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      Old Time Music: High and Lonesome
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Image of Harvest Home (left to right): John Purk, Al Murphy, Warren Hanlin, Aleta Murphy, Bob BlackFolk Roots
Old time music in Eastern Iowa derives from a number of cultures. It started with the Scots-Irish and English ballads brought to this country in the 17th century. Those mixed with English, Scottish, and Irish country dance tunes, church hymns and shape-note singing. Originally unaccompanied, the singing style was and is high-pitched throat singing with tight harmonies. Over time, common and easily available instruments such as gut-buckets, fiddles, guitars, banjos, and mandolins joined the mix to create rhythmic music suitable for house parties, weddings, and community celebrations.

Image of Bob and Kristie BlackOld time music moved along with its musicians, from the British Isles to the American colonies, picking up African American and other influences along the way, from New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, the upland South, the South Central states, and the Midwest. African-American influences include the banjo and gut-bucket, gospel music, and the blues. The advent of readily available recordings at the end of the 19th century into the 20th century and the widespread influence of radio in the 1920s and onwards both spread the audience for old time music and created another level of influences. Nashville and its popularization of country music have also had their effect on old time music. Legendary artist Bill Monroe, one of its greatest promoters, popularized the "high and lonesome" Bluegrass sound in the 1940s on radio's "Grand Ole Opry." The folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s further spread this music to a new generation and a new audience.    TOP

Image of String BassImage of HarmonicaThe Instruments
The instruments of old time music can and do vary but almost always include fiddle (a violin with a higher bridge), guitar, and mandolin as well as banjo, string bass, and occasionally harmonica and dobro, a steel-bodied guitar sometime splayed with a glass tube on the fretting finger, a Hawaiian instrument and sound made Image of Guitarpopular in the 1920s.Violin and mandolin provide the lead voices in the sound while guitar serves as rhythm accompaniment. The unamplified human voice was so important to old time music that bands rarely employed a big sound, which would have drowned out the vocals.    TOP

Image of MandolinThe Music
The music of old time evolved from ballads and songs of Scotland, England, and Ireland, played for listening (and participatory) entertainment and dancing in the 16th through 19th centuries. Jigs and reels provided the dance music, while ballads and shanties (sea songs) told and retold stories of lost love, murder and regret, and crime or commemorated famous people or events. Some praised the beauty of the land, rivers, or oceans, while others mourned the departure from a well-loved homeland. In general, rhythms were and are simple and direct in 3/4 or 4/4 time. The tunes were often recycled while the verses or, in some cases, whole texts, changed. Often, songs were passed around with new verses with merely a notation about the tune (sung to the tune of); the melodies themselves were rarely notated or printed.    TOP

Image of Harry OsterOld Time in Iowa
Many of Eastern Iowa's old time musicians were not recorded or well-known outside the state or the region. Folklorists Harry Oster and Art Rosenbaum, founders of Iowa Friends of Old-Image of Al & Aleta MurphyTime Music, were responsible for much of the early documentation of Iowa musicians. Notable among today's players are banjo player Bob Black, formerly with Bill Monroe's band; fiddler Guy Drollinger of Iowa City; and Al Murphy — core members, along with Aleta Murphy, of Harvest Home    TOP

Image of Musicians jamming with Al MurphyHouse Parties & Jams
As old time music evolved in this country, it was most affected by the need rural people had to provide their own amusements. Often dances or house parties would be held in a private home. Members of the community, pickers and fiddlers alike, would gather to provide the entertainment. At these small homemade Image of Guy Drollinger and Al Murphy playing twin fiddlesaffairs, members of the impromptu band would swap techniques, tunes, and variations. While in-house dances rarely happen any longer, today's jams (gatherings of musicians) at festivals, restaurants, and bars serve some of the same functions of house parties in terms of musical transmission and community building.    TOP

Image of Hannah DrollingerToday

In Iowa, old time music has been influenced by the traditions of the Appalachians and the Ozarks as well as those of New England and 19th century immigrants from Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Today, we hear the strains of Delta blues and Mexican canciones in the music of Greg Brown and Dave Moore, local musicians whose old time roots and playing styles have gone beyond the state and the region.

Image of Fiddle Jam at the 2004 Fiddlers' Picnic in Iowa City.Yet the tradition of old time music continues to survive in local gatherings at watering holes and folk festivals, fiddlers picnics, jams, and square dances. A picnic is held annually in Iowa City and the Iowa State Fair sponsors a Fiddlers Convention. Younger players form new bands that play old music, and old time continues to weave its simple spell of fellowship.    TOP

Text by Riki Saltzman. Photos by Will Thomson, Trisha Stiles, Larry Long, and courtesy of Iowa Friends of Old Time Music, Bob & Kristie Black, and Al & Aleta Murphy. Music by Bob & Kristie Black, Al and Aleta Murphy, and Guy and Hannah Drollinger.

folk roots the music instruments old time in iowa
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