Broadly speaking, Appalachian old time music refers to several categories of traditional music, which are sacred, secular, and sometimes a blend of both. Old time music often includes the following categories: ballads, which are sung a capella, and are often considered to be a feminized musical category; shape-note singing, which is usually found in Baptist churches; and instrumental music such as fiddle tunes and banjo tunes, which may be practiced by a single person or a group. In its original form, old time music is a category of folk music because songs have no apparent author, and tunes are transmitted orally and aurally. Furthermore, although the definition of folk music is not universally agreed upon, Appalachian old time music would be considered a folk music in most conceptions of the term not only because of its oral transmission, but also because of its concrete social basis in local communities (Bohlman 1988). Folk music should be created and re-shaped by the “needs and practices of the group” (p.53), which as this chapter will show is the case with old time music.



As described in the previous chapter, Appalachian music directly grew out of a culture that fundamentally opposes the individualized, profit-dependent logic of capitalist-cosmopolitanism. This can be further explored by looking at examples of Appalachian music in its original communities. The Les Blanc documentary Sprout Wings and Fly (1983) shows the role of music in traditional Appalachian culture. This documentary takes a look into the lives of the late old time musician Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985) and his close friends and family as they go about their lives in the Mount Airy region of western North Carolina. The opening sequence of the video portrays Jarrell sitting in a chair outside near a bush on a mountain in North Carolina, playing a fiddle and simultaneously singing a traditional old time song called “Jack of Diamonds.” After he finishes the song, he says, “I think I made that about the ‘eat when I’m hungry, and drink when I’m dry, get to feeling much better, gonna sprout wings and fly,’ I think I put that to it.” By this, Jarrell means that he believes he added these lyrics to the song because he felt that he has a license to make changes to traditional folk tunes if he has a creative idea. The playful, improvisatory nature of this opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the 30-minute documentary.

To the tune of Jarrell singing and playing the fiddle, the documentary features images of small agricultural fields, homes and farm houses—modern yet humble— and a house full of Tommy’s friends. Thus these images emphasize the Gemeinschaft nature of Tommy’s community life. They also contextualize one of the most important aspects of the video, which is the ways that Tommy and his friends discuss their experiences with marriage. It becomes clear that Jarrell and at least one female member in his local music community considered marriage a possibility only if it would not interfere with their personal liberty. Tommy described his proposal to his wife:

Well, when I proposed to my wife, we had a hoe in the corn in the corn field, and I told her, I said ‘now all you need to know about me, I make whiskey and I drink whiskey and I play poker and I play the fiddle and I go to dances and stay out all night long.’ Now I says now, ‘if you think we can get along and knowing all about what I do, I don’t ever expect to quit it, we’ll get married. If you don’t think we can right now, it’s time to say so now.’ She said ‘I believe we’ll get along all right’ and that’s the end of that.

Chuckling after he finished this story, Tommy explicitly mentioned that for him, marriage was not to interfere with his identity as a musician: autonomy is privileged over the institution of marriage. Similarly, a conversation with one of Tommy’s “best gal friends” reveals her conception of marriage.  When asked why she never married Tommy, the woman answered, “I like to go places, I like to travel…I don’t have anybody to say, ‘you can’t go.’ All I have to do is pack…my car and if I’ve got money enough to get where I go, I leave and I come back when I’m ready.” This woman worried that marriage would have limited her autonomy to an undesirable extent. The traditional Appalachian ballad “I Will Not Marry”—which is not featured in the documentary—similarly expresses anti-marriage sentiment: “I will never marry/ I’ll be no man’s wife/ I expect to stay single/ All the days of my life/The shells in the ocean/ Will be my deathbed/ And the fish in deep water/ Swim over my head.” Clearly, then, there is more anti-marriage sentiment found in Appalachian culture than the one example present in Sprout Wings and Fly.

The reason why we should take note of cultural productions that express weariness or displeasure about marriage is the intersections between the institutions of marriage, capitalism, and state authority. Marriage in the U.S. has been used to reinforce asymmetrical power relations of gender, prevent women from having legal autonomy, and bolster capitalism by keeping profits in the private family (Freeman 2014: 163). Therefore it is of historical political significance when various cultural productions present opposition to this traditional institution. While it is unclear to what extent these opinions of marriage and autonomy are representative of all musical Appalachian communities, this example shows at the very least that an Appalachian community that valued music also valued personal independence in such a way that residents tend to tread cautiously when it comes to the institution of marriage.

Given the isolated settlement patterns of Appalachia, families and neighbors were the default musical units before the dawn of modern technology, thus reflecting the original Gemeinschaft context of this music. Famed Appalachian musician Jean Ritchie (1922-2015) describes that music was central to her family life: her family would sing “together during work (such as while hoeing corn), while walking to school, and on summer evenings on the porch or winter nights by the fire” (Thompson 2006: 1150). Similarly, the biography of eventual bluegrass star Ralph Stanley, who was born in 1927 in Virginia, reveals the centrality of old time music traditions in his family and community.[1] Long before he was a famous bluegrass musician[2], he was a rural Virginian boy who loved the omnipresence of music in his daily life. He writes:

When I was just a little boy growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, singing was as natural as breathing. I was borned and raised way back in the hills, and a lot of our forefathers, our grandpas and great-uncles and so forth, we were of the old Baptist faith, and they all had lonesome voices to sing out those sad old hymns. (p.1)

In his childhood, singing was not something that was reserved for professionals: it was an activity meant to be enjoyed by anyone who wanted to enjoy it, whether alone or in a group setting. In a 2008 issue of Virginia Living magazine, Stanley described how he learned the banjo: “[My mother] had eleven brothers and sisters, and all of them could play the five-string banjo. She played gatherings around the neighborhood, like bean stringin’s” (Harrison 2008: online). In Stanley’s life, music was an activity that was learned through oral and aural methods, and music was present at community gatherings such as bean stringings. Clearly, before he became a professional musician, music at this early stage in his life was a deeply participatory practice that was rooted in the same sense of place and community that Bohlman (1988) uses to describe the nature of folk music.

As the discussion of the commodification of old time music proceeds, it is important to keep in mind the traditional values of Appalachian culture that co-existed with the process of preserving, creating, and making old time music, as well as the participatory, non-professionalized nature of this music music that emphasizes the pre-reified, social aspect of its production.



In addition to the ways in which pre-commodified Appalachian music has embodied the pre-capitalist values of Gemeinschaft Appalachian culture, an important characteristic of old time music—its inherently participatory nature—further distances itself from commodified music and thus deserves closer inspection. Turino (2008) groups music into four loose categories: participatory, presentational, high fidelity, and studio audio art. In its original form, old time music is fully participatory. Turino writes that the identifying factor of participatory music is that there are no distinctions between the audience and the musicians. Participatory musical events are interactional and certainly not divided between the binary categories of, say, the Vassar College orchestra’s concerts. Additionally, participatory music includes “intensive variation” of musical melodies and highly repetitive patterns, which lends itself to improvising and soloing on a theme. Importantly, individual virtuosity is de-emphasized in favor of a more collaborative, even-ground formation as well as enjoyment in the process. On the other hand, presentational music is prepared for the enjoyment of both the musicians and the audience, which is conventionally divided in a binary: the artists play while the audience listens.

Participatory music, therefore, is communitarian and non-hierarchical. This echoes the distrust of hierarchy and social stratification found in traditional Appalachian culture. Also, participatory music does not treat music as an object, but rather as a process. The focus of the music is inward, toward the musician-audience. Turino writes that for modern folks, participatory music is not the normative, or even a well-known formation of music because “for people in the capitalist-cosmopolitan formation where music and dance have become more specialized activities, it might be hard to imagine that music making and dancing are as basic to being social as the ability to take part in friendly conversation” (29). In more modern cultures, two examples of participatory music are garage rock bands that hold jam sessions and sacred music that is sung by congregations. These are not the purest of examples, as rock bands often have as a goal to perform for a public, thereby transforming into presentational music. In religious settings, there is often stratification between the congregation, the priest and/or other religious figures, and the organist or pianist, thus creating distinctions between leader, musician, and audience. Turino argues that presentational music still treats music as a live-art process. However, it does so in a formalized and professionalized way. Also, it may be used for profit-making purposes, thereby directly commodifiying the music.

Turino contrasts these types of music with high fidelity and studio audio art music. He describes high fidelity music as “musical sounds heard on recordings that index or are iconic of live performance” (p.67). Rather than experiencing music live, people can listen to a recording of a live performance that appears to be representative of an event. In this formation, music is objectified and often intended for consumption. More so than participatory and presentational musical formations, high fidelity and studio art music are more often regarded as ways to make profit. The biggest difference between participatory and presentational music and high fidelity music is that in the latter, the social process or ceremony that created the music is lost. Studio audio art takes this even further, as this music “is recorded music that is patently a studio form with no suggestion of expectation that it should or even could be performed live in real time” (p.78). Studio audio art pushes our understanding of what is considered ‘music.’ Computers that are programmed to write music are an example of this modern musical category. Interestingly, Turino writes that participatory and studio audio art music are similar in that they emphasize the process of musical exploration. The difference is that for studio audio art, music is not considered to be a social process outside of a single person or a small group experimenting with computers or other musical tools.

Participatory music is so different from each of these other forms such that it has more in common with “a neighborhood baseball game or a good conversation” (p. 89) than these other types of music. Participatory music is found in traditional cultures throughout the world, and it seems that this formation of music does not readily allow for the objectification of music because it so attached to the social processes behind it. Therefore for the music to be commodified, it must necessarily be distanced from its completely participatory nature, or otherwise molded so that it can produce a profit.[3] As I will show in Chapter Four, the music scene in Brooklyn has added a layer of professionalism and hierarchy even within the participatory context.

The potential of participatory music to unify people has been recognized by many political groups, from Nazi Germany to the Civil Rights Movement. In Nazi Germany, “collective singing was a prominent tool for Nazi education and for creating feelings of social unity, pride, and strength” (p.207), and that “after the Nazis gained control over all realms of social life, the collective singing of Nazi songs became a prominent part of public holiday celebrations” (p.209). Decades later, group singing played a fundamental role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. At both churches and sit-ins, mass singing helped bolster support against white supremacy and violence (p.215). As I will discuss in the next chapter, labor activists of the 1950s and 1960s used group singing as well as old time music as a source of solidarity. In its purest, most original form, old time music is completely participatory and yet completely unaffiliated with a statist or patriotic agenda.



Lastly, according to many Appalachian theorists and musicians, Appalachian music contains many ineffable qualities that have contributed to its allure for outsiders as well as presented challenges for the success of its commodification. A phrase that is commonly attributed to the quality of old time ballads, fiddle tunes, and the vocals in bluegrass songs, is “that high, lonesome” sound. Although the usage of this phrase is ubiquitous amongst critics of old time and bluegrass, its definition remains elusive. Folk music revivalist John Cohen described it as the sound of “hearing a man [confront] the dilemma of his own existence” (Petrusich 2015: online). Langrall (1986) writes that Appalachian ballads had “a force and ethereal intensity that the mellow, sweeter British versions often lacked” (p.38) and that ballad singers “typically sang at home alone or for a friend or two with a private kind of directness, totally absorbed in their songs” (p.38). Of his father’s fiddle playing, Melvin Wine of Braxton County, West Virginia says, “Something in the music touched me all over. Dad would play [Lady’s Waist Ribbon], and I’d wake up a-cryin’. I just couldn’t stand the sound. I don’t know what about it, but I’d just cry every time he’d play it” (Milnes 1999: 6). The emotional element of Appalachian music seems to be a vital component of the music for native musicians, as well as what draws disaffected urban-dwellers in the 21st century to the music, as will be discussed in Chapter Four.

Above all, Milnes writes that old time music is so powerful as an art form in that it relates the authentic experiences and emotions felt by the cultures that produce it:

Traditional folk music, both tune and song, expresses emotion unequaled in the realms of performance and visual arts. An element of truth in the music touches some essential place deep inside. Traditional folk music involves an ageless musical expression of feeling and emotion over which, at times, the artist seems to have little control…The emotional aspect is much of what attracts people to traditional folk music. Old-time music isn’t fiction. It represents real emotions long held by the people and culture from which it originated. (p.6)

Appalachian folk music carries so much emotion with it because it has been shaped by all of the range of human experiences in the treacherous mountains, as well as moments of personal bliss and community solidarity. The cosmic weight of emotion that is expressed in old time music is part of what has allured outsiders to this music. It has also been one of the components that have afforded old time music a highbrow appreciation in 21st century cities.



[1] While I am pulling from the autobiographies of Appalachians who eventually became accomplished folk musicians, I emphasize that music was central to the life not only to their immediate, musical family, but also of their entire community. While I cannot extrapolate into every Appalachian community, these autobiographies provides evidence that music and everyday life were often inseparable for many communities prior to its commodification.

[2] While it is beyond the scope of this thesis to discuss the differences between old time, bluegrass, and country music, I will note that bluegrass music departed from old time music as it became a more presentational, virtuosic musical phenomenon.

[3] To show how this happens, Turino uses the example of the 20th-century transformation of traditional Zimbabwean music from a participatory music-dance form to a presentational one by the Zimbabwean Ministry of Education and Culture in order to appeal to cosmopolitan, international audiences (pp.122-154). It was also motivated by a desire to unite various cultural groups within the nation of Zimbabwe.


Next: Chapter Three
When Old Time Music Left the Mountains: The ‘Discovery’ of Hillbilly Music

Chapter Four
Contemporary Old Time Music Scenes in Boone and Brooklyn

Chapter Five
Conclusion, Afterword, References


Previously: Chapter One
Introduction to Appalachia