I have played old-time fiddle for a very long time. In 1970 when I was twenty years old I moved from an industrial city in northern New Jersey to an eighty-acre farm in the hill country of central West Virginia, twelve miles from the county seat of Glenville. I had purchased the property, a house, three serviceable barns, a smoke house, a spring cellar, and a chicken house on a year-round gravel road at the head of the holler, for the princely sum of $6,000. Shortly after moving in, I got into a dispute with the local power company over a $25 deposit and they threatened to turn off my electricity. Well, being young and descended from Irish stock and clearly in the right, I called their bluff. “Well, you can just keep your power,” I told them. And they did. So it was, I lived for the next four and half years on the farm without the help those eager electrons. I did have natural gas for heat and cooking and a refrigerator that ran on natural gas. But I still had to haul my water up from a well in a bucket and at night I lit my house using oil lamps.
And speaking of oil lamps, let me point out that they don’t work worth a darn at dusk. Why? Well, because there is simply too little contrast between the fading light of day and the gathering dark of night for human eyes to make the necessary adjustment. So I found instead that I had to wait a half hour or so before the lamps provided sufficient light—contrast—so I could prepare my supper using a sharp knife or read a book in comfort.
And it was during this reprieve from the pressing demands of farm life that I would sit on my porch and experience the profound shift that takes place in the natural world as day ends and the night begins—so many changes: the added moisture in the air, the relaxing of the wind, the gradual quieting of the songbirds, and the awakening of the peepers. It was also during this time that I would often drag out my fiddle and bow my way through “Soldier’s Joy” and “Fisher’s Hornpipe.” Often I had a partner in this music-making: a lone whippoorwill who nested in a thicket of bushes and small trees across the run from where I sat and played. I never saw it but, during what Rod Serling called the “twilight zone,” the bird would begin its plaintive, hypnotic melody: whippoorwill, whippoorwill, whippoorwill. Even today when I live with electricity 24/7 and when often day is transformed into night without me even noticing, I sometimes think about that strange little bird so hidden from sight and I sense its notes in the music I play to this day.
For many years when I thought about the term old-time music, if I even thought about it, I laid the stress on the word “old” in much the same way I might stress the beat note of a certain fiddle tune. It was music from long ago. It was old-fashioned music. It was the music the old-timers played, the old-timers I knew back in the early 1970s while living on the farm in central West Virginia who played the fiddle, banjo, and dulcimer.
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But then I wrote a novel titled Kilowatt, a political thriller about the electrical energy industry and our troubled relationship with time. What inspired me to take on this subject was a question Utah Phillips once asked me.
“Why has there been such a significant increase in the number of serious accidents within the big touring circuses in the last ten years?”
“More difficult acts? Less training? Faulty equipment?” I offered.
“No,” Utah said, “the reason is that, to save money, the circuses replaced their live circus touring bands with pre-recorded music. Many of the acts, such as the high wire acts, are choreographed to specific beats in the music. Back when there was a live band, the conductor would watch to see if the performers were falling behind or getting ahead of the music and, if they were, he would adjust the tempo accordingly. With pre-recorded music, the tempo never changes and the performers have to go when the beat says its time, whether they’re ready to or not. And they get hurt.”
Well, I thought about that for several days until I began to suspect that this shift to a kind of machine time was hurting more than just circus performers. So I wrote my novel.
And that is also when I revisited the term “old-time music” and realized I was stressing the wrong word. It wasn’t “old-time music.” It was “old-time music.” It was the music made by people who experienced time in a fundamentally different way than we do today. In fact, it is a genre of music that springs from a different kind of human consciousness.
A good way to understand this is to consider the difference between old-time music and bluegrass music since on the surface they appear very similar. They make use of the same instruments: fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin. Both traditions include instrumental music and songs. Both have their roots in rural America. But here the similarity mostly ends because each is based on a different and opposing concepts regarding creativity and time.
Some years ago I adopted a shorthand for talking about these differences when writing a book titled Slaying the Gorgon, the Rise of the Storytelling Industrial Complex. I refer to one way of knowing the world as mythos knowing and the other as logos knowing. Simply put, mythos knowing is sensory knowing, the knowing that comes from the five senses and other sensations such as emotions and intuition. This knowing is concrete and immediate. You walk into a room full of people and someone hands you an hor d’oeuvre. You hear talking and laughing, you see men and women milling about in groups, their faces animated by this conversation or that, perhaps you smell a women’s perfume or pick up the scent of Scotch whiskey, or marijuana. You sense the thickness of the carpet under your feet, you feel a cool breeze issuing from the AC vent above your head. You enjoy the taste the chive and onion flavored cream cheese and smoked salmon on your tongue. All this sensory input is happening, more of less, at once as far as the mythos part of your brain and mind is concerned. It is a holistic experience.
But the logos part of your brain is attempting to break everything down into its component parts. A certain man is wearing a tie and perhaps the pattern indicates that he went to a particular university or the American flag pin on his lapel proclaims his political orientation. A woman is alluring, but is she wearing a wedding ring? Does the color of her lipstick indicate a passionate nature? Are the diamonds hanging around her neck real or fakes? How long did one man talk to another man before moving on to a new group of people? And why did the woman watch him so closely?
Logos knowing is also what deciphers seemingly random squiggles of ink on a page, what we call letters, words, and numbers, into meaningful information. And to pull off this neat trick, logos knowing must string these symbols together in time, letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. You’re doing it now and this makes logos knowing a time-based form of consciousness. Where mythos knowing is immediate, logos knowing is sequential. Mythos knowing is the knowing of music and art, of the poet and mystic, while logos knowing is the knowing of science, technology, and economics, the knowing of the police detective, professional gambler, and skilled con man.
So, what has this got to do with the difference between old-time music and bluegrass music? Well, the modern industrial age is a predominately logos-knowing age in which the arrow of time points in but one direction: from the past to the future, the present being, by definition, so momentary as to be illusionary, what was the present, in other words, becomes the past within a nano-second. As such, a logos-knowing society labels something as creative if it possesses an element of originality, which means the artist is doing something that has never happened before in human history. In bluegrass music, as in jazz, musicians in a band take “breaks” and it is during these breaks that they attempt to do something that is new, that is original. The better the musician does this, the more likely his or her efforts will elicit a round of applause from the audience, or at the least smiles of approval from his bandmates. Why? Because what she did is “creative.”
The preindustrial mind, however, experiences creativity in an entirely different way. These cultures believe that there are two kinds of time; mundane everyday time and cosmic time. They also believe that the fundamental actions of life were first performed, not by mortals, but by gods. This includes action such as growing corn, building a fire, slaying a buffalo, having sex, giving birth to a baby, and, yes, making music. The purpose of rituals, therefore, in many preindustrial cultures is to duplicate as closely as possible the original action of the god and, by so doing, jumping out of everyday mundane time into cosmic time, into the very moment when the action was first performed.
So creativity for a mythos-knowing culture is not doing something for the first time, what we call originality, but entering and sharing through a specific ritual in the very moment of creation, which stands outside of time, which is, in fact, eternal.
That is what I believe old-time musicians attempt do. When together in a group they play and play and play a tune with no one taking a break and it may happen that they jump out of ordinary time into cosmic time. And the cool thing is, they all know when it happens. The intensity of the experience may vary but, at its heart, the experience is the same. That is why old-time musicians, whether they realize it or not, often regard legendary players such as Melvin Wine, Tommy Jarrell, and Wade Ward with a reverence that borders on worship because are they not the very demigods who first played this tune or that in that creative moment that exists outside of time? And many’s the time that I’ve been fiddling away late at night at a festival, playing “Jump Jim Crow,” or “Going Down to Georgi-o,” and suddenly I feel Melvin’s spirit in the same space and time that I inhabit. For a blessed spell, we are together in the old time.
And while I’m on the subject of time, what about this story that John Hartford tells while playing the tune “Money Musk” on his album Hamilton Ironworks?
“Now Roy Wooliver played ‘Money Musk’ and he was a-playin’ for a dance and them old dancers said ‘Speed it up,” and old Roy, he just had him one gait on the fiddle, and they kept saying ‘Speed it up.’ Old Roy he got mad and said ‘You’re wanting to dance like a bunch of people out in a field trying to kill a bunch of God-damn snakes and, by God, I’m not going to play like that.’ So he got out his knife and he run ’em all off and he went to bed.”
Joe McHugh is a storyteller, writer, and public radio journalist/producer who has been playing old-time fiddle for more than forty years. He lives in Olympia, Washington, where he produces and hosts Rosin the Bow, a podcast series exploring the many roles the violin family of instruments play in the world today. By visiting www.rosinthebow.org, listeners can enjoy in-depth interviews with musicians, violin makers, collectors, tonewood producers, string designers, FBI agents who have helped recover stolen violins, and others whose lives have been shaped by their relationships with these remarkable and seductive instruments.
He is also the author of The Phantom Fiddler and Other Notable Tales, a collection of nine original short stories inspired by the supernatural mythology and folklore of the violin. His novel Kilowatt and his other books such as Slaying the Gorgon are available at www.callingcrane.com and also on Amazon.
He is married to Paula McHugh who besides playing old-time banjo is an artist whose oil paintings are inspired by the titles of American and Celtic fiddle tunes. You can see her work at www.paulamchugh.com. The painting featured here is her “Yew Pine Mountain“