A hanging, a stabbing and a killing

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Members of the group Pine Top Revival from left to right, Steve Cantrell, Dawn Cantrell, Josh Johnson and Don Wood play together at Wood's Travelers Rest home. The group gets together several times a week to practice and perform. Greg Beckner / Staff Members of the group Pine Top Revival from left to right, Steve Cantrell, Dawn Cantrell, Josh Johnson and Don Wood play together at Wood's Travelers Rest home. The group gets together several times a week to practice and perform. Greg Beckner / Staff

It's just that old-time music

Old-Time mountain music spills out of Oolenoy Community House in Dacusville where every Friday night for the past 20 years men, women, young and old gather with their banjos, fiddles, dulcimers and guitars for jam sessions.

"I started to sing this music when I was a boy," said Dan Wood, who plays banjo for the group Pine Top Revival. "I'd hang out in the barn with my grandmother and she taught me these songs. We'd sing and sing. Some of the songs were a little rough. They seemed to all end with someone being hung or stabbed or killed."

Old-time music is often associated with Contra, folk and square dance, though it also includes slower ballads.

Until Grand Ole Opry brought the music out of the mountains and into people's homes with the radio show's debut in 1925, people played these songs at barn raisings and community gatherings, at dances and around the campfire.

In 1959 Alan Lomax wrote that old-time music gave men a feeling of home. "It symbolizes the place where he was born, his earliest childhood satisfactions, his religious experience, his pleasure in community doings, his courtship and his work," he wrote.

"There's a simplicity about this music," said Wood's fellow band member Joshua Johnson.

He grew up listening to it in Pickens County.

Ten years ago, he taught himself to the play claw-hammer-style banjo mostly by listening to people in old recordings, he said. Starting in the early 1900s, old time fiddlers were able to record.

Musicians such as Eck Robertson, who after the Civil War headed to New York where he made the first commercially sold country record in 1922, and North Georgia Fiddler Robert Allen Sisson, who traveled to New Jersey in 1925 to record 10 tunes on Edison Blue Amerbol Cylinders and on 78 rpm records.

"Some of the tunes are hundreds of years old. When you play them there's a connection with a definite time and place. It makes you wonder who wrote the tune and what the circumstances were when they wrote it. There's also a connection with all the people who played the tune along the way," said Johnson.

The roots of old-time music, the South's original country music, trace back to Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany. Settlers brought their lightweight fiddles and fifes across the ocean, and they brought their stories in the form of song.

The fiddle was the instrument of choice for generations of early Americans. Southern Europeans later introduced the guitar and the Italians who immigrated to the Western Virginia area to work the coal mines brought the mandolin.

The banjo originally came from Africa to the American Eastern coastal regions. As people became more mobile, the cultural music of Southern Appalachia began to change.

"It was a day trip from our farm to Greenville on horse and wagon. People in the Dark Corner, River Falls and Merrittsville (now Greenville County Watershed Property) area didn't make the trip often.

The area was isolated. Many of the young folks who left to fight in the Civil War had never been away from home before.

They were exposed to new things like the banjo and brought it back home with them," said Wood.

Musicians have always mentored each other, but old-time music is an especially communal music.

Bob Buckingham teaches old-time and bluegrass music at the 5th String in Greenville. He learned to play the banjo and fiddle when he was serving in the Air Force in the 1960s.

"These tunes are like heirloom seeds. This music will outlast modern technology."

Old-time, as opposed to bluegrass, is not meant to be sung around a microphone or to an audience.

"It doesn't cater to sweet syrupy pop tastes. There's no need for a band. It's a social music," he said.

Programs like Pickens County's YAM (Young Appalachian Musicians) and Junior Appalachian Musicians are teaching old-time tunes to a new generation.