The New Young Fogies: Documenting a New Generation of Old-Time
Released a few months ago, The New Young Fogies, vol. 1, is a compilation album of field recordings from a new generation of Appalachian old-time players. It’s also a pure delight. About time someone took it on themselves to document some of the younger old-time musicians in the mountains, and if this album is an indication, which it must be, then the ancestral Appalachian home of American old-time music must be full to bursting with great talent. So much ink has been paid recently to Alan Lomax, or even to Woody Guthrie, that we seem to have forgotten that this music is still alive and being made today. Sure, it’s great that Lomax’s recording are being made available to anyone, but who’s carrying on his work today with real, living musicians? So much time has been spent arguing about authenticity, or lamenting the passing of ancient musicians, that a whole crop of new musicians has sprung up, hell two generations or more have arrived, to celebrate the music without much recognition. The music is still as vibrant and powerful as ever, but our sights are set so firmly in the past that hardly anyone’s around today to document what’s really happening. This isn’t musical history, this is musical life, and as anyone who really plays old-time music can you tell you, they got into the music for the friends and the community first.
Huge thanks should be given to young fiddler and folklorist Anna Roberts-Gevalt for this volume of music. Along with ace sound engineer (and fiddler) Joseph Dejarnette, she scoured her rolodex to pick out some of the best young musicians in the Appalachian mountains, recording them in intimate, informal spaces, and interviewing them as well. In their own words, and on their own time, they share the stories and tunes that are keeping the music alive today.
We caught up with Anna to hear more about how the project came about and what her thoughts were behind it.
What inspired you to want to record this younger generation of musicians?
Anna Roberts-Gevalt: I’d been daydreaming about ways to document all that is happening around me, with this music. This is a beautiful tradition of music, stories, and fellowship. I feel really lucky to have stumbled onto it. I guess this project, for me, came out of the desire to celebrate and share what is happening—at festivals, at house parties, in the quiet of people’s homes, too—these young people who, for one reason or another, have decided to pursue a particular vein of music. It’s unusual. It’s out of the ordinary, in this day and age. It’s not necessarily stage music, it’s music of everyday life. So not everybody knows this is happening, and I guess I wanted to have a CD that, when people asked me—what is this music? —I could hand it to them, in answer. It’s hard to describe traditional music sometimes, hard to explain how deep it reaches. There’s all of these young folks who are spending their time visiting people their grandparent’s age, who are obsessing over recordings and obscure fiddlers from the 20s and 30s, who are proud to be carrying on local or family traditions. And I felt that a CD, and accompanying interviews, would be the perfect introduction for the uninitiated.
There is some acoustic music and folk music out in the mainstream, but much of it is only loosely or tangentially based in the Appalachian tradition. We really wanted to celebrate the young folks who have truly studied the tradition, who are a link in a long chain, who have dug deep and immersed themselves in the stories and songs, and I guess I wanted to create a project that could get their voices out there.
We started this project two years ago—Joe DeJarnette moved to into our little house on the river in southwest Virginia from New York, and I had these ideas, and it turns out he had been talking about similar ideas with Ray Alden, who put together the first volumes [the Young Fogies albums, which documented baby boomer old-time players] for Rounder Records and who worked on the Field Recorders Collective. He passed away a few years back, and this album is dedicated to him. So, we just emailed the folks who we thought should be included, set up the sessions—we travelled to Kentucky a few times, but mostly people came up to Joe’s studio.
ARG: Joe & I selected the musicians who appeared on the first volume (there’s another already in the works). There are dozens and dozens of incredible young musicians—it was a hard decision.
We knew all the musicians on the record—some only casually— through attending old-time festivals in Appalachia. We were really inspired by the young folks who are really deep into the tradition. These are young folk who have immersed themselves in the music & stories of a specific tradition, and region, and who have connected with older tradition-bearers. Don Rogers says it really beautifully: “The old time music of east central Kentucky has an accent, as does all pre-radio folk music.” I love to listen to accents when people talk, whether they are from Louisville, Maine, or Louisiana. There is something expressive about accents that is directly connected to the soul. This is no different to me when it comes to music.
A lot of the musicians on the record seem to have an interest in traditional culture outside of music. Is this a pattern you’ve seen?
ARG: Yes, indeed! For some folks, it’s a matter of choosing to live how their families have lived for generations, music included. For others, it seems that there was a desire (and nostalgia) to find a life that was simple, or one that was based on tradition, or country living—music is one part of that.
So, yeah. There’s a lot of plaid wearing kids in oldtime music, and we get excited to try homemade wine or so and so’s ancient cornbread recipe. We delight in old things as much as oldtime music. But this isn’t universally true. John Haywood, for example, also plays in a heavy metal band. And there are plenty of New Yorkers who love the tunes and would never want to live in the country.
Tell me about making the album. What were your thoughts on how to record the music? Were there any good stories about making the album?
ARG: I think Jesse Wells mentioned something along these lines in his interview: “People play old time music cause they truly love the music … what the music represents. The simplicity of making music for music’s sake. Doesn’t take much to do it either. Just a fiddle on the front porch. My dad just sits at home and plays. That’s what music’s for.”
I guess we wanted to try to capture music like that. The whole record was recorded live—no overdubs or anything like that. When you hear old-time music in person, there’s a beautiful rawness to it, and we wanted the CD to reflect that.
We did one session in Knott County, Kentucky, on the property of this wonderful older banjo player. It’s a rare piece of pasture in Knott County, where the hills are so close to each other. To get there, you have to literally drive your car up a creek for a hundred yards. We loaded Joe’s recording equipment into a pickup and brought it over to the house. We set up on the back porch of this cabin that was over one hundred years old. It was a beautiful summer night, raining here and there. I remember sitting on the porch as Brett Ratliff recorded “Jubilee”—it was dark, but for the light of a lamp, and he was recording, and two of our friends sat on the porch listening—two women holding their little kids in their arms, the kids sleepy after a long day. Something about that song, that old porch, the mountains all around, and the faces of these little sleeping kids— the music seemed such a natural part of that landscape. It was beautiful.
Tell me more about this younger generation of musicians taking up the old-time mantle. How do they fit into the rest of the folk music world?
ARG: I think there are a lot of younger people who play this music, and many on this record, who have no intention of being part of the folk music industry. John Haywood says it well: “People don’t play this music necessarily to perform it. It’s just kind of a communal music, sit-in-the-living-room kind of music where it sounds best.” They’re pursuing music seriously, but not as a professional career. This has been the case for generations. Folks on the record began to pursue this music because it was a family tradition, because they felt homesick for the mountains, because they wanted to be part of the music community, as a pursuit of knowledge, or simply because they fell in love with the sound of it.
To me, that’s why this music community continues to be so rich—it is played by people with such a diversity of interests & pursuits. Electricians, scientists, scholars, teachers, professional musicians, carpenters, hobos… That said, there are a number of folk on this album (myself included) who are full time musicians. I guess I feel like this is a fairly recent development, within the past couple of generations of this music, that this would even be a possibility.
What’s your background? Where are you from and when did you move to Kentucky?
ARG: I grew up mostly in Vermont. My parents work with kids—my mom runs a mentoring program at the local elementary school, and my dad spearheads a statewide nonprofit that works towards encouraging students to become better writers. As a kid, I played classical music, violin and viola. Never practiced as much as I should have, but loved playing with other people. In high school, I began to learn about fiddle music, here and there. Six years ago, in college, I got swept up into it. It hit me like a wave. I bought a banjo right before my sophomore year, after seeing some kids busking in Vermont. I tried to learn how to play it off the internet, and took some lessons in Connecticut, where I was going to school. It was only 4 months later that I decided I wanted to spend the summer in Kentucky. In retrospect—I had no idea what I was getting into. I think I had some vague idea that there were lots of people playing banjo there, on their porches. In any case, I was motivated by this abstract but really overwhelming desire to get closer to the source.
So I moved to Whitesburg, Kentucky, and worked as an intern for the traditional music program at Appalshop. I fell in love. Became deeply obsessed with the music, the stories, everything. Came back the next summer, graduated school early, and moved back to Kentucky, eventually settling in southwest Virginia, where I live now.
Tell me about your earlier fieldwork projects, or projects outside of the New Young Fogies.
ARG: I was a gender studies major in college, and I was becoming really interested in feminism about the same time I was getting into oldtime. I remember reading a book about string bands, and there was a two-page section dedicated to women musicians, saying there were lots of them, but that the author didn’t really find that much information about them. That kinda galvanized me to get interested in women musicians of Appalachia, and I wrote a thesis about three generations of women (and girls) playing fiddle in East Kentucky. From there, I was fortunate to receive a grant from Berea College, to do oral histories about some of the women whose music is in the archive. The fruits of that labor are on my website, www.annarobertsgevalt.com/in_her_first_heaven, and I have published some of the articles in the Old Time Herald.
[Anna frequently performs with young Kentucky ballad singer Elizabeth Laprelle as Anna and Elizabeth. They specialize in making “crankies”, old-fashioned handmade story scrolls that bring old songs to life.]
I’ve also made a crankie with Elizabeth LaPrelle inspired by Lella Todd’s story, an artistic continuation of the research I had done. We had a really wonderful time doing research for our most recent show—we visited with grandchildren of two wonderful ballad singers, Addie Graham and Texas Gladden, and incorporated stories we heard from them, into our show, which we performed throughout our area, and farther afield. I was really inspired by the idea of sharing research in a really engaging way—trying help an audience feel the magic in the story, that we felt when we heard it firsthand.
Documenting these women’s stories, I realized that I was documenting untold stories—that was the thread that grabbed me, by the end. Women’s stories are one part of that. All these fiddlers who were field recorded—they all have a story, and often, that’s the part that you can’t really get from the recordings, from the internet. The generation before ours did incredible work, recording these people playing music—I’m thinking about the folks who did this in Kentucky: Bruce Greene, John Harrod. Those two have stories in their head from their field recording trips, of what the houses were like, what kind of food these people cooked, how they talked, what their days were like. That way of life, and those people, are mostly gone from the landscape. And, for me, there’s a big desire to learn the rest of these people’s stories—not just the tunes, but the recipes, the jokes, that way of life. Tunes, these days, are so easily shared online, in little mp3 files. It can be easy to forget, or ignore, any sense that these tunes came from real people. That’s a huge loss, in my mind- that connection between the tune, and the musician who played it.
Now, I am working on a radio documentary about the late fiddler Paul David Smith, who was a dear friend to many of us. As with my earlier work—I want to try to express who he was as a person, as well as a musician. Knowing him, it was all those times not playing tunes, all the laughter, and the quiet moments sitting side by side in his pickup truck—those were just as precious as the musical moments.
Do you think there was ever a time where this music was in danger of dying out? I grew up with so much of this rhetoric from the folk revival generation, and now it feels like the music is stronger than ever?
I think it depends on where you are, this sense of the music dying out or not. Roger Cooper, this fiddler from Lewis County, started playing when Lewis County was full of fiddlers. There’s a great quote from the liner notes of a Kentucky music project, where he says that he never knew how lonely fiddling would be.
A few months ago, I went to visit the grave of this great fiddler Isham Monday, in Monroe County Kentucky—he passed away in 1964. I had been learning a lot of the tunes he played from Bruce Greene—Bruce didn’t meet him either, but he spent a lot of time in that part of Western Kentucky, visiting with musicians. I wanted to see what the land looked like, to get a sense of it, to dig deep into trying to understand the tunes.
I spent the day in Tompkinsville—a small town with more than one abandoned storefront. Quiet. People in town, then in the library, had no idea who Isham was… They were amused, curious, that I would come so far to find a forgotten fiddler’s grave. Bruce Greene talks about this—visiting older fiddlers who felt like no one was interested in their music anymore. And so we owe a lot to the field recorders of the 70s, who were interested, and who recorded the tunes so that we could learn them.
I guess one tricky thing, is that there are all these places in Appalachia where there isn’t much fiddle music anymore, places that used to have so much music, and then at the same time there are areas up north or on the west coast where it’s thriving—biggest square dance I’ve ever been to was in Portland, Oregon.
In Southwest Virginia, the music seems really vibrant—it’s a place where locals still know how to flatfoot, and thousands come out for the annual Galax fiddler’s conventions. There are incredible afterschool fiddle/banjo programs that have done great work, keeping the music going.
I guess this gets back to why a lot of the new young fogies we featured are from Appalachia—we wanted their story to be told, we wanted to celebrate their local music, and to inspire the next generation, in these mountains. For there are pockets where the music has been going strong for generations, or places where local folks are working really hard to keep the music going, to try to reenergize folks about the music, to get kids playing it.
Do you think the players on the album see the music as a hobby, or more of a lifestyle?
ARG: Hard to speak for everyone—but it seems a common thread, that very few people play this music casually. There’s an intensity about the pursuit of this music that seems to encompass people rather fully. The music is also really social, for most, and so the music community becomes a circle of friends, and thus a deep part of the old time musician’s life. I think that’s why I love it so much. When I am surrounded by other old time musicians, I know I am surrounded by people who have plunged into what they love. We dive in deep.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE NEW YOUNG FOGIES ALBUM
-Brett Ratliff’s singing on “Jubilee” is one of the most beautiful tracks on the album, perhaps even more so after reading Anna’s moving remembrance of recording him on the back porch of an old cabin. Brett’s a native of East Kentucky and works now as the Program Manager for WMMT, the radio station based out of the Appalshop offices in Whitseburg, KY. From his interview in the liner notes: “For me, this music is my connection to place and rite of passage. It is a mature society that honors its elders and establishes a way for them to share their wisdom. I feel like, by seeking out this music, I have developed a deeper connection with the people who are around me.”
Brett Ratliff: Jubilee
-“Milwaukee Blues” is a fabulous old-time song that demonstrates some of the influences of African-American country music in the South. It’s full of blues fiddling riffs and hard-luck lyrics and really bends the notes into new sounds. Sung here by Seth Folsom, a musical instrument maker and musician based in Lexington, KY, with fiddler and musicologist Nikos Pappas and Jesse Wells, archivist for the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music on guitar. Nikos relates in his interview: “After the Civil War, all these people from all these different states–and regions that had never been in contact with each other–all of a sudden they were thrown together, and they have to negotiate each other’s different styles. It’s no surprise that a lot of the fiddlers that people admire and listen to were born in that generation right after the Civil War. In some ways it’s very similar to people [today] meeting at festivals from all over the world.”
Seth Folsom, Nikkos Pappas, Jesse Wells: Milwaukee Blues
-“Double File” is a monster of a fiddle tune that’s animated many a late night jam session. I’ve even found a version of the tune way up in the Canadian province of Québec! Here fiddler Rosie Newton burns on the infamous bowings of the more intricate Southern fiddle styles. As she says, “Growing up with the music wasn’t a choice. Eventually, it was a choice. Old time, for me, is the right fit because I like the conversational aspect of it.” She’s in conversation here with ex-punk-rock-turned-farmer Andrew Norcross on banjo, Asheville-resident Sarah Jamison on guitar, and Joseph DeJarnette, the sound engineer behind this project, on bass.
Rosie Newton, Andrew Norcross, Sarah Jamison, Joseph DeJarnette: Double File
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog and Online Listening Lounge to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to presenting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.
photo of Anna with guitar by Philip Edward Laubner
photo of Kelley Breiding & Nick McMillian by Ivar Schloz
photo of Anna and Paul David Smith by Arlin Geyer
photo of Anna and Benton Flippen by Erynn Marshall