Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"We Played What We Heard": Some Ideas, And Some Questions, About West Virginia Old Time Music

For the most part, the fiddlers and banjo players who played the old time music in West Virginia's Pocahontas County and several neighboring counties including Randolph had their own distinctive sounds, their own unique ways of making music. 

They made very individual music – to the point that after a while, without seeing the player, it became easy for West Virginian old time musicians to know sight unseen whether, for example, it was Lee Hammons or Sherman or Burl playing. 

These musicians may have emulated the sound of one or more of the old time musicians, but as one musician remarked “we played what we heard.”

And as some of the now older musicians who learned the old tunes in their youthful years recall, what they heard was as varied as it was distinctive.   

So much of the music, and the way the older musicians rendered the music, was distinctive, and each musician played uniquely – or at least not consistently – from one time to the next. 

The lesson from all this that became part of the intellectual equipment of West Virginian old time musicians who learned the music in the sixties and seventies was that there is no right sound:  “We don’t all have to sound alike.”

The old timers were extemporaneous in their playing, playful in cooking up unique renditions, and not at all bound by formulas or beholden to the manner in which they first heard the tune.

Ø  One musician recently observed ”Big Scioty” is definitely from Burl Hammons, but Burl played the high part crooked, though he wasn't always consistent in his crookedness.

Ø  And another added that sometimes he'd played the high part straight and sometimes he'd play the low part crooked.

That means there is not one particular West Virginia sound.  As one West Virginian musician remarked: “People in my generation sounded like themselves, but the people we learned from sounded like themselves, too”. 

West Virginia musicians were not modeling a technique. 

Round Peak players were modeling a technique. 

Even in wanting to capture, for example, Lee Hammons’ technique, West Virginian banjo players were looking for the sound they heard, and ended up doing some things differently to get that sound.  They were playing to the sound, not the technique.

In Round Peak music, which at least in one interpretation evolved out of recorded music from the 1920s, there is more of a tradition of a “particular sound” emerging as the central focus of the music that, in some ways, evolved to accommodate the banjo. 

Ø   West Virginia music has more fiddle and Round Peak is more heavily weighted toward banjo content, and in Round Peak the banjo-fiddle duet developed to a far greater extent than is the case in West Virginia where in many cases (especially eastern central West Virginia) old time music is not ensemble music.

Ø  There were notable exceptions – Melvin Wine played with his brother Clarence, but overall the sound of West Virginia music was less band oriented than Round Peak music.

John Morris, David O’Dell, Jimmy Costa “. . . all these banjo players would say ‘I’m a West Virginia’ banjo player,’ and they’d all be right.  But none of us sounded alike.”  One musician argued:

I don’t think people tried to capture the Hammons sound.  If you went to the festivals you’d hear Round Peak.  You did not hear that focus on West Virginia when you went to fiddle conventions in Virginia [and at the festivals] in West Virginia people were playing their own sound.  People didn’t have to play a certain sound to authenticate themselves. 

However, people who did not grow up with music did not necessarily have the confidence in their sound. And so they went after a sound and “that’s the way they authenticated themselves.”

Odell McGuire was a significant influence on Dwight, and he had very strong opinions on old time music.  At least one musician recollects that McGuire was geared to the Round Peak sound.

Round Peak banjo players had a very particular sound as their musical goal.

The West Virginia musician’s perspective was that there’s not one right way of playing the music:  “The banjo is a rhythm instrument.  That part has to be right, [but] there’s not only one way to get to the rhythm.”

And that might capture the central difference in view between Dwight and McGuire as it shaped up between 1970 and 1975.

Does any of this ring true for you?




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