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Mountain Music, Southern Gestalt, and the Ramblers

By Nancy Talbott

For 40 years the term "hillbilly music" has been used as a rubric covering a fantastic variety of sub-forms: old-time, familiar tunes, Dixie, mountain, sacred, gospel, country, cowboy, western, country-western, hill and range, western swing, Nashville, rockabilly, bluegrass. And every time a Northerner hears a hint of "twang" likely as not he'll think "hillbilly" and, blam, close another door. The problem with generalities is that they tend to become fixed, develop into prejudices, and communication comes to a roaring halt.

The term "Hillbilly" is an Americanism, dating from somewhere around the early 1900's. It may derive from two Scottish colloquialisms, "hill-folk," and "billie," the former used pejoratively, designating a rebel against Charles II, the latter used in Scots dialect as a synonym for "fellow" or "comrade."

Whatever the derivation, the connotation of a race of bull-headed, simplistic primitives, inhabiting the mountainous regions of the South, obliterating their consciousness with home-brewed "white lightnin" and singing ballads when they weren't obliterating each other, has been established and, in fact, endures. The radio is probably responsible for bringing this mountain nickname into general public awareness during the '30's, and by the '50's the mass media had so fixed the image as to commercialize it, particularly in the area of musical expression.

It is sure that mountaineers sang and played music long before the word "hillbilly" was printed and before it was coupled with "music." And their music was always a direct reflection of a life-style. From the hill-country sections of North Carolina. Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, out of the stark toughness and cultural isolation inherent in the mountain life, developed some of the most exciting and intense musical expression in the American Folk Tradition. The mountaineer's artistic expression had always been severely limited, in part due to the huge amount of energy required to simply survive in a more or less hostile wilderness. In the creation of his house he expended little conscious effort for the sake of beauty, and there is no evidence that the mountaineer ever attempted to portray in pictures anything which affected his life. His artistic expression was saved for his music.

The ancient songs and ballads of England, Scotland and Ireland had survived oral transmission through many illiterate generations, and the mountain man added to these stories and songs about his own life--about coal mining, about the wailing freight trains, about home and family, and about his God. The religion of the mountaineer has been so often misunderstood that it is almost obscure today. The words to a song

"Oh, Lord, I know I have no friend like you. If Heaven's not my home, Oh Lord what will I do?" speak not so much to an omnipotent deity, but simply confirm everyman's need for a resting place, a safe haven and a friend. Rural life has always been hard and mountain people have never felt the need to suffer it entirely alone. The 5-string banjo, fiddle and dulcimer occupied places of honor in countless cabins, and the Saturday night square dance was a regular occurrence on practically every creek. Any people accustomed to long, hard hours spent just in the business of existing learn quickly to catch any available moment for sociability. The excitement of mountain, or country, music is a reflection of undaunted desire to communicate, in spite of an often raw existence.

The past several years have shown a tremendous growth of interest in country music, especially in the cities of the North. This interest has been manifested in various ways. Rock music has seen such groups as The Band, Grateful Dead, Burrito Brothers, Sea Train, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, turn to styles and instruments previously reserved for southern music. Since Bonnie and Clyde and the Beverly Hillbillies series, fiddles and banjos can be heard almost every evening on some commercial. And songs and artists like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, who used to be known only by country and western buffs, are now known to most followers of rock.

Yet not all of country music has gained the acceptance of mass audiences. Traditional American mountain music remains relatively undiscovered, although a growing number of urban listeners are becoming familiar with the old time songs through occasional concerts by traditional artists. These are usually held at folk festivals, as the coffee houses seem more interested in attracting a large gate than in showcasing good music. Others see traditional records in stores and take a chance. Some people actually listen to the few traditional country shows on their FM radios ("Richard Cotillion," and "Give the Fiddler a Dram" on WTBS and "Hillbilly at Harvard" on WHRB).

Yet we probably wouldn't even have these sources available to us were it not for a group of urban musicians who have for a time almost single handedly crusaded for the preservation and extension of the music which is now termed ol-timey. The New Lost City Ramblers first got together in New York City in 1958. They performed around the city and in coffee houses, and occasionally did concerts on college campuses during their first year. It was also during that year that they recorded their first "long playing, short selling" album for Folkways. The following year, the group was invited to the Newport Folk Festival, where they were received enthusiastically. During the early sixties, they continued touring spreading the gospel of old-time music, and gaining a considerable underground reputation. It was also during this time period that the various members of the group made pilgrimages South, collecting songs, pictures, stories, and "rediscovering" some of the great performers of the 1920's who had been presumed dead for years. It was during these trips that members of the Ramblers found Roscoe Holcomb. Doc Boggs and Eck Robertson. Another urban performer and folklorist. Ralph Rinzler discovered Doc Watson while searching for old-time Tom Ashley.

The music which the New Lost City Ramblers play is based almost entirely on field recordings made by commercial record companies and the Library of Congress during the period between 1925 and 1935. The Ramblers play almost the entire range of American folk instruments (mouth bow, harmonica, autoharp, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar), in the styles used by such groups as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots, and Dr. Humphrey Bate and the Possum Hunters, to name but a few of the groups from which the Ramblers derive their repertoire. They play old breakdowns, sing ballads, party songs--in short, whatever the mountain people played.

The original group consisted of Tom Paley, John Cohen and Mike Seeger. In 1962, Paley left the group to devote his time to mathematics. His place was taken by Tracy Schwartz, the junior member of the band who had grown up listening to country music in New York in the 1940's. Tracy was playing guitar by the age of 10 and later learned fiddle and banjo. His membership in the group added a decade on either side of its repertoire by playing both unaccompanied ballads and early bluegrass.

John Cohen was a free lance photographer when he joined the Ramblers. Not only has he continued to practice photography, but he has also edited a number of books, designed record covers, written essays and criticisms on the music, made films of rural life and its music and has been a frequent contributor to Sing Out! magazine.

Mike Seeger was virtually raised on Library of Congress recordings since his parents were helping to compile the archives. By his late teens, Mike had become engrossed in the playing techniques of rural artists and he soon was playing guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and autoharp. He has since recorded solo albums for Vanguard and Folkways and most recently for Arhoolie.

With the increased interest in old-time music, a number of groups from the city have played old-timey music, Many have even recorded, but none have gained the stature which the Ramblers hold. Nor has any group had such an impact on the music as far as spreading it and broadening our concept of folk music to include our own old-time music.

Where the New Lost City Ramblers try to recreate the music from the rural South in the 1920's and '30's, Country Cooking is creating new tunes and a new style using blue grass as a foundation. Unlike old-time music, blue grass has centered around the figure of one person, Bill Monroe. Both the instrumental and vocal styles which have dominated the form have followed the developments of Monroe and his apprentices. There have been a number of innovators in the past few years in the lyrical area, who have adapted material from the folk and rock fields. But with the exception of a few groups which no longer exist, there has not been a parallel development in instrumental innovation. Country Cooking has faced this challenge squarely, with a number of changes resulting. As mentioned earlier, the group is writing new tunes, hummable, foot-tapping tunes which leave you happy and full of energy. Even the traditional blue grass numbers which they perform are barely recognizable after being changed by their new arrangements. When you recognize one of the older tunes, you find yourself asking why it wasn't done their way originally.

Secondly, the group is probably the first blue grass group to feature each member equally and the reason becomes obvious as you listen to them. There is not a weak spot in the group. You can look forward to every break, never knowing that it will be exciting and original.

One of the most exciting aspects of the group is the double banjo work, which has no par in blue grass today. The guitar also without equal, is heavily influenced by blues, and many who have heard this group feel that Country Cooking is the first true synthesis between blues and blue grass.

One other way in which the group differs from the traditional blue grass group is that the lead singer is a woman, and not just a fixture. There's no pussyfooting here, no soft love songs. Just hard-driving singing, in a strong wailing voice.

Real beauty is tough, in that it endures; but it is also delicate. The Civil War was never really satisfactorily concluded, insofar as its cause was a lack of mutual understanding. The North, in winning, did not win all, nor did the South altogether lose.

It has been said that climate and geography have much to do with the fact that human qualities develop so diversely, but the important point is that they do. Mountain music is one way of bringing people of all kinds together. "Thar's gold in them thar hills."

"That wildness of spirit which it is still our grace to believe is the full mark of humanness." --Lionel Trilling

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