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What is “old-time” music?

Hog-Eyed Man, composed of Rob McMaken (dulcimer) and Jason Cade (fiddle), play Old-time music at the Kennedy Creek Old Time Music Workshops, organized by the American Musicological Society in partnership with the AMS South-Central Chapter.

The phrase “old-time” describes the music played on fiddles and banjos in the United States before the 1940s. This music can be played on solo instruments or by small ensembles known as string bands. A typical string band might contain fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, and string bass. Old-time music is mostly dance music. String bands play two-part tunes with a strong dance rhythm. However, old-time also includes songs with sung words. Sometimes, string bands play slow or uneven tunes that are intended only for listening.

Old-time is usually contrasted with bluegrass. Bluegrass emerged as a commercial string band style in the 1940s. Like old-time, bluegrass is played on acoustic string instruments. However, bluegrass is often faster and more energetic. In old-time, all members of the band play simultaneously, but bluegrass features individual performers who take turns displaying their skill during solo “breaks.”

This is “June Apple” played in an old-time style. The fiddles and banjo play the melody throughout. The other instruments provide chords and rhythm.

This is “June Apple” played in a bluegrass style. Every musician takes a solo “break.”

Bluegrass and old-time also incorporate different types of banjos, played using different styles. The bluegrass banjo has a metal back. This is called a resonator, and it gives the instrument a bright, twangy sound. Old-time banjos are usually open in the back and have a muted, plunky sound. All of these banjos can be traced back to stringed instruments played by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. These instruments were built like West African lutes.

Adam Hurt is playing a gourd banjo. It has no frets. His instrument is similar to the earliest banjos. He is playing in the “clawhammer” style used by old-time musicians.

Bluegrass banjo with heavy metal resonator. It is played with metal finger picks.

(Above) A bluegrass banjo has a heavy metal resonator. It is played with metal finger picks.
(Right) An old-time banjo has an open back. It is played without picks.


Old-time players seek out historical and field recordings and imitate the tunes and styles of the pre-bluegrass era. In the 1920s, record companies began issuing what were called “hillbilly” records. These were primarily recordings of white Southern string bands playing traditional music. Beginning in the 1930s, collectors like Alan Lomax travelled around the South making field recordings of traditional musicians. Much of this work was funded by New Deal grants. Today, these field recordings have been digitized and are available through the Library of Congress website. The Berea College Sound Archives also hold many digitized field recordings.

However, old-time music does not only come from the South. There are distinctive fiddling traditions in all parts of the country. Fiddlers Howard Rains and Tricia Spencer have spent many years collecting and recording traditional fiddle tunes from Texas. Tricia also carries on the legacy of her grandfather, Kansas fiddler Vernon Spencer. Howard Wight Marshall has written two books about old-time fiddling in Missouri. In Illinois, Garry Harrison (1954-2012) built a legacy as a fiddler, tune collector and tune composer. Indeed, old-time music is not always old. Fiddlers and banjo players continue to write new tunes all the time.

In all settings, old-time music is mostly about community and relationships. Some old-time players pursue music as a career. Most are only interested in playing for fun. Anyone can get involved. Some of the instruments are very easy to play. At the same time, it takes many years to develop a high level of expertise and skill. Old-time musicians gather together at local jam sessions to play traditional tunes in large groups. Many attend festivals, such as the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, WV. Festivals typically feature contests for instruments and bands. Sometimes they also have concerts. Most people, however, attend in order to jam with their friends. Old-time players also attend music camps. They take classes to learn new tunes and skills. In all settings, people involved with old-time music value participation and playing together. Thomas Turino writes about participation in his landmark book Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation (2008).

Old-time music is the music of rural people. It was developed and sustained by musicians who made their own instruments and taught themselves how to play. It was used to provide entertainment when nothing else was available. Today, old-time flourishes in both rural and urban areas as a participatory practice. It sustains a legacy of regional musical tradition. It thrives by bringing people together into community.

Gus Tritsch wrote “The Shoemaker” a few years ago. He was a teenager at the time. It is a new tune that many people play.

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…