Ah, the glorious American music of the Diesel Age! The blaring of the horns, the wailing of the clarinets, the tinkling of the pianos, the plonking of the banjos...wait, banjos?
Yes, and fiddles, mandolins, and jugs too!
While the Hot Jazz and Cool Swing of the cities may steal the Diesel spotlight in many people's minds today, the American countryside had its own musical traditions and innovations, many of which resonate today in modern music. The traditional American string band sounds of the Steam Era countryside, with roots from Ireland to Dahomey, were themselves undergoing a transformation with new picking styles and melodies, influenced by world sounds, and laying the foundations for much of modern music. Blues (Delta, Piedmont, and others), Old Time string bands, and Jug bands developed new and more complex harmonic structures and arrangements, cross-polinated, and in turn defined the emerging American sounds just as much as Jazz and Ragtime. They formed the basis for such emergent "genres" as Blues, Old Time, Bluegrass, Folk, and Country. [image from crackletonmanor.tumbler.com]
And then fell out of popular favor in many circles.
While the String Band traditions survived and even thrived in many areas, particularly Appalachia, by the 1970s they were often relegated to popular media as the music of "hicks" and "rednecks", often disparaged as the sounds of an older, more ignorant group, and largely ignored. These great musical traditions were targeted mainly to more niche audiences, typically older and rural. Even Country music began to electrify and move in more "pop" directions, ditching the banjo for the most part. A few popular afficionadoes like Roy Clarke, Sam Bush, Garrison Keillor, and Steve Martin kept the sounds alive, and the Folk Music revival gave them a brief popular resurgence with the 60s counterculture, but these often had a passing "kitch" or nostalgic appeal, rather than seen as something contemporary and relevent.
Thankfully, that has changed.
Starting in the early 70's, "Newgrass", or Progressive Bluegrass, began to slowly shift public perceptions away from Deliverance stereotypes with bands like Sam Bush's New Grass Revival. Newgrass occcasionally broke the top 40, but it was a decade later starting in the late 1980s, that it began to grow in popularity thanks to bands like Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. The 1990s and 2000s in particular saw a surge of growth as popular reaction against increasingly sythesized and "corporate" popular music renewed interest in performers who could actually sing and play musical instruments. The release of the Coen Brother's Diesel-Era Odessey Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? further expanded the popular listenership for the Old Time sounds.
The movement expanded, crossing over with Folk and Filk, Progressive Country, and Blues into a catch-all "Americana" and similar attempts at describing the new old sounds. Bands like Trampled By Turtles and Old Crow Medicine Show topped charts and made regular television apperances. Bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops completed soundtracks for major Hollywood pictures.
In short, the old time sounds were, and are, back!
Combining the instruments and stylings of Old Time string band music with modern, often revolutionary sentiments, the New Old Sound, whatever you wish to classify it, is Sankofa in its purest form and worthy of full inclusion in the big tent of Dieselpunk Music [image of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, from coverlaydown.com].
Don't buy it? Hear for yourself:
Here is Newgrass band Trampled By Turtles (lord I love that name!), who combine traditional Bluegrass sounds with progressive sensibilities and have gained a large popular youth following, even appearing on David Letterman in 2012. This piece, Wait So Long, is one of their more non-traditional songs, a protest song that could be considered "Punkgrass" or "Speedgrass" for its hard, fast approach:
Another favorite of mine is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whom I've mentioned here before and who first broght my attention to the concept of Sankofa. For decades Bluegrass has been a white-dominated music genre, so one could be forgiven for being surprised by how central African music traditions are to it. Did you know the Banjo is an African instrument? West African string traditions, as tempered through old time Jug Bands and Piedmont Blues, are one of the principle foundations of it (along with Celtic traditions and others). Yet decades of humiliating racist portrayals of African American string traditions in Blackface "Minstrel Shows" left a lasting stigma on the tradition such that the traditions were nearly lost before a handful of people including the CCD resurected them and gave them a modern spin. Their debut album, "Genuine Negro Jig", shows they're not only unafraid to confront the racist past, but subvert it entirely. Their work has topped charts and won Grammys, been featured on major Hollywood soundtracks, and most importantly helped reintegrate a musical form that was always the product of cultural/racial cross-polination. That alone makes them a transformative band in my eyes, but listen to Country Girl and hear for yourself why:
And finally, a band who has the distinction of creating a song that became an American Musical Standard the year it was released, Old Crow Medicine Show. Perhaps at the forefront of popular appreciation for the New Old Time and with good reason, OCMS has brought youthful vigor to old music. The song here, their chart-topping Wagon Wheel, adapted from an unfinished Bob Dylan song, has become a staple of American music despite being less than a decade old, most recently topping the Country charts covered by former Hootie and the Blowfish front man Darius Rucker.
How long will this New Old Time sound persist in popular culture? Will it fade away as a millenial fad? Possible, but I think not. It is music that is core to America's identity, rooted in multicultural traditions, and, now destigmatized and quickly, it appears, reintegrating, it promises to remain a staple of American musical traditions much like Jazz, Blues, Rock & Roll, and Hip Hop that is sure to be adopted and transformed in new ways by the rest of the world.