The West: Old-Time Records

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH)Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

For twenty-five years I have collected, first record albums, in recent years compact discs, of old-time country and Bluegrass music. Not only has that music inspired me, but it has also much improved my writing over the years. Let me tell you why it has done both. The powerful lyrics, sung so well by a multitude of performers, backed up by instruments, such as the banjo, fiddle, guitar, and dobro, open the mind and spirit to what I would call the fullness of life. Where good writing is concerned, the words of so many of the songs help one develop a felicity of expression, economical phrasing, and what I would call" cadence." And, believe me, as you write, you should take the time occasionally to"listen" to the rhythm of what you are drafting. Does your writing"sing"? Find out by reading to yourself what you have written--strive for poetry in prose!

Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism (1711) gave some good advice on good writing, no matter what the field of study--avoid what a former history professor of mine, now retired, from Miami University of Ohio, warned against--convoluted prose. For, as Pope put the matter so well:"Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found."

But, back to old-time country music--you can improve the" cadence" of your writing by listening not only to the words, but also the melodies. Here I would recommend old-time fiddle tunes, many of which, if you will note, have great titles. Now, let me offer more advice--come up, if at all possible, with a good title yourself for whatever you write. That will always"spark" the interest of a prospective reader.

What follows are some fine old fiddle tunes (with what I think you would agree are wonderful titles)--8th of January (which commemorates the Battle of New Orleans in 1815), the New Five Cents, Sally Johnson, the Grey Eagle, Sourwood Mountain, Walk Along John to Kansas, Waltz the Hall, the Mississippi Sawyer, Soldier's Joy, Ducks on the Millpond, Over the Waterfall, and Devil Chased Me Round the Stump.

There are legions of marvelous old-time fiddlers, past and present, but I want to mention just a few outstanding ones--Paul Warren, Curly Ray Cline,"Big Howdy" Forrester, Kenny Baker, and another very great one of recent vintage Rafe Stefanini.

Don't neglect though listening as well to performers on other instruments--as examples, the banjo, dobro, and mandolin. All will enhance what I am calling for in your writing--" cadence" or rhythm. Great banjo players are legion too, but let me name a few, all of whose styles of playing influenced many pickers to follow--Uncle Dave Macon (who would get up and dance, while playing at the same time), Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Grandpa Jones, and Lily May Ledford (one might almost say the tune Banjo Pickin' Girl was her"trademark"). On the dobro there never was a greater artist than Beecher"Bashful Brother Oswald" Kirby. For the mandolin, don't fail to hear Bill Monroe and Jesse McReynolds (the latter from the great Bluegrass band known to the trade as Jim and Jesse). Thinking of those and other performers reminds me of the great title for an instrumental number, Old Time Pickin'.

To improve one's writing even more, of course, enjoy the lyrics (and learn from them) of many wonderful songs, also with what are often very engaging titles, such as: Way Down the Old Plank Road, Rabbit in a Log, My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains, New River Train, What Does the Deep Sea Say, Trouble in the Amen Corner, and Sowing on the Mountain (the last-named song having been made famous by Lily May Ledford, leader of the first all-female band in country music).

Before concluding, it is imperative for me to turn my attention to a staple of old-time country music, which it should be added, is also an important part of repertoire of Bluegrass performers--gospel songs. All, with but few exceptions, sung and played with power and great sincerity, no doubt because most of the people are sincere Christians. But, whatever one's religious beliefs, or lack of same, almost anyone can appreciate such music, because it has substance. The truth of what I am asserting here can be hinted at by reference to a few titles, once again quite engaging: The Little Black Train (or sinner's train, it could be said), Working on a Building, Where the Soul Never Dies, Hold to God's Unchanging Hand (which includes a line worth contemplating--"Build your hopes on things eternal"), Mother's Not Dead, She's Only Sleeping, and On the Rock Where Moses Stood."

For the student, or anyone else for that matter, who would like to follow-up on what I have written thus far, let me recommend four books--two on old-time country and Bluegrass music; two more pertinent for good writing. They are as follows: Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U. S. A., rev ed. (1985); Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music (1993); Sherman Kent, Writing History (1967); and William Strunk, Elements of Style (with several editions, but the latest from year 2000). Let me now close with this observation--old-time country and Bluegrass music constitutes a rich heritage from America's past (especially from the region of the Appalachian Mountains), which, to my way of thinking, is sadly neglected not only by many young people, but also by much of the public at large. (Those interested in old-time country and Bluegrass music may want to check out the website:

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Keith Miller - 11/17/2003

Dear Mr. Odom, Glad you found my article on old-time music and good writing of interest, and it brought back memories for you and wife of "Big Howdy" Forrester. Do me and yourselves a favor and "check out" web site at of Floyd, Virginia. Just browse it for most wonderful collection in world for old-timey and bluegrass music. And, there is way to contact County Sales from homepage, if memory serves me correctly--the answers to your questions would be answered, I'm fairly certain. Order from County Sales too, if you would Vol. 3 of Roy Acuff and Smoky Mountain Boys R. C. Cola Show, re-mastered from their 1950s radio show--you'll love it (I have vol. 3 myself, which also includes, with good fiddling too on some selections on that CD by "Big Howdy" Forrester, jokes of great comedian--the Duke of Paducah). Please let me know you read this--had not checked my article lately for replies, from your friend in old-timey music, Keith.

Eldon Odom - 8/29/2003

My wife & I met Big Howdy Forrester in 1947 at a school function at Lingleville Texas. He was with the Texas Roundup Band sponsored by radio KRLD in Dallas.He was great then and I know he was even better as he grew older.We would like to buy an album of his to go with his brochure we have of him. Also would like the cords & words to song he wrote"Weeping Heart" Thanks