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Smithsonian Institution
Midwestern Crossroads1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


Rural Music Traditions - Dance and Song: Context and Background

       "Roll up the rugs," more than a call to let the entertainment begin, was literally the way dance space was created for at-home square dancing. Furniture was moved outdoors or into corners to make ample room for the two or more squares of dancers inside. At home dances were one of the many ways neighbors opened their doors to each other, drawing people together to play, socialize, and exchange information. Such informal music gatherings remain the places where old time, country, and bluegrass traditions are active. The square dancing that has ebbed since the 1950s, some feel, is undergoing a resurgence. In communities as demographically diverse as Columbia, site of the state University, to Ellsinore, population 362, in the southern reaches of the Ozarks, multigenerational groups come together on a frequent basis to dance to the music of live fiddlers and family bands. Square dance is being relearned as people in their twenties and thirties turn to the elder generation, former practitioners of these skills, to learn the calls, dance sets, and tunes that used to be done in these communities.
       Dancing is but one of many contexts for country music. Town festivals feature old time songs, string band music, and fiddle contests; all-day singings occur in small towns and rural regions throughout the state; and music parties still invigorate small communities. Common buildings set aside for gatherings draw people from miles around on a regular basis. They are maintained by an informal organization, such as the "Manes Music Makers;" or sessions occur at business places, such as the weekly meeting place in a Chillicothe barbershop, or on common ground, like Friday night Jacksonville sessions in an old schoolhouse; or simply by reserving space in newer community buildings, such as the regular gatherings at the Houston VFW.
        Informal rules structure equitable turntaking and the determine the focus of music played, whether bluegrass, gospel, country, or old time, and the presence or absence of amplified instruments. The diversity of rural music is apparent in these sessions reflecting an "on-going dialectic" of the regions, classes, industry that has shaped and disseminated rural music.
        Along with fiddles string bands and backup musicians play from a varied list of instruments determined in part by family and regional preferences. Musicians, now as ever, play on what is available, attainable, affordable and acceptable to their particular region and tradition. Piano, banjo, string bass, and guitar are common in bands, at contests, and at community sessions throughout the state. Accordions, buttonboxes, autoharps, harmonicas, zithers, mandolins, spoons, bones, and portable pump organs fill out the band as needed. Individual choices reflect economic exigencies and mirror each family's ethnic inheritance. Hammered dulcimers, for example, were once fairly common in the midwest where they were the instrument of choice at wedding parties of those who were of German-Russian American heritage.
        Collector-performers revitalize traditional music as they research and relearn styles which were not directly transferred to them within their family or folk group. Relying on older practitioners as resources for stories, technique, and tunes, or by going to historic archives, letters, and reports of local historic events, collectors rebuild tunes, words, and aesthetics within the old time framework. Several mid-Missouri musicians, for example, have been guided by the late Taylor McBaine, a fiddler who regularly joined gatherings in the 1960s to share tunes and assist technical development of younger guitarists, banjo players, as well as fiddlers. He "tolerated the other types music we played, but when we played fiddle tunes it had to be done just right," says one banjoist. Active performers, validated by the old timers as interpreter's of their music, these collectors and researchers perform repertoires from several regions or masters, passing on more than a single local tradition.
        The origins of bluegrass are found in the music of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys heard on Grand Ole Opry in the 1940s and 50s. The form evolved from traditional country music in the years 1925 - 1950, a repertoire which included gospel songs, ballads, and fiddle tunes. In its early days as well as now, bluegrass was chiefly aimed at the rural working class; yet at the same time it has gained national popularity and continues to be an appealing and successful music at festivals around the nation. The instrumental breaks which distinguish it from square dance music reveal melodic links to old-time fiddle music, but more important to the music itself, the breaks allow soloists to show off their virtuosity and let bands to develop distinctive styles. Bluegrass music festivals occur statewide throughout spring, summer and fall nearly weekly in such diverse sites as small town parks, private farms, and the University of Missouri's veterinary stock arena.        

Program Offerings:

        Bill Graves sings the songs handed down to him by his mother who came to Missouri via Kentucky. Graves' unique family dulcimer was built from a pattern his grandfather brought back from the Civil War. Perhaps one of a kind in Missouri with a shape similar to Scandinavian zithers, Bill Graves strums his dulcimer with a turkey quill. An energetic and driving program of music and humor, family members play guitar and sing harmony for popular songs, ballads, fiddle, or gospel tunes. Presenting Artists: Bill Graves with Doris Graves, Daisy Dame, Vivian Owens, and Don Graves.
        Missouri fiddling is a blend of old lineage tunes with new, executed in crisp, energetic traditional styles. Repertoires meld rare old family tunes, with tunes of the nation's earliest settlers, with an influx of regionally stamped radio fare from popular songs, jazz bands, and the Grand Ol' Opry. The state's outstanding dance fiddlers, acclaimed contest musicians, and judges show off Missouri's fiddle legacy with back-up guitar, banjo, or keyboard. Programs illustrate older family and regional repertoire, sample the styles influenced by radio fiddlers and dance bands, or dazzle with the finesse of fast paced contest tunes and upbeat dance music. Presenting artists: John Griffin, Bob Holt, Pete McMahan, McBaine, Dean Johnston, Vesta Johnson, Kelly Jones, and Lloyd Lalumondier (fiddle); Delia Knipp (backup piano), Kenny Applebee, Wes Brown, and Alvie Dooms (backup guitar). (Programs can be combined with dancers or form a square dance with callers.) Traditional dance programs provide either a demonstration of regional jig steps and dance sets, or a walk-through of a square dance for members of the audience. Full sets of square dancers will come to show whole dances and the calls to lead them. The different styles of jig steps, distinctive to different communities, and clogging are also demonstrated. Presenting artists: Edna Mae Davis and the Ava Square Dancers, Potosi Square Dancers, Norma Applebee, The Dowden Sisters, Win and Paul Grace & Family.
       Old time ballads, Ozark songs, fiddle tunes are played on hammered dulcimer, banjo and guitar and the curious mouthbow by Cathy and Dave Para. Repertoire includes songs and tunes from the Civil War collected in Missouri. Singer and collector Bob Dyer presents stories of the communities, famous steamboats, and characters of the Boonslick area where he lives and the Missouri River. The Grace family includes skilled clogging, dance music, and part singing with mandolin, accordion, bones, and fiddle. Presenting artists: Cathy Barton and Dave Para; Bob Dyer; Paul and Win Grace & Family.
       Vocals with close harmonies and traditional bluegrass instruments characterize these programs. Bands feature gospel tunes, humorous songs, ballads, fiddle tunes and up-tempo instrumentals. Several bands are built around family members. Presenting artists: Bluegrass Brigade, Bluegrass Missourians, Don Brown and the Ozark Mountain Trio, Blue and Gray Pickers, Bill Jones and the Bluegrass Travelers

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