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Thread: Vocal Tunes vs. Fiddle Tunes

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    OK ... We can't very well discuss everything about OT under a tuning thread, now can we? So I've started this topic to hopefully address my latest quandry.

    I was very inspired by seeing local act The Crooked Jades last Friday when they open the SF BG and OT Festival supporting The Del McCoury Band. (OK, I said in a dif. thread that BG didn't quite move me, but Del and his boys sure did! ) So inspiried I was, that I sat the next morning and learnt me another Carter Family tune ... River of Jordan, FWIW.

    But, then I go to an OT jam, where maybe five line are sung out the whole time. It came up the MP3 project that there are lyrics to Sally Goodin, for instance.

    I've been privately working up Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy, trying to capture the spirit of the clawhammer sound on guitar - quite difficult for me, but it's slowly settling in. My BG group heard me playing it, and now wants to do the song, but ... uhhhh ... the guys kept trying to take 'breaks', and they wondered what the chords were - it drones quite a bit, and is more melody driven than chord driven. I just don't know if I can take songs like this to them, as they want to tackle 'em like yiou would a BG tune.

    So, how are lyrics and vocals generally treated in Old-Time. Any suggestions for vocal tunes I should try to tackle? And ... where do I go with these sorts of songs? Dare I put together a third group just for OT music? Though, I'd be spread thinner than a flapjack!

    So ... what's the deal with vocals in OT?

    - Benignus




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    I probably am not the best person to reply, but why should that stop me? As to whether to take songs like that to your BG band, I say go ahead. It seems to me that there is a lot of crossover between BG and OT. Obviously you change the song in the transition but change is part of the folk tradition.

    I can't tell you a lot about vocals for fiddle tunes but I think a lot of them have words. My guess is that if it was being played for dancing they would not use the lyrics.

    Hopefully someone who knows what they are talking about will respond as well. #



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    I'm presenting this as an idea that I've found effective, rather than the right way, because I don't really think there is a right way.

    Lets say you have an ensemble of a guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin. #Lets assume the guitar is playing rhyhtm and everyone else the melody. #I think it is cool when going into vocal verses to have either (a) have the mandolin go to a chop rhythm, strum rhythm, or drop out completely, or (b) have the fiddle #player drop out completely. #This will help the lyrics ring out a little better, while maintaining a constant instrumental melody line. #It is really in my opinion no good to have a clawhammer player drop out at any point, as the clawhammer, while melodic, provides a unique rhythmic groove, and it is just to awkward to suddenly drop that groove from the sound.

    June Apple and Sally Ann are some of my favorite Old Time tunes with vocals. #May just be me, but I have a tough time playing Sally Ann on mandolin.

    BTW, I LOVE the Del McCoury Band (going to see them soon at Wolf Trap)...they sounds to me like traditional BG at its very best, especially with the single mic, but they also infuse alot cool Celtic sounding stuff into their tunes. I have NEVER heard that band play a song too fast just to show they can. To me, they are probably the best BG band going today. Ronnie McCoury's mandolin playing is super-tasteful, I just can't say how much I admire his mandolin playing. And how can you not like Del's voice. Plus, if you ever have the chance to exchange words with them, they are just about the most friendly people you'll ever meet.




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    Hmmm ... I know what you guys mean about there being a fair amout of cross over. I do a wicked cool John Henry in the BG group, but it is BG not OT - I even threw in minor chord! Some songs are obviously well suited to the BG method.

    I'm thinking about tunes like Sally Ann, The Coo-Coo Bird, Cluck Old Hen. Songs where the vocal and fiddle melodies are basically the same. As opposed to songs that are constructed in more of a verse / chorus manner.

    Also, I think I might be confusing some the early country songs with Old-Time, being a big Carter fan.

    Any comments are welcome to me, as I really see this as an exploratory post of sorts.

    - Benig




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    I think alot of Carter tunes can be played pretty well in an old time style, or at least as a break from the tunes you've been playing. I guess the problem being they typically have alot of verses to be payed in a "fiddle tune" way. But I doubt you'd catch any crap at an Old Time jam for wanting to sing and play a Carter tune. There is a gray area between early country/OT music, and I think its all just a matter of semantics anyhow. Lots of people call Carter stuff "Old Time Country" music, so there you go !

    Doc Watson recordings are also a great source for mountain-y sounding vocal tunes. His "Home Again" album comes to mind.

    Oh yeah, Ground Hog is another fun OT vocal tune!

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    One of the problems with OT singing IMHO, is that a lot more people think they can sing than actually can. Even some great OT groups sound bad when they try to sing. I don't know if OT singing is harder than singing in other genres, but I do know that good OT singers seem to be rarer.

    My advice is listen to "Songs From the Mountain," with Tim O'Brien and then listen to Jim and Kim Lansford on "Call Your Dogs." With those "gold standards" in your mind, then listen to your own group singing and make the tough choices.

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    " ... a lot more people think they can sing than actually can. "

    Yeah, I've watch some American Idol, as well! LOL!

    Seriously, I sing a lot more like Doc than I do like Tim. Though, I consider each of them among my favorite vocalists. I picked up John Henry off an old Doc recording, though I have changed a lot, too. I recently tried - and failed - to learn Highway of Sorrow off a TOB recording. Man-o-man can that guy sing!

    Someone once said my singing was like a homebaked oatmeal cookie. I still think that's the nicest compliment I've ever gotten.

    Thanks for all the CD recommendations. I think I'll order some up later on this afternoon.

    - Benig

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    I think alot of Old Time singing in terms of the fiddle-tunes-with-lyrics is all about hootin-and-hollerin, the point being that someone who can't sing, can sing and have fun.

    Now when it comes time for some four part harmonies with old time singers, cover your ears!

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    Notary Sojac Paul Kotapish's Avatar
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    There are old-time string bands that do nothing but fiddle tunes and there are old-time string bands that do nothing but songs.

    Most performing old-time bands do a mix of straight dance tunes, crooked dance tunes in a variety of cross tunings, dance tunes with sing-along verses (play-party songs, for example), traditional ballads, more recently composed songs with breaks or unison instrumental interludes, and a cappella gospel numbers or ballads. Lots of fiddle tunes have acquired words, and many of the little sing-along verses do multiple duty in many different tunes.

    That pretty much covers the repertoire choices, and the distinction about whether a given number is bluegrass or old-time is more in the arrangement and approach than it is in the material itself. If the band emphasizes individual soloing and more modern song forms with verse, chorus, and breaks, than it veers towards bluegrass. If the band plays the instrumental bits are all played in unison, then it veers towards what most folks call old-time music, but the distinctions are hazy at best. There are plenty of bluegrass bands that play in a more old-time style at least some of the time, and plenty of bands that call themselves old-time that follow a bluegrass format.

    To my mind, most of these distinctions are artificial, somewhat arbitrary, and mostly unnecessary.

    Of course it is important to recognize and honor the distinctive traits of various venerable traditions so that they do not become entirely homogenized, but it's silly not to acknowledge that bluegrass and all the various old-time variations are just part of a much broader tradition of American string-band music.

    If your goal is to emulate a particular band or artist--Bill Monroe or the Carter Family or Tommy Jarrell or Charlie Poole--then the distinctions in style become more important. And it is a useful and powerful exercise to actually engage in a very pure effort to reproduce the specific idiomatic expression of a great artist.

    But most of the truly great artists in any idiom broke down the wall and begged, borrowed, and stole from everything around them. Bill Monroe was amazing not because he was a purist, but because he was able to synthesize so many wonderful elements--cross-tuned fiddles, African-American blues, hardshell Baptist singing, pop music, and more--into something unique and powerful. Ralph Stanley is considered a bluegrass great, but he is equally revered as an old-time musician. And Benton Flippen is usually claimed by the old-time camp, but he and his band could easily be considered bluegrass.

    Pick and sing the music you love and play it in a style that feels honest and rewarding to you. That's all that really matters. If it doesn't fit neatly into a little box, what's the harm?
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    Quote Originally Posted by (Paul Kotapish @ Feb. 26 2004, 14:04)
    To my mind, most of these distinctions are artificial, somewhat arbitrary, and mostly unnecessary.

    Pick and sing the music you love and play it in a style that feels honest and rewarding to you. That's all that really matters. If it doesn't fit neatly into a little box, what's the harm?
    Amen to that, Brother Paul

    It is interesting that we think of "old-time" as a genre, a specific style of music with specific rules and techniques. I'm sure that to those who were playing it back then it was just music and there were as many styles and techniques as there were players.

    As to the singing, a lot of the old-time singers didn't have the "best" voices; my fiance has a hard time listening to a lot of them. Many "modern old-time players" seem to deliberately copy that style of singing to be authentic. For me, I just do what is natural for me and consider that authentic. No right or wrong here, just personal preferences and tastes.
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    Quote Originally Posted by (doanepoole @ Feb. 26 2004, 13:57)
    I think alot of Old Time singing in terms of the fiddle-tunes-with-lyrics is all about hootin-and-hollerin, the point being that someone who can't sing, can sing and have fun.

    Now when it comes time for some four part harmonies with old time singers, cover your ears!
    It's a common perception that old-time musicians can't or won't sing, but most of my favorite singing is by musicians who identify themselves as old-time players.

    Check out the many gorgeous albums by Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin.

    http://www.appleseedrec.com/cartersongs/
    http://www.rounder.com/ (many cds)

    Or the fine recordings and lovely vocals by Tom, Brad & Alice:

    http://www.tombradalice.com/

    To get a sense of the breadth and depth of old-time music today, it might be worth picking up a few copies of the Old Time Herald.

    http://www.oldtimeherald.org/
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    Paul - That was a great response. I was trying to think of something to say because I play plenty of old-time tunes with vocals where we also take instrumental breaks in-between verses. Kind of like bluegrass, but it doesn't really feel like bluegrass. Thanks for articulating it so well.
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    Quote Originally Posted by
    It's a common perception that old-time musicians can't or won't sing, but most of my favorite singing is by musicians who identify themselves as old-time players.
    I was really referring to casual musicians as opposed to recording artists, and the common tendency therein for "untalented" singers to hoot and holler verses and have a good time, and the less common tendancy for such singers to join forces, and engage in vocal harmonic partnership, often to ill effect.

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    Benignus- I think what I would do is give your bandmates access to the kinds of music that turns your crank- invite them to local shows, pass them CDs, be specific about what you like. I love primitive baptist singing, it just kills me to hear those intervals and phrasing. (Paul mentioned Tom, Brad and Alice- Alice Gerrard is a fine singer who doesn't sound like an angel, but the way she sings moves me...)
    I've taken those songs to my partners and tried to get them onboard, with mixed success. Try and find a place in your setlist to play one song *the way you hear it* and then see what happens. Sometimes you can lobby hard for a song, then perform it with some success and change bandmates minds as well.

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    Vincent,
    I hear you loud and clear. I may be new to OT, but I have been in many many bands - not as many as mandodude but then who has? So the dymanics you describe are familiar to me.

    I have two groups right now, a folk group where the guitarist comes from a jazz / cabaret background. Fiddle tunes with their crooked timing really drive this guy batty.

    Then there's the BG that is still 'gel-ing' togther at only 5mos old. These guys like the OT stuff I play for them, but as I mentioned earlier, the songs are getting played in a BG fashion. e.g. Rather than listening and grasping the sultry bluesy melody line of Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy, the whole thing instead becomes a hodge-podge of quasi-breaks, like jam band mush, with each player trying to something unique rather than playing more simply and trying to really support the group sound.

    Disappointing for sure, but I've learned to really let go of my attachments to band material rather than start telling guys how to play their parts, ya' know? (You can lead a horse to water)

    Here's some unsolicited advice for anyone reading this that's just starting in bands. Lots and lots and lots of songs that you really like, and really want to do in your band ... won't work out! Just throw them away, and move on to a different songs, save 'em for a different situation, whatever. Don't try too hard to force fit something. Just my 2.

    I do really like both groups, but I honestly think I'm on my own for the time being as far a playing within the Old Time style.

    Well, not completely on my own, as this place is great, and I have found a good jam to attend.

    - Benignus




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    Quote Originally Posted by
    Lots and lots and lots of songs that you really like, and really want to do in your band ... won't work out!
    Amen to that!

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    Quote Originally Posted by (garyblanchard @ Feb. 26 2004, 14:20)
    It is interesting that we think of "old-time" as a genre, a specific style of music with specific rules and techniques. I'm sure that to those who were playing it back then it was just music and there were as many styles and techniques as there were players.
    Gary,

    Yep. When I first started attending bluegrass festivals some 30-odd years ago (and they were odd years, now that I think about it), there seemed to be a lot fewer distinctions made by the audience about the various styles of string band music that were on display on stage and in the parking lot, and I think that the musicians themselves were less stringent in their interpretations.

    For some folks, the term "old-time" means fiddle and banjo music in the Round Peak style only, with maybe some passing acknowledgement of fiddle tunes from Kentucky and Mississippi. I tend to think of old-time music in a much broader sense that includes pretty much all rural string-band music--everything from blues-and-rag ensembles to fiddle-and-banjo duets to Texas contest-style fiddling to brother duet acts to the Carter Family and even Monroe-style bluegrass. And in my mind, the various Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, and Quebec styles are part of the same continuum.

    Clearly each of these idioms has a number of defining stylistic elements or rules of the game, and those differences are lovely and essential, but I tend to hear the similarities and cross-fertilization in the different styles as much as the differences.
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    Quote Originally Posted by (Benignus @ Feb. 26 2004, 16:20)
    Lots and lots and lots of songs that you really like, and really want to do in your band ... won't work out! Just throw them away, and move on to a different songs, save 'em for a different situation, whatever. Don't try too hard to force fit something. Just my 2.
    Great point, Benignus.

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    Thanks again for all the great info!

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    Hey B., when you're ready to start an old-time group, give me a holler. I'm in the East Bay and have been needing a group since my Irish group fell apart because of some health problems for some of the members.
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    Jim,
    I met a fiddler lady and a clawhammer guy over the weekend that are over in West Oakland, both really nice people, looking to start something up. I'll drop you a PM, and maybe we can all get together?

    - Mike

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