to play the same part of a tune the same way in a given performance. Instead –and again, despite what the untrained ear may perceive – old time musicians often improvise, albeit within certain limits. Hence Doc Roberts’s “version” of a particular tune, for example, may really only be the way he happened to play it the time it got recorded – which immediately becomes apparent when there are multiple recordings of the same tune made by the same artist on different occasions.

Thus when one speaks of the “Round Peak Style” of Tommy Jarrell, the “Grayson County Style” of Wade Ward, the “Eastern Kentucky Style” of J.P. Fraley, the “Middle Tennessee Style” of Uncle Dave Macon, etc., etc., one is identifying what amount to “schools” of playing, sub-traditions within the larger tradition of old time music. While traceable to single individuals in particular regions of Appalachia, the exponential increase in availability of recordings due to the internet, as well as the ease of modern travel, have meant that these “schools” are now artistically available to anyone, no matter where they live. The “Round Peak Style,” for instance, is now really no more than a set of options for how a contemporary old time musician might want to play a given tune.[6]

All of which would lead one to believe that the old time repertoire, vast as it may be, is nonetheless a closed set, like Old English poetry: there’s only so much of it and no more. But the truth is that new old time tunes are being composed all the time, and thanks to the festival circuit and the internet, they quickly make the rounds. In some cases, these new tunes are virtually indistinguishable in style from something a hundred and fifty years old. Other new tunes, by contrast, are old time in letter but not in spirit. Contemporary string-bands like Old Crowe Medicine Show have been immensely successful with their version of old time, which takes the traditional form and injects new content, with a chaser of testosterone. Their records, moreover, are never straight old time, but contain enough bluegrass, blues, folk, gospel and ragtime to make music industry executives despair and call it “country.” And for a mass audience, that’s close enough.

All of this sounds incredibly arcane and “folkloric”; and yet (to return briefly to our starting point) old time music is experiencing a tremendous renaissance in places like Asheville, and particularly among young people. At regional universities like Appalachian State, East Tennessee State, and even at small private colleges like Warren Wilson and Mars Hill, both near Asheville, students can take classes in old time music– for credit, mind you –learning technique and repertoire on banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, as well as the history of these instruments. Not since the 1960’s have so many banjos been seen on college campuses in Southern Appalachia. Festivals like the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, The Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia, and the Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Mount Airy, North Carolina attract thousands of people of all ages, and many have in effect expanded from a weekend to an entire week. The word on Clifftop is, if you don’t arrive three days early, good luck finding a campsite. Even at regular jams like the one on Wednesday nights at Jack of the Wood pub in downtown Asheville, it has long been necessary to divide up the evening into three separate jams, one at 5pm, another at 6:30pm, and yet another at 9pm. (Rumor has it that on some nights there’s even an 11pm jam, but the present author has not had occasion or rather, physical stamina, to verify this.) And even so, the stage is often packed with musicians on chairs and stools, sometimes even standing up at the edge of the stage or sitting with banjos on their knees at the patrons’ tables. The only time this is not so is during festival season, when everyone’s at Clifftop, Galax, Mount Airy, and elsewhere. But regardless of where you find an old time jam in progress, if you look around the circle, you’ll see men and women in their seventies and kids of seventeen. And yet, this is not a family reunion. These are people literally from all walks of life and all parts of the world, drawn together by one thing.

* * *

So what’s all this about? The folklorist Michael Meade once observed that when the center of a culture loses meaning, people turn to the fringes. They dig around in the detritus of culture, among the old forms that have been cast off in the name of Progress; that at some point fell out of fashion, became “uncool” or “quaint”; that were preserved, if at all, as part of the historical record only, as museum pieces, but never as relevant to contemporary interests; that, finally, only people outside the mainstream or “off the grid” retained any living interest in – largely because, as outcasts, it was all they had access to.

If Meade is right, then this is exactly how cultures renew themselves: by something akin to “salvaging,” even “scavenging.” When the dominant forms lose their meaning – in our time, largely through overuse and exploitation by the capitalist market – then those who hunger for meaning turn elsewhere for nourishment. Sometimes that “elsewhere” is literally an elsewhere: one moves to the Alaskan Wilderness or the wilderness of the urban street. But usually it’s more of an “elsewhen,” a reach back in time. Hence one often speaks of “revival” of one kind or another – of folk music, of small farming, log home construction, of parachute pants and the badass mullet.

But it’s one thing to grow up with old time music and to have it, so to speak, beaten into you; it’s something else entirely to seek it out, among all possible ways to spend your precious time, especially if you’re young, middle to upper-middle class, and educated. In other words, the people coming to old time music today are looking for something, and if Meade is right, what they’re looking for is authenticity.

Now. What is authenticity? If the etymology of the word is any clue, what it really means is something like “acting on one’s own authority” or “doing it oneself,” but also “making oneself.”[7] In other words, what’s at stake here is a desire to experience reality – including social reality – directly and immediately, i.e. without mediation. Putting it all together, we might say that authenticity derives from a self-authorized encounter with reality by doing or making something oneself (i.e. not accepting it “ready-made” as, for example, the consumer does by definition). And conversely: authority is authentic when it derives from self-authoring. In a society where the sanctioned forms of authority (politics and the state, business and the market, the mass media and the arts, as well as social institutions like the education system, the law, morality, etc., and even the great “myths” such as The American Dream) have ceased to have any real authenticity, people look elsewhere for it. Many simply turn to alternative “authorities” (gurus, cult leaders, the “Cool Tools” catalogue) or else reject the whole idea of authority and turn to its opposite (relativism, anarchism, hedonism). But others, our young old time musicians perhaps among them, look for authority in the form of an authentic relationship to other people. This is one way of talking about community, and in the case of the old time community, it is achieved not through adherence to some utopian ideology, but through something quite simple, something concrete and visceral and beyond all need of rationale: a love of the music itself.

Are there “gurus” in the old time community? Are there people who practice a false authority based upon their own narcissism and lust for power over others? Of course. Such people exist everywhere. But in the old time community, such people cut a more ridiculous figure than elsewhere, because so little is at stake. There’s virtually no money to be made, and there’s really no way to withhold knowledge as “capital” to be used for personal gain. Very little is copyrighted, and much of the rest is now public domain. Nothing is secret. One’s knowledge is entirely on display in performance; anyone can obtain it by mere observation, and surpass it by talent and hard work. Furthermore, the music is a group effort: if you’re an insufferable ass, pretty soon people will stop wanting to play with you. In this sense, old time music is radically democratic and self-regulating. Everybody gets one vote.

But there’s more. Old time music can be made with little to no preparation. All you need is your instrument and a chair, bench or stool to sit on. Moreover, it is a thoroughly physical activity: what you put in is what you get out.[8] One is aware of doing work. This is especially true of guitar and bass, which cause a certain amount of pain in the fingers, wrists and elbows. But more generally, in its embrace of noise, old time music is in effect embracing – rather than seeking to erase – the idea of labor, the idea that music is the product of human effort, and that the beauty of music is at least partly an effect of the beauty of work. If there are “hierarchies” within the old time community, these are a function not of wealth, birth, talent, grace of person, or any of the other biographical accidents that largely determine social status elsewhere, but of work. The “elders” of this heterogeneous tribe are simply those who have worked harder at it for a longer period of time and with a greater fidelity of love than others have done. In other words, the elders are those who have truly authored themselves in this tradition.[9]

Is it any surprise that in an age in which a significant percentage of humanity spends most of its waking hours in front of a computer screen, and in which so much of human interaction is mediated by digital technology – is it any surprise that young people are drawn to an art form that is thoroughly collaborative, material, present, and democratic? What could be a more decisive rebuttal of the fragmented, abstract, authoritarian society of Post-Millennial America? Finally we have a form of labor that is neither alienated nor alienating, and of which it can truly be said that the work is its own reward. What better way to “unplug” from the big machine?

* * *

And yet, this countercultural dynamic has a flip side. For is it not precisely by virtue of such sites of “resistance” that the capitalist market perpetuates itself? Capitalism, it turns out, is far more dialectical than Marx imagined.[10] The market actually feeds on resistance and revolution, on non-conformity and rebellion. The seasonal overturning of fashion, the annual innovations in automobiles, smart phones, etc. (“innovations,” mind you, that usually turn out to be mere tinkering with bells and whistles)––this is merely the surface. No one would be fooled by these fake revolutions, were it not for the mythology that attaches to them. The genius of consumer capitalism has been to link the idea of personal freedom to the purchase of certain products – in essence to make self-actualization a commodity: If I own this t-shirt with a picture of the indomitable Che (or Jimmy Hendrix or Elmer Fudd for that matter), I am expressing my rebellious individuality, my freedom, my non-conformity. If I subscribe to this magazine on homesteading, I am expressing my rejection of mass culture. If I design my own website, I am authoring myself. Except that everybody around me is doing exactly the same – and someone somewhere is making a ton of money off it. The rejection of the norm becomes the new norm, which in turn must be rejected, in the endless pursuit of the mirage of individuality. In consumer capitalism, the desire to “be yourself” is thus the engine of consumption, and finally, of conformity – the ultimate loss of self.

Thus the cultural renewal through scavenging that Michael Meade identifies, far from being revolutionary, actually supports the capitalist system. Like a pot of water coming to a boil, the market draws material in from the edges, hypes it up as “different,” and soon rolls it off once again to the edges: a cycle that is potentially endless.[11] Believe it or not, there was a time when jeans and baseball caps would have been considered hopelessly low-class, unfashionable attire. Thus wearing them by choice, when by virtue of one’s social class other choices would have been both available and expected, was an act of rebellion. For a middle-class kid in the early 1950s, wearing jeans gave you a kind of blue-collar street-cred. It meant something, like a badge. It separated you from all the “phonies.” It marked you as “real.” You were a rebel, dammit, though perhaps without much in the way of a cause.

And soon, of course, jeans were to be seen on every Ivy League frat boy and his sister – at least on weekends. (For many years now, you will pay more for a pair of jeans that is pre-worn-out, complete with oil stains, holes and faded patches, frayed cuffs, etc., than for a “new” pair.) The same was true of rock-‘n-roll music and long hair. Substitute hip-hop for rock-‘n-roll and tattoos for flowing locks, and you see the same thing replicated today. What was “marginal” becomes mainstream. It has been essentially co-opted, bought-off, repackaged, and sold at an obscene markup to people who desperately want it. And why do they want it? Because the marginal – the “weird,” the “dangerous,” the “anti-social” – are intuitively understood to be authentic. By virtue of existing outside the pale of the normalizing, homogenizing, and deadening center, the fringe represents the place where things are “real” and “alive.” Which in turn makes the fringe the object of imagination and intense desire for those who live within the pale. This spiritual dynamic (for that is what it is) has not been lost on product developers and advertisers.[12]

Will this “buyout” happen to old time music as well? Will old time become yet another “product” for sale on the market of fake authenticities? You bet. And in some ways, it already has. It would be easy to make fun of the upper-middle-class college kid from Long Island who moves to Asheville, trades his J. Crew for Goodwill, stops bathing, lives in a barn, but keeps his iPhone and credit cards and pays $2500 for a vintage 1923 Vega banjo. All the more so if he goes on to affect a Madison County accent. But this would be a little too easy, and besides, it would miss the point. The essential and arguably decisive fact is this: you do not need to buy anything to play old time music. You don’t need any “gear.” You don’t need to dress in a certain way. All you need is an instrument, and a borrowed instrument is just as good as one you own. Nor does the “quality” of the instrument matter. A home-made banjo or a department store model is just as serviceable as a vintage or professionally custom-made one costing thousands of dollars. You don’t even need to buy new strings every week. In fact, the music will sound better if you don’t.[13]

What you do need, however, is other people. And time. As long as we’re sitting together playing music, no one is making money off of us; what we’re doing is no one’s commodity. Sure, if we wanted to, we could “enter the market”: we could charge a fee for lessons, we could rent a recording studio and make a record and try to sell it, we could go into business buying, selling, trading, or manufacturing instruments, we could play a contra-dance and make a few hundred dollars. We could stake out a street corner in Asheville and busk from noon to midnight. But these things are peripheral to the music itself.

And as far as the lure of “rebellion,” there is a strong built-in resistance in old time music, namely, the sheer fact that it’s so old. It is a tradition. If you find you can “be yourself” there, if you discover your personal authority and authenticity there, it won’t be because you bought a vintage fiddle and showed up to the jam in your overalls and muddy work boots. Much less because you discovered a new technique no one’s ever thought of before. It will be because you spent a lot of time, over the course of many years, playing the music, learning the tradition and forming meaningful relationships with the other human beings sitting beside you or across from you in the jam. And this is time you’ve not spent watching TV or Facebooking or surfing the Internet.

Of course there are “innovations” from time to time – someone at some point had the crazy idea of accompanying the fiddle on an African banjo, and any old time musician will have his or her own variations on a traditional tune – but these are creative, idiosyncratic developments that are not fungible. The instruments themselves rarely change; and it would be odd indeed if someone were to go out and buy a brand-new fiddle every year, the way many consumers approach their “devices.” Unlike fiddle-makers, the manufacturers of smartphones (and much else) have intentionally designed the products to become obsolete and require replacement. One “owns” not so much the device itself as the concept of the device, the brand, or in concrete terms, the contract with the service provider.

An entirely different kind of ownership is at work with a traditional musical instrument. It’s like owning a copy of your favorite book. There is no such thing as obsolescence. On the contrary: the longer you own it and the more you play it –– and the more people who’ve owned it and played it before you – the more valuable it is. And this value is not abstract or fungible: it is thoroughly material, of one substance with the instrument itself, but at the same time “auratic” or spiritual. The hundreds, even thousands of hours of human time devoted to playing the instrument, the warmth and sweat of human hands, the deep, fluctuating cadence of human breath and blood, the quality of the surrounding atmosphere of lived sounds, smells, emotions – none of this is lost, but dwells in the material instrument, a reservoir of “value” that can be drawn on and that never exhausts itself. It is a renewable resource if ever there was one. It is a quality that cannot be quantified, only felt.

Like all cultural developments, the recent renaissance of old time music has drawn and will continue to draw its predators, people who see it as an entrepreneurial opportunity. And they may succeed in turning it to profit. But unlike, say, what a coal mining company does to a mountain, these entrepreneurs will not be able to destroy what they exploit; and eventually, once the “hype” has passed, they’ll move on. It has happened before. But even those non-entrepreneurial poseurs who are drawn to old time for the wrong reasons – because for the moment it’s “cool” – may yet come to love it for the right reasons. They may yet find – in the deepening relationship to other musicians, to the music itself, to the tradition, to the physical object of their instrument – something not easily found elsewhere, and it may catch them by surprise, though it’s been there all along: an authenticity. And what could be more rebellious than that? Perhaps it’s something worth keeping.


[1] Depending on whom you ask and what their daytime profession is, you might also hear old time fiddling described as (in alphabetical order now) atonal, barky, coarse, coarse-grained, coarse-woven, craggy, distressed, gritty, homespun, knotted, non-slippery, oxidized, potholed, redolent of primordial chaos, rough-milled, shaggy, silty, unfiltered, unpaved, warty, warty as a toad, warty as a witch’s tit, wrinkly, wrinkly as the ass on a half-starved hog.

[2] A certain Professor of Appalachian Studies (yes, such a thing exists) kindly informs me that my characterization of old time fiddling here is very Asheville-centric; that the “mossiness” I present as characteristic of all old time fiddling is really only characteristic of North Carolina’s indigenous “Round Peak Style,” associated with Tommy Jarrell; and that in fact there are many important old time fiddlers from other regions whose playing is “sharp and crisp” and “proficient as hell.” He names Doc Roberts and Buddy Thomas, for instance, as well as Marcus Martin, of whom he says, “There ain’t a fly on that.” Furthermore (the Professor goes on to say), he is “just plain sick and tired of all this Round Peak Imperialism,” and “just because Tommy’s fiddle is in the damn Smithsonian now that doesn’t make him the fiddle king.” Doubtless the Professor is right. But like the wise fool, I will, for the time being at least, persist in my folly.

[3] But let me hasten add that there are prominent old time banjo players who do (or did) “pick”: Uncle Dave Macon and Charlie Poole, among others. Even I, who am no Professor of Appalachian Studies, know this much. And while “claw-hammer” is perhaps the dominant style, there is probably as much diversity – if not to say idiosyncrasy – on old time banjo as there is in old time fiddling; and this is actually (or should be) part of my point here. For in bluegrass, the Scruggs technique is virtually synonymous with banjo. He is to bluegrass banjo what Robert Johnson is to blues guitar: not without important predecessors, but definitive for what came after.

[4] I can’t help but feel, however, that there is also a certain weariness in the claw-hammer hand, a certain (how shall I put it?) bone-tired exhaustion; as if the technique were invented by someone who’d been, say, plowing or digging up stumps or potatoes or chopping cotton all week by hand, and whose hands consequently really just couldn’t do much else than “claw” by the weekend.

[5] Some tunes have a third (“C”) part; and there are other variables as well, including rhythmical irregularities (the formata, for example, in which a note is held for longer than its actual metrical value, such that the tune “hangs” for a moment before kicking back in again) as well as changes of time signature (a measure of half-time or 5/4 at the end of one of the parts, for example), and even of key. In old time parlance, these tunes are lovingly dubbed “crooked.” But the implied crooked/straight binary gives off an unpleasant socio-political odor in this our multiculturally enlightened utopia of Asheville; therefore certain witty guitar players of my acquaintance have invented the terms “high-neuron tune” and “low-neuron tune,” the latter designating for example a straight 4/4 tune with only one chord. That sounds hideously boring for the rhythm section, and yet many of these “low-neuron tunes” are incredibly fun to play.

[6] That said, I know one prominent Asheville fiddler who will tell you not only that he does Round Peak Style exclusively, but that he memorizes and replicates particular Tommy Jarrell recordings–-note for note, squeak for squeak.

[7] From the Greek authentes: “one who acts on his own authority”; from autos “self” and hentes “doer, maker.”

[8] Unlike an electronic instrument, in which the output far exceeds the input.

[9] “Studying old time music is a really great way to flush your life down the toilet,” says one Asheville fiddle player I know. “I mean, look at me!”

[10] I mean Karl here, not Groucho – who seems to have understood this aspect of capitalism very well: the only way to beat it is to join it incompetently, i.e. to really try to be serious, and to fail, preferably while wearing a painted-on mustache. I feel we all could learn from this.

[11] But not really: at some point in the perhaps not too distant future, the “water” itself i.e. the available and requisite natural resources, will have boiled away.

[12] The irony, of course, is that the people who actually live on the fringe either don’t know that they do, or wish that they didn’t. The Dancing Outlaw (Jesco White) really was excited to go to Los Angeles and appear in an episode of Roseanne. For him this meant that he had finally “made it.” Little did he suspect that the producers of the show needed him far more desperately then he needed them. Without them, Jesco could go on living as he had before; but without Jesco––the veritable embodiment of Weird America, the exotic, the real, the authentic grist for their pop-cultural mill – they would be nothing. And how sick with glee they were to discover that Jesco had a swastika tattooed on his arm! In their most extravagant and avaricious prayers they couldn’t have asked for more.

[13] On this point a well-informed acquaintance of mine begs to differ: “Bad mandolins should be burnt, not played.”

About the Author:

Photograph by ShaLeigh Comerford

Originally from western North Carolina, John Crutchfield is a writer and performer currently based in Berlin, Germany. His plays Ivory, The Songs Of Robert, Ruth, Twelve Treatises On Memory, The Labyrinth, Solstice, Landscape With Missing Person, Come Thick Night, and The Strange And Tragical Adventures Of Pinocchio have been produced regionally in the U.S., as have numerous shorter works. He has collaborated and performed with X Factor Dance, Sans Pointe Dance, J. Alex and The Movement, Legacy Butoh, Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, and Anemone Dance Theatre, and has been an artist-in residence at the Djerassi Artists Foundation, Headlands Center for the Arts, the Association d’Art de La Napoule (France), and the Pädagogische Hochschule Karlsruhe (Germany). At present, he teaches at the Free University of Berlin, freelances. More info at: