Playing from the heart, the folk tradition, and how Old Time Music is learned

I have an intuitive, natural “feeling” about what the folk tradition “is.”  In my experience, it is playing with other people (jamming) and learning from them.  This is how I learned to play mandolin.  (For more on my personal musical experience background, please see “Marian’s Story” which is presently under construction.) We have had a few children playing at our adult jams, too, and this is a wonderful example of the folk tradition for us all.

Below are some quotes from the Mandolin Cafe online.  The discussion centered around whether to copy/imitate the great Bill Monroe exactly, or to “play it your own way.”

First, two quotes from Bill Monroe himelf:

“I was determined to carve out a music of my own. I didn’t want to copy anybody.”  Bill Monroe
Read more at:

“Bluegrass is wonderful music. I’m glad I originated it.” Bill Monroe
Read more at:

Styles and independence, from and

Marian is awaiting permissions to reprint, from RoyBoy, Jim Adwell, and Tom Coletti.  I posted on asking them for permission, and that I’m posting there comments here.  Of course, I’ll remove any comment if one of these folks objects.  [October 2016]

From commenter RoyBoy:  I’ve been a professional musician for 51 years . I have yet to see a rule book telling me what I HAVE to learn .

From commenter Jim Adwell:  It almost seems like a truism to say that a player is going to be way more interesting to listen to playing in his/her own style within a given genre than imitating someone else’s style. One can be influenced by various artists, and learn from them, but ultimately you’re playing your own music, so revel in it, and have fun, because if you aren’t having fun your audience won’t be either.

From commenter Tom Coletti:  Monroe himself would probably advise against trying to directly emulate his or any other artists’ sound and offer advice in favor of finding your own sound through a combination of various external influences and your own stylistic take on the instrument. Imitation may result in limitation.

Marian says:

Here are my comments on perfect imitation of Bill Monroe vs playing it one’s own way (which I’d call playing from the heart):  Regarding playing Old Time Fiddle tunes on the mandolin (which is much of what I do) I get a lot of comments from jammers and various websites that purport to “define” various traditions, such as Irish, Scottish, Appalachian,and just about every other related style. “Ya gotta play it this way….,” each of them says.  I’ve noticed some variation on what “this way” means to different people, too.

Here’s some great stuff on Learning Old Time Music, from

Learning old-time music

Players traditionally learn old-time music by ear; even musicians who can read music. A broad selection of written music does exist, although many believe that the style of old-time music cannot be practically notated by written music. This is in part because there are many regional and local variations to old-time tunes, and because some of the most noted players often improvised and wouldn’t play a tune exactly the same way every time.

Players usually learn old-time music by attending local jam sessions and by attending festivals scattered around the country. With the spread of broad-band Internet, more and more old-time recordings are available via small publishers, Internet streaming audio (“Web radio”), and small Web sites making the music more accessible.

Although it is one of the oldest and most prominent forms of traditional music in the United States and Canada, old-time music (with a few notable exceptions) is generally not taught in North American primary schools, secondary schools, or universities. Although square dancing is still occasionally taught in elementary schools (generally with recorded, rather than live music), old-time instruments and dances are not included in the educational system, and must be studied outside the school system.


Located in Johnson City, Tennessee, East Tennessee State University is the only four-year university in the world with a comprehensive program in bluegrass and old time music studies. The program includes a variety of bluegrass and country music courses, both performance-oriented and academic. Minors in both Bluegrass and in Appalachian Studies are also offered.

Nearby in Boone, North Carolina, the Junior Appalachian Musicians[17] is a NC Arts Council supported school of old-time music at the historic Jones House.

There are a variety of programs, mostly in the summer, such as the Augusta Heritage Festival, the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, or the Appalachian String Band Music Festival, that offer week-long immersions in old-time music and dance. These camps are family friendly and allow beginners to enter into the tradition and more advanced players to hone their sound with instruction from some of the best in the music.

Outside of Appalachia

There are, however a growing number of folk music schools in the greater United States, usually non-profit community based, that have taken up the mantle of providing instruction in old-time music: The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Illinois is perhaps the oldest of these, having begun in 1957. The Folk School of St. Louis in Missouri, started by banjoist Jeff Miller, is one of the many newer schools having opened its doors in 2002 after the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? caused an increase in people from urban areas wanting to learn old-time music. These schools and the subsequent music communities that spring from them offer a positive trend in keeping old-time music alive. Also, universities such as Berklee College of Music, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Brown University, UCLA, and Florida State University have “Old Time Ensembles” to teach and keep Old Time music alive. Regular old-time jam circles are also important to spreading and teaching this music. Regular old-time jams occur not only throughout the United States, but in places as far flung as Beijing, China, where the Beijing Pickers jam spawned a bluegrass/Americana group the Randy Abel Stable and the old-time band the Hutong Yellow Weasels. In the UK Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance was formed in 1995. A year later Sore Fingers Summer School was started.