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Old Time Music Is Part of Our Nation's Culture and History

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

The Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention is an annual event held at Athens State University in Athens, Alabama every October.



The Fiddlers Convention is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of both Old Time and Bluegrass music. It is a great place for family fun and watching talented musicians perform. The event holds 20 competitions including Old Time Singing, Buck Dancing, and playing various musical instruments used in Old Time and Bluegrass music. Here I will tell just a small part of the story of Old Time Music.


First A Bit of Historical Fiction:


Picture this: The year was 1783. The place was the western Atlantic Ocean. A large sailing ship pushed steadily westward - a massive yet beautiful ship, riding up and down while its sails pushed it westward, always westward. Eighty-four passengers spent another day mingling and visiting and performing shipboard family duties, cooking and cleaning (as best could be done). As the day grew late and the sun moved low on the horizon, three men and two women assembled once again in their favorite section of the common area and started their almost nightly music session. Two fiddles, a drum, a flute, and a guitar were played every night.


Tonight the mood was particularly festive. Most people onboard expected the ship to be in sight of land tomorrow or the next day. Tomorrow, they might see America for the first time!


The ship was carrying lots of things, but most importantly it was carrying people. And those people were carrying lots of things as well. They carried their clothes, a few personal possessions including some money. But just as importantly, they carried hope.


They hoped for a better life - a life where all men were equals - where one religion was no better than any other - where a person would not be jailed for speaking their opinion - where a man or woman could prosper through hard work rather than birthright.


Numerous troubles and worries were left behind. But their faith in God was not left behind. Their memories of home and family, their codes of right and wrong, the lessons they learned in school were not left behind. Their sense of art and style came with them. And their music came with them.


*end of historical fiction*


Settling the New Nation:


Even as the thirteen colonies were growing independent and starting to become the United State of America, the American people were on the move, spreading westward - for the most part into the Appalachian Mountains and the lands beyond. Thousands settled in the southern Appalachians in what is now Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee.


As generations of Americans adapted to mountain life, they slowly formed their own culture. The mountains were just different. The farms of the mountain people were not like the flat-land farms back east or farther west. The roads and towns were different. Those differences affected their social lives - the way they lived.


There is little resemblance of modern life in America today compared to the life that the mountain people of the early 1800's lived. That does not mean that those people were backwards or ignorant. Education and schools and books and writing were important to them. Letters and other papers that we read today, left over from that period, show that the regular citizens were excellent writers.


They gathered regularly for church or school or to celebrate holidays or birthdays or weddings. They would break out their fiddles and guitars and banjos and dulcimers and have a grand ole time. Their songs were the songs that their ancestors brought with them from across the Atlantic Ocean - or the new songs that they wrote, influenced by those older songs.


Typical of those songs is a ballad from England called Pretty Saro. It tells of a lower class man who loves a pretty young woman; but she wants a life with a man above his social standing. He is heartbroken because he isn't good enough in her eyes. It is a sad but sweet song handed down from generation to generation in those mountains two hundred years ago.


girl on stage with a  guitar singing
Ms. Lily Gold, from Kentucky, performs Pretty Saro in the Old Time Singing Competition

Pretty Saro was performed at the Fiddler's Convention in 2023 by Ms. Lily Gold from Kentucky. I wonder if most of the people listening realized that the song was sung regularly in England more than 200 years ago.


Then Came the 20th Century


The Colonial years became the Industrial years and the nation moved on. The first recordings of music were made in the mid to late 1800's but recording music became a common practice in the early 1900's.


Appalachian music was first recorded in Atlanta in the 1920's. A family group called the Carter Family became famous in the late 1920's and was popular all the way into the 1950's. The Carter Family would have popular hits as Appalachian music artists and later as Country music stars.


It was in the 1920's that a performer named Jimmy Rodgers moved from Appalachian music to a new style and Country music was born as a genre in itself. Similarly in the 1930's a Kentucky performer named Bill Monroe developed a style of music based on Old Time Appalachian music. Monroe named his band "Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys" and their style of music became known as Bluegrass music.


It was also in the 1920's that Richard Burnett developed a song called "Man of Constant Sorrow" that seemed to be developed from an old English hymn with that tune. The song was popular in Burnett's days and was reborn in modern times after it was part of the movie "Oh Bother Where Art Thou". The actual singing for the movie was performed by Bluegrass artist Dan Tyminski, who performed on the main stage at the Fiddlers Convention on October 7th, 2023.


young man with a guitar and old style wardrobe singing on stage
Caleb Owens, of Pace, Florida, performs "Man of Constant Sorrow" in the Old Time Singing competition .

The Irish folk song "One I Love" was sung in the mountains in 1820 as it had been sung back in Ireland 50 years previous, and as it would be sung 170 years later across the American Southeast.


man and woman with a guitar singing on stage
Jesse Smith (right) and Daniel Sampson perform "One I Love"

The 2023 Fiddlers Convention


A couple of months ago on this same web site I wrote about the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. I hope you liked that article/blog. If you didn't read it, here is a link: https://www.pictureamericana.com/post/bluegrass-and-old-time-music-festival


And yes, the Fiddlers Convention event does have a web site. https://www.tvotfc.org/


Before I add more about Old Time music, let me show some photos of just a few of the happenings from the 2023 Fiddler's Convention.


The weather was mostly good for the event this year. There was a good crowd on hand. The crafts show was rockin and lots of people were having a great time!



What the Old Time Music Performers Say


I took the opportunity to talk to some of the Old Time music performers about Old Time music and what it means to them.


Alabama native Ronny Whitaker mentioned that it was the forerunner of Bluegrass music. He said that he learned lots of the Old Time songs from his Daddy or at the Primitive Baptist Church when he was growing up. He also said that he learns some songs on YouTube. Ronny sang in the Old Time singing competition and performed the old Jimmie Rodgers song "No Hard Time".


Old Time banjo picker Rebekah Weiler from Marietta, Georgia said that Old Time Music means "family" to her. She said that the OTM community is a group of warm and friendly people that always treat her like their own family. As to where people learn OTM songs, she also said that people learn them on YouTube, but that in addition, she had studied music at Middle Tennessee State University and learned lots of good things there. Rebekah won fourth place in the Old Time Banjo competition.


Caleb Owens, of Pace Florida (pictured earlier) said that Old Time music is an expression of life in the South. He went on to say that he learned OTM songs from his Grandfather. He is a big fan of the Fiddlers Convention and has been coming for about 5 years. Caleb won second place when he sang "Man of Constant Sorrow" in the Old Time Singing competition.


I talked to members of the old time string band called Uncle Shuffelo and His Haint Hollow Hootenanny. They said that one of the first things that comes to mind with Old Time music is that it is dance music. It is handed down generation to generation and often shared in music festivals. They named several past performers that have influenced Old Time music including Uncle Dave Macon and Doc Watson.

And In Closing:


"The Blackest Crow" is an often heard song in Old Time Music circles and has been sung much the way we know it today for over a hundred years. It seems to be based on a tune that came from the old country, but didn't become popular with the words we know today until after the Civil War. Christiana Littleton from Clanton, Alabama performed the song on Friday night in the Old Time Singing competition and won third place.


young woman with a  banjo singing onstage
Christianna Littleton from Clanton, Alabama sings "The Blackest Crow"

First place in the Old Time Singing competition went to Reed Stutz from Nashville. Reed performed an old song from the Carter Family written by A.P. Carter in the 1920's. That song is called "The Birds Were Singing of You".


young man with a guitar on stage singing
Reed Stutz from Nashville performing "The Birds Were Singing of You"

Reed Stutz was successful in other music competitions during the two day event as was Christiana Littleton and her husband Jacob Littleton.


As for my personal taste, my favorite act in the Old Time Singing event was Amber and Austin Smith of Talladega, Alabama.


man with a guitar and a woman on  stage singing
Austin (L) and Amber Smith performing "The Home I Left Behind"

Amber and Austin sang the old Celtic ballad "The Home I Left Behind". It is a pretty song, probably more than 200 years old, and was performed beautifully by this couple. Amber and Austin placed fifth out of about 20 acts in the competition.


Here is that song as recorded by Geraldine Sexton in 2012.


Listening to that song (and many songs heard in that singing competition) I sat in my seat and thought, "Rare is the place and time that a person can hear this beautiful music performed so well".


Old Time Music is part of our nation's culture and history. The Fiddlers Convention is a large dose of American culture and the history of American music. Proceeds from the Fiddlers Convention go to Athens State University, primarily to the scholarship fund.


So when midsummer of 2024 starts to turn to late summer, remember the Fiddlers Convention coming in October at Athens State University. Make plans to be there for three or four days or just for that Friday or Saturday, but do NOT miss the Old Time Singing competition on Friday night.


And be sure to say "hello" if you see me there. If you see an old guy with a camera who acts like he has been there before, well that is probably me - or some other old guy with a camera, ha ha. Also remember that comments are welcomed here in the box at the bottom of this page. I really like reading those comments. And you can ask questions there as well. I will try hard to give you a good answer.


And if you are featured in any of the pictures above (or if I got your name wrong) and I didn't give your name, email me at pictureamericana@gmail.com and I can come back and add your name.


Also note that if you hit that "Log In" button at the top of this page and become a member of Picture Americana, you will get an email notification whenever a new blog is posted.


12 Comments


Guest
Dec 05, 2023

Rocky: this is some awesome work on the Fiddlers Convention. Thanks for sharing this and highlighting the convention!!


Rick Mould

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rockydbaker
Dec 06, 2023
Replying to

Thanks Rick. It came from my heart. And thanks to Brandy Conway for helping me along. See you around!

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Ronny Whitaker
Ronny Whitaker
Nov 06, 2023

Thank you for including my comments about Old Time Music as we talked in Athens the morning after the competition. I thank you for your comments about my song I did "The Hard Time Blues"!

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rockydbaker
Nov 07, 2023
Replying to

You are welcome Ronny. Thanks for all that you did!

Rocky

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Guest
Oct 20, 2023

Makes me want to be there! I wish I could hear the music. 🤓

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rockydbaker
Oct 20, 2023
Replying to

Well you just have to come next year! Thanks for the comments!


Rocky

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Guest
Oct 20, 2023

Rocky, great post! Bluegrass was one of my favorite music genres in rural New England when I lived up there. Used to follow and support a lot of up and coming folk artists as they performed in "all of the usual places."


Close cousin to bluegrass is old time gospel. One of the most amazing moments of my life was at my grandfather's funeral. He lived in eastern Kentucky in the Blue Ridge area. When he passed I found out how many people my grandfather touched as often happens. Turns out the local barber shop / gospel singers knew him and sang as part of the funeral. Hearing such a talented group sing old songs of faith was truly amazing.


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rockydbaker
Oct 20, 2023
Replying to

Thanks for the note. Yea sometimes we are just touched in ways that are hard to describe.


Rocky

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Guest
Oct 19, 2023

Wow! An interesting, well-researched story meshing past and present. Great job!

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rockydbaker
Oct 20, 2023
Replying to

Thank you very much. Have a good day!


Rocky

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