WSJ Visits the Boonies

Dave Shiflett's little Wall Street Journal piece on "Clifftop" raised a small dust storm in the world of old time.  Even though he did ambush the Old Time Herald editor and made light in a fairly obnoxious way of a real person who happened to pass away at Washington Carver State Park that weekend, by now the whole article has pretty much evaporated into the ether, spilled Busch Lite on a stretch of Crawford TX macadam in the August heat.  There is a relationship, however, between Crawford and Washington Carver State Park.  Just the week before Shiflett's foray into old time, various other more notable right wing pundits had been working hard at various ad hominem discreditations of Cindy Sheehan which included attempts to characterize her supporters as simply lost souls from the '60s, aged out hippies looking for some cause.  There is a theme here--if they're "liberal," they're not "winners" like "us," but "losers" like "them."  This even surfaced on that most liberal bastion of mainstream media, PBS, in an interview with the executive editor of the Nation Magazine, when the interviewer asked said editor how it felt to be "on the wrong side of history."

What a bizarre question that is!  What's the answer to be?  As good as any might be, "Speak for yourself, kemosabe."  But Shiflett in his article is bringing the same sort of notions to bear on the world of old time as represented by the handful of folks he talked to at Clifftop.  These people, he concludes, aren't "really" playing old-time music at all, but rather some sort of faux hippy stuff they've cooked up to season their last boomer summer.  Sort of an Owl Creek Bridge kinda deal, you see; next stop, the rest home.  Meanwhile, the implication in Shiflett's article is that the "real" musicians are the bluegrass folks, they're on the right side of history and represent musical "progress" by giving breaks to the bass and guitar and not just playing along in unison for as long as they want.  And the proof of that Luddite mentality amongst the boomer oldtimers is that they think Bush lost in 2000--for Shiflett, the politics are driving the whole thing, it's just veiled, interwoven in the story he wrote so that you can't quite make it out.

But it's Shiflett who's the Luddite; he doesn't recognize what old-time music is.  The nature of the beast is obscured if you try to understand it by looking at a festival like Clifftop, or Galax, or any of these events many of us attend.  Back in the day, meaning for me the mid-'60s, the fiddlers' conventions just had contests--fiddle, banjo, mando, maybe guitar, autoharp, whatever, and band.  This reflected the reality of the music that the conventions represented.  Bands would either have a three-finger style banjo player or a clawhammer style player.  Fiddlers would either use more long bows and bent notes and double stops, or more short bows and less double stops, but more alternate tunings. Some bands sang and some didn't sing so much. (For a sampler of what this world kinda sounded like, see the Folkways LP "The Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin' Al McCanless," circa 1973, now available as a CD through the Smithsonian--we were playing what we heard pretty much.) Some had a bass, and others relied on a guitar or two for the bottom end.  A band like the Camp Creek Boys and a band like the Stanley Brothers had a whole lot in common. Dr. Ralph knew how to frail.

Everyone pretty much knew that Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys were fundamentally a hot old-time band that had made it so big that people started calling what they played "bluegrass."  If you went to Carlton Haney's bluegrass festivals over in Reidsville, NC, you could talk to Charlie Monroe about how Bill had done left him behind, gone uptown so to speak.  In the fiddling world, a lot of fiddlers had been strongly influenced by the way Fiddln' Arthur Smith played a tune.  Kenny Baker was even influenced by how Stephane Grappelli played a tune (he says so on one of his County LPs).

But there was also, in the fiddling and banjo-playing world, a strong reverence for how the best, older, local guy played.  In that sense, the music expressed a kind of conservative philosophy.  For Tommy Jarrell, it mattered a lot where he learned a tune, who he learned it from, and just how it went.  And for us, a guy like Tommy Jarrell was a model: you wanna be a fiddler, well this is a fiddler by gawd.  So there were both these streams flowing, to observe, to follow as you wished, back in the day.  It didn't have anything at all to do with politics or with the power dimension.  If you could play you were included.  A guy like Clark Kessinger played pretty different from Tommy Jarrell, and Kenny Baker was different again.  All three knew each other and respected each other.  Or to use another example of the same thing, Fritz Chrysler thought Clark Kessinger had the best bow arm there was, and Kessinger said, "...but you should hear French Carpenter, now there's a fiddler." Over on the banjo side, Earl Scruggs respected Kyle Creed and vice versa.  Scruggs certainly gave Monroe's band a wallop and drive, but I don't think you could really say that anybody ever "defeated" the Camp Creek Boys when they had Fred Cockerham and Kyle Creed in the band.  (Memo to Mr. Shiflett: before there was Flatt & Scruggs they was Bluegrass Boys--what a fraternity Big Mon founded!)

The definitions started coming later, when the contests became the issue.  If a group of judges always favored a three-finger style, then finally somebody started grumbling about it, and a clawhammer category was added.  Same with fiddle styles.  And because singing is a whole 'nother complex dimension, it started to be that old-time bands played instrumentals and bluegrass bands tended to be the singing bands, even though in fact there's all kinds of singing in the old-time world--from the Stanleys to the Carter Family to the Skillet Lickers and Charlie Poole's band, there are vocals galore.  The contests themselves have an evolution, which is to some degree arbitrary and to a large degree does not reflect the world of music out of which they have arisen.  The music you hear in a contest, in other words, reflects what some judges tended to reward over the preceding decade.  The music you hear if you listen to the world of old time, to the old records, the new records, the commercial issues and the rare collections from the field, the folks playing dances and little bars and rest homes and rec rooms and campsites, is waaaaay more diverse than what you hear on stage.   And that's old time.

Because of this fact--that old-time music is actually a sea of music, where you might fish out a big shark or a marlin or a mess of blues or a broken submarine or an old boot, or even Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys--it's really a fairly large conceptual mistake Shiflett makes in his little article, to talk about how old time is just some stuff those aging boomers are distracting their irrelevant selves with.  This mistake may reflect a deeper mistake the so called conservatives with whom Shiflett is aligned tend to make over and over--they want to create this "culture war" deal, to couch everything in the terminologies of power, to always have some "winners" and some "losers."  Life isn't a contest in this sense.  Bill Bennett might be the most notable proponent of this bit of cultural analysis.  He's gotten strangely silent since he turned out to have some shadow showing on the "wrong" side of the fence.  That's the way it is with most of these folks.  Like someone pointed out, the annoyance locals down in Crawford felt about the "invasion" of Cindy Sheehan's army might have actually given them insight into the annoyance folks in Iraq feel about the presence of Americans there.  Instead they just worked out their angst by running over Cindy's flagged crosses and shooting off some guns.  Shiflett is annoyed, obviously, that there are a bunch of people playing music and having fun and yet they're not Republicans (well some aren't and some are--the truth is that the music pretty much trumps the politics of the participants as long as somebody don't break out with "Masters of War").  He's so annoyed that he kinda runs over a real person who happened to die there in Clifftop--Dave Bing's inlaw it happens, but in this Shiflett account he's been turned into a bad joke.

Here's a bit of reality for those who want to make bluegrass be "red" and old time "blue."  Back in the late '60s Ralph Stanley cut a record that included Jesse Winchester's fine song, "Brand New Tennessee Waltz."  Give it a listen some time.  People say it's about Vietnam. And then check out Grayson and Whitter's "He's Coming To Us Dead."  "Take warning!"  Whitter would shout that after each poignant verse, while Grayson was playing the breaks. Take warning, too, when the Shifletts try to tell you--as they're starting to--that opposition to the carnage in Iraq is giving the "other side" aid and comfort.  The tragedy in Iraq was in full bloom way before Cindy Sheehan drove the first tent stake into that Texas dirt this summer.

--Bill Hicks

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August 25, 2005