I believe in the importance of listening to source musicians, knowing and learning from their versions of tunes. I know I am not the only one with this opinion. – But some of the opinions in this post might not be shared by some readers. Please feel free to comment and disagree.
The term source musicians is one that refers to the old musicians born around 1900 and before, and usually their recorded versions of particular tunes are the oldest ones known. I used to refer to these recordings as “original versions” of the tunes. But since the source musicians also learned them from somewhere (and most likely changed them a bit, due to the oral traditions), “original” doesn’t seem appropriate. So “the source version” seems better, because it is the oldest one available today and usually stands as a standard at jams etc.
The ideological aspect
A short time ago, I had the privilege listening to Riley Baugus and Kirk Sutphin play tunes they learned firsthand from older musicians. They said something at one point, that really made me think. They said that they always mention the musicians they learned the tunes from, because it was real people that they know/knew and grew up with. In other words, there was a real person connected to that tune.
I think this is an important reason to “keep an ear on” source musicians. A lot of the musicians, who are sources for the tunes played at old-time jams/records today, were not professional musicians – although some might have tried to be. They were farmers, miners, factory workers etc. Some of them made very little money recording for record companies in the 20s and 30s. Some took time out to let field recorders and collectors record their playing and tunes. Without these musicians old-time music would not be the same today. When someone plays Rock and Roll, almost everyone knows the musicians who created that genre. Musicians who became world famous and attained lots of wealth. This is not the case with old-time music. We owe it to these musicians, who created the old-time music we listen to today, to know and respect them and their tunes.
Reasons of tradition.
I quite often hear people say: “I learned this tune from a Dirk Powell CD, Bruce Molsky CD or “insert current old-time musician” CD. I like the mentioned musicians and listened to their records. Don’t get me wrong. But unless they wrote the tunes, they learned them from somewhere…So why not learn the tune from there as well?! As an illustrator I compare it to drawing a car. If I have to draw a certain car, it’s best to find the car out in real life and draw it. My drawing style will show through in the way I see the car, and what I chose to include or exclude. If I find someone else’s drawing of this car, I might copy some of his/hers stylish additions. I might leave out (or change) elements that actually are important in the look of the car, and someone who actually know the type of car might not recognize it in my drawing.
The same with the old-time tunes. Some of the tune elements or “sounds” might get lost, and the tune will no longer be the same.
The concept that speaks against my opinion is “The Folk Process”. The fact that tunes/songs are changed from person to person, because it’s being passed on via the oral tradition. I will make the bold comment that I don’t believe the folk process is really valid anymore. At least not in the same sense.
When the source musicians were learning to play, they had no way to record the tunes, and might just have heard them once or twice. So of course it was changed from one to the other. But today we have recordings and the opportunity to capture the details of the tune.
Also the invention of recording – and later the mass media and internet – made the spread of music much faster. For example: I’m a Dane playing American Old-time music!?. Old-time music is not limited in the same way to certain regions. A lot of people don’t really learn knee-to-knee with an old master anymore. Although there are luckily still people who are part of a living musical (and local) tradition, whose way of learning is close to the old ways. But a lot, especially us foreigners, learn through recordings.
One might argue against these principles, by saying that the music has to be kept alive and changing. Well, it already did. It evolved into bluegrass, “Folk” and country music, and on from there. When a lot of us (not so much people for whom this music is still part of their heritage and community) play old-time music, we go back in time and play something historical (or even foreign). It’s even in the name: “OLD TIME” music. And as something historical I think it’s important to keep it grounded in history.
One might also say that this attitude will make what we play reproductions, and why play it just like the old recordings when we already have them to listen to.
I think that no matter how hard you try, you cannot exactly reproduce another person’s playing. Your own sound will always shine through. So it WILL change. Your experiences, tastes and the time we live in will influence the music no matter what. I am just advocating the importance of keeping a foot firmly planted in the source.
The short practical reason.
Jamming is an important element of the current old-time scene, and it is made much easier with common references. I have tried taken part in jams where people’s versions of some tunes didn’t match. Very often it’s because the sources vary, which makes knowledge about different source versions a great asset. Some people might have learned from modern musicians who have changed the tune, so it’s not really fitting the source version anymore. Of course it’s possible to learn tunes on the fly at jams, but as some might agree, this usually results in the dominance of the so called festival style, and the reduction in amounts of regional and old styles being practiced.
Please feel free to critique, agree or anything else.