Maryland Music: Old-Time and Bluegrass Music in Maryland

01/03/2017
By Preservation Maryland

Music has existed in many ways and in many contexts in Maryland’s history, but one style that has made a big mark on the state’s history is American folk music, and later bluegrass. Please read and listen on to the next installment of Preservation Maryland’s blog series on Maryland’s musical traditions:

Traditional American folk music, also known by its practitioners as old-time music, is often associated with the Appalachian cultural region that includes parts of Western Maryland, but is mostly defined as further south in West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. However, the early versions of this kind of music were popular with rural working populations throughout the United States.

Here’s an early example of old-time music, “I Believe in the Old Time Way” played by Ola Belle Reed, a traditional songwriter and performer from his Rising Sun Melodies recorded on June 17, 1976.

 

ORIGINS OF FOLK MUSIC IN AMERICA

Folk music in America derived from a number of different sources. White British settlers brought melodies and lyrical ballads from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland with them to the New World; songs used for storytelling, remembrance, and of course, for dancing. But these cultural artifacts, passed down by ear from generation to generation did not exist in a vacuum. Particularly in the 18th century and early 19th century, the diverse population of the newly-formed American nation mixed their different traditions together. Anglo-Saxons lived alongside enslaved and free Africans, and eventually a new, uniquely American folk tradition began to form.

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BANJO

One major element of old time music that stems from this cultural mixing, and that has strong ties to Maryland, is the banjo. Today the banjo is basically the poster-child instrument of Appalachian, old time, and bluegrass music.

Gourd Banjo. Photo from Seth Swindle.

Gourd banjo built by Pete Ross in Baltimore. Photo from Seth Swindle.

The banjo has its roots among the enslaved African populations transplanted to the Americas.Early banjos were made by using a hollow gourd body, a simple wooden neck, and stretching animal skin over the the body to create a distinct sound from the resonating membrane, with animal gut strings. As a matter of fact, instruments of a similar build to the banjo are still prominent in West African musical traditions, like the Kora.

Based on recorded references to banjos, banjars, and other spellings of the instrument’s name in journals and letters, some experts believe that the Chesapeake region of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia may have had the highest concentration of African American banjo players in the 18th and early 19th centuries. This makes sense as the port of Baltimore was a major entry point for incoming enslaved Africans at the time.

Because this early banjo was so easy to construct it started to grow in popularity among white rural populations in Maryland, too, and the United States at large. But overtime, the biggest way the banjo broke into white musical performance was as a central piece of the black-face minstrel shows that were hugely popular by the mid-19th century.

"Boucher Five-String Fretless Banjo" from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian.

“Boucher Five-String Fretless Banjo” from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian.

As the banjo’s popularity grew, the demand for quality banjos for minstrel performers and home use grew as well, and Baltimore became the home to the first known commercial banjo producer in the world.

William Boucher, a German immigrant to the United States, set up shop in Baltimore between 1845 and 1970 and made choices in producing his banjos that influenced the instrument to this day. One of the biggest choices Boucher made was using a circular wooden frame instead of a gourd. Boucher banjos were extremely widespread, and some survive to this day, at least one”Boucher Five-String Fretless Banjo” maintained by the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution.

RURAL-TO-URBAN MIGRATION

Later in its history, Maryland continued to play an important role in Appalachian and old-time music. Although perhaps more famously known for being a melting pot of jazz music in the early 20th century, Baltimore and the surrounding area was also a home to the new bluegrass music and revival of old-time music that came mid-century. Post World War II migrants from rural Appalachia as well as rural Maryland moved to more urban areas like Baltimore seeking factory and manufacturing jobs.

Small pockets of these migrant populations came to be known as Little Appalachia, concentrated in Hampden, Dundalk, Highlandtown, and other areas. The concentration of people from different geographic areas brought together players from all different schools of American folk and old-time music. This mixing made Baltimore as well as the more rural area to the north of the city along the Mason-Dixon line a hotbed for the new genre of bluegrass music.

As Mark Delaney, the banjoist for Danny Paisley and The Southern Grass, a prominent modern bluegrass band, noted in an interview for the City Paper, “The Stanley Brother became world famous, because they had to leave Clinch Mountain to make any money. Bill Monroe had to leave Rosine. But the Baltimore musicians didn’t have to travel, because they could play seven nights a week, $5 a night per musician. They’d keep a job and play all the time.

THE INTENTION OF BLUEGRASS

Bluegrass is very similar to old time, often using the same old British melodies, lyrics, and song titles. One key difference is the intention of the players and audience. Old time is about the tradition of the music, the dancing, and as such the melody is repeated close to the same way every time it occurs within a song. Bluegrass, on the other hand, is comparatively more about mixing up the tradition, mixing together different interpretations of a melody within a song, and even including improvised solos. In short, bluegrass has a stronger emphasis on technical skill, although both traditions share a lot in common.

NOTABLE BALTIMORE BLUEGRASS MUSICIANS

There are many notable musicians who cut their teeth in and around Baltimore in the 1950s:

 

Walter Hensley is another, who after participating in one of the first high-profile bluegrass concerts at Carnegie Hall as part of the Stoney Mountain Boys became an inspiration for banjo-players around the country due to his incredible skill on the banjo. He was known to some as the “Banjo Baron of Baltimore.”

Mike Seeger, younger brother of Pete Seeger but a terrific performer and chronicler of American music in his own right, played in various groups and had many friends in the city’s folk music scene.

ola-belle-folklife-festival

Ola Belle Reed playing at the New River Ranch. Photo from Bluegrass Today.

Ola Belle Reed, a beloved performer and songwriter of traditional string-band music, lived with her family along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. For a short while her and her husband ran a renowned live venue, New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Cecil County, which was the predecessor to Sunset Park in Pennsylvania until the outdoor stage at New River Ranch was torn down in 1958.

Hazel Dickens, famous later for her songs about her West Virginia home and pro-union activism, got her start working in Baltimore factories and playing in city bars like the 79 Club and the Cozy Inn in Thurmont.

 

WHERE TO HEAR MARYLAND BLUEGRASS NOW

Old-time music continues to be enjoyed by people of all different backgrounds to this day. The Southern Maryland Traditional Music and Dance Society hosts regular Contra Dances , as well as other folk music events. For bluegrass, Cumberland is home to one of the biggest annual bluegrass festivals in the nation, Delfest, started by the legendary musician Del McCoury. Delfest includes performances as well as arts and crafts and musical instruction. There’s also Bluegrass Country on DC’s WAMU 105.5 or streaming online.

MORE IN THE MARYLAND MUSIC BLOG SERIES

The author, Stephen Israel, is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary with degrees in History and Music. Steven is editor of this and forthcoming blogs about the history of music in Maryland and producer of Preservation Maryland’s podcast PreserveCast due out in early 2017.

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