Sustainable Music


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Breaking Up Winter 2011

We are almost to the first day of spring. In a musical celebration of the end of winter, the Nashville Old Time String Band Association has hosted a “Breakin’ Up Winter” event for the past sixteen years, at Cedars of Lebanon State Park, near Nashville, Tennessee. (The title also refers to a well-known old-time fiddle tune, "Breakin' Up Christmas.") I’ve gone to three of these events, including the 2011 event only a few weeks ago. At Breakin' Up Winter, a group of mostly amateur musicians who love the fiddle, banjo, and guitar music played in the nineteenth and early twentieth century upper South, the so-called “old time music,” a community listening and dance music which preceded bluegrass, and which bluegrass updates and re-presents, gathers for four days at the Park, chiefly to play music together informally in small groups, or “jams.” Other stringed instruments are played in some jams, particularly the string bass and mandolin. It's an oral tradition that we've learned by ear and we know it by heart. Although some can read musical notation, it's not really a part of this tradition and even though tune books exist--I have compiled one myself--they are used for reference only. Similar jam-oriented events take place at "festivals" of old-time music in the upper South every week during the summer. Thousands of musicians attend these.

This is a participatory music, not a music designed for audiences. The musicians play with, and for, each other. In an old-time jam, some of the musicians may never have played with one another before. The music consists chiefly of “fiddle tunes” which all play together. The fiddles play the melody, and if there's more than one fiddler each usually will have their own setting and play the melody slightly differently, setting up a sound that's sometimes a bit out of phase. The banjo players (some groups prefer no more than one banjo player) play a version of the melody, somewhat simplified but also slightly contrapuntal, partly improvised in response to the fiddle melody. The guitar accompanies on the beat with bass notes and harmonizes with light, chordal strums; if a mandolin is present, the player may chord along in the background in rhythm or play the fiddler’s melody or alternate between the two. The bass usually plays on the roots and fifths of the chords that harmonize the tune, sometimes playing passing notes ("bass runs"). Unlike bluegrass, in which each instrumentalist takes turns playing “solos” (as in jazz) with the rest accompanying, in old-time the musicians continue to play the tune over and over, on a more or less equal footing (although the guitarist really does have an accompanying role—and yet the rhythmic anchor that the guitar (and if present, the bass) provides enables everyone to feel, and play, better). Jams may be as small as two people or as large as thirty, but the usual preferred size is between three and eight.

Every tune is led by one or more musicians who is capable of playing the tune well, or reasonably so. The other musicians may also have played the tune before, but their knowledge of the tune will vary from those who have never heard it, through those who have played it a few times long ago, to those who need only to be reminded of it to play it well again. But a good old-time musician plays by ear and has developed the ability to learn (or re-learn) a tune on the fly (albeit usually a simplified version of the tune). Banjo players in particular must have this ability, because each fiddler’s setting (melodic version) of a tune is apt to be a little different, and those differences make all the difference. A good banjo player is sensitive to a fiddler’s particular setting, adapts to it, and interacts melodically with it--all by ear, while catching the tune on the fly. Just as it can take many years to learn to be a good old-time fiddler, it can take years to develop the ability to play the banjo passably well in this way.

Old-time musicians seek the “musical high” which a good jam can provide, a feeling that is at once intense and satisfying, full and creative and relaxing. At events such as “Breakin’ Up Winter” most of the music takes place in informal jams, out in the Park, inside community buildings, inside cabins, and on porches, all day and much of the night. Everyone eats together in a mess hall. Also, each day the event provides a few formal jams led by experienced musicians, as well as teaching workshops in which these musicians teach repertoire by ear. Often there is a dance or two, sometimes there are performances by guests who have been invited to teach and lead jams and workshops, and occasionally, as in this event, visitors also give lectures on their involvement with old-time music, which may include stories of encounters with older musicians, documentary recordings which they have produced, and so forth.

I was invited to Breakin’ Up Winter back in 2008 to do all of the above, and again earlier this month, to lead a jam, teach a workshop, and give a lecture. My lecture took up the relation between musical sustainability and old-time music communities such as this one, which involve themselves in music that is largely participatory and operates with exchanges that are primarily gift exchanges (although there are commodity exchanges, and a minority of the music is presentational for an audience).

This is a subject that I’ve thought about for many years—the musical community which is largely participatory and operates through gift exchanges, and the social and political implications of this sharing kind of community, rather than one that is based on individual property and ownership, for the future of the human community in general. I can recall discussing it with other musicians as far back as the 1960s. I don’t want to claim originality here, but I will affirm my persistence.

Nor do I wish to suggest that the old-time musical community embodies an ideal based entirely on equal participation, gifting, and sharing. Particularly when it comes to musical instruments, many old-time musicians are conspicuous consumers. Commodity fetishism describes the fascination that many collectors have with musical instruments, which they buy, admire, collect, trade, sell, and play. A collecting impulse also extends to recordings of old-time tunes. A small number of recordings on CD and the Internet are available for sale, and a few record companies specialize in this; but it is a niche market and no one grows wealthy from it. A small number of old-time musicians supplement their income playing for dances, and for audiences, but there are very few touring groups—and when these play for audiences, they do not jam, but rather they sing songs and play an occasional instrumental piece in a virtuoso style, altering the music to please an audience that expects to be entertained. Few audiences are entertained by old-time jams; the jam is participatory. A bumper sticker reads, “Old time music: better than it sounds.” This aphorism means it is better played than heard.

It is also true that members of the old-time music community have different ideas about inclusiveness. Some are willing to play with musicians who are not as skilled as they, even though it is more enjoyable to play with those who are at about the same skill level, and even more so with musicians who are even better. They understand that once they were not so skilled and they believe it is important to share with others and bring more people into the community; some teach, as I have done for nearly thirty years, without charging for lessons. (Most teachers do charge, however. It’s not that I’m a purist; for twenty-five years I’ve taught a weekly class in old-time music at Brown which is free and open to the community, and I don’t get paid by my university or anyone else for doing so. It costs me only my time—a couple of hours each week—and I’m happy to donate it.)  Yet other old-time musicians, particularly among the most skilled, prefer to play with those of their own level, and try to avoid jams with less skilled musicians; for the better the skills of the musicians, the more complex and interesting and pleasurable is the playing experience.

And yet despite consumerism, commodification, and exclusivity in some aspects of old-time string band music, it is marked chiefly by sharing and gift exchanges, of tunes and in jams. The differences between commodity exchanges and gift exchanges are many, because gifts generally incur various obligations that commodities do not entail due to the legal contract involved in buying and owning a commodity, which makes the commodity exchange impersonal. Gift obligations include, among other things, not hoarding the gift, passing the gifts along (gifts circulate), giving back, and also not selling the gift and changing it to a commodity. Gifts engender reciprocal relationships, obligations among giver and receiver, that commodity exchanges do not. Givers and receivers are responsible to one another, and to the gift—and this forms the basis for community relationships of mutuality and trust. Participatory music like old-time music involves a great deal of gifting—passing along tunes, playing with others, learning from others, sharing, and coming together for events such as Breakin’ Up Winter to do all of this. Of course, it can be and more usually is done with musical friends in their homes and yours, nearby. This is the kind of community music-making, amateur music for the love of it, that is most sustainable. It is not limited to old-time string band music, needless to say; many kinds of amateur music are participatory and the majority of exchanges are gifts, beginning with music in the family and neighborhood.

It is easy to romanticize old-time music, and to imagine that the jam at its center is an ancient practice reflecting communal relationships in a preindustrial world. Evidence suggests that this is not so, and that the jam is a product of the folk music revival of the mid-20th century, and that it arose both in bluegrass and old-time music more or less simultaneously. To be sure, old-time musicians got together to play earlier than this, in families and communities; yet the jam as a social institution does not seem more than about sixty years old.

Finally, I want to emphasize once more that among some members of the old-time music revival, the ways in which the old-time jam models social relationships is a topic of conversation that has been going on for some decades. I remember conversations about this that I had with my musician friend Cameron Nickels, going back to the late 1960s when we were both in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Cameron went on to a career as a professor of English at James Madison University. His research specialty was American humor, and he wrote a couple of books about it—one on New England humor, and a recent book on humor in the Civil War. (Yes, there was a good deal of it.) He retired a few years ago, and from time to time we still discuss this subject, usually vie email. And yet it has not been much written about. I addressed it directly in the Introduction to my book, Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes (University Press of Kentucky, 2001). Tom Turino, like me an old-time string band musician, has written about it in his book. Music and Social Life (University of Chicago Press, 2008). I view it as a topic, theme, and piece of the puzzle in working out issues involving music and sustainability, and an example of sustainability thinking before it was given the name “sustainability.”


  1. Jeff:

    Splendidly articulate insights, as always. I certainly share your view that participatory, avocational music provides one model for recovering or reinventing a sense of community among mobile 21st century populations. In fact, I think that the intuition that such music-making provides an experience of heightened community is one of its powerful appeals. I spend a lot of time teaching Irish trad music to avocational adult learners who have come to ITM via other musics, and often at a considerable geographical distance from Irish-American enclaves. Some of these adult learners have very skewed ideas about what the music "means" or "does", but very often they express the appeal of its *appearance* (at least) of inclusivity and reciprocal community. Wrote about it in this essay, in New Hibernia Review:

    thanks again

  2. Nice to hear from you, Chris. Yes, although I don't play ITM, I understand the Irish "session" as a counterpart of the old-time jam, and that it grew out of the ceilidh (Irish visiting in homes, and ensuing story telling and music making among the gathered group). I remember talking about the parallels with uillean piper Patrick Hutchinson about twenty years ago, when he first came to Brown. We got into a satisfing agreement over the need to know "how to visit" when making this music. Visiting, guesting, hosting--these are gift relationships. I'm off to check out your essay. Maybe this is a topic for a panel at a music conference one of these days?

  3. Great bit of insight and fine writing, Jeff. Have had your book since before the first time you visited us at Breakin' Up Winter. Learned about it through "the Pegram Jam" West of Nashville. Reminds me to dust off that fiddle and rosin up the bow.--
    Ed Gregory
    Nashville Old-Time String Band Association
    Sponsors of Breakin' Up Winter