The American Barn Dance - YeeHaaa!
Are you thinking of booking or hiring an
Are you thinking of booking or hiring anAmerican Barn Dance Band for your wedding reception or birthday party?American folk and barn dance music is amazingly varied and complex, though the dancing can be as easy or hard as you want it to be. It hardly surprising when you think of what created America. America's first people were, as we all know, viciously and mercilessly swamped by the incomers from England, every European country, Japan and China, effectively the whole world. As far as I'm aware, I may well be wrong here, there is no music of the American first people, or Indians, that is a part of the American barn dance tradition. This is perhaps surprising, as the great American contribution to the musical scene is jazz, which originated with the black American brought over from Africa and the slave trade. So why, I wonder, didn't Indian musical tradition make a similar contribution? The music of the first people simpler? That didn't stop the New Zealand aboriginal people contributing to music with their didgeridoos and other rhythmic traditions. Of course, it may just be my ignorance on the subject that is the problem.
So where is you will have such distinctions as an Irish ceilidh, a Scottish ceilidh and a Welsh ceilidh or Twmpath, which all come under the Celtic umbrella, the music will be quite different in each case and will reflect the musical heritage of that part of the united kingdom or southern Ireland. In the USA, which is normally one country, but in many ways isn't at all, you will find a similar or even greater array of music played for American barn dances, some deriving from the particular nationality e.g. fairly pure Irish and Scottish music, but other music which is a blend of Eastern European with Irish and Scottish, Kletzmer influences from the largest Jewish community, French, gypsy, Scandinavian and every other implements under the sun, except as far as I'm aware Asian influences. There's a huge Chinese and Indian (Asian Indian) community in the USA, yet my awareness none of their very highly developed musical traditions have infiltrated into what is considered to be American barn dance music.
So let's look at what might be included within the music of an American barn dance, which differs considerably to the English barn dance tradition (and my mind is far more exciting!), and also see what else comes under the umbrella of folk music of North America and Canada, which may or may not be used for dancing.
OLD TIME FIDDLE PLAYING
the fiddle is only one instrument of a typical barn dance band lineup, but is perhaps the most quintessential of American folk instruments. Perhaps it became so popular as an American folk instrument because it was small, light and easily transportable on the ships, with their cramped quarters, that brought people to the New World. Also there is plenty of wood readily available to the new settlers, so it was an instrument that could be made much more easily than the kind of instruments that have metal parts, by skilled instrument makers in the newly arrived communities. First brought to America by British settlers, the fiddle quickly became the dominant instrument in early American community activities. The fiddler, a man of stature in his community, was an indispensible fixture at weddings, dances, barn raisings, and other social gatherings. Particularly at dances, the fiddle was in its element. Hoedowns, reels, waltzes, hornpipes, polkas, and jigs flowed from the instrument, to the delight of the listeners and dancers.
"Old-Timey" is the term generally applied to this style of playing, which is still widespread in the United States. Often, Appalachian modal tunes, old songs played on the fiddle, and listening pieces not suitable for dancing, are also classified as old-timey.
In the middle 1940's, a guy called Bill Monroe started a band consisting of fiddle, mandolin, five-string banjo, guitar, and bass. Featuring hard-driving instrumentals and tight harmony vocals, this was the first bluegrass band. I've heard bluegrass called "folk music with overdrive", and being a fiddle player myself, I think that's a pretty good description
A bluegrass fiddler must be able to play lead, rhythm, and backup lines for vocal tunes as well as instrumentals. Although these are sometimes similar to what an old-timey fiddler would play, they are generally played for a listening audience only.
BLUES IN FOLK DANCE MUSIC
From early African origins, to black field hollers, to country songsters in the late 1800's, to black jug bands in the 1920's—blues fiddling has roots which go a long way back. It is essentially music of the black, rural South.
When the first blues recordings became available in the early 1900's, Northern whites and blacks, particularly in Chicago, imitated the style, which is characterized by flatted 3rd and 7th notes in the scale, and a twelve-bar format. Many bluegrass, rock, and jazz fiddlers playing have been heavily influenced by the blues, especially if the guitarist and bass players of the band played in other more pure blues bands and overlay their chordal and rhythmical instances on that of the tune instrument player.
CAJUN FIDDLE STYLE
As a fiddle player, this is one of my favourite musical genres. It's exciting and downright weird. Maybe it's because of my classical background playing in orchestras and with my string quartet, but it's weird in the same way that I find, even as a classical musician, the 44 violin duets by Bartok as being weird. Of course, though Bartok is a classical composer, those duets were very firmly based on Eastern European folk music even have the two instruments playing in different keys and in the different number of beats per bar, simultaneously. I must stop rambling now, and back to the French settlers of Acadia in eastem Canada were called "Acadiens". Because of harassment by the British, many of them migrated to Louisiana before the American Revolutionary War, where they remained fairly isolated from the rest of the population until the beginning of the twentieth century. There they came to be known as "Cajuns".
Cajun music, as it exists today, has been greatly affected by country-western and popular music, even though the traditional fiddle and Cajun accordion are still in almost every Cajun band.
The Cajun people are descendents of the Acadians, who came to Louisiana after being driven from their homes in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. These French speaking people began to settle in southwest Louisiana around 1764. They were hard-working people who celebrated life with music and song. Their culture is very much alive today, as people throughout the United States enjoy both Cajun music and Cajun cuisine, which has become so incredibly popular in this country in the last 10 years, the food has the same sort of ooomph as the music.
The Acadians brought the fiddle with them to Louisiana, so ever since the beginning of Cajun music, the fiddle has played a prominent role. In fact, Dewey Balfa has been quoted as saying,
"If you haven't got a fiddle, you haven't got Cajun.....If you were to go play a Cajun music without a fiddle, it would be like trying to swim with no water."
The earliest Cajun band was made up of two fiddles: one playing the melody or lead, and the other playing a low part, either chords or a low melody. In the 1920s the diatonic accordion became popular, so fiddles and accordions were played together. The Cajun band then consisted of fiddle, accordion and triangle or spoons, and in the early days for a big dance, it would have been to a three fiddles a couple of accordions and everybody who wasn't dancing playing the spoons or bones – this must have been an added excitement to the event compared with today when there is just one of each instrument and a dirty great big powerful PA system. I guess progress isn't always a good thing, but it's easier to pack three musicians and a PA system into a car to go to a wedding or birthday barn dance, then it is to pack six musicians or more plus their instruments into a car. It just doesn't fit, you need a bus. But then in the days of the early bands, if there was a wedding in the town and village, it would have been a band of that town or village to played, be they good or bad. Nowadays, we are mobile. The bride and groom may choose a wedding venue that is some distance from their home. The wedding photographer may well have to travel 20 or 30 miles to the venue, and the band will probably not be based within three or 4 miles of that venue. The bride and groom will look on the Internet, if they're lucky, they will find the Midsummer music website and select from a wide range of bands that we can present them. However, all the bands that we do offer for a particular county or town will be relatively local in terms used these days. In other words they will be within an hour to at the very most an Aaron half's drive from the venue, often much less, but they won't be the band who live next door to the venue, as would have been the case in the olden days. Having said that, sometimes the band is genuinely local in the old-fashioned sense. My own string quartet is played for many years at a prestigious wedding venue that is 15 minutes drive from me and about eight minutes drive or less the other members of string quartet, but this is perhaps unusual.
Cajun music has always been used for dancing; so the volume and excitement created by the combination of fiddle accordion and random percussion worked well in the pre-amplification days.
As time passed and the world grew smaller, Cajun music was influenced by "hillbilly" or "country" music. The guitar and the bass were added, and eventually so were drums and the steel guitar. After World War II, the old style music gained popularity again, and Cajun music has kept its distinctive style since.
Those outside of Louisiana are often confused by the term Zydeco. This is the music of the Creole or black people living in the same area as the Cajuns. The fiddle was a big part of the early tradition of this music. After World War n the music was called "La-la" until Clifton Chenier's hit Les Haricots Est Pas Sales (no salt in your snapbeans) established " Zydeco" as the new name for the style. The first black musician to record Creole music was fiddler Douglas Bellard. Canray Fontenot and Bebe Carriere are also famous black fiddlers. Today, Zydeco is influenced heavily by rhythm and blues. Although the accordion is the mainstay of the style, the fiddle is no longer prominently featured.
Cajun fiddlers often tune their instrument to match the accordion. When they are playing with an accordion in the key of D, standard tuning is used. When playing with an accordion in the key of C, the fiddle is often tuned down a whole step to D-G-C-F. Of course, this has some fairly dire consequences on how the instrument behaves, as it is structured to play and sound best in its normal tuning. This allows the use of more open strings, making double noting nore practical. Some fiddlers prefer the more mellow sound of the instrument tuned low, and play that way all the time. The Balfa brothers played and recorded their music with this lower tuning.
Cajun fiddling uses many double stops, often an open string sounding along with the melody. Slides and trills are also used quite frequently. The bowing is very rhythmic, emphasizing the beat for dancing. Rarely does the bow slur through a long phrase. The tunes are usually played very energetically.
SWING AND JAZZ FIDDLE STYLE INFLUENCE ON BARN DANCE MUSIC
The combination of Southern rural traditions, Louisiana jazz, big band "swing", and Western cowboy life produced a style of music in the Southwest that is rather different from that of the old-timey string bands. Developed by men like Bob Wills, it is called Western Swing, and it depends heavih' on fiddles, backed up by a driving, rhythmic beat.
In the same area of the country, notably in Texas, dance and contest fiddling have been polished to a fine art, resulting in a style of fiddling that is clean and precise. Many Texas style fiddlers are also expert at Western Swing, and often borrow its "swingy" feeling and improvisational techniques for their own playing.
The violin has never been widely accepted as a jazz instrument, althoughjazz violinists such as Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti have been playing brilliantly since the 1920's. But these are genuinely virtuoso players who have the same sort of skills and abilities is the kind of violinists who can play Brahms or Bruch violin Concerto. It certainly isn't something that fits naturally and simply to the instrument. You have to either be really good or a nonstarter in this genre, there is no gentle introduction to jazz fiddling as there is with most other kinds of music. Certainly other styles of fiddling, such as bluegrass and Western Swing, have been affected by jazz.
Jazz or swing fiddlers are generally expert at improvisational playing, and are a good source of ideas for jazzing up your own fiddle playing.
Old-timey, Scandinavian, and Western Swing fiddlers often play in twos or threes, creating a rich texture of fiddle sound which is beautiful to listen to. Usually they play in parallel thirds, synchronizing their bowing. If you have never played in harmony with another fiddler, you're in for a treat. With my own American barn dance band, we can play in the lineup of fiddle and guitar, if the budget is tight for the birthday party or wedding celebration. It works well, but is not ideal. For a barn dance, the addition of the base guitar can make a big difference in keeping people going getting the feeling right, although a really good guitarist can compensate for the lack of a bass guitar. However, to get a real yeeHaa American barn dance sound, I like to get a second involved for the reasons stated above. It makes so much difference, not to whether the barn dance is fun and exciting for everybody, but to creating a sound which is more in keeping with what many people imagine to be American barn dance music and sound.
Of course, there are many misconceptions about what is traditional American barn dance music. Many people get their ideas from Hollywood movies, all the Beverly Hillbillies (if you're old enough to remember that serious). Many people have very limited idea of what American barn dance music is really like, is much more diverse and exciting than is normally appreciated.
O ld-time, Bluegrass, Cajun and Texas Style tunes of the USA are always a good basis for an American barn dance. The richness and diversity of American fiddle music is staggering: the high lonesome sounds of Old-time; the throbbing rhythms of Cajun; the frenetic breakdowns of Bluegrass and the easy swing of Texas-style.
The Scottish and Irish immigrants to North America took with them their treasured violins and their precious store of jigs, reels and hornpipes.Their music found fertile soil in the new country taking root from the Southern Appalachian mountains right up to Nova Scotia. Hearing some American fiddlers play Red Haired Boy or Soldier's Joy, you would hardly know if you were in North Carolina or the Ring of
But the American fiddler didn't stop there.This new environment turned out to be a hot-house of melodic invention and fresh fiddle styles.The core of American folk fiddle repertoire is the Old-time or Appalachian style.The music is direct, hard-hitting and energetic, encapsulating the life of the isolated mountain communities. Different versions of a tune can be as individual and idiosyncratic as the players themselves.
Bluegrass is for many the essential voice of American fiddle-playing, though in fact the classic style was only developed during the 1940s and 1950s by Kentucky-born Bill Monroe. Bluegrass brings instrumental virtuosity to Old-time music, and blends in blues, western and even camp-meeting hymns. Texas Style takes a further step towards professionalism and the world of commercial music. It derives its swung rhythms from jazz and, like jazz, its top players are dazzling improvisers. But Texas Style never forgets its roots and many tunes (Sally Goodin and Gray Eagle to name two from this volume) crop up in the repertory of Old-time, Blues and Texas Style fiddlers alike. One of our bass players and callers has a son who married an American girl and now lives in Texas, so is often over their visiting the family. He certainly comes up with some interesting dancers and even more interesting dance names, such as the Texas Cattler Rustler square dance.
Cajun music springs from a world of its own, bound in by the South Louisiana swamps. Its language and culture is predominantly French, and the music has its own character, quite distinct from the celtic-derived fiddle music of theAppalachians.The raw energy of Cajun has made it one of the most popular fiddle styles and its influence can be seen in popular music from Elvis Presley to Paul Simon.
If what you have read has inspired you, you can follow the links below to see the bands that perform in your county. Enjoy!