What’s The “Real Difference” Between Bluegrass and Old Time?

Happy New Year. Let’s hope for better things for all of us in 2021.

This week’s post was suggested by a reader who directed my attention to a video on You Tube’s Fiddle Channel. The Fiddle Channel is the creation of English fiddler Chris Haigh and, if this video is any indication, he is well versed in traditional American fiddle music.

The video is called “What’s The REAL Difference Between Old Time And Bluegrass?” With a title like that, you know you are in for some strong opinions on a controversial subject. The video does not disappoint. In just under 16 minutes, the video details Mr. Haigh’s view of the material differences between these two related musical genres. Unsurprisingly, this Fiddle Channel video focuses heavily on the fiddle’s role in both styles of music.

A brief personal aside: many years ago, when I was living in Washington DC and just beginning to get serious about learning to play bluegrass music, I knew and played with musicians in both the bluegrass and old time camps. From my then admittedly limited experience, I had the sense that the local old time and bluegrass scenes were largely separate, and that the partisans of each music regarded those of the other with some disdain. My musical experiences over the years since have not borne out that early view. But a certain disdain for the “commercialism” of bluegrass as compared to old time is apparent in Mr. Haigh’s video.

Half the fun of this kind of video essay is quibbling with the author. And despite my quibbles, I found the video very worthwhile. Mr. Haigh packs a lot of information into 16 minutes. At the beginning, he makes an obvious but important point: to the general public, old time and bluegrass are synonymous and refer to rustic fiddle and banjo music from the “good old days” before six lane highways, etc. Mr. Haigh obviously thinks the public perception is wrong, but I am not so sure. From the public’s viewpoint, any differences, “real” or illusory, are inconsequential, compared the overwhelming similarities between these musical styles. Thus it may be that there aren’t any “real” differences between bluegrass and old time.

That’s clearly not Mr. Haigh’s view, however, and he spends the next 15 minutes arguing that there really are very significant distinctions. What follows is my summary of Mr. Haigh’s discussion of the musical differences:

First, “old time” is a vague name for a variety of musical forms going back centuries, with roots in England, Scotland, Ireland and Africa, that was played mostly in the mountain south for parties, dances, and other non-commercial social events, until the music began to be commercially recorded in the 1920s. Bluegrass is a very particular style of music rooted in old time, combined with elements of gospel, blues, and jazz, that originated with Bill Monroe and his 1945 Blue Grass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry and thus was commercial from its inception.

Second, old time is generally music for dancing, and bluegrass tends to be concert performance music for an audience of listeners. Some of the other differences listed below stem from this difference.

Third, styles of performance differ. In old time, performers are often seated, the same tune is repeated many times and can go for 20 minutes, performers play many tunes in a row in the same key to minimize retuning fiddles and banjos, keys are usually limited to the more string friendly keys of G, D, and A, everyone plays simultaneously, there are no solos, instrumentals predominate, and tempos are comfortable for dancing. In bluegrass, instrumentals are the exception, vocals predominate, including sometimes intricate duets, trios and quartets, with instrumentalists soloing on kickoffs, turnarounds, fills, and breaks between verses, the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar are all expected to solo, a high standard of instrumental and vocal technique is expected from all, and tempos are often faster than comfortable dance tempo.

Fourth, the instrumental styles differ. Old time banjoists play lighter, quieter open-back banjos and don’t use fingerpicks. Old time fiddling tends to be very rhythmic, with shuffles and syncopations, more bow strokes, a rougher more down home sound, played mostly in first position. Modal tunes (by which is meant in this context tunes using scales other than the major or minor) and crooked tunes (tunes having an irregular number of measures or beats within measures) are popular. Thus, old time’s musical norms are “non-commercial.” In bluegrass, the banjo is the heavier resonator instrument, played hard, fast, and loud in the style popularized by Earl Scruggs, with picks on the thumb and first two fingers. Bluegrass fiddling tends to be smoother, with fewer bow strokes, with an emphasis on clear tone and precise intonation. In addition to old time friendly keys like G, D, and A, bluegrass fiddlers also play in keys like E and B that old time fiddlers tend to avoid. Irregular tunes tend to be squared off for performance.

Fifth, bluegrass repertoire focuses on thwarted romance, cabin homes, and religion. Old time repertoire is more varied, with tunes about disasters, war, trainwrecks, murders, moonshine, low living, hogs and possums.

Sixth, after 75 years, bluegrass is now a spectrum, with a traditional end characterized by musicians like the Del McCoury Band, and a more contemporary end, characterized by country-sounding singers like Alison Krauss. Many bluegrass stars are part of the Nashville country music establishment. Although old time has its fusions and flirtations with other genres, it has largely returned to its roots and is less involved with Nashville.

Seventh, old time is essentially folk music, democratic and inclusive, with timeless values and community traditions—“taking part, not winning,” and “not everybody has to be a virtuoso.” Bluegrass reflects conservative values, as shown by the suits many bands wear on stage, and the focus is on technique, ambition, and competition.

Again, these are Mr. Haigh’s ideas, and I have tried to summarize them fairly. I agree with a lot of his descriptions about differences in musical style and performance, and his summary history of bluegrass is a good look from 50,000 feet. But there are things here that one can reasonably disagree with.

For starters, many of the differences he identifies are based on generalizations, perhaps useful in getting a basic understanding of the music, but inexact and potentially misleading. His premise that old time music is the authentic voice of the people and was untainted by crass commercialism until the record companies began to market it in the 1920s is not accurate. Much of the music played by those long ago back porch pickers, and much of what we think of as old time music today, was the product of 19th century music professionals, songwriters such as Stephen Foster and Dan Emmet, and instrumentalists such as Joel Sweeney.

The argument that the subject matter of old time repertoire is more diverse than bluegrass repertoire isn’t settled by the examples Mr. Haigh lists. Bluegrass is full of songs about murder, schoolhouse fires, cold hungry orphans, moonshine, and a wide variety of critters. And bluegrassers love modal songs and tunes, as anyone who ever heard Ralph Stanley sing “Little Maggie” can attest. For his part, Bill Monroe wrote many instrumentals and songs that used modes other than major and minor.

Finally, after explaining that bluegrass requires musical proficiency that old time does not (playing in harder keys, playing further up the neck, playing faster, smoother, cleaner, etc.) and that old time isn’t about being a virtuoso, Mr Haigh asserts that nevertheless, old time is not “easier” then bluegrass. For this last proposition he quotes fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, a virtuoso by any standard. I happen to agree, but then Mr. Haigh’s argument that old time is folk music for the unskilled masses while bluegrass is limited to a select band of super-skilled initiates goes out the window.

Stereotypes about bluegrass and old time music, including mine from my days in Washington, are as likely to be wrong as any other generalization. Both bluegrass and old time music have their fully professional virtuosos and their happy semi-pros and field picking amateurs. Both have their “commercial” aspects because many musicians are trying to make a living playing this music that they love. However bluegrass may have started, it is now as much a “folk music” as old time. In playing for decades with both bluegrass musicians and old time musicians, I have found many great folks who love to play both styles and who don’t fit the stereotypes, and most of us play for love rather than money. But my quibbles aside, Mr. Haigh has produced an enjoyable and worthwhile video, made more enjoyable by the fact that I disagree with some of it.

5 Responses

  • Good article to open the New Year Andy. I found the video very interesting. I have often tried to explain the difference between bluegrass and old time (and bluegrass and country music!) with many of the same struggles and issues. I was intrigued by the narrator’s statement that “bluegrass is younger than the atomic bomb”.

    Regarding old time music, I’d like to add that the term was ALREADY in use before bluegrass as we know it was born. “Old time fiddling” was a very common phrase long before Dec. 1945. I’d also like to move the focus on “old time music” away from the South — it existed in New England, New York, Cape Breton Island, Minnesota, Illinois, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, etc. Henry Ford was a huge promoter of “old time fiddling” and square dancing, although for moralistic reasons — long before bluegrass came along.

    In my own jamming experience, bluegrass pickers live in dread of two fiddlers in a jam, because they are prone to taking the jam into old time territory (the Dark Side) when they start comparing notes on what old obscure tunes they might know. Let this go on too long and the banjo players usually leave, since they don’t get many breaks! or don’t play clawhammer style. Bass players don’t like the length of old time tunes and the lack of variation. Harmony singers are disgusted at the lack of opportunity. Likewise, old time jams don’t like to see “hot” bluegrass pickers show up because: 3 finger banjo picking doesn’t “fit”; the banjo players want to take breaks; the flat pickers want to take breaks; the bass playing is too “hot”; bluegrassers play too fast and loud. Etc. And like the narrator said, old time players take umbrage at bluegrass being labeled the oldest American string music.

    Another point I’ve read and agreed with, is that bluegrass music was DESIGNED to be played into microphones. Old time music exists from a time before microphones. But, that is one of the clear areas of crossover between the musics — bluegrass sounds pretty much the same when the power goes off, if you’re close enough.

    This is an excellent video to show folks who want to learn about the differences (and similarities) between bluegrass and old time. Thank Andy.

  • Dick, thanks for your very informative post, especially your point that old time music is not limited to the south. There’s a very good book by Simon Bronner from the 1980s called Old-Time Music Makers of New York State, which focuses on the music made by old time musicians in the Catskills as well as in central New York. There was a vibrant and distinctive old time scene in upstate New York and I think some of the musicians in the book are still around.

  • I think I can guess how Bill would have described Katy Hill. Also, a pre-1945 recording-before the atomic bomb.

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