A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Down Hill Struggler Eli Smith on Old Time Music

The Down Hill Strugglers (Photo Courtesy of Eli Smith)
The Down Hill Strugglers, a dynamic Old Time string band from New York City, is joining us this year at the Great Lakes Folk Festival. You can catch them on the City Hall and Dance stages throughout the weekend.

The Down Hill Strugglers (formerly known as the Dust Busters) strive to integrate a wide range of old-time songs, ballads, fiddle tunes, and jug band blues into every performance, infused with the old-time feeling and freewheelin’ high energy that characterized early string bands such as The Skillet Lickers, Dykes Magic City Trio, The Mississippi Sheiks, and J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers among many others. They are influenced and inspired by the direct fusion of Scots-Irish and African music that took place in Appalachia, the Western states and the Deep South from the earliest colonial times through the Second World War.
The band has had the opportunity to learn directly from living tradition bearers, especially Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport, North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson (who was part of the 2007 Great Lakes Folk Festival) and Kentucky banjo player Lee Sexton, as well as from their friend and mentor John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, who himself learned from tradition bearers including Roscoe Holcomb, Maybelle Carter, George Landers, Frank Proffitt, Wade Ward, and others. 

Eli Smith, Down Hill Struggler, Down Home Radio Show producer, and seasoned folk festival producer, was able to answer a few questions about playing Old Time music in anticipation of the Great Lakes Folk Festival.  

What’s the band’s process for learning a new tune? 
When one of us brings in a new song or tune, sometimes we'll play one or more old source recordings for the tune so that the other bandmates can hear a way or ways that it has been done in the past as we approach making our own arrangement.  Or alternatively, just play the song or tune for the other bandmates without immediately referencing a source recording, so that we won't be immediately influences by the old recording and can have some spontaneous response and go from there.  We experiment with different instrumentation, give each other comments or ask advice on our parts and finally come to our own arrangement.  In it's own way it is simple music but has to be played right! 

What kinds of things do you have to consider when presenting Appalachian music to diverse audiences? 
We do play a lot of Appalachian music, we also play string band music from the Deep South, the West and the North and we incorporate diverse styles of rural American music into our performances.  We want people to know that what we perform and present is our take on the music of the American rural working class, incorporating both Euro and African - American influences.  Most contemporary audiences have never heard our music before because it is not played almost anywhere, the only reference they have for it is a vague idea of Bluegrass music, which has made some inroads into the popular consciousness.  We feel that our music speaks for itself, but we also try to give people some background information about the music and the styles that we play. 

What does ‘tradition’ and ‘creativity’ sound like in Old-Time (or down home) music? 
Thank you for mentioning the term "Down Home Music" which we as a band like very much.  That term describes the kind of rural, minimalist music that we like, music that hasn't been deranged in some unwarranted way.  We carry on a tradition of rural American string band music not simply for the sake of "tradition" itself.  Some traditions are bad and should go away, like slavery or militarism!  We honor the music because it is old and handed down by a long tradition of great musicians, but we continue it out of our own creativity and desire to express ourselves truly and to the best of our own abilities. 

What do you enjoy most about playing this music? 
I enjoy the spirit of it, and its take on the inner emotional life of people.  It speaks to me in a way that feels satisfying and right, not psychologically damaging or absurd like most of the music coming at me from loudspeakers across America.

Check the Down Hill Strugglers out at the Great Lakes Folk Festival at these times: 

Friday, August 7
8:00 pm, Dance Stage 

Saturday, August 8
12:00 pm, City Hall Stage, “Celebrating Alan Lomax” session
8:45 pm, City Hall Stage 

Sunday, August 9
1:30 pm, City Hall Stage, “Celebrating Alan Lomax” session
4:30 pm, Dance Stage

Here's a link to the Great Lakes Folk Festival schedule.