PRESERVING TRADITION, EMBRACING THE FUTURE
Two-year-old Riley Seymour grasped a small white guitar by the neck and stared at the expanding scrum of stringed instrument players joining a tune. A 65-year-old fiddler named Joe Shelton led the session, presiding in the corner of a circle that included two additional fiddlers and a guitarist, behind whom stood a woman silently picking notes on a mandolin. Across the room, a fourth fiddler played, flanked by a guitarist and a standup bass player.
Riley’s father, Alex Seymour, laid a standup bass on the floor and went to order a pizza from the bar at the Green Burro. He came back and played, coaxing a thumbing sound out of its guts and clicking the strings as he plucked them. The boy hugged his papa’s leg and later stood on the opposite side of the instrument gently petting the strings as his father manipulated them. “My goal is to have him playing an instrument before he talks,” Seymour said. “Right now he just carries that guitar around. Hopefully it will take. There’s no better way to get through high school than playing an instrument, on whatever level. By 8 p.m. there were 17 musicians in the room, all playing roughly in unison. Shelton confers with a guitar player, and they work out a melody, easing into the song as they work out the kinks. Tim Litchfield, who plays with Seymour in the old-time band Milltown, was seated across the room with a fiddle propped against his chest. “Let’s see what we got here,” he said, leaning forward. The tune was softer than the previous one. It holds an ancient, timeless melody that contains both joy and grief with a somewhat courtly lilting quality. The other players were somewhat hesitant, but gradually filled out the sound. Eventually, the fiddles were largely indistinguishable from each other, and so were the other instruments. “What’s that?” Litchfield asked when the song ended. “Georgie-O,” Shelton said. The next song, “Get Along Cindy,” was more spirited. An accordion player added his music to the stew. Litchfield called out the lyrics to the song, which were more or less exclamations on the repeated line: “Get along home, Cindy, I’ll marry you someday.” Litchfield, a relatively new convert to old-time music, is the organizer of these jam sessions, which take place under the banner of the Piedmont Old Time Society on the first Thursdays of every month at the Green Burro. Notes on etiquette (“everyone, regardless of musical ability, is invited and encouraged to join the jam circle, but please try to come practiced and prepared”) and creeds (“to work with, and not compete, with other ‘country music’ organizations as best as possible”) are posted on Milltown’s website and Piedmont Old Time Society social networking pages on Facebook and MySpace. Shelton, a Statesville native who moved to Greensboro in 1973 to work in sales, gave up his day job as music — playing, repairing instruments and giving lessons — gradually absorbed his time, energy and passion. He started with bluegrass, a genre invented by Bill Monroe in the early 1940s at roughly the same time rhythm and blues was born. Aside from the use of acoustic stringed instruments, the two genres actually have little in common. “ I was first interested in bluegrass and took a few fiddle lessons, but didn’t seem to make any sense of it,” Shelton said. “I ran into some people playing at Blowing Rock, and I was hooked.
Old-timemusic enthusiasts convened at the Green Burro on May 7 for the PiedmontOld-Time Society’s second jam session. (photos by Quentin L. Richardson) “In old-time music, everybody essentially plays the same thing. It accommodates all levels of players.” — Joe Shelton
“Bluegrass music is performanceoriented music and old-time music is social music,” he continued. “In bluegrass you have an ensemble, and like with jazz,everybody steps up and takes a hot break. In old-time music, everybodyessentially plays the same thing. It accommodates all levels ofplayers.” Shelton told me he believes old-time music is 40years into a revival that began with the New Lost City Ramblers, andwith each new generation of young players its traditions flourish. Withenthusiasts traveling to festivals and downloading songs onto theiriPods there are ever more opportunities for people to learn andpreserve the old songs. The rural farmers who shared songs in relativeisolation may have faced more obstacles in maintaining the traditionsof this music that is believed to have been carried over from theBritish isles. The musicians were playing “Julie Ann Johnson,”and Shelton took the opportunity to make a point. “Emmett Lundyrecorded this song in 1941 for the Library of Congress,” he said. “Hewas 77 at the time. He said he learned how to play the song from OldMan Green Leonard, who was born in the early part of the 19 th century.So you’ve got a 175-year time warp right there.” One mightworry that modern technology would change the context of old-timemusic, and erode its essential spirit. That’s not a worry of thePiedmont Old Time Society’s (No. 3 on the list of creeds andproclamations reads: “Create ways for old-time music fans to stayconnected. E-mail list, MySpace and Facebook pages, Twitter and otherinternet options.”) Nor is it a worry of Shelton’s. “When Ifirst began, what I knew about it was the preservation was important,”Shelton said. “Now, the more you play, the preservation is there. Thevital signs are there. It’s never been healthier.”
There’s room for musicians of all levels of ability at an old-time jam session.
About 20 people played simultaneously at the session’s peak.