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 Old Time Workshops
What is Old Time Music?

Fiddlin John CarsonTHAT IS sometimes a difficult question to answer.

Some say it's music that originates in the southern Appalachian region of Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee but which also includes related music.

Mike Seeger of The New Lost City Ramblers puts it another way: "Old Time music was the Old-time name for real mountain-type folk music. Oldtime music is the main foundation for bluegrass. It is the kind of music that ... most rural people prior to the mid 1920s were raised with. It's the old unaccompanied British ballads like Barbara Allen, new American songs like Wild Bill Jones, old fiddle tunes like Devil's Dream, and newer fiddle tunes like Cumberland Gap. It's a rich and varied heritage of music - as rich as the roots of any country."

Old-time music has also been called old-timey, Hillbilly music and string-band music. The main instruments of Old time are fiddle, guitar and banjo; mandolin not so often.

The Scottish Influence

Fiddlin John CarsonWhile it would wrong to say "all old time music comes from Scotland," many scholars believe that the Scots and Scotch-Irish had perhaps the greatest influence on the development of American Old-time music. There was significant immigration into Appalachia in the 18th and 19th centuries by Scots, and Scotch-Irish (the "Scotch-Irish" were Scots who had migrated to Ulster from Cromwell's time onwards. Either they or their descendants moved from there to the US). The term "hillbilly" was originally a reference to Presbyterian supporters of William of Orange (King Billy).

There are certainly many tunes of Scottish origin which can be found in the Old time repertoire; some obviously so, others rather more difficult to spot. Old Molly Hare is an American version of that old Scottish warhorse The Fairy Dance, while Hop Light Ladies (sometimes also called Uncle Joe) is very recognisible as Mrs McLeod of Raasay.

Plenty people neither know nor care about these concordances, but it can be a fascinating and useful study.


Some people equate old time music with the Appalachian region of the Eastern United States, but it's really American roots music from the first forty years of the 20th century. Much of it is rooted in the traditional music of Scotland, Ireland and England, but there are other immigrant and African-American influences to be heard.

The reason that Appalachia is most often identified as the home of Old-time music is because as a region it was isolated much longer than other areas due to its rugged, mountainous terrain. Because there was significant immigration into Appalachia by the Scots and Scotch-Irish, it had a huge influence on the development of American Old time music.

There was a revival of interest in Old-time music in the 1960s and 70s, leading to a few well-known revival bands such as The New Lost City Ramblers, The Fuzzy Mountain String Band, The Highwoods String Band, The Red Clay Ramblers, The Hollow Rock String Band, and so on. Now Old time is enjoyed by many musicians and learners around the world.

Bluegrass & Old Time

Lots of Bluegrass instrumentals are based on old time tunes, but the early pioneers of Bluegrass music (e.g. Bill Monroe) also introduced other influences like blues and jazz. At a Bluegrass jam session people take turns at improvising solos; this doesn't happen at an old time jam. In Old Time, everybody plays the tune together, many times through.

Nigel & Old Time

I first heard old time music from a bunch of friends in Edinburgh when I was a teenager, and that wasn't yesterday!
For a while I played in a wee old time band called Clutching At Straws (see video above). I have conducted many old time workshops over the years and I've published a couple of tunebooks on the subject.


I have a number of old time tunes to download from my tunes pages, and many of them include MP3 soundfiles.

My first book of old time tunes is available from my online store containing over 30 tunes which I've learned from friends and recordings. It comes as a physical book, and as digital and tablature download versions.

I've also compiled another digital download-only collection of tunes and songs which I've taught at various old time workshops I've done (see this page for further details).

 Nigel Gatherer, Crieff, Perthshire |