A friend once quipped that the name of the main Facebook page for the music we all love should be retitled, “Dedicated to Narcissistic Escapism”. It’s true when we get together in collective celebration, whether it’s two people sitting in the yard, dozens taking part in a dance, or thousands gathering at an oldtime festival, that the music allows us to step out of time and place to play some tunes, sing an old song, or swing a partner. There’s something very human and beautiful about this joyful practice that should command our awe and respect.
But at the very same time it’s also true, in every instance, that playing oldtime, celebrating with others, dancing and the whole lot are fundamentally social practices, situated in a thousand streams of history, impactful in their immediacy, and subject to moral awareness. In other words, what we do came from somewhere and it has real effects. That too must command our awe and respect.
Just as we pay homage to the great musicians and teachers that have passed the tradition down, one by one, person to person, so too I believe it is our collective responsibility to dig deep into those thousand streams of history that lead us to every new day. Cultures from across the globe and throughout time have emphasized the importance of knowing their collective history: from West African griots and medieval Christian monks to the ancient Greek bards and Native American storytellers. All of these cultures understood the necessity of preserving and celebrating the histories that came before.
There’s a joke that sums up the sentiment many students of history share. It says that, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” While there may be wisdom in this cynicism, I don’t believe the answer is resignation. Instead, I think it is part of our moral responsibility as social agents to dig deeper into the worlds we inhabit, their history, and act from that place of knowing.
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In the oldtime community this turns out to be a tall task. As embodied by Cecil Sharp’s misguided nationalist and racist project to claim the pure, Anglo-Saxon origins of Appalachian ballads and dance or the record companies’ similarly racist, commercial portrayal of mountain music in the 20s and 30s as a nostalgic remembrance of imagined simpler, purer times, the oldtime community has a bad habit of celebrating misinformation. “Fake news,” as we might say today, forms a great deal of what we take for our collective history. The only remedy is facts.
A significant turning point in my own personal understanding of the music came in reading Howard Wight Marshall’s masterful Play Me Something Quick and Devilish: Old-Time Fiddlers in Missouri (2013). What might sound like specific, regional history of oldtime music with little relevance to players elsewhere turns out to paint a much larger picture with bearing on our understanding of the music generally. Through his best attempt to trace contemporary oldtime fiddling in Missouri back to the late 1700s, Marshall must pass through a dizzying array of ethnic and cultural waves and influences. French, Scots-Irish, German, African-American, Irish, Native American, and Scottish peoples all make significant contributions to the centuries of musical practice in the region, as do broader historical forces from early colonization and western expansion to slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation, the introduction of the railroads, music publishing, radio, and jazz. The resultant picture is one of constant change, multitudes of influence, and great local diversity. Any attempt to create a static noun out of “Missouri oldtime fiddling” is stymied at every turn. The music is not a thing the source of which can be cleanly traced and delineated through careful historical analysis. It is a living verb, a watershed with numerous rivers, streams, and creeks flowing through it, altering the landscape at every moment at times more slowly and at others with greater speed and violence.
With a different focus, Phil Jamison’s Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance (2015) provides a similar bounty of insights into the diverse and intertwined streams that flow through the dance traditions practiced in southern Appalachia.
I’m not a dancer, but a musician, so my approach to Jamison’s book may well be different from many. But my understanding of oldtime music is as a fundamentally participatory music utterly inseparable from the dance traditions it has accompanied all along. In my view, oldtime music, understood most generally, is a North American, fiddle-based folk music for dancing, storytelling, and collective celebration. In times before the Internet, television, and radio, before literacy was widespread, music and dance were at the core of leisure activity. Thus, understanding the history of these intertwined practices in America is at the core of understanding what oldtime is all about.
Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics is an ambitious book, sketching the development of various forms of Appalachian dance from the beginning of European settlement. Jamison takes these dance practices in turn – Southern square dance, the Kentucky Running Set, couple dances, the Cakewalk, step dance, clogging, and many variants – and uses available historical documents and context to trace their sources and evolution. Historical accounts, dance instruction books, sketches and paintings, and more contemporaneous material are combined with Jamison’s deep knowledge of many of the dance and musical practices and his astute analysis to create convincing histories unlike any others I have read. If you’re simply interested in better understanding where these dances came from, then look no further.
Like Marshall’s book on Missouri oldtime fiddling, what I found most insightful about Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics was not these detailed sketches. Instead, by digging into the messy, intricate details of how each of these dance traditions developed a recurring theme of greater significance emerges, one that does serious work in addressing the false understanding of the people of Appalachia, their music and dance as in any way pure or white or isolated or Anglo-Saxon.
The introduction and first chapter set the scene for the detailed descriptions of individual dances that follow, highlighting the racial, ethnic, and social diversity that characterizes them all.
“It is clear,” Jamison writes in the chapter Diversity and Cultural Transmission, “that the people of Appalachia were not a homogenous Anglo-Saxon stock; they were, rather, a “multitude of all classes and complexions” who, despite the relative isolation of the southern mountains, had contact with the outside world through trade and travel. The hoedowns, reels, and frolics of Appalachia were not pure survivals of an ancient Anglo-Celtic heritage, locked away in isolation, but a constantly evolving folk tradition that incorporated elements of recently popular social dances with the older traditions.” (19)
He reminds the reader of how ethnically and socially diverse the region was from the very beginning, with a mixture of English, Scots-Irish, German, Welsh, Scottish and French immigrants living together with the local Native Americans and the African-American slaves brought to the colonies. Each of these people were recent transplants – except for the Native Americans – from wildly different cultures who brought their cultural heritage and practices with them. And, since association in the colonies was based more on class status than race or ethnic background, social, musical, and dance interaction was taking place in this diversity from the very start. (Check out this overview for a refresher on the waves of immigration to America from colonialization onwards.)
According to Jamison, African Americans (mostly slaves) made up more than 10 percent of the total population of Appalachia prior to the Civil War. (12) These slaves would often work and celebrate side-by-side with tenant farmers and sharecroppers of European descent providing ample setting for cultural exchange.
He provides the account of an Englishman, Thomas Ashe, in West Virginia in 1806 encountering a dance at an inn where people of European descent danced to music made by two African-American banjo players and a Chickesaw flute player.
Examples throughout the book emphasize the well known if often forgotten fact that a great number of fiddlers in America, quite possibly the majority, were African Americans, both slaves and freemen who entertained at dances in both high and low society.
And Jamison quickly discounts the perception that Appalachia was an isolated region, cut off from exchanges in trade and culture. The Great Wagon Road was the main artery of travel and transportation, linking the region to the northeast. Furthermore, even before the railroads, the entire Ohio River Watershed, including the Kanawha, New, Kentucky, Green, Holston, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers were major trade routes linking Appalachian communities to the Ohio River and then ultimately to the Mississippi with trade all the way down to America’s most cosmopolitan city at that time: New Orleans. Flatboats took goods produced in Appalachia to New Orleans, traded them for cotton, and then shipped the cotton back up to the Northeast where it was traded for goods brought back down the Great Wagon Road. Taken together this created a great trade loop connecting all these communities.
These river arteries were what Jamison calls, “the superhighways of their time” (14) bringing people, goods, and culture in and out of the region in a steady flow. Most interestingly, these flatboats usually included a fiddler among their crew, again strengthening the impression that a great deal of musical and dance exchange was taking place. The trip from Appalachia to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans took many weeks, and a fiddler was considered an essential way to pass the time. The accounts Jamison finds of flatboat fiddlers include references to African Americans, European Americans, and foreigners alike. This tradition of flatboat fiddlers was carried on in the 19th century with the introduction of steamboats.
It is this theme of diverse, steady cultural flows and exchanges that extends throughout Jamison’s histories of the individual dances.
The individual dances described in the chapters that make up the bulk of the book are far too detailed to recount here and will be of interest primarily to dancers, callers, and musicians who have some direct relation to those dances. But throughout examples of cultural influence continue to paint a vivid picture. The origins of calling among African American fiddlers and dance masters. The influence of Native American dancing in circle dances. The references to basses, cellos, tambourines, guitars, and other instruments not generally considered common until the 20th century. The influence of African American slaves parodying their masters’ dancing as a precursor to the Cakewalk. The roles played by Irish, German, French, English and numerous other dance practices on what developed in America. The impact made by dancing schools, holiday resorts, travelling foreign teachers, radio, and public school curricula in supporting one dance form or another.
The picture that is painted is ultimately not one of Anglo-Saxon or Scots-Irish dance and music transformed and cultivated in the New World, but a thoroughly American picture. One in which all of the people present throughout the intervening centuries, from all across Europe, West Africa, the West Indies, and Native Americans as well remained in ebbs and flows of interaction and exchange as they navigated the often messy and brutal, difficult and exciting waters of colonization, slavery, commerce, war, identity, migration, politics, and survival. All the while, Americans of every color found time to come together in that most human of activities: collective celebration through music and dance.
If you want to have any understanding about the history of music and dance in Appalachia, one grounded in nuances and facts – and I think you should – then you owe it to yourself and those you play and dance with to read this book.
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Be sure to check out Phil Jamison’s website for a wealth of additional materials related to the book. Images, videos, and numerous 78-rpm recordings with transcriptions of the calls are all available there.