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Old Time Bowing and... Postmodernism????

Posted by fiddlepogo on Tuesday, July 3, 2012

One of the problems for me is that I think a lot, and type pretty fast, so my fingers can keep pace with my thoughts pretty well.  So it's pretty easy for my keyboard to spew out THOUSANDS of words!  "IdleHands" commented on this, and he's by no means the first to notice it!  It was happening in other on line forums before the Fiddle Hangout ever started!

Anyway, a lot of things trigger thoughts.  Often, disagreement triggers more thinking about a topic than agreement does.  Disagreement forces me to ask "Why?", and so I think more deeply about a topic, get new insights,  and that's enjoyable. However, debate DOES get tiring. This last phase of bowing threads was interesting, but the disagreement does get old.  I think I'm ready for another 6 months to a year of "hibernation" on bowing discussion!

However, I got to thinking: "WHY SO MUCH disagreement on the bowing issue, especially Downbowing and pattern bowing vs. "Anywhichway"?

And while I have my foibles that could get a little wearing, if another pattern downbower comes on the Fiddle Hangout, while they might not get as much flak as I do, it still doesn't make any impression on the crowd of "anywhichway" proponents.

Because while I'm not exactly a "big name", some of the other pattern downbowers are collectors and SHOULD get some respect for the work they've done collecting.

They've gotten WAY more quality exposure to Old Time fiddling that most of us could ever hope to get.  They've not only recorded fiddlers, but videoed them and interviewed them. They play themselves, so they could ask intelligent questions if they noticed something unusual... in effect, they got LESSONS from some of the great oldtimers in the tradition.

If anybody was going to get some respect, I would think THEY would.  And yet, they don't either!  I e-mailed one of them... and he won't discuss bowing in online forums anymore.  Such a pity, he has so much to offer!

It also puzzles me because I don't see fiddlers in other genres behaving this way.  In other genres, expert fiddlers in the genre get respect, and get listened to.

Weary and somewhat frustrated at this after the last bowing threads, I actually shared with my wife what was going on.  This is something of a desperate measure, because she's NOT a musician, and it would be hard to explain to her exactly WHAT there is so much disagreement about.  Her answer surprised me:

"It's Postmodernism!"

That intrigued me, so I start doing some research on Postmodernism.  There is a lot of disagreement on what it actually IS.  Some say it's just a "buzzword", but I don't think so. I think the problem is that it affects many fields in slightly different ways.  From the beginning of the wikipedia article on postmodernism":

"Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific or objective efforts to explain reality. In essence, it is based on the position that reality is not mirrored in human understanding of it, but is rather constructed as the mind tries to understand its own personal reality. Postmodernism is therefore skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person."

And with a little substitution, it describes the common reaction to multipattern downbowing pretty well.  A folklorist or ethnomusicologist is a scientist of sorts, and  multipattern downbowing is an effort to explain bowing reality.  And it seems that it could be said that many of the opponents of multipattern downbowing "are skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups" of fiddlers.  Anyway, in my further reading on it, postmodernism has connections to French existentialism and the Hippie movement.  One of the most basic features seems to be a rejection of the concept of right and wrong.  This has implications on a religious and moral level of course- but it also has implications for art and music.  Someone with a postmodern view accepts the validity of ALL styles, but refuses to see any one style as right or authoritative.  This sounds good on a level, but it seems to lead to a resistance to committing to any ONE style or approach.  So there is a tendency to BLEND the styles.  And the resulting blend doesn't always work.  And in architecture, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work on a big scale:

You could call it "interesting", but  you couldn't call it beautiful!!

The thought just occurred to me that the phenomenon of "Celtic Music" could be seen as a musical postmodern phenomenon... instead of committing to ONE of the individual ethnic music styles of one of the Celtic peoples (Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton), they are blended together.

How does this relate to bowing???

Could it possibly be like this???

From what I see and hear, and Brad Leftwich confirms this, Downbowing and the use of patterns was dominant in the Old Time tradition. Upbowing was an occasional minority practice.  And Anywhichway was rare.  I'm not saying it didn't exist... I've seen a couple older fiddlers play that way.  (HOWEVER they are relatively recently videoed older fiddlers, and one thing that goes on in fiddling is you have these generational influences and trends- the old fiddlers being videoed in the last 20 years and put on YouTube are NOT the same generation of Old Timers Alan Lomax recorded, and they don't sound the same, either.)  But now, it's all flipped around.  Anywhichway (judging from the sheer numbers of my opponents in bowing discussion) seems to be VERY common. Downbowing is relatively rare.  Upbowing continues to be somewhat rarer than downbowing, but not as relatively rare as it used to be.

I observed in the 1970s that probably the majority of the young fiddlers were hippies of some sort. The immediate effect seemed to be a tendency to gravitate to bowing that hyped the backbeat.   People who spent a lot of time in the hippie movement also seem to have a strong tendency, once the more visible trappings of the counterculture are stripped away, to be prone to think in Postmodern terms.  COULD IT BE that Anywhichway bowing is philosophically more appealing to modern and hippie influenced Old Time fiddlers because it fits in with their Postmodern worldview???

One thing I see is that in many other musical genres, the genre became strong BEFORE the Postmodern philosophy or worldview became widespread, therefore, they tend to be okay with the idea that there is a RIGHT, or a best way to play that genre of music.  Classical music and Irish and Scottish Trad seem to be more amenable to the concept that there is a right and a wrong way to play the music. Also, styles that have concern for performance quality and technique seem to be more likely to commit to certain techniques as being considered correct and approved in the genre.

Another factor:  if the genre is mostly played by rural and small town people, those people tend to be relatively free of Postmodern thinking, and have no problem with the idea of there being a best way or a correct way of doing something.

Another factor might be Romanticism.  Romantics (in the philosophical not the Valentine's Day sense) tend to see ethnic people groups through rose-colored glasses, or at least filtered through their own cultural attitudes.  Sort of the "noble savage" concept.  When I visited Mt. Airy to visit Tommy Jarrell, I could FEEL my Romantic bubbles being burst by both the town AND the man.  The town wasn't much different from the town my grandparents lived in, or the Midwestern towns we drove through on the way to visit them.  It WAS quite different from the suburbs I grew up in though... but it wasn't nearly as exotic as I'd somehow imagined.  Then, I myself moved to a small town in Northern California, then another.  And most of my time since then has been spent with small town people, some of them ag workers, and the Postmodern worldview is rare among them.  And I think they've influenced me.  I've gotten more conservative in a lot of ways.  I believe in right and wrong. And sayings like "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" and "Don't be so openminded your brains fall out!" make a LOT of sense to me!

Also, while I admit to having been a hippie of sorts in college, it didn't feel right to me. Actually part of the reason WAS because even then, I couldn't get away from the idea of right and wrong, and I had experiences that confirmed for me that there were right ways of behaving and wrong ways of behaving, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise.

Some of the hippie influence is still there in my preference for natural foods and products, but the philosophical or religious aspects have gone by the wayside.

Anyway, since I really don't partake of a Postmodern worldview, I have NO problem thinking that there might be a right way to bow... or at least a better way.  At least if you want to sound like the oldtimers I heard on recordings and in the 70's.

A related example to all this:  Over on the Banjo Hangout the clawhammer players get into it sort of like we do on bowing.  Only their arguments tend to be between "bump-ditty" vs. drop-thumb players.  Unlike fiddling, there is no disagreement about direction- if you play clawhammer, whether drop thumb or "bump-ditty", it's ALL downstrokes.

The constellation of things is a bit different, since the virtuosic players tend to be drop-thumbers, and the more basic players tend to be bump ditty.  I see the reverse being true in North American fiddling- the better Old Time players AND Bluegrass and Contest players tend to be downbowers and the simpler players tend to be anywhichway.  And I tend to think that drop-thumb clawhammer has the edge as far as rhythmic groove, while multipattern downbowing has that edge in Old Time fiddling.

The commonality is that both bump-ditty and Multipattern downbowing are narrower- they exclude a lot of theoretical possibilities.

But I've noticed that:

1. The drop thumb players tend to be very intolerant of the bump-ditty players

2. The main proponents of the extreme drop-thumb view have a countercultural background.

I'm actually a drop-thumb clawhammer player myself, but I started on bump-ditty myself, and I see it as being a widespread approach in the tradition.  So I really don't understand the hostility. It also, like Nashville Shuffle seems to be a simple approach that allows beginners to sound "Old Timey" while they get their timing and technique down.

The thought occurred to me that a counterculture or Postmodern mindset might have a bias towards an approach that could be seen as "being able to do it all", since it allows you not to commit to one way of doing things.

Also, one common thread is this extreme lack of respect to the point of hostility by people who claim to value traditional music, to musical approaches that ARE TRADITIONAL.  This makes no sense on the face of it, but it makes sense if it offends a deeply held world-view.

And drop thumb clawhammer fills the bill- theoretically, if you can do that, you can bump-ditty if you want.

And "anywhichway" encompasses both downbowing and upbowing in a sense, and claims to be able to play the same rhythms, while not thinking of them as "patterns".

Anyway, while the Postmodernist view SEEMS unbiased, I see that when applied to a tradition that grew up before Postmodernism existed, it actually can introduce a form of bias, since it's allergic to committing to a narrow way of doing things.

9 comments on “Old Time Bowing and... Postmodernism????”

boxbow Says:
Tuesday, July 3, 2012 @11:40:52 AM

Your ideas concerning postmodernism may have merit. I will think on it. It's way outside of my expertise, having mostly been scornful of what passes for philosophy. I believe that a large element of the conflict in folk music is the lack of an objective standard. What is the Right Way? What is graven on stone tablets for all you ignorant savages to memorize slavishly? One person's superstitious fear that he may be inauthentic can and does translate into an insistence that others should all toe the same line as defined by an arbitrarily selected "authority." Since the rank and file abhor the notion of a rank and file (we're talking OT and the like here, not Souza marches, arguably the bailiwick of closet anarchists) they begin to object most strenuously. Some cast out the various unbelievers into the dark, or stone them. Others strive to place their own new authority on the pedestal. Much crying and shouting ensues, and stampedes. Cows fail to give milk. Birds fly up-side-down. Politicians deliver on campaign promises. Horses sing and pigs fly. Is it postmodernism if it's more of an ancient behavior than a modern one?

mudbug Says:
Tuesday, July 3, 2012 @12:29:09 PM

Yep. Too many had classical lessons and folks who got their hands whacked for not "doing it" the proper way, even though the classical methods taught, go through changes. Folk music can be played any way you feel like it. Technique does not matter, so long as you get the sound. So, "who does he think he is, telling me that there is ONLY one way of doing it" prevails.

fiddlepogo Says:
Tuesday, July 3, 2012 @2:56:29 PM

You both bring out some good additional angles. I don't doubt there's more than one thing going on here.

My thing is basically that for me I'm picky enough that I can hear a bit of difference in the anywhichway approach and the downbowing pattern approach... you might be able to get 95% of the sound with "anywhichway", and maybe that's enough for most people... but I want 100% if possible (perfectionistic tendencies, ya know...), and if I aim for 100%, maybe I can get at least 99% of the sound. SO, I used my eyes to get a visual on what the old guys were doing with their bows... and it sure looked like downbow pattern bowing to me!

mudbug Says:
Wednesday, July 4, 2012 @3:09:22 AM

Also, Michael, it might be different personality types. Some folks just do things and don't anylise how they do it. Do you think that Robert Johnson anylised every pick stroke? He just did what came, to him, naturally through practise. He would probably get a kick out of someone who tried to anylise exactly how each of his pick strokes fell, and still couldn't quite get the natural feel of what he did. Sometimes, bypassing the brain and letting the body take over produces the result we're looking for.

OTJunky Says:
Wednesday, July 4, 2012 @6:37:50 AM

Well, we've touched on this before but it's worth mentioning again.

Old time fiddlings is an "art" - not a science - and because of this what's needed toe a good old time fiddler can't be captured some formulaic approach. OT Fiddling is hardly unique in this respect. All the other arts suffer from it as well. If you get Walter Piston's classic text on harmony in classical music, you'll find that the theorists have analyzed all the music of the great classical composers and have "extracted" the techniques used for the construction of melody and harmony. And yet if you read and master the material in that book - or others like it - there's no guarantee at all that you'll be able to compose music like Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. Something else is required - some "subjective" component that apparently can't be captured and expressed analytically.

The same is true for the great painters and the "art critics" who've tried to reduce their work to formula.

As for "Post Modernism", it sounds a lot like "American Individualism" to me so I suppose it would apply to old time fiddlers.


fiddlepogo Says:
Wednesday, July 4, 2012 @5:59:04 PM

Mudbug... different personality types, yeah, something to that.

Robert Johnson... yeah, there are these untrained geniuses. But a lot of that genius gets down to phrasing. It's true, some people max out technically on a complex musical structure, and play too rigidly, because they are just hanging in there, just on the ragged edge of control. It's tempting to contrast such people with people like Robert Johnson. But you can also take something fairly complex, and phrase it so it sounds alive, not mechanical, and make it come alive.
There was a phase for me when Syncoshuffle was just a mathematical possibility for me, and SOUNDED like it. Then there was a phase where it started to be useful in a narrow way. Now, it's fully integrated in my style, and I can phrase it a bunch of ways.
It's gone from a dead, rigid, mathematical bowing formula to something that feels ALIVE.

OTJ... yeah, something to that, but Bach, Beethoven and Mozart were all trained to the max in the musical structures of their day, and built on THAT to get where they got.
I think it's possible to be trained to the max in the musical structures of Old Time... and then get creative with it., just like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart did. Creatively extending the tradition, but not leaving it.

OTJ... yeah American individualism enters into it too, but Bluegrass, Texas, and Contest players are Americans too ya know, and they don't seem averse to patterns.

fiddlepogo Says:
Wednesday, July 4, 2012 @6:10:13 PM

Mudbug... and there is a phase in playing patterns where the conscious brain definitely DOES get bypassed, and the body, or rather the subconscious takes over, and finds a groove.

Bottom line... you talk like patterns are inherently opposed to playing real music. Nope... it might SEEM like it in an elementary phase... and some never leave that phase.
It's really not any different from scales.. They are patterns of notes. They can be done mechanically (as I did with pentatonic box scales on electric guitar as a teenager) , or you can turn them into music (as I seem to be able to do now with the same scales, if people's reaction is any indication).
1st- get control!
2nd-express your soul!

mudbug Says:
Thursday, July 5, 2012 @3:06:31 AM

What I think I was referring to, also incompasses the fact that during practice time, you might be micro-anylising, while playing out, you let it flow and let the body take over. You might in discussion. be in your anylitical stage, talking to someone in the flow stage. When in the flow, anylising brings you down.

fiddlepogo Says:
Thursday, July 5, 2012 @11:42:35 AM

Oh YEAH.... discussion brings out the analytical stage. People think I'm that way all the time.
One guy said he though I must have one of those compulsively neat desks... NO WAY!!!

And yeah... I can't allow myself to analyse much when playing- that's why I basically need to leave my recording stuff set up to go.

If I do much more than set levels, I flip into analytical "recording engineer" mode and can't play worth diddly-squat.... well, it might not sound THAT bad, but the life is gone.

To play well, my analytical side is basically in the back seat of the car, and heart and/or soul are driving. I may notice "Oh, I'm doing mostly Syncoshuffe now"!, but that part of me is not calling the shots, it's just "looking out the window", along for the ride.

BUT whether scales or shuffles, if I've done my analytical homework well, it opens up a LOT of possibilities for the creative side to play with, to have fun with. Like, I can improvise out of all 5 pentatonic "boxes".... and I have at least that many bowing strategies to draw from when I play fiddle. And I don't have to think about either one.

When you get down to it, the reason I like bowing discussions so much is that it's like taking the kid to ToysRUs and getting him a new toy!!! I learn stuff that I might eventually be able to use like I use the other ones I already know. Cool Beans!

One of the reasons I use warm up tunes is that it not only hones in my left hand fingers and bowing arm, it gets me into the flow. Part of practice is to practice reconnecting with that flow.
AFTER I've let my heart and soul have had fun practicing, and my tone is good, and my intonation good, THEN I might let Mr. Professor out of the back seat to read an Irish tune from notation, or learn a new Old Time tune.... but it's gonna be SLOW! But then at least it sounds better, and heart and soul have woken up and are listening for ways to make it musical.

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