The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number 6


Keeping Up With Online: Old-Time Music Thrives on the Internet

by Charlie Gravel

An archetypal tale told by "first-generation" old-time musicians recounts a midnight walk home through miles of wilderness. It might have followed a dance, hoedown or social at which some locally renowned fiddler had held sway, and music had filled the air. The gist is that, from the time of hearing some great new tune to the time of trying it out at home, the listener had been required to keep the music going in his head, note-by-note, lest it be lost and gone forever.

Advancing technologies of all sorts-from printed music to mass-marketed recordings to broadcast media-have changed the way musical information is passed in a thousand ways, arguably for both better and worse. They have contributed to a breakdown in regional styles, often referred to as a "cultural homogenization." At the same time, they have offered the very tools most needed by those interested in understanding, preserving and advancing the older regional styles. In the old-time music community, technology and tradition, each with its graces and foibles, coexist in a suspicious and uneasy truce. The results can be wonderful, pathetic, odd or even hilarious, but they're usually interesting.

The latest and potentially most profound event in the evolution of communications technology is really nothing more than an insightful melding of several now-common tools. Combine the strengths of publishing, telephony and computers, base the design on enforced anarchy and ownerlessness, and you get the Internet-perhaps the ultimate communications medium. For the lover of old-time music, the Web presents both challenges and opportunities.

Where Did You Come From?

To backtrack briefly, the Internet evolved from a military project called ARPANET carried out in the 1960s to facilitate strategic communication and help minimize the potential dangers posed by nuclear attack. Created as a decentralized entity with no single owner, ARPANET linked different kinds of computers, located in many places, through standard phone line technology, and allowed them to share information over wide distances. This tool had great potential outside of the military, and by the 1970s was being used by scientists, colleges and a few businesses. Soon thousands of individual computers and pre-existing networks of computers latched on, and the Internet became the world's largest party line. The number of individual computers attached to the Internet today has been measured at somewhere between McDonalds' current hamburger sale count and the number of stars Carl Sagan was personally aware of in the evening sky. The Net has become ubiquitous, launching a culture and dialect of its own and changing the way we work and behave.

In the old-time music community, the Net is nothing new. (For an interesting early treatise on this subject, see "Old-Time Music on the Information Highway," by Steve Goldfield, in the summer 1995 issue of OTH.) In the last five years, though, it has become less a wonder of technology, and more a tool for the masses. Almost everyone is connected, at home or work or both, and those who aren't generally live or work next to someone who is. Practically no one is outside the reach of email today. What's more, email is free, fast and relatively secure. And besides email, the Net includes other features including list servers (which send automated mail of interest to anyone who cares to join), and the great and popular World Wide Web, an online publishing system which makes easily constructed pages of information, complete with graphics, sound and video, available to anyone with the time and inclination to seek then out. Powerful databases called "search engines" keep (rough) track of the contents of the Web, and allow for quick, if somewhat random, navigation and lookup. Through its combined features, the Net has become, in effect, the world's largest library/shopping mall/game arcade/social club/red-light district and more all rolled into a small box, keyboard and monitor screen. As a total package, it's pretty hard to ignore.

Where Did You Go?

The resources available to the old-time music community on the Net have grown steadily in recent years. Today we can find virtually any recording, instrument, book or product available, and can safely purchase it. We can research music history, read about specific styles and personalities, and see performance schedules and itineraries. In some cases, we can even listen to the music and find transcriptions, interviews, instructional material and more. As new pages spring up and older ones are improved and expanded, we find an ever-broadening world of information. Even more encouraging, we find a world of people behind the pictures and words. Musicians and listeners are becoming acquainted through the Net, and friendships are being formed. Old friends, who may be separated by distance or circumstances, are finding it easier to stay in touch. The Net has become, in fact, more a meeting place than a gadget, and is contributing to our ability to interact and share as a community. For the benefit of anyone who might somehow not have been introduced, the major classes of resources comprising the modern Net are as follows:


Pretty self-explanatory. Laughs at rain, sleet and snow, is almost instantaneous, and doesn't require a stamp.

World Wide Web:

This is what folks think of first. It's those flashy pages full of news, gossip, advertising, and sometimes even useful stuff. "Find us on the web at . . !" Search engines, such as Lycos or Yahoo! are used for lookup and navigation on the web.

Newsgroups (USENET):

These are special bulletin board-like places, each devoted to a special topic, where anyone interested can read or post a message. There are thousands of them, and the titles alone make good reading. They are relatively unmoderated, and are sometimes prone to junk-postings, nonsense discussions, and smut. Still, they have their merits. A great example, warts and all, is

Mailing Lists (LISTSERV):

These are electronic mailing lists that are available by subscription. They are more or less the "private club" alternative to newsgroups, are generally moderated, and offer many advantages. Postings from subscribed members (and there can be many each day), can be received piecemeal (as separate emails), or in digest form. Great examples of list services are banjo-l and fiddle-l. To subscribe to these lists, find the list owner's address, send an email, and in the subject line type in "subscribe."These can be lively, fun and informative places to either "lurk" (same meaning as in real, carbon-based life), or participate. To learn about these two lists, look up either in a World-Wide-Web search engine, or link to their corresponding web pages. If you're looking for a time-wasting old-time music escape that will give you years of enjoyment, these are it.

Chat Lines:

While probably less-used by old-time music fans than the other internet resources, various free chat line services allow real-time interactive conversations between individuals on any subject. Some of the popular chat lines, including ICQ, (places where one can have special-interest conversations on-line) have special forums for music fans, but so far no old-time category.

It is tempting, in describing the old-time music resources available on the Net, to start cataloging and detailing the myriad number of items. It just seems, after all, like someone should be keeping a list. But to attempt such a feat would be to miss the point altogether. The real value of the Internet is the fact that, like the communities it serves, it is vital and dynamic. Any list created today would be obsolete, erroneous, or at least incomplete before the words made it to print. A better approach is to find your own way around, and in so doing, talk with folks who are building and using the Net. There's lots to be gained from their insight and experiences.

The Best-Known People You've Never Met

Any old-time music lover who surfs the web will know certain names. Subscribing to the mailing lists and newsgroups, and viewing the many web pages introduces us to a few of the pioneers and activists who have contributed over the years. Those who could be contacted for this article had opinions to share and stories to tell. Some described their plans, concerns and predictions for the future of this new medium, and others offered pointers for those using or thinking of using the Net for music-related business or entertainment.

Steve Goldfield, the organizer in 1994 of the newsgroup, is clearly one of the active pioneers of old-time music cyber culture. A computer scientist by profession and old-time banjo and fiddle player by preference, Steve has been a fixture in cyberspace. His newsgroup, in spite of its growing amounts of spam (unwanted junk postings), has long been a popular place to go to view and submit notes about almost anything related to old-time music. Steve himself is a frequent poster, offering CD reviews and other items regularly. He tells of meeting many people at workshops and festivals who knew him well through his postings in spite of never having met him face-to-face. "I think the networking that's going on, much of which is nearly invisible to most people, is really amazing," he said. He also finds it an efficient way to work cooperatively. For the last few years, much of Steve's old-time music-related work, such as his annual co-production with Margo Blevin of screenings of videos of traditional music and dance for the Folk Alliance Program, has been coordinated entirely by email.

One of Steve's recent experiences involves a posting he was asked to place to by a woman who believed her grandmother, Cora Cline, to be the first woman ever to appear on the Grand Ole Opry. The woman, Dot Gudger, had a photo of her grandmother, who had played with Uncle Jimmy Thompson from 1925-1928, sitting in front of a WSM banner with her dulcimer, and wanted to find out if any recordings of the woman existed. Steve posted the question in February of 1998. His conclusion after the posting, borne out by input from frequent-poster Kerry Blech, is that there were, in fact, no recordings made that included Cora Cline.

The most obvious and entertaining old-time music-related web site today is probably the Old-Time Music Homepage. This great set of pages by David Lynch includes news, discussion, resources, links, a musicians' directory and the great Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame. Lynch, an Asheville, NC-based graphic artist, has produced a lively place where the aficionado can find lots of interest. By following the links from these pages, one can locate almost any conceivable resource, and potentially spend days or weeks blissfully exploring old-time cyberspace. If you read this magazine, this site is highly recommended!

Lynch tells a story of being at one particular fiddlers' contest where a different and unrelated banjo player named David Lynch was a competitor. When this David Lynch took the stage, several in the audience heard the name announced and cheered. After the tune ended, several of them approached him and began complimenting him on his work on the Old-Time Music Homepage, which of course he had to admit was not of his making.

The Old-Time Music Homepage, David is quick to point out, has enhanced his appreciation of the community and his contacts with others who share his interests. In his case, it has also led to business opportunities. Fiddler Brad Leftwich, after viewing David's homepage, arranged for him to prepare the graphics for his County Sales CD, Say, Old Man. This work for County led to other County CD covers including Old-Time Mountain Guitar, Eck Robertson's Old-Time Texas Fiddler, Mississippi Stringbands, and Alice Gerrard, Brad Leftwich, and Tom Sauber's brand-new Been There Still. (Incidentally, notice David's great graphic work for the cover of Volume 6, Issue 6!)

From a graphics standpoint, though, it's hard to compete with the wild music-inspired pages offered up by Phoenix-based musician Joe Bethancourt, "the Carolina Banjo-Picker." ( This Appalachian-rooted multi-instrumentalist and graphic artist has created some of the most spectacular and useful content to be found on the Web. Of particular interest is his "American Banjo Makers" page, which includes "a fairly comprehensive listing" of the known manufacturers both past and present. He also posts a "General Banjo Serial Numbers" page, which can be very useful in identifying and dating many major brands of banjos. Most striking, though, are the cartoons, photos and graphical creations Joe uses to adorn his pages. These alone, many quite suitable for framing, make his site well worth the visit.

According to Bethancourt, the Web is more than a marketing tool, though he has watched sales of his own recordings grow substantially since his page was introduced. As one of the earlier Internet users and beneficiaries, he has watched the medium become a vital and growing part of the old-time music community. For example, of all of the music students he teaches, Joe says, at least half found him through the Net. "I see it as a great way to find and meet people and stay plugged into things," he added.

Clawhammer banjoist Donald Zepp took it upon himself to create a homepage to accompany Sean Barry's popular banjo-l list a few years ago. The homepage ( caters to all banjoists and fans, but has special appeal to bluegrass and old-time players. Zepp's page features great links, instrument sale postings, a tuning listing, tune index, banjo players' directory and more. He considers it a natural extension of the banjo-l list, and a great way to serve and communicate with his peers in the old-time music community. Zepp believes that subscription-based lists (like banjo-l) and supplemental web pages are great spam-free alternatives to the "sad state of affairs on the banjo newsgroups, alt.banjo and alt.banjo.clawhammer." Evidence bears this out, as both the number of new web pages and the active participation in music-related list services continue to grow steadily.

Zepp is also a great believer in the commercial potential of the Net, and considers it a primary marketing tool for his Wendell, NC-based business, Zepp Country Music ( The simple pages he has produced for this purpose include updated instrument inventories with accurate descriptions and prices. Zepp is currently working on a "shopping-cart" design that will facilitate direct product ordering from the pages. In addition, he maintains a "private" page, shared by his friends and jamming partners, which serves as a bulletin board for announcing the location of the upcoming Friday night pickin' session. (He and his pals "pick weakly," the page boasts). This simple tool, complete with maps, directions and hosts' email addresses, saves a lot of phone calls and confusion for that group of old-time players.

Even some experienced publishers of music-related material who have since moved away from print have taken comfortably to the Net. Mike Holmes, publisher of the Mugwumps magazine (1971-82) for acoustic instrument builders, repairers and aficionados, has reintroduced his publication at to great acclaim. Mike's award-winning site includes copies of pages from the original magazines, new classified ads, new articles about old instruments, profiles of contemporary instrument makers, and tips and techniques for repairing, and maintaining vintage instruments, and building new ones. There is good information for dating old Fairbanks & Vega and S.S. Stewart banjos and C.F. Martin guitars, lots of photos, Stuart Cohen's compiled listing of known American banjo makers, and lots more. And, like every good site on the Web, Mugwumps has a jump-list with links to more sites of interest to the readers.

Mike echoed the sentiments of many in calling the internet, "just a wonderful forum for meeting people, finding old friends and generally staying in touch." In his case, after wondering for over 30 years what had become of the person with whom he had first played old-time country music, Mike was suddenly contacted by the old friend, who had seen his Mugwumps site, read the name, and knew it couldn't be a coincidence. Likewise, he's heard from and corresponded with folks from all parts of the globe who remember his magazine and have come to enjoy his site.

Database technology serves the folk music community well through the efforts of Steve Putz, Dick Greehaus, and others who have crafted the impressive Digital Tradition database (at Mudcat Cafe, This inspiring application contains lyrics, and in some cases music, for over 6,500 songs, and is searchable by key phrases. For example, a search on "chicken pie" quickly returns the title "Old Joe Clark" (and five others). The full lyrics to the returned tune is then available for reading or printing.

Tunebooks proliferate on the Web thanks largely to a tool developed in England by Chris Walshaw, and popularized by many including Richard Robinson and Steve Allen. Chris's ABC notation system allows standard music notation to be converted into and back from standard ascii (a way of storing information in alphanumeric and special characters) text, allowing for easy storage on computers and transfers over the Web. This easy and powerful system has prompted many people to post traditional tunes and new compositions, and there are literally thousands of tunes available cost-free in this format. Tunes in ABC format can be viewed, printed, downloaded, modified and even played online easily. ABC notation has become very popular in Celtic music circles, where tunes are routinely exchanged by email, and it is catching on elsewhere. For some background and examples of ABC and other formats for saving notated music, see the Ceolas Tune Archive at

Remember to Use the Links!

As tempting as it is to attempt to catalog the many great resources available to old-time music enthusiasts, the most helpful advice is to use the links included on the pages you find, and navigate your own way through cyberspace. Things you'll find with very little effort will include:

Publications: Old-Time Herald, Sing Out!, Dirty Linen, Fiddler Magazine, Banjo Newsletter, Dulcimer Player News, Bluegrass Unlimited. . . .

Vendors: Rounder, County Sales, Martin, Gibson, Camsco, Arhoolie, Smithsonian Folkways, Gruhn Guitars, Pickers' Supply, House of Musical Traditions, Banjo Loft. . . .

Music organizations: Brandywine, PineCone, Appalshop, North American Fiddlers' Association, Folk Alliance. . . .

Festivals and workshops: MerleFest, Fiddlers' Grove, Allegheny Fiddlers Convention, Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Swannanoa Gathering, Augusta Heritage Festival. . . .

Instrument sales, trades and auctions: (e-bay. . .) The Jew's Harp Guild. . . .

The homepage of Old-Time Music on the Radio, OTR, (a subsidiary of the Old-Time Music Group, Inc.), which publishes the Old-Time Herald): This is wonderfully done by John Lupton at the University of Pennsylvania.

OTR's database of old-time music CDs: lovingly compiled by John Lupton, Steve Goldfield, and Lynn "Chirps" Smith.

The real beauty of the Web is the opportunity it gives, through hypertext links (the highlighted or underlined words in the text), to follow your curiosity and interests. If a subject exists in the physical world, it probably exists in cyberspace by now as well, and through embedded links it can be a lot faster and easier find!

What Comes Next?

One of the most exciting aspects of the Internet is the pace at which the technology is advancing. Increasing band width promised first by asymmetrical digital subscriber lines (ADSM), cable modems, and eventually by the much heralded Internet 2 and fiber-optic connections to the home and office desktop, promise a great wealth of new possibilities. Without delving too far into the technical details, these vastly improved bandwidths (which you might visualize as the difference between a garden hose and a reservoir flood-gate), will allow far greater amounts of information to arrive at and leave your desktop computer in a given timeframe. The results will be dramatic. Some future certainties include:

Permanent, and much, much faster connections. This means no more dialing for a connection (you'll stay attached), easier log-ins, quicker screen refreshes and much faster sending and receiving of data; video (or music) on demand; immediate access to any commercially available product (for a fee, of course) through high-speed downloading; interactive (real-time) voice and video conferencing with one or multiple remote users.

Some reasons you'll be interested might include:

  • High-quality concert footage (audio and video), available for immediate download: Commercial artists may charge for this. Others may offer it free for fun, exposure or as a service; interactive, one-on-one or group-oriented music instruction. This, too, could involve both audio and video, and might be a way to conduct group-instruction over a wide area. Lessons could include bi-directional discussion and demonstration, and could be stored for later replay. Playback could be slowed down as needed to observe techniques, or sped up to dance speed, etc.
  • Interactive jam sessions: Maybe not quite the same, but it should beat clamping the phone-receiver to your fiddle bridge; long-distance collaborative recording: you send me a guitar rhythm, I dub in a fiddle, my friend adds a banjo, and we send it back to you-maybe with some animation.

It's clear from the events of the past few years that nothing about Internet technology is slowing down. As costs are reduced and functionality climbs, we can only expect more exciting possibilities. For traditionally-minded musicians, it won't stop anyone from immersing themselves in only the music of, say, Hardluck Hollow, Mississippi. What it will do is give immediate access to virtually every other musical form and regional style in existence. Then there will be no excuse not to master them all.

Charlie Gravel is a freelance writer, musician and computer professional based in Raleigh, NC. He has contributed recording reviews to the Old-Time Herald and other publications, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of PineCone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music.

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