What is oldtime anyway? Heresy and Orthodoxy


The joke goes something like this: Two Old-Time oldtimers are taking their sweet old time on a morning constitutional through the sunny glades of Clifftop. They pass a tent with a fiddle-and-bongo duo. “That ain’t Old-Time,” says the one. “Nope,” says the other. In the next tent, a cello is joined by a Dixieland jazz band. “That ain’t Old-Time,” says the one. “Nope,” says the other. From the third tent, they hear a G-tune with an Em in the high part. “That ain’t Old-Time,” says the one. “Well, hold on now,” says the other. The two never speak again.

In an alternate version, the last line of dialogue is, “What is Old-Time anyway?” 

And this, Dear Reader, is precisely the question I will not be answering here. By the end, I hope you’ll understand my reasons. No, the real question is: “Why do some of us want so desperately to define Old-Time?” A brief survey of the online chatter would suggest that the Old-Time “community” is as divided over its own self-definition as, say, U.S.-Americans are divided over theirs. Who should be let in? Who should be kept out? And how do we prevent the bad hombres who do manage to get in from turning Mount Airy into Mariachiville? 

And in Old-Time, as elsewhere in the cultural landscape, we can generally discover two “camps”: I’ll call them the excluders and the includers. In many ways, these represent two fundamentally different intellectual styles, or even ways of being in the world. There are those who wish to draw a clear line and say, in effect, “That ain’t Old-Time.” Such people feel it is important to “take a stand,” to “separate the wheat from the chaff” and to otherwise make some kind of clear order out of the chaos of culture and human existence in general. Fair enough. Others, perhaps because they feel more at ease with life’s ambiguities and gray zones, will say, “Well, but it’s definitely old-time-ish/moving in that direction/an interesting take/etc.” or, as the case may be, “A little chaff is good for the digestion.” 

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I call these “fundamental intellectual styles” because, in my experience, the excluders in Old-Time tend to be exclusive in other areas of life as well, and vice-versa. The man who is quick to say X is Old-Time and Y is not will often also subscribe to the view that, while there may be multiple ways to skin a cat, only one of them is “right.” His counterpart, the includer, will be more ecumenical –– or pragmatic –– in his view, asserting that the “right” way depends on which particular cat one is attempting to skin, and for what purpose.

It is of course a sociological commonplace that groups define themselves by exclusion. We construct a certain set of common features that we take to be meaningful, and exclude anyone who appears not to possess them. We may have various reasons for doing this, but we do essentially the same thing for other phenomena too. In short: we generalize. Sure, this way of proceeding does a certain violence to the particular, but without the power of generalization, we would be unable to distinguish one type of thing from another, unable to group things together into categories that enable us to think abstractly about the world. Reality would consist merely of a flood of isolated phenomena, of individuals and individual things. Without the category “music”, for example, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish between Clyde Davenport and mule scratching itself on a tree. What a mess! 

But you don’t have to go too far back in time to find instances in which even so basic a category as “music” is shown to be exactly what it is: a construct. Is John Cage’s “4’33”” an instance of “music”? Is Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “PLUS-MINUS”? Is Skinny Puppy’s “VIVIsectVI?” And what about field recordings of Alvis Massengale? The answer in each case is, “It depends on whom you ask.” Some would call “4’33”” the absence of music, or even an assault on music itself. Others would accept Cage but cast Skinny Puppy out into the outer dark. Yet others would seat Skinny Puppy at the right hand of Mozart and condemn Massengale to that special corner of Hell reserved for people who abuse stringed instruments and deface library books.

What this little exercise reveals, I think, is that binary categories like “music/not-music,” far from being essential aspects of the world, are contingent, contested, and (in the broadest sense of the word) political. Not a whole lot of critical pressure needs to be applied to show that what the “music/not-music” distinction boils down to is actually a question of whether or not I like it. This is because, even when I judge a particular music to be “bad,” I’m still granting the possibility of its being “good.” If I judge a particular sonic phenomenon to be, on the contrary, “not-music,” then I’m basically saying it’s not even good enough to be “bad”: it’s off the scale of what I could even begin to like. 

True: what I either actually do or theoretically could “like” (what I consider “music”) is to a large degree determined not by some innate affinity, much less by rational analysis, but rather by socialization. I will tend to adopt the collective “likes” of groups I wish to belong to and explicitly reject or simply ignore the “likes” of other groups. But I will tend to cleave to this set of categories as if they were innate, rationally defensible, a representation of objective truth.         

At this point we have officially crossed into that war zone of philosophy known as Aesthetics. Before you stop reading, Dear Reader, let me assure you that I do not intend to abuse you with a rehearsal of how the central question of Aesthetics, i.e. the question of Taste, has been posed and reposed since the 18thCentury. The point I wish to make is simply this: If seemingly logical categories like “music/not-music” or by extension “Old-Time/Not-Old-Time” are really aesthetic categories (i.e. categories of Taste), then by what right do some of us play the role of Category Police? By doing so, am I not 1.) simply confusing my subjective tastes with something objective in the world and 2.) seeking to impose them on others?  

Now, it may very well be that you can convince me of the authority of your tastes. Maybe you’ve been steeped in Old-Time for fifty years and know a thousand-plus tunes by heart. Maybe you’ve read all the books. Maybe you’re just a monstrosity on the fiddle. But you’d still have to convince me that your map of Old-Time has the borders drawn correctly and isn’t just some jerrymandered (Jarrell-mandered?) Rohrschach of your own invention.

In practice, however, things get tricky. This gets back to the “fundamental intellectual style” thing I started with. Your standard-issue Old-Time excluder will be either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge the role that taste plays in their way of thinking about music. This stands to reason; for as soon as I acknowledge that my definition of Old-Time is just my definition of Old-Time, i.e. that it reflects my subjective sense of things and not some objective reality, then I’ve implicitly acknowledged the possibility of other equally valid definitions, and hence can no longer really sustain the whole “excluder” approach. In other words, real dogmatism becomes impossible. In order to be dogmatic, I have to assume that my dogma is simply correct, that there is one truth, one way to (correctly) skin a cat. 

This actually puts the excluder at a distinct advantage in any debate with an includer. While the includer, by definition, is willing and able to acknowledge the relative validity of the excluder’s point of view, the excluder cannot, by definition, return the favor. They must insist that the includer is simply wrong, and because they have one foot always in the shadow of self-deception (i.e. their failure to recognize the subjectivity of their own judgement), the excluder will always appear to be (and likely feel) stronger. If you happen to be an includer by temperament or choice, you will doubtless have experienced many times in your life just how pointless and frustrating such debates can be. (1)   

Obviously, if what we’re talking about is not music but, say, religion, then all the excluder has to do is refer to an infallible authority, whether scriptural, ecclesiastical, or revelatory, and the debate ends there. “The Bible says so.” Fine; but where does such supposedly infallible authority exist in Old-Time? Shall we quote chapter and verse from the Book of Tommy?

What makes dogmatism in Old-Time perhaps even more problematic is the fact that –– hello! –– the music itself is a case study in cultural miscegenation, appropriation, theft, borrowing, innovating, improvising, mis-remembering, illegal border-crossing and making do with the materials at-hand. To take what St. Tommy played in Chapter 7, Verses 21-23 as the Gospel truth is to forget that St. Tommy himself was far from infallible, even by his own standards. If the tune is a river, he’s steering his way down through the rapids as best he can, given the quality of oar and rudder and whatever memory he has of the last time he came this way.               

What strikes me as particularly strange about all of this is that other musical genres –– with the notable exception perhaps of Country –– seem much less troubled by questions of definition and demarcation, much more open to mixing and matching, genre-bending and other forms of innovation. Why should Old-Time be different? Is there something about the genre itself that attracts (or fosters) people of the excluder type? And is that “something” inherent in the music itself, or in its context? 

One would think, since the economic stakes are so low in Old-Time (few have ever made an actual living playing the music), that no one would be particularly concerned about questions of heresy and orthodoxy. Apart from the occasional festival spat over who really deserved the prize money, or the hard feelings over who didn’t get invited to be part of the band at the contra-dance, it’s difficult to imagine what role money –– or any other form of capital –– might play here. In other words: what is there to gain or lose? Not much. 

But perhaps the cause lies elsewhere entirely, in the realm of social history. For many decades, Old-Time remained “popular” in the literal sense of the word: it was an art form “of the people,” of interest to those who practiced it or listened to it in their communities and to the few scholars who studied it, but otherwise showing up as scarcely a blip on the capitalist “pop culture” radar, much less the radar of “high culture.” Clearly, that has changed. Young people from urban centers far removed from “Appalachia” are gravitating toward the music, as are people from other countries and continents entirely. The reasons for this are difficult to pin down, although I’ve suggested elsewhere that a “search for authenticity” has something to do with it. In any event, the Old-Time “community” has undergone a tremendous growth in the past ten-to-fifteen years, a fact most veteran festival-goers will bear witness to. That growth has not been simply “more of the same.” A thirty-something, classically-trained Brooklyn hipster who gets interested in Kentucky fiddle tunes brings something distinct and different to the music. So does a retired Norwegian programmer or a millennial convert from hip-hop. These people hear specific beauties and possibilities in the music that its more traditional practitioners might not. Should that be grounds for their exclusion?

To try to codify culture, to fix it in time, is a misguided form of admiration that destroys the very thing it seeks to preserve.

You can probably tell what I think the answer is. So let’s get back to the question of causes: Is it possible, Dear Reader, that the impulse to exclusion is motivated by a simple fear of change? Here I’m reminded of the infamous French Academy, whose task it is to set in stone for all time the “correct” form of the French language. But dammit, the French refuse to stick to the rules! They keep making things up! Importing foreign words, ignoring grammar! It’s hopeless. Why? Because for better or worse, culture evolves –– even the most conservative of cultures. In fact, what we think of as “culture” may really only be a set of parameters governing these changes. To try to codify culture, to fix it in time, is a misguided form of admiration that destroys the very thing it seeks to preserve. The greatest achievements of taxidermy only end up confirming the fact that a skinned cat is no longer a cat. Actually it’s a “not-cat.”         

But if the impulse to exclude is rooted in fear, the roots themselves are made of other stuff. We need to recognize the desire to appoint oneself to the Old-Time Border Patrol for what it really is: a form of love. “I love this music, I’ve (in the immortal words of one John Engle) ‘flushed my life down the toilet for it,’ and if I see another van-load of hippies bringing their bongos and didjeridoos to Clifftop I’m going to go ballistic!” –– But this is a possessive form of love, is it not? A love that is afraid to lose, a love that wants everything to stay exactly the same. Is that really what you want? As a brief musical excursion into Country would suffice to teach you (in case life itself hasn’t taught you already), such love is doomed to failure. People don’t want to be loved that way, and neither does music. 

Does this mean “anything goes” in Old-Time? Far from it. While you can do what you want in the privacy of your own home, if you want to play with others, you’ll have to compromise. And that’s really the upshot here. Any time two musicians sit down to play together, what Old-Time is has to be re-negotiated and rediscovered. Moreover, I think we all know this on some level. Why else would we go to festivals or drop in on jams in other places if not to rub elbows with people who approach the music a little differently, who have different tunes, or different versions of the same tunes? After all, that’s the spirit the music was born in, and it’s what keeps the music alive. And I dare say it’s also what makes it so damn much fun. 

(1) A female friend of mine from Clifftop points out the fact that, while OT musicians are about evenly divided between the sexes, nine times out of ten the person telling you “That’s not Old-Time” is a man. I have no doubt she’s correct. Why is that, I wonder? Topic for another essay.

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John Crutchfield
John Crutchfield is a writer and theater artist who currently makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina, where he plays banjo and guitar and occasionally sings in the area's lively Old-Time music scene. He's also lived in Germany at various points in his life –– most recently Berlin –– and at present he teaches German at the local branch of the University of North Carolina.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this age old topic, John. But since my philosophical and cultural values align with yours, I was struck by one way in which our experience at Clifftop seems to have diverged.

    As the founder of Clifftop, I have always been pleased by the spirit of openness and inclusion I encounter with most people I meet there. But a reader of your column who had not been to Clifftop might think the inverse was true — that it was populated mostly by traditional music police. To be sure, there are many at Clifftop who could happily do without the “neo-trad” flavor of many of the jam sessions, and for whom the neo-trad contest is something of a freak show. But my experience is that most people who prefer traditional styles understand that the music evolves and manage to co-exist quite peacefully with the less traditional elements of the scene there. In more fundamental terms, it seems to me that most of these people are able to have an aesthetic preference for traditional music without needing to deny the validity of new influences coming to the music.

    Though you don’t exactly say it, your essay may cause some readers to equate an aesthetic traditionalist with a social excluder, and I think that would be unfortunate. I have lived and worked with many different social groups across the urban/rural, nonprofit/corporate, and artistic/political spectrum over my life and I have never found a group as open and welcoming as the community that comes together at Clifftop each year.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Will. Even though I’m a relative newcomer to Clifftop, I have to agree with you: the overwhelming feeling there is one of welcome. (I say this, however, as a middle-aged, white, heterosexual male. I wonder if everyone feels the same? Naturally, I would hope they do…) Only in very rare instances have I personally encountered the “excluder” mentality there. If I mention Clifftop here, it’s not in order to make any particular claims about the festival itself, but rather as a familiar “setting” for the argument. In many ways what I’m doing in this essay is a bit of a provocation, with a grain or two of irony mixed in. That said, your main concern is quite legitimate. Let me just say I think it’s worth asking whether there is (or ought to be) congruence between the ways we talk about music and the ways we talk about the rest of life, especially in the case of many of us, for whom life and music are all but inextricable.

      • Very good, but gently made, point, John, about it being relatively easy for you and me to feel welcome at Clifftop because of our networks and privileged social status. I have no doubt it is seems less welcoming for newcomers, people of color, and others from different cultural backgrounds. I have been discussing with Hilarie Burhans what kind of community-sponsored setting might make it easier for less experienced and connected people to tap into the scene. There’s always room for improvement….

        • I’m probably not alone in being very happy to hear of your efforts in that direction, Will. This is the sort of thing where the word “community” either reveals itself to be an exercise in self-congratulation, or it turns out to actually mean something. There’s every reason (cultural, historical, ethical) why anybody who loves this music should also feel “at home” in it. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help make that a reality at Clifftop. Onward!

  2. I see music as like colours. There are primary colours but enless hues. I have some records from the label Old-Timey and they provide a bit of a template for what I consider to be Old Time. I actually use Old-Timey in place of Old Time 🙂


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