What follows is a short history of the major influences that
have combined to create mountain music. By using these notes
and David Holtís recordings one can get an overview of history
and sounds of this unique music. All music examples are from
Davidís recordings: I Got A Bullfrog (BF), Reel And Rock (RR)
and Grandfather's Greatest Hits (GGH). The words to the songs
follow these notes so that you can sing along if you choose.
©l996 David Holt, PO Box 28 Fairview,
The Southern Mountains has long held the image of a place
very slow to change. The mountains create a natural isolation
and the people there are notoriously conservative, eager to
hold on to tradition. Likewise, when people think of traditional
mountain folksongs, they naturally think of an unchanging,
static music with few outside influences. But all the major
influences that effected other music in America also effected
the styles of traditional mountain music. In most parts of
America songs of the Civil War, the minstrel and medicine
shows, and early vaudeville have long since disappeared. In
the Southern Mountains these and other now obscure musical
genres are still thriving in the traditional folk music of
the region. The Southern Mountains is a microcosm of the musical
influences that have occurred throughout the United States
in the last two hundred years, but have long since disappeared
in other areas of the nation. All the songs we sing here today
are versions of songs I have collected within the last 25
years in the Appalachian Mountains and all reflect some aspect
of earlier American music.
What follows is a chronological survey of the musical influences
that have changed American music as well as songs from the
corresponding historical periods...songs that are still performed
today by Southern Mountaineers.
I. BALLADS-The first non-native
settlers of the Southern Mountains were English and Scotch-Irish.
They brought their old songs and ballads with them. A ballad
is a song that tells a story. They were usually sung without
any instrumental accompaniment. From the late 1700's to Civil
War instuments in the Southern Mountains were few and far
between. During this era, one could find fiddles, three stringed
dulcimers, and simple rhythm instruments. After the Civil
War the banjo began to be used to back up the singers. You
can still find examples of these English folk songs in the
SONGS: COO COO -an old English
folksong found in Western North Carolina (RR) PRETTY POLLY-Ballads
often told a gruesome story. (GGH)
II. FIDDLE TUNES- Early settlers
could only bring small instruments with them from Europe.
The fiddle, the jaw harp, mouth bow and bones were favorites.
They brought a vast repertoire of instrumental tunes from
the British Isles. Driven by the energetic square dancing
and the banjo, Southerners developed a complicated rhythmic
bowing for the old fiddle tunes.
SONGS (notice the very rhythmic
fiddle style moving with the banjo): BLACK EYED SUSIE (BF)
OLD TIME FIDDLE MEDLEY (GGH)
III. MOUNTAIN SONGS-Early
settlers began making up songs about their situation in the
New World. They continued to perform most of the older songs
but created new ones as well.
SONGS: REEL AND ROCK (RR)
MOLE IN GROUND (BF) SAIL AWAY LADIES (RR) FREE LITTLE BIRD
IV. MINSTREL SONGS-Mountain
music is a blending of the English and African traditions.
One of the first and most important outside influences in
mountain music was the minstrel shows. This influential musical
phenomenon has largely been ignored because of its racial
themes but the minstrel shows helped create American popular
music. The minstrel songs were the first real blend of black
and white musical ideas. It is this blending of Afro and Anglo-American
music which has been the dominant factor in popular music
ever since that time. Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll have all
grown out of this unique combination. In the 1830's there
were a few Southern white men interested in learning and presenting
the music of the black plantation workers. One of the most
important was Joe Sweeney of Appomattox,VA. He learned to
play the banjo from black slaves and learned to sing and play
their songs. These songs were real folksongs and tell the
slaveís point of view of life in the South.
Some give Joe Sweeney credit for adding the 5th or drone
string to the banjo, but most likely he just help popularize
the originally African instrument. The earliest banjos were
made of gourds and Sweeney may have had a hand in making them
from a wooden hoop (the forerunner of the modern banjo). The
banjo did not arrive in the Southern Mountains until after
the Civil War, but has had a tremendous impact on the sound
and style of mountain music.
The people of the North became fascinated with the romance
of the South and the Negro in particular. Many had never seen
a Black person before. Minstrel music became a huge success
in the North. The typical minstrel band of the 1840-50's was
made up of a fiddle, banjo, bones and tambourine played by
4 white men wearing black face make-up (burnt cork). Many
of these musicians had never been south, but learned their
music from other white musicians such as Joe Sweeney. Many
were gifted songwriters who were able to copy folk styles
and create some of our most enduring music. Songs written
by professional songwriters during this period include: Oh
Susanna, Camptown Races, Buffalo Gals, Yellow Rose of Texas,
Turkey in the Straw and Old Dan Tucker. Most people now consider
them "folk" songs.
SONG: GLENDY BURKE-(BF) song
written by Stephen Foster.
The minstrel shows introduced the nation to the musical influences
of blacks, and spread interest in the banjo and bones. The
minstrel show songwriters helped solidify an American pop
song style. The I, IV, V chord progression and the verse-chorus
song form we find in most of our music today started in the
mid-1800's. A few minstrel shows made their way into the Southern
Mountains and left behind their songs.
SONG: CAT CAME BACK (BF)-an
old minstrel show song.
Black minstrel troupes sprang up in the North and South,
and as was the tradition, put burnt cork on their faces and
performed mostly composed songs. These Black minstrel troupes
gave people like W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong
and many others their start in the entertainment business
and allowed white audiences the chance to see real Black talent
for the first time. The minstrel shows opened the door for
black entertainers to become part of the American show business.
V. CIVIL WAR-The Civil War
took young men out of the Southern Mountains for the first
time. They were introduced to minstrel songs and instruments
like the banjo, bones, harmonica, squeeze box and guitar that
they had never seen before.
SONG: DIXIE (GGH)-Dan Emmett
was a Northern songwriter, he had never been South when he
wrote Dixie in 1858. It was the closing song for his minstrel
show. CINDY (BF)
VI. RELIGIOUS MUSIC- From
the late 1700's religious music was sung without harmony.
There were rarely any songbooks. The songs had to be powerful
melodies with simple words so everyone could sing along. By
the mid-1800's itinerant song leaders and music teachers traveled
through the South teaching shaped note singing. Shaped notes
were an easy way to learn music without having to learn about
sharps and flats. The songbooks were written in four-part
harmony. "Sacred Harp" and "Christian Harmony" singing groups
can be found today throughout the South and are not part of
any denomination. By the turn of the century many inexpensive
shaped note songbooks were used in rural mountain churches.
The songs had "modern" chordal arrangements and were sung
in four part harmony and included more secular themes.
SONG: KEEP ON THE SUNNY SIDE-(BF)-made
famous by the Carter family. THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE (BF)-African-American
VII. MEDICINE SHOWS- The
medicine shows were very influential in bringing outside music
and musical styles to the mountains. From the 1870's through
the l940's small medicine shows traveled throughout the Southern
Mountains selling their home made remedies and drawing a crowd
with music. The medicine shows performed a great deal of minstrel
show material, which is how many of these songs were introduced
to the mountains. The medicine shows were small and could
go into very rural communities. They usually consisted of
a "Doctor" who made and sold the "medicine", and at least
one entertainer. Very often one of the performers was African-American.
Many of the early stars of commercial country music got their
start the medicine shows. People like Uncle Dave Macon, Sam
McGee and Roy Acuff all had their start in show business via
the medicine show. The following songs were introduced in
the mountains through the minstrel or medicine shows and have
a great deal of African-American influence.
SONGS: C-H-I-C-K-E-N (BF)
PREACHER AND THE BEAR (RR) CRIPPLE CREEK (GGH) RAINCROW BILL
(RR) LONG JOHN (BF) YES PAPA (BF)
VIII. RAILROADS AND AFRICAN-AMERICAN
MUSICIANS-The building of the railroads through
the mountains brought many Black workers to the Southern Mountains
in the 1880's. Some brought guitars with them. They played
a bouncy finger style guitar, a forerunner of the blues, that
you can still find today in the playing of Etta Baker from
SONG: CORRINA (GGH) JOHN HENRY
VIII. PARLOR SONGS OF THE 1890's-The
Civil War gave the American publishing industry a huge boost.
Soldiers on the battlefield and folks at home wanted songs
about the War to sing. Professional songwriters and publishers
(most of whom had been writing minstrel songs) were ready
to fill the demand. After the War they turned their attention
to creating parlor songs. (The parlor was just beginning to
be built onto homes. It was a place to have company and to
court your girl friend.)
SONG: WILDWOOD FLOWER-(GGH)-written
as a parlor song but made famous by the Carter Family.
IX. CATALOG INSTRUMENTS-People
needed easy instruments to play in the new parlors. Autoharp,
squeeze box, factory made banjos and guitars all made their
way into the mountains around the turn of the century when
they became available through the Sears and Montgomery Ward
catalogs. Tommy Jarrell, the great fiddler from Mount Airy,NC,
said there were no guitars around there until the l920's!
When guitars began to come into use, the music became more
chordal. Up until that time the fiddle and banjo just played
the melodies. People became more interested in singing songs
rather than just playing and listening to instrumental music.
The old ballads, which were non-chordal, began to get new
arrangements with harmonic chord changes. The newer parlor
songs were written with simple chords so they could be easily
played on the instruments available through the catalogs.
SONG: DIXIE DARLIN'-(RR)
X. VAUDEVILLE- In the late
1880's vaudeville took over where the minstrel shows left
off. Like the medicine shows, early vaudeville relied heavily
on the minstrel songs and humor. Many of the early country
performers worked the urban vaudeville circuit, learning how
to present a professional show. They then toured the Southern
Mountains bringing "popular" songs into the backwoods.
SONG: WHO BROKE THE LOCK (BF)
XI. RECORDS-The recording
industry started in 1888 but ignored rural folk music. In
l920, a black singer from New York, Mamie Smith, recorded
"Crazy Love", on the Okeh label. It was the first blues vocal
recording. It sold well to black audiences and made the record
companies think that there might be a market in recording
various other ethnic groups. Most of these 78 rpm recordings
were aimed at the northern big city audiences of Poles, Irish,
In l922, Polk Brockman, a furniture store owner in Atlanta
asked RCA talent scout Ralph Peer to travel to Atlanta to
record an entertaining old fiddler named Fiddlin' John Carson.
Peer was skeptical but Brockman said he would buy the first
500 copies himself. "Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane" sold
like hot cakes. After Brockman had sold 10,000 copies the
recording companies realized there was a market in rural mountain
music as well.
SONGS: LITTLE OLD LOG CABIN
IN THE LANE (GGH)-first commercial country music recording.
AIN'T NO BUGS ON ME (BF)-another favorite from Fiddlin' John
Ralph Peer and other talent scouts began setting up recording
studios in rented hotel rooms in various cities throughout
the South to record local musicians. These Northern "Artist
and Repertoire" men didn't understand the music or its appeal
so they recorded almost everything. Musicians came out of
the mountains to make a record. In the years between 1922
and 1930 thousands of songs were recorded. This was Native
American folk music played by amateurs, many of whom were
fabulous musicians. The first million seller was recorded
by an out of work opera singer, Vernon Dalhart in l927. It's
"Wreck Of The Old 97" recorded in 1927. The song told the
story of an actual train wreck that happened in 1903 in Danville,
SONG: WRECK OF THE OLD '97
XII. RADIO-Radio had been
around since the early l920's but didn't have much traditional
or old time music. The Grand Ole Opry started in l925 and
was huge success. The other radio Jamborees spread old-time
music and gave the professional musicians a regular salary
and a place to advertise their tours. The Radio made stars
out of some local musicians like the Carter Family, and Uncle
Dave Macon, the first star of the Grand Ole Opry.
SONG: WABASH CANNONBALL-origionally
from the Carter Family. A huge hit for Roy Acuff. (GGH) WHEN
THE TRAIN COMES ALONG-from the first "star" of the Opry-Uncle
Dave Macon (BF)
1927-1930 were the boom years for old time music. It was
the popular country music of the day. Then the depression
hit. Record sales were almost nil. When sales began to pick
up again, the music had changed. Guitars and Hawaiian guitars
were the rage. The fiddle and banjo began to be dropped from
commercial music. Country music had become star oriented with
the success of Jimmie Rodgers. The crooning singing style
had become popular.
By the 1940's commercial country music had dropped all traces
of traditional mountain song and style. It became "hick" music,
but continued to be played at home and at square dances.
A few performers like Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe kept old
styles before the public. In 1946 Bill Monroe started a modern
variation of old time music by writing new songs and adding
more drive and blues to the earlier musical style. Earl Scruggs
added the driving 3-finger banjo picking sytle and Bluegrass
The music called Mountain Music, Old-time Music, Hillbilly
or Early Country Music is still alive today. Although it no
longer enjoys a wide public following, it is played and performed
at home and on stage by old-timers as well as young people
all around the U.S. who understand its value and love the