WORKSHOP

OLD-TIME MUSIC

January 2022
Led by: Sandol Astrausky, Rory MacLeod and Bill Burke

Since 2016 the Elkhorn Ranch has hosted a week in January inspired by the tradition of old time music where friends gather with their fiddles, guitars, banjos, mandolins, spoons for rhythm and the like around the fire, on the porch, or in the long house to make music together.

Enthusiasts of all levels are welcome to join in – bring your instrument! Small group or individual lessons take place most afternoons. The  jam session after supper will be replaced with small group ensembles sharing tunes.

Our goal at the Elkhorn is to create a welcoming and relaxed space where you can enjoy a common interest or passion (for when you’re not riding or hiking). If you’ve ever dreamed of playing music with other people, this is a low-key friendly opportunity to give it a whirl!

If the weather doesn’t cooperate, we hope everyone will appreciate the camaraderie and friendship that are the heart and soul of playing music and being together here at Elkhorn!

OUR INSTRUCTORS

Three wonderful instructors join us for old-time music week, providing lessons and leading the evening jam sessions:

Sandol is an old time fiddler from Rhode Island who teaches fiddle music, plays for dances, attends festivals, and is active in the old time music community. In addition to giving afternoon lessons, she leads the evening jam sessions at the Elkhorn by shuffling us in and driving the tunes with her melodies.

Rory teaches and plays many stringed instruments including the double bass, guitar, and banjo and is active in the old time music community. Rory adds his joyful singing to many of our tunes and gets all of us involved in enjoying the moment together.

Bill is a luthier in Flagstaff Arizona who builds exquisite instruments – many of them being traditional old time instruments. He also plays the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and mandola which he gives lessons on here at the Elkhorn. To see some of his instruments and hear him play, follow this link to his website old timey music

INSTRUMENTS IN OLD-TIME MUSIC

People play a wide variety of instruments in old-time music sessions and each instrument has one or more roles in the structure.

The fiddler plays the melody and sets the tempo and the fiddler shuffles the band in, sets the tempo, and signals to the band when to stop. Check out this fun fiddlesticks video to see old time played and danced with just a fiddle and some rhythmic accompaniment.

The banjoist plays a lower version of the melody and rhythmic accompaniment typically in the clawhammer style.

The guitarist plays rhythmic accompaniment to the melody

The mandolinist plays rhythmic accompaniment and sometimes melody

The bassist creates balance through adding a lower register and rhythmic accompaniment

TUNE STRUCTURES IN OLD-TIME

Old-time tunes vary greatly in rhythm and style depending on the purpose of the jam, the region the band is from, and the type of dance typical to that region. See this example of two stepping to understand how the music and dance works together

A breakdown can mean a wide array of up-beat old time tunes used for many dance styles. It may have a heavier beat than a reel but the term is used pretty interchangeably with the term reel. Breakdowns are played in 2/4 and 4/4 time. Example

Follow this link to read a forum on breakdown style

A reel is a Scottish dance tune that spread to the British Isles and North America. It is played in 2/2 or 4/4 time.
A waltz is a traditional German folk dance that is played in 3 /4 time
A jig is a traditional Irish dancing tune that is not played often in American Old Time music but can sometimes accompany clogging. It is played in in 6/8 time
A schottische is a bohemian dance tune that spread to Europe and the United States. It is traditionally played as a slow polka but is usually played in 4/4 time breakdown style in Old Time. Here are examples of how playing tunes in different styles alters how it sounds.

Slow polka
Breakdown

WHAT IS OLD TIME MUSIC?

Isolated communities in the Appalachian Mountains developed traditional Old Time music from dance tunes, songs, and ballads Africans and Europeans brought with them when coming to America. The fiddle from Europe and banjo from West Africa were the original instruments played in Old Time music as accompaniment at square and contra dances. The guitar, mandolin and stand-up bass made their way into the mountains around the late 19th century and are central instruments to a modern old time string band. A wide range of other instruments stringed or no can easily find a place in an old time jam session. Old time is now considered a subgenre of country music.

Modern country and bluegrass have roots in old time music. As musicians from the Appalachians started to commercialize their music for the radio they changed the structure of old time tunes to make them more palatable for listening on the radio.

Country musicians moved toward electric instruments and began to use other instruments such as the accordion more frequently. They also began collaborating with blues players which has influenced the genre greatly.

Bluegrass, a subgenre of modern country, is still played with acoustic “string bands,” but players changed from old time by reducing the repetition, speeding up the tunes, and creating complex structure. Whereas the fiddle plays the melody and solos in old time music, many instruments play solos or “breaks” in bluegrass.

Old time musicians often learn and play during informal jam sessions which can be seen as conversations between a group of people. Just as with any conversation, there is an etiquette people follow during these jam sessions.

The old time jam gives newcomers to the music a chance to play with experienced players who lead the jam. So don’t be shy to jump in and play along! Though it’s best to play quietly until you’ve picked up enough of the tune to enhance the jam.

An important aspect of jamming as a group is making sure all members know a little information about the song they are about to play. The person presenting the song should let the other people in the group know the:

  1. Key – jamming is a lot more fun and attainable especially for newcomers if they know the key the song is played in. The most common keys in old time playing are D, G, or A with C, F, and B♭showing up less often. The common minor keys in old time are Em, Am, Dm, and Bm.
  2. Song structure – traditional old time songs typically have two parts A and B and the most common structure is AABB (eg. Seneca Square Dance ). Other structures that tend to lend themselves more towards singing like ABAB can also be found in old time but are seen less often.
  3. Strange structures- it is courteous to let players know of any strange chords or rhythm changes in the tune so they can look out for them.

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