Old-time music has its roots in rural America, before the time of recorded music and radio. It was a style of music played at home or in community spaces, mainly for personal entertainment or dancing. The genre emerged from a blend of European and African musical influences, drawing from fiddle traditions of Scotland, Ireland, England, France, and Germany, ballad traditions from Scotland and England, and vocal, rhythm, and instrumental styles from West Africa.
During the era of the transatlantic slave trade, millions of Africans forcibly brought to the United States, brought with them musical traditions from West Africa. These traditions encompassed a wide range of elements, including vocal styles, polyrhythms, call-and-response patterns, and the use of various percussion instruments. As African slaves interacted with European and other immigrant communities, their musical sensibilities blended and evolved. The banjo, often used in Old-time music, also traces its roots back to African plucked string instruments.
Irish immigrants escaping the Great Hunger had a significant role in shaping American Old-time music. Millions of Irish people sought refuge in North American cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as rural areas now known as Appalachia. They introduced traditional instruments like the fiddle and mandolin, which became central to the genre’s sound. Irish fiddle virtuoso Michael Coleman, who immigrated to New York in 1914, helped popularize Irish fiddling techniques in America by recording several songs that became Old-time staples. The Irish also brought dance traditions like ceili and step dancing, contributing European rhythms to the mix of styles. Their songs and ballads were filled with lyrics full of longing and struggle, a recurrent theme.
Italian immigrants also left their mark on Old-time Music. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, waves of Italians seeking a better life flowed through Ellis Island with their personal histories and cultural baggage including traditional instruments and music. The instrument of choice was the bowl-back mandolin and a long tradition of musicians using them not only for Italian songs and dances, but of translating all sorts of popular music onto the loud, versatile little instruments. These found their way into American culture in many ways including mandolin orchestras which became popular in many US cities, particularly in Italian-American communities. These ensembles featured multiple mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, mando basses (and some guitars), creating a unique and vibrant sound. Italian mandolin songs had intricate fingerpicking patterns and a strong emphasis on melody. The mandolin’s high, melodic tone and loud bark turned out to work very well with Old-time music, blending nicely with the fiddle, banjo, and guitar.
Recordings of Old-time music were popular in the late 1920s to the mid-1930s. Made by and for white rural Southerners, these recordings were marketed as “old familiar tunes,” “Old-time tunes,” and “hillbilly.” The repertoire included fiddle tunes, old British ballads and love songs, newer American ballads, songs from the blackface minstrel stage, Vaudeville, hymns, camp meeting songs, and sentimental popular songs.
Georgia musician Fiddlin’ John Carson made some of the first commercial recordings of traditional American country music for the Okeh label in 1923. The success of these recordings led to the adoption of the term “old-time music” by Okeh to describe Carson’s style and the music of similar artists. Other popular recording artists of that era included Clarence Ashley, Grayson & Whitter, Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, The Skillet Lickers, and Ernest Stoneman.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, old-time music absorbed influences from various music styles, including minstrel, Tin Pan Alley, gospel, and others. While old-time music was played in different regions of the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, it became associated with the Appalachian region in the 20th century.
The revival of old-time music in the 1960s was driven by notable figures such as Mike Seeger and Pete Seeger, who brought the music to New York City in the ‘40s. The New Lost City Ramblers, featuring Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley, played a crucial role in popularizing and preserving the old-time tradition. They often featured older musicians in their performances, sparking renewed interest in old-time music.
The release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music was another milestone for the genre. Originally released in 1952, the anthology comprised of six vinyl records, featuring a diverse range of folk songs, ballads, blues, and gospel music, all recorded between 1926 and 1932. Smith curated the songs from his own record collection, using songs that were released by commercial labels during a booming period for the record business. This was in contrast to the influential releases curated by the Lomax Brothers, who gathered field recordings of amateur musicians for the purpose of historical documentation. Artists featured on the Anthology of Folk Music include Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs, Buell Kazee, The Carter Family, Clarence Ashley, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Uncle Dave Macon, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Charlie Poole, and Blind Willie Johnson. The Anthology became an underground hit and would inspire and influence countless musicians of the 1960s Folk revival, including a young Bob Dylan.
40 years later, The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack (from the popular 2000 Cohen Brothers film starring George Clooney) stirred a new revival of interest in old-time music. The soundtrack featured a collection of traditional folk, bluegrass, and gospel songs from the early 20th century. It introduced songs such as “O Death” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” to a new generation of listeners, and improbably sold over 8 million copies.
Old-time music remains a vital tradition today. Some musicians stick close to the original styles, while others take a Neo-traditionalist approach. Old-time music jams bring communities together to play a shared repertoire of tunes in an informal setting. Contradances and square dances with live old-time music are also popular. Fiddle contests and music camps allow musicians to showcase their skills, learn from each other, and pass on the tradition. The Appalachian String Band Festival, held in West Virginia, is the largest old-time music event in the United States, drawing thousands of musicians for contests, concerts, workshops, square dances, and jams.