Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Writing and Playing New Songs in the Old-Time Tradition

(It's been awhile, so I figure I owe you something good. Below you'll find the notes I gave out at my writing workshop at the Peterborough Folk Festival this summer. I took care with these, so I hope you'll find something to enjoy if you're a player, or even just an old-time aficionado.)

On the surface, old-time music is easy. You only need to know three chords in one or two keys, the solos aren't fancy, and a creaky singing voice is an asset. Anyone who sits in with an old-time band for the first time, though, will realize it takes a lot of subtlety to get the right feel. How do contemporary musicians engage with the music without being hackneyed? Many of the songs we play were written by people in a different country and a different era. Clich├ęs abound. How do you keep the music fresh, without betraying what made the source material so great? Can we write our own songs in the same spirit?

We wouldn’t be a folk festival if you couldn’t. I’ve put together some notes on the subject I hope will be useful to old-time aficionados, but first, let me admit that my definitions are not all that rigorous. I often lump genres like blues and bluegrass into the same broad category, in ways that will frustrate a purist. These are differences that are important to musicologists, and maybe to you, depending on the type of musician you are. My main interest is putting on a good show and following my muse; my muse tends to like music from before 1950. I assume you fall somewhere on the same spectrum, and hopefully players of all stripes will find something of interest here.

The great thing about giving artistic advice is that you can find an example to prove any point you want to make. Whatever you set out to do, somebody, somewhere, has already done it with genius. As such you may find some of my suggestions contradictory. The only thing I won’t do is give highly technical advice. There’s a wealth of resources out there on the mechanics of playing old-time music (check out Happy Traum’s Homespun Tapes, for a start). If you don’t know the basics of music theory, it’s well worth taking the time to familiarize yourself. There’s a myth out there that old-time musicians rely exclusively on their ears, but in practice not knowing theory just means shifting the burden to other people. Watch the fiddler or the banjo player’s face darken as you slide that capo around and call a tune in the key of H flat – you’ll see what I mean.

Notes for Players

Dress the part. You don’t have to wear suspenders and a bowler hat to play old-time music. The perfect pair of slacks will not make you a better banjo player. However, it is worth asking if there’s continuity between the way you look and the way you sound. Old-time music is frequently a storytelling medium, and the audience has to believe that you are invested in the story you are telling. Otherwise, the lyrics don’t seem to bear on the one who is speaking, and what you’re saying becomes meaningless. Here’s an example: I went to see a band of young guys wearing Billabong t-shirts and backwards ballcaps. The lead singer asked, “Do you guys want to hear some old-time music?” and launched into his song: “I went down to the river, to wash away my sins...” I had the strong suspicion he didn’t live near a river, and from the look of him he hadn’t committed any sins worth washing. I may have misjudged this guy, but it seemed to me his artistic statement was unreflective. Presentation matters.

Don’t overdo it on the character, though. I’ve just told you to dress the part, but unless you’re really a Texan, don’t drawl like one. It’s easier than you’d think to slip into, and you’ll hear it often. Unlike looking the part, however, this feeds the meaninglessness. It says you’re doing a cornpone impression rather than engaging seriously with the material. Trust that high lonesome feeling to express itself through the song, not yer TV stereotypes.

Slavish devotion to period details is not enough. You’re wearing a pair of vintage brogans and a moth-eaten vest. The promotional photos you put on your website are all sepia-toned. You put out your last album on wax cylinder. Every detail is correct, yet the music feels inert. The problem is that the people you’re emulating were alive, but you’ve turned yourself into a museum piece. Roscoe Holcomb sounds like a buzzsaw because his lungs were scorched by a lifetime working in the mines. Bukka White sings songs about prison life that you must never, under any circumstances, attempt to cover, because you didn’t live through them first. Get the sound and the look you want, but remember the map is not the territory. You have to find ways to make these songs live for yourself. Maybe you do it by choosing your repertoire carefully, by finding ways to empathize with the characters in your song. Maybe you’ve altered the melody just enough to make it your own. Some songs will buoy you up, and you’ll have no idea why. Just remember, the spirit is the last word. Without it everything else comes to nothing.

Play with drive. You can probably come up with examples that disprove this rule, but I have a suspicion that really slow, drifty ballads belong more in the sixties folk tradition than in old-time. Whenever I hear a truly tragic old-time song, I’m amazed at how much drive it still has. Old-time music usually has no rhythm section, but that just means string instruments have to supply the forward thrust. This is a subjective quality and a hard one to explain away, but if you haven’t consciously listened to how musicians create drive, give it a try.
Listen to the Tommy Jarrell track “As Time Draws Near,” then play it yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll start off too slow and the song will bog. Too fast, and the tempo feels unsuited. The secret ingredient is drive. Jarrell has it, even in the depths of one of the saddest songs I know.

Remember, you’re an entertainer. An old-time performance has one of two purposes: to engross people in a story, or to make them dance. When a show doesn’t serve one purpose or the other, it fails to hold my attention for a full set. This is a common pitfall in bluegrass: the performance becomes a display of technical virtuosity, which is perhaps of interest to other players but less so to the general public. On the other hand, old-time musicians sometimes have a misguided notion that showpersonship is a form of insincerity, and so they fumble onstage, apologize, and take forever to tune. The desire to entertain comes from a sincere place. There is nothing the audience would like more than to see you relaxed and comfortable. Crack some jokes, play out and communicate with the people who came to see you.

Old-time music is weirder than you think. You’re excited to check out the latest old-time band when they come to town. They’re all gifted players, yet somehow the result is polite, proficient, and unmoving. Chances are the band has taken too few risks with the form, and failed to personalize their set. Some instrumental line-ups are standard for a reason – for instance, the bluegrass combo of stand-up bass, guitar, banjo, and mandolin brilliantly covers the spectrum. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that the standard approach is the only authentic approach. If you dig a little, you’ll find examples of weird and wonderful departures from the formula. The term fiddlesticks comes from standing beside a fiddler and tapping out a rhythm on the strings while he or she plays. Check out what Washington Phillips did on the celestaphone, a zither-type instrument. Listen to the haunting bell sound in Blind Mamie Forehand’s “Honey in the Rock,” or the clarinet and slidewhistle accompaniment on Blind Blake’s “Hot Potatoes.” Try out an odd instrument or take a stylistic departure now and then – chances are your heroes did at one time or another.
There is a danger, of course, that you’ll push the genre farther than it will go. Check out the travesty that is the Holy Modal Rounders’ album Indian War Whoop for an object lesson. However, you may also find a niche that distinguishes you from more generic offerings. Listen to how gleefully the Jim Kweskin Jug Band mixes it up. Or take C.W. Stoneking, a contemporary Australian blues musician with a turn-of-the-20th-century style so complete it borders on creepy, yet who acknowledges 50 Cent as one of his influences. See the Canadian musician Petunia in concert, and watch how he makes a Bill Monroe tune his own. And don’t miss Sheesham and Lotus at the festival today!

Notes for Writers

Enduring songs are universal. The most popular songs in the old-time canon have survived because they’re sturdy as hell. Whenever they were written, they seem eerily timeless. “You Are my Sunshine” is my favourite example. Many people haven’t looked beyond the chorus, but they should. That song is hard as diamond, pared down to the barest essentials. You’ll find no extraneous details, no slippery poetic conceits beyond the plaintive central metaphor. Writing with this kind of directness and sincerity is vastly more difficult than it sounds, and it’s a lifetime goal for songwriters to strive for. Luckily old-time music provides us with some of the best examples.

...But great songs are personal, too. It’s well and good to strive for universality in your songwriting, but if you miss your mark you’re bound to hit platitudes. A lot of old-time songs are about heartbreak, but do we really need another heartbreak song? Not unless something compels you to write, beyond the desire to participate in a tradition. As I mentioned above, the blues musician Bukka White recorded some of the most powerful music I know. Listen to his song “When Can I Change my Clothes?” and marvel at how he’s set his experience to music. You don’t have to have suffered in a Mississippi work camp before you can write good songs, but if you’re able to tap a personal experience rather than trading in ambiguities, chances are your listeners will perk up.
Don’t take this to mean you have to stick to the literal details of your experience, though. I wrote a song I’m proud of called “Circus Coming to Town,” about a guy who fantasizes about running away to join the circus. I’ve never come close to running away with the circus, and the narrator of the song isn’t quite me. However, I gave the song some weight by connecting with his dissatisfaction with his humdrum life, a subject I can unfortunately sometimes relate to. When I sing it, I’m being genuine even though I’m in character.

Lastly, don’t think that real art must be crushingly serious in tone. Let your sense of humour find its way into your songs, if it wants to. Fun and seriousness are not mutually exclusive.

Protest songs are angry. Folk music has a long history of being involved with protest movements, but unfortunately I think it’s taken something of a wrong turn. Many songwriters today seem afraid that an aggressive song will violate the folksy sense of solidarity their listeners feel, and so they turn in a polite suggestion that it’s time to change the world. “Golly whiz, wouldn’t it be nice if Enbridge didn’t build that pipeline?” is a nice sentiment, but it’s no wonder that protest writing has largely migrated to hip hop, where the message lands with more force.

Classic protest songs are alive with pathos and rage. Even funny ones, like Harry McClintock’s “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” are seething underneath (you may not know that song is actually set to the tune of the Presbyterian hymn “Revive Us Again,” which adds to its vitriolic attack on hypocrisy). If you’re passionate about a subject, give it full expression. Don’t write a song the same way you would write a letter to your MP.

On the other hand, don’t hector your audience. It’s hard to tell people something they don’t already know in three minutes’ worth of rhyming couplets. Don’t tell me that consumers need to change their spending habits or the planet will suffer; I know that. What music can do is make me feel gutsick about it, so your song runs through my head when I try to justify a new flatscreen TV. A good example is Woody Guthrie’s song, “1913 Massacre” (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott does a great version, too). He tells a story guaranteed to fill you with outrage – striking miners and their families are enjoying a well-earned Christmas celebration, when anti-union thugs shout fire and cause a stampede. Listen to the way Guthrie sets the scene: “I will take you in a door and up a high stairs/Singing and dancing is heard everywhere/I will let you shake hands with the people you see/And watch the kids dance around the big Christmas tree.” Perfect – my response is no longer purely intellectual. Think of it this way: other mediums are better at informing people, and you’re usually preaching to the choir anyway. The best you can do as a songwriter is inspire the people who are doing the heavy lifting.


Once again, these are organized more in terms of what’s influenced me personally than strict genre lines.


  • American Primitive, Vol. 1
  • Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina
  • Blind Willie Johnson - The Complete...
  • Blind Willie McTell - The Definitive...
  • Buell Kazee - Sings and Plays
  • Bukka White - The Complete...
  • Clarence "Tom" Ashley - Greenback Dollar
  • Clawhammer Banjo, Vol. 1-3
  • Dock Boggs - Country Blues
  • Hard Times Come Again No More, Vol. 2
  • Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
  • Hobart Smith - In Sacred Trust and Blue Ridge Legacy
  • Joseph Spence - The Complete Folkways Recordings
  • Mississippi John Hurt - Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings
  • Reverend Gary Davis - The Complete Early Recordings
  • Roscoe Holcomb - An Untamed Sense of Control
  • Son House - Delta Blues

  • Bill Monroe and Doc Watson - Live Recordings 1963-1980
  • CW Stoneking - King Hokum and Jungle Blues
  • Dolly Parton - The Grass Is Blue
  • Iris Dement - Lifeline
  • Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band - S/T
  • John Fahey - The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death
  • Kossoy Sisters with Erik Darling - Bowling Green
  • Leon Redbone - Double Time
  • Petunia/Petunia and the Vipers - I Live in the Past and S/T
  • Sheesham and Lotus - Everytime! and Five Miles from Town
  • Southern Banjo Styles - Mike Seeger
  • Steve Earle - Train A-Comin’