In Pennsylvania’s backyard lie some of the most interesting and unique examples of traditional music. Although Pennsylvania is technically part of Appalachia, it is often better to look to our southern neighbors for mountain clogging, or flat-foot dancing.
In the middle of the 20th century a few filmmakers took notice of a seemingly average West Virginian by the name of Donald Ray White, well remembered by his famous moniker, more simply, D. Ray White. Accompanied by only a banjo and guitar, D. Ray White danced and performed, all the while elevating his interpretation of an old dance far beyond the confines of his small West Virginia community.
D Ray White and his family
The fun thing about flat foot is that it sounds good and it’s an interaction with the music rather than just movement. You’ll notice either tap shoes or a dancer on a wooden board or floor with the musicians, not down on the floor. The dancer is to be seen and the feet are to be heard. The music guides the dancer along as they improvise a beat on the floor. It is not the backbeat or choreographed to the song.
Flat-footing is still lives on even though it, and the music, are aged (Pittsburgh has a group called Coal Mining Cloggers). Although it’s a deep-rooted tradition, I can’t help but enjoy flat-footing for being a light hearted, almost silly expression of dance and mountain soul.
John Hartford playing and dancing the ol’ soft shoe
Something deeply embedded in American culture is the movement of people, traveling. The history of our families and forbearers is emigration, riding the railroad, vacations, road trips, going to college. Furthermore, it’s extremely prominent in storytelling and music tradition.
One of the earliest tunes in American music is the “The Wayfaring Stranger.” Not surprisingly for the early 19th century America, it is a Christian spiritual. The singer is the “poor wayfaring stranger” wandering through this world in search of a heavenly home.
This song is still reordered and fairly popular after nearly two centuries of song writing. Rather than being a joyous religious song, it’s slow and somber. The hardship of traveling overshadows the happiness of religious salvation. What’s reflected is how “home” is a place people long for, especially while traveling in the unfamiliar. This song still resonates because this dichotomy of the happy home vs. the strange world still has lived on through every generation of people.
Much of our western cannon of storytelling from Homer’s Odyssey to AMC’s The Walking Dead are stories centered on people traveling. Our most entertaining stories when we return to our families during the holidays are recounting where we’ve been and what we’ve done.
That said, for all the blue traveling songs there are as many that capture the adventure of living on the road. In American culture you’ll find legends, like the cowboy, immortalized for their work. Musicians are prime examples travelers, particularly when your livelihood depends on touring. One of the better and more famous examples is “Jack Straw” by the roots-inspired Grateful Dead. The song encompasses is a story of survival on the road but the song could be about anyone traveling the road. And finally, there are some who are just not content to sit around so they finally up and move.
Welcome to the Three River Revival! This blog is an attempt share with you, dear listeners, my appreciation for traditional and folk music.
This being the inaugural post, let me lay the ground work for entries to come. My goal: I’d like to explore the question, “what is traditional music?” Rather than summing it up in a concise answer (Wiki it, the answer is not so concise) this blog will take a thematic approach that looks into traditional music from the U.S. and around the world. I want to explore what threads connect the music of the past with the music of today.
To start, there are a few generalizations I will make to make defining traditional music easier.
Simply by definition, traditional music is the root of all styles that succeed it. But it’s silly to assume that nothing exists before traditional music. “Traditional” can be assigned to a particular people (even a single person), instrument, style, region, event, etc. and it is born of a culture. More often than not a classification will be the result of a few of these cultural variables: Give a banjo to a man in New Orleans and he will give you a Dixieland rhythm. Give a banjo to a girl in Galax, Va. and suddenly you have a bluegrass picker. Find Woody Guthrie in the middle of unionization and you get “1913 Massacre.” Find Dylan in the middle of the Civil Rights era and you get “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
Another assumption I’d like to make is that this music has significance within its culture of origin. This can mean purpose but it can also mean popularity. Traditional music can aid in the storytelling, passing, and propagation of a culture. Basically, it found an audience willing to embrace it and also to recreate it while transforming it into new styles, rendering the old “traditional.”
I write because I love the folk tradition and I believe it has much to offer those who want to understand music and its relationship to people. Modern music has its place. I can lie down on my couch, close my eyes, chill out of the B-side of The Avalanches or Neat Beats, and tell you how meta it is to smash pop culture to pieces and then rebuild it. But unique to traditional music is it still provides a sense of identity, in some cases even when the heyday of its style is long past. Look, there are still people blowing alpine horns for no apparent reason other than to party at the top of mountains.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for future installments of Three River Revival.