Old-time vs bluegrass music
November 29, 2017 6:01 PM   Subscribe

For an article I'm writing, I need to be able to understand and explain the difference between old-time (Appalachian) music and bluegrass music. I have already exhausted Google on the subject but I'm still not satisfied. I don't have time to order books or anything. I've been listening to music but don't have a good enough ear for this. I will take any aspect you've got (origins, instrumentation, song structure, etc) though I'll only have room for a paragraph or two on this subject. Thank you.
posted by mermaidcafe to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My dad loves old time music. He says bluegrass comes out of old time, that old time is much closer to the old Scottish- Irish music that came over, and that bluegrass is basically a sellout commercialized version. In related news, my father is a cranky old man.
posted by kerf at 6:34 PM on November 29, 2017 [14 favorites]

Bluegrass is country; old-time is folk.

Both have roots in fiddle tunes for social dances in North America. Bluegrass is a faster commercial form, with stripped-down instrumentation (stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, very specific 3-finger style 5-string banjo playing, and F-style mandolin played for rhythmic “bark” at a minimum; sometimes a fiddle). Bluegrass's origins can also be linked to a very few people (primarily Bill Monroe, but also Earl Scruggs). Bluegrass also tends to feature solo instrumental ‘breaks’, where each player gets a short solo based on the tune's theme.

Old-time is pretty much everything else: there's no one fiddling style, there's no one banjo style. Old-time tends to acknowledge more roots in African-American music than bluegrass. The fiddle has all the melody notes in old-time music, and the other instruments play cut-down accompanying parts.

That's not to say there's no crossover between the two. Famously, “Stringbean” Akeman played banjo for Bill Monroe early on, even though Stringbean was later much better known as an old-time player after he and Monroe parted ways.
posted by scruss at 6:49 PM on November 29, 2017 [10 favorites]

Yep, kerf's dad is kinda right. Old time is often simpler/rougher and is basically the original form. A dude singing with his claw hammer banjo could qualify. Old time uses a lot of the same instruments as bluegrass, but I've seen some instruments used in old time that wouldn't be used in bluegrass (e.g. washboard or other improvised percussion, washtub bass, that kind of thing). It's what gets played on the back porch. A lot of the songs don't have a known author.

Bluegrass takes a lot from old time, but there's often more of a structure - for instance, a bluegrass band has certain types of instruments (3-finger style banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and bass), and songs are often performed certain way (vocal harmonies, solo breaks for each instrumentalist). It's flashier, slicker, and more radio friendly. Plenty of old tunes with no author, plenty of others with known writing credits.
posted by Knicke at 6:51 PM on November 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Bluegrass: a very specific musical style developed in the 1930s and 1940s by known and named artists, as a commercial project, by professional musicians, characterized often by speed and particular instrumentation, and borrowing some stylistic characteristics from particular corners of old-time music.

Old-time: much wider catchment; the vernacular music of Eastern rural America, widespread by the end of the nineteenth century and popularized briefly in the 1920s and 30s, drawn from African-American, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and other musics that were combining into a syncretic form by the 18th century. Instrumentation, style and content are far more varied than for bluegrass.
posted by Miko at 7:40 PM on November 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

Old-time tends to be more about the "feel", while bluegrass is more about the technique. Old-time was the music played for dancing 100 years ago, for the enjoyment of the players themselves and the dancers, more than for a listening audience, back in the day there was less likely to be a professional old-time musician, more like the guy at the farm down the road who can play some great tunes. As compared to bluegrass, it's either a bit simpler or a bit slower, and a bit more rhythmic thump to it; there's a tendency to pick a tune (32 measures) and repeat it 8-10 times or more, really hang out and get into the repetetiveness of it. When a group of people play old-time together, all the melody players play the melody pretty much all the time, and all the rhythm players play the same chords pretty much the same each time through the tune. One side effect is that basically that you don't have to be a crazy-good musician to play old-time well enough to enjoy playing it and have people enjoy dancing to it.

Bill Monroe, the "father of bluegrass" was essentially an oldtime player when he learned the traditional tunes, and then chose to take things in a new direction, which took off so well that people emulating his band became their own genre of music. That style is what grew into bluegrass, but at the time it was about playing old-time type of tunes for radio and concert audiences and finding ways to impress people with it. That meant playing faster, doing showier things like individuals taking a solo or writing harmony parts for the tunes, etc. At the very birth of bluegrass, it was just those crazy kids playing old-time in a new-fangled way, trying to be extra-good musicians to justify taking their band on the road as professional performers, studio recordings, radio audiences, etc as opposed to just needing to satisfy the local county fair dancers. But the type of innovation they did was enough changes that now we call them separate styles.
posted by aimedwander at 5:57 AM on November 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

A friend of mine who's huge into playing bluegrass has said that the distinction is that bluegrass is more participatory, it's meant to be played more than passively listened to, old-time is more for the audience's benefit. Big jam sessions vs a few people playing to an audience.
posted by straw at 8:16 AM on November 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Old-time was the music played for dancing

"Old-time" isn't only dance music, though. Old-time fiddle tunes often are intended for dancing, but old-time encompasses ballads, humorous songs, plaints, haunt songs, etc., as well. It's just a much wider category that does include fiddle/dance tunes, but isn't limited to them.

old-time is more for the audience's benefit

This is the opposite of true.
posted by Miko at 9:56 AM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

A long shot, but you could call up The Birthplace of Country Music which grew out from The Bristol Sessions back in 1927. I think somebody there might talk your ear off about folk/old-time/bluegrass/country.

I'm from Bristol and BCM and Bristol Motor Speedway are about the only things of note there.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:23 PM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

The already-accepted answers are pretty great. One thing I would add is that bluegrass got its start quite a bit later than jazz, and has throughout its history drawn strongly from 20th-century jazz, blues, and ragtime.

Also, while you may or may not find it directly addresses your question, you should read Rhiannon Giddens’s recent IBMA keynote speech (previously) before you finish the article.
posted by musicinmybrain at 12:45 PM on November 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Rhiannon Gidden's speech is great but it's easy to misunderstand, because she unfortunately elides the distinctions a little because she's at the Bluegrass association. She's pointing out that bluegrass evolves from OT which evolves from African-American musics blending with European-American ones - she's trying to re-assert the roots of bluegrass - but it's confusing if you don't already have this genealogy in your head. She's not even technically a bluegrass musician, but this is the body that gives the awards to music that is bluegrass-adjacent so it takes in even OT, singer-songwriter, and other country-based acts. So just keep that filter of her audience in mind as you read it.
posted by Miko at 6:26 AM on December 1, 2017

I'm thinking straw got the two music styles backwards in that comment.
posted by aimedwander at 8:23 AM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

That would make sense.
posted by Miko at 10:44 AM on December 1, 2017

« Older Is there employment law that addresses layoffs...   |   Can you recommend a prefab house? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.