Lest We Forget

(prezYrÈvâSH(Y)n): The action of preserving something or the state of being preserved, especially to a specified degree.

The action that one takes for preservation means different things to different folks depending upon the subject one is pondering. The subject of preserving this mountain sourced, string music that we now call Americana came up among a few of us after a recent house concert; and germinated the thoughts for this essay.

If you’ve followed my stories at all, you know my personal preservation bent from the stories and essays that I often bring to you about those artists that I remember from my youth, and from remembering my mother’s love for the string-music that she tuned in on her AM radio day and night in the 1940’s and 50’s. As the clock and pages of time keep turning, most of the first performers in this genre of music in the early age of recording and radio have passed on. The same can be said for some of that second-wave of artists that traveled the festival circuit in the 1960s. Thus, I feel a need for the preservation of the memory of these folks. Some would call my action preserving the history of the people and their events of by-gone days. Others, including some of the contributors to the pages of this magazine such as Wayne Erbsen who writes the Behind the Song column, preserve the history of old songs and their origin. People in the musical community at large preserve in a different manner. They preserve a style of playing or a style of sound, and they do so to keep that which they preserve from being lost or forgotten. They feel that preservation means preserving the sound of an era and presenting that sound for today’s audiences to enjoy. I reached out for a few thoughts on their effort.

Fifties Music
Gene Bowlen, Phillis and Jim Gaskins, and Brent Holl play music in a music group named The Highlander String Band and claim to play music of the 50s and 60s—that is the 1850s and 60s. Their instrument line-up includes a mountain dulcimer played Galax-style by the acclaimed master of that style, Ms. Gaskins, thus preserving a rare and unique playing style on an instrument not often heard. They play traditional Appalachian Mountain music, which provides a vivid portrayal of the history of the early settlers throughout the Appalachian Mountains. Members of the band have been collecting tunes for most of their lives and enjoy sharing their love of the music. Here is what Gene had to say about their preservation effort. “For those who care about where we came from, the answer to why we play old-time, might seem obvious but the point is: this is how music moved through the population and did so up until the radio came along and effected a sudden change in music styles.”

Gene explained that in the eastern mountains and valleys the standard dance music for a long time was a fiddle player and a banjo player. In his band they include the mountain dulcimer because that instrument is derived from a similar stringed instrument brought along with early German settlers and reinvented by them in their new world. After this evolution took place, the dulcimer became the third part of the string bands from the mid 1800s through the end of the 19th century. Gene reminded us that the guitar did not show up on the scene until the early 20th century when mail order guitars became available. Gene injected, “The guitar is part of our band now but to be truly accurate to the 1850s we would not include that instrument.”

The tunes played by The Highland String Band have origins in the British Isles, Ireland, and Scotland. Gene said, “The tunes have much in common with folks tracing their family tree. One can start tracing the history of a tune that might be known by one name here but if one would get together with an Irish player, he or she might play the same tune yet know it by another name. With this connection, one can see how immigrants to the new world brought the music along with them and preserved it.”

He continued, “The old time string music is community oriented. People ask us to describe old-time music, and I always describe it as a community. I believe that is one reason people of that time were excited about music: because of the community. If someone had a need to build a barn, the entire community came together and worked like crazy to get that barn built. They then had something good to show for the effort and something to celebrate. Those people had traveled a long distance to give of their effort so now they were going to celebrate that effort. Thus, they threw a huge party that lasted all night and maybe the next day, and music was a big part of that party. People were open to have the band come in and play; and what the band did was make the sound of everything better. I really enjoy that part very much—that communal sharing aspect of the music. So, if history interests you at all, you have that aspect to consider and that is preservation.” Gene then tied that aspect to the present by saying, “Much of the old-time music played today is played on the potluck circuit, that is; someone will suggest getting together around food that everyone contributes and then play music all night.”

The old-time music bands whose memory that The Highland String Band and a few similar bands strive to preserve were set up to produce music for dancing rather than show-casing any individual member’s playing skill.

The Underground Tapes
During the interview with Gene Bowlen, he mentioned that he did research and recording work for a preservation group known as the Field Recorders Collective (FRC). You may remember AR did an in-depth story about this group some years ago (Issue 28). The FRC is a not-for-profit organization that is governed by an expanded leadership and board of directors that insures their collecting and preserving effort will be on going. The FRC is dedicated to the release of materials (music and photographs) from private collections. The FRC contributors use professional-grade digital audio workstations to produce quality product with a focus on old-time and traditional music by obscure but brilliant artists who would otherwise disappear into the mists of time. The FRC creates a public archive that insures that these recordings will not disappear into a private, university, or government collection and thus never be readily available to the general public or amateur musicologists.

Promoting Preservation
As any fan of Americana string music is aware, the face and the sound of it are changing especially in the genre known as Bluegrass. This changing appearance, while embraced by legions of fans, does place the root origins in danger of being forgotten. Fortunately, there is a trade organization existing to preserve those roots and that is the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA (spig’ ma)).

The SPBGMA group is a not-for-profit corporation set up under the laws of the State of Missouri since 1974. According to its charter, SPBGMA works to preserve the traditional spirit and art form of Bluegrass music. The group offers a management service for any community desiring to hold a Bluegrass festival. It organizes and conducts Bluegrass band competitions. An important fact to note is that all SPBGMA sponsored events must be performed with traditional acoustic instruments and with no electrified instruments permitted. Also, performers at SPBGMA events are encouraged to exhibit professionalism in appearance and showmanship. Finally, SPBGMA encourages the support of various Bluegrass publications and associations.

We must not forget that the term preservation can also be applied to what the promoters of these large traditional music festivals like Merlefest in Wilksboro, NC accomplish. Every spring, Merlefest gears up to preserve the memory of Doc and Merle Watson by presenting the Tradition-Plus musical style the Watsons toured the world showcasing. This festival brings together grizzled old-timers and pink-cheeked newcomers and they present their tradition plus musical effort to thousands of avid listeners. The attendees of Merlefest are a cross-section of young, old, rich, and working class folks; in other words—an Americana audience.

We have covered a great deal of ground in advocating and defending the preservation effort pursued by caring folks in the Americana music arena. If I have whetted your preservation interest just a bit, you can learn more about our subjects by pointing your computer’s browser to the following sites:

Learn more about Gene Bowlen and The Highlander String Band here:
Check out the FRC here:
Direct your SPBGMA questions here

While it might be a little late by the time you get this issue to make plans to attend Merlefest 2018, you can check out their WEB site nonetheless at:

Edward Tutwiler