Many Musics of America

What does it mean to “revive” old-time music?

Samantha Bumgarner, fiddler, banjoist, and guitarist from Asheville, North Carolina, 1937. (Library of Congress)

A “music revival” takes place when people who were not born into a tradition choose to adopt it. Often, the music being revived comes from a rural area; but the people who revive it are well-educated, wealthy, and live in cities. “Revivalists” start playing traditional music from rural areas for many different reasons. Sometimes they are looking for community and connection. Sometimes they feel attracted to rural life or the idea of long-ago music. Sometimes they simply like the music.

The term “revival” can be misleading. It seems to imply that the music was dead before the revivalists picked it up. But usually the music being “revived” is alive and well when it changes hands. It has simply been ignored by outsiders. Sometimes people use the word “enculturated” to describe the musicians who grew up in a musical tradition. By contrast, “revivalists” are the people from outside who notice the music and decide to participate. Sometimes the revivalists change the tradition.

In the 1950s and 1960s many Americans became interested in bluegrass and old-time music from the American South. Commercial audio recordings played a vital role in getting Northerners’ attention. Most of the early recordings of string band music were made in the South. The term “hillbilly” was used to describe commercial string band music by white Southerners. The first “hillbilly” recording was made in Atlanta in 1923 when Ralph Peer recorded “Fiddlin’” John Carson (c. 1868-1949). Southern musicians also travelled to New York City to make recordings. When folklorists began to make field recordings, they concentrated their work in the South.

“Fiddlin’” John Carson was the first “hillbilly” recording artist.

Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis were from North Carolina. They traveled to New York City to record for Columbia in 1924.

Because the music was circulating in the media, Northerners began to pay attention to music that rural Southerners played. They first heard it on recordings like the Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). This influential set was issued by collector Harry Smith on Folkways Records. City-dwellers started playing string band instruments in traditional styles. Revivalist string bands from outside the South, like the New Lost City Ramblers, picked up the styles of old-time and bluegrass music. Some revivalist musicians visited Southern tradition bearers to learn from them directly. Perhaps the most influential of these was fiddle and banjo player Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985) of Surry County, NC. Tommy welcomed many visitors into his home.

This expanding interest in string band music was part of a larger American “folk revival.” The folk revival was connected with left-wing politics. Many revivalists saw folk music as the music of the working class. They wanted to use folk music to spread a progressive political message. Some enculturated musicians, like Florence Reece (1900-1986) in Kentucky, were involved in left-wing political activity. Reece was a miner’s wife. She used music to support the miners’ union in Harlan County during the 1930s. However, many tradition bearers were socially and politically conservative. This contrast has made for a paradox in old-time music. Revivalists and enculturated musicians often hold very different values. Love for the music often brings people from different backgrounds together.

Tommy Jarrell had an important influence on the folk revival.

Calling a musician a “revivalist” suggests that they are an outsider to the tradition. But what if someone spends many decades immersed in old-time music? Alice Gerrard (b. 1934) grew up in Seattle, WA and discovered old-time and bluegrass music as an adult. That makes her a “revivalist.” But today she is one of the most experienced and authoritative practitioners. She is no longer outside of the tradition. Instead, she is at its center. What about contemporary Appalachian musicians who move between the country and cities? Joseph Decosimo grew up in Tennessee. He learned traditional music directly from rural players. However, his life is very different from theirs. In 2018, he earned a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Now he lives in the city of Durham, NC. He collaborates with musicians from many different backgrounds. Decosimo argues that the label “revivalist” is not useful. He sees old-time as a diverse community of people who make music together. The music has always grown and changed.

Old-time and bluegrass are now available everywhere, but people still connect them with the South. Today, many of the most prominent festivals, conventions, and music camps are located in the South. Programs like Junior Appalachian Musicians and Georgia Pick & Bow teach schoolchildren how to play old-time and bluegrass. However, the Internet makes this music available to everyone. People don’t just play old-time and bluegrass because they grew up with it. They come to the music from a variety of backgrounds because they love it.

People play old-time music around the world. Tomonori Shimizu is a well-known Japanese fiddler. In this video he performs old-time music with other Japanese musicians and dancers at a festival in Japan.

Esther Morgan-Ellis

Esther Morgan-Ellis is associate professor of music history at the University of North Georgia, where she also directs the orchestra and coaches the old-time string band. Dr. Morgan-Ellis studies American participatory music traditions of the past and present.  Learn more…

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