December 12, 2007

On one of these old time lists I read mentions that the Freighthoppers are getting back together (meaning David Bass and Frank Lee from the original band and Thomas Bailey playing guitar and some new dude on bass). Glad they are back together since they were, and are, a good band

(even if Tom once wrote some nasty words about my parlor guitar article on his blog, we straightened that out last summer, it was a funny story I will tell you sometime...)

What I was struck by in the announcement was the claim that the Freighthoppers inspired the old time music revival of the 1990s.

This is an arcane point maybe of interest to a dozen people in this world, but I must say that I think it was a whole lot more complicated than that.

There was something much bigger afoot at that time when a bunch of people, many of them previously into punk rock, suddenly got into hillbilly music, clawhammer banjo, and old time fiddling. It happened independently and intensely in pockets around the country.

Certainly that was the case with me my group of friends in Madison in the early 1990s, when we became interested in and obsessed with old time music and started playing it. I sure as hell never heard of the Freighthoppers. Those was pre-internet days, don't forget. It was a lot slower and less certain to figure out what was going on out around. I got music from the library on old records that seemed totally forgotten and mysterious, records I stumbled on purely by7 accident in 1991 that just blew my mind (Shortbuckle Roark, Uncle Dave Macon, W.H. Stepp, Skillet Lickers, Luther Davis, all the greats), other records from cheaply printed catalogs like Old Homestead and in used record shops. I was lucky to get into it right when record companies started to dump their vinyl for peanuts because of cds, and you could buy whole catalogs of stuff for a few bucks. Now those records are actually worth quite a bit.

I didn't have much sense of what was going on out in the broad world at the time And I didn't really care, to be honest. I was stoked to get the records of the old guys and to play music with my friends. I had no idea it was a "revival".

When I finally did come across them by chance in 1997 at the Winterhawk (bluegrass) festival, I had a conversation with Frank Lee and he was amazed that I knew who Gid Tanner was. I, in turn, was amazed that there were others playing old time music. I had no idea there were old time festivals, I was busy going to traditional bluegrass festivals.

Turns out it was a national movement, this revival. Much later, I met an ethnomusicologist who wrote her dissertation in 2002 or thereabouts looking at the old time revival and at that moment when old punkers around the country got into the music. It was a hell of a lot more than just the Freighthoppers, though I am sure they inspired many people. David Bass, for instance, has a legions of imitators who play, look, and act like him, though he is still far and away an unmatched and thoroughly kick ass fiddler.

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