Saturday, June 28, 2008

Elk Creek, VA

[To access the comments from June 12 to the 27 go to]

Guess what this is? (Answer below).

Our second trip to the Grayson County Old-Time and Bluegrass Fiddlers' Convention in Elk Creek, VA was equally entertaining. It began with the youth competition in the same categories as the previous evening. Personally, I believe the youth competition is crucial to the survival of the musical culture of the region. Essential for the young people, since it connects them to their family and the "elders" of the community. Essential for the musical heritage because the traditions are continued.

By the way, the four of us (the Jones', Kate, and I) picked the top three winners--two terrific violinists and a string bass player. The first place winner in the youth competition was Marlon Dean, pictured here.

As I mentioned in the last post, I was going to address the difference between "old-time" and "bluegrass." (You may choose to skip this longer explanation and go right to the fifth paragraph.)

The first distinction is that "old-time" music is dance music. That is, the audience gets up, dances, and applauds. "Bluegrass" music is concert music, meaning that the audience listens and then applauds. However, old-time bands sometimes play concerts and may have songs with instrumental breaks like bluegrass bands, and bluegrass bands sometimes play dances.

The second distinction is based on the style of banjo playing. Old-time styles can be traced back some 150 years and may be called "claw hammer" or "two finger." Bluegrass banjo playing is "three finger" and syncopated and arose from North Carolina and the style of Earl Scruggs. (If you haven't skipped ahead to paragraph #5, we'll continue.

The third distinction refers to the instrumentation. Old-time music is fiddle-centered, since it is dance music. Bluegrass features all the instruments, often as soloists. Note: both bands include the same instruments--fiddle/violin (therein lies another topic for clarification, but we'll skip that for now), banjo, guitar, bass, and (sometimes) mandolin.

Finally, . . . the fourth distinction lies in the labels themselves. The term "old-time" was applied to the Appalachain music in the 1920's by the music industry; "bluegrass" arose in 1945 from Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys and grew out of the technology of microphones, mixers, and speakers that made it possible to "solo" different stringed instruments.

To conclude the discussion of the difference, one could turn to Ralph Stanley, the most noted of the founders of bluegrass music. He is not sure that his music should be called "bluegrass." He was playing the music before the name was created and described his music as "old-time, what you might call bluegrass. Eventually he came up with this definition "It's mountain music" (Guide to the Crooked Road). So there you have it.

Now, here is the quiz for those who read the entire discussion: Today, I met the fellow who played the banjo at the Fries Jam Session. I told him that we were happy he showed up to offer some contrast to the five guitarists and that we appreciated his playing. He said, "I was really out of my element. Without the fiddle player there, I didn't add much. I really play off the fiddle player." Would this banjo player be more likely to be found playing in an old-time band or a bluegrass band? (Answer later.)

I wish I could be with you to hear you skillfully clarify the difference when someone casually asks, "What's the difference between 'old-time' and 'bluegrass' music?" You'll amaze that person.

There was strong competition among the old-time bands at Elk Creek. There were over 25 bands competing in that category, and each played two songs. It was pretty impressive to see a band finish and within three minutes another band had set up, done a sound check, and begun playing.

With 25 bands each playing two songs, there were only about two duplicates that I could recall and even those had different stylings. Obviously, there is a rich resource of songs upon which to draw. While there is strong similarity of style (old-time music), there is such a variety of presentation that one does not become tired of the music.

We met Gerald Anderson in the afternoon. This meeting will be the focus of a topic in a few days.

After spending time comparing travel experiences with Fran and Jim and wishing Fran well playing her new guitar, we said farewell to our two new friends.

Answers: (1) The apparatus is an ice cream maker used by the folks selling homemade ice cream. I remember the hand cranked model. (2) Our banjo-playing friend would have performed in an old-time band (which featured the fiddle and did not focus on solo performances by the members of the band). Interestingly enough, the fellow, who is from Fries, was playing with an old-time band from Stewardstown, PA in this category of the competition. It seems that a couple of days ago he learned the Pennsylvania band was looking for a banjo player, so he joined them for the competition. When you're skilled, I guess it's pretty easy to fit in with other skilled players in a certain style of music.

Finally, the surrounding area was beautiful, and I just wanted to add a couple of photos of the Elk Creek area.


Craig and Linda Stevenson said...

Dear Chuck and Kathy,
I enjoyed your blog. It seems to be working fine. Your pictures are beautiful. I was wondering how you are doing, so now will add you to my bookmarks so I can check up on you. When will you be in Illinois? Please stop by for a visit. Linda (and Craig too!)

eddiek said...

Dear Chuck and Kate,

I love your blog, especially the part about the old-time vs bluegrass. i can see myself siting there with you listening to 25 bands. Let the good times roll.

Ed Kohlhepp