old-timey vs. bluegrass vs. folk


old-timey musician Tommy Jarrel

With Hardly Strictly Bluegrass approaching, I thought this might be a good time to step back and explain a little bit about the differences between old-timey, bluegrass and folk musics. With things like the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack mixing the three fluidly, it’s not always obvious.

I’m speaking with some amount of generality here. This is more of a primer than an in-depth look at the differences.

Old-timey: Old-time music is a pretty general genre of music mostly from the Appalachian mountains, though music from the Ozarks and other regions is referred to as old time as well. It’s largely derived from Scottish, Irish and English influences, but the banjo, on which much of the music is played, and some of the rhythmic components come have their origins in Africa.

Tunes can be with or without vocals. The instrumentation is varied: from acapella vocals to a full set of string band instruments, but typically, it may have fiddle or banjo and guitar. The banjo may be played clawhammer and the guitar flat-or-finger-picked.

Vocals are often solo (without harmonies). The instrumental melody line is often carried in one instrument throughout while the other play chords or all are in unison. The harmonic structure is often modal rather than following chord progression as such.

Frank Bode and Tommy Jarrell – Susannah Gal (mp3)

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Charlie Higgins and Wade Ward – Willow Garden (mp3)

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Bluegrass: Bluegrass music is a fairly modern invention, dating from the late 1940s. While it hasn’t always been popular, it is pop music in that it’s been recorded for and broadcast to the masses essentially since its inception.

Bluegrass songs usually have vocals characterized by strong harmonies (especially the high vocal line). While the instruments are similar to old-timey, their function differs: instruments trade off the melody and soloing between vocals lines. They switch roles (lead, backing) rather than being more constant throughout.

The guitar is usually flat-picked and the banjo is usually played Scruggs-style (or three-finger style). Songs follow a more pop song structure (verse, chorus, bridge) than old-timey music.

Bill Monroe – Shady Grove (mp3)

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Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys – Traveling the Highway Home (mp3)

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Folk music Folk music has a lot of different connotations for different people.

My teacher George Ruckert gave me the best definition of folk music that I have heard. According to this definition, a song must have:

  • anonymous authorship
  • multiple versions

I’m not talking about Folk revival or folk rock or indie folk, but folk, in it’s most broad and most original sense. It’s also a sense which doesn’t preclude music from around the world–Japan or India or Senagal can equally have folk music in this definition.

As such, folk can overlap both old-timey or bluegrass music, though bluegrass tends to have a lot more composed songs.

A good example of an American folk song is “John Henry”. It seems no one knows where the song came from or if the earliest version of it were in song or in written form–though if you follow balladry, we know that stories like Robin Hood were mostly passed down by song. As you can hear below, there are many versions of this song. It’s important to note that while these versions sound different, the songs are also different in content and lyrics. In fact, in ballad study, like the Child Ballads, song versions are only cataloged by lyrics.

Leslie Riddle – John Henry (mp3)

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Bill Cornett – John Henry (mp3)

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Ed Lewis – John Henry (mp3)

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2 Responses to “old-timey vs. bluegrass vs. folk”

  1. Daryl says:

    I like the quick taxonomy you give. I’ve never heard of ‘old-timey’ as a category, but its thought-provoking. I did a post recently that looked into folk-revival stuff, and the idea of different versions, but it was in the context of my own attempt at taxonomizing various forms of the cover song.

    Like the blog,
    Daryl

  2. adrian says:

    Daryl, thanks for your comment and for reminding me of something I wanted to bring up. The implication of the two requirements together–multiple versions plus anonymous authorship–is various sources for the song. Orally/ aurally transmitted folk songs don’t have a definitive version and have widely varying versions because of this–lyrics and stories change (important! see above in the post), people adapt the song, instrumentation and playing style to their own tradition or style. Cover songs, generally, do have a definitive version: the original. So the covers tend to be different takes on one version rather than multiple versions.

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