Course fosters new appreciation for old-time music.Few possessions travel as well as memories. The Ulster Scots boarded ships bound from Northern Ireland to the colonies with hopes for lives in a more hospitable place and dreams of land ownership. They carried little, but they brought traditions that would shape the American landscape for centuries to come.
This wave of Scots-Irish immigrants (as they are more commonly known) fanned out through Pennsylvania, down into the piedmont of North Carolina and into the mountains, exposing those with whom they came into contact to a rich musical tradition. Fiercely independent, many Scots-Irish ultimately chose isolation in the Appalachian Mountains, where outside influences rarely penetrated the ancient ridgelines and valleys.
Their “old-time” musical style remained more or less undisturbed for more than 150 years, according to J. Estes Millner Professor of Music Bill Lawing.
“The old-time music tradition was almost lost between the world wars as people left the mountains and didn’t want to be associated with the poverty there,” says Lawing. “The folk revival of the 1960s restored interest in the tradition.” Artists such as Mike and Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax stoked enthusiasm for the genre, which is distinct from its more mainstream descendants: country and bluegrass.
“Bluegrass and country are commercial adaptations of this style,” Lawing says. “As soon as people began to be recorded, they sang and played in a different way to sell records.” Old-time is more community/group focused, and less about the individual, he explains.
From this corner of North Carolina, positioned within one hour of the epicenter of traditional southern Appalachian music, Lawing is contributing to the appreciation and preservation of the genre by introducing students to it via a new course.
“I had misconceptions about this music—in realizing my own assumptions were flawed, I became excited about it and interested in teaching a class on it,” Lawing says. “I thought the musicianship was always recreational and amateurish, but the people who devote themselves to this genre and style create a really viable musical product and achieve a level of virtuosity that we typically associate with classical or jazz musicians.”
Early in the semester, Lawing introduced the class to the music through several live performances, including a session with fiddler David Tweedie ’94. The Kruger Brothers, who blend bluegrass with influences from their native Switzerland, provided the last in-class performance courtesy of a Bacca Foundation grant. The class culminated in a field trip to MerleFest, the “traditional music-plus” festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., created in honor of Doc Watson’s son, Eddy Merle Watson. There, students experienced newgrass, bluegrass, old-time music and everything in between thanks to funding from a Davidson Research Institute grant.