I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the definitions of “bluegrass” “old-time” and “Irish” music. These three genres seem to be deeply connected, yet distinctly different. This article is an attempt to summarize the modern-day uses of these terms as they relate to jam sessions. There is no way to fully define these genres in one page, but it seems helpful to be at least generally aware of what each session may include.
First, Irish music sessions generally play tunes that come from Ireland, but may also include Scottish, English, French-Canadian, and American tunes. The sessions are generally “led” by fiddlers, though the lead instruments may also include accordion, mandolin, banjo, or whistles (flutes, penny whistles, etc). Irish-style banjos are usually tenor banjos without a fifth string and are played with a flatpick or plectrum. Traditionally, there is only one rhythm guitar player and there is not a standard chord-progression for each tune. Percussion played on bodhran or other hand drums, and dancers are also traditionally part of an Irish session.
Irish style playing is very melody-driven. Variations come in the form of melodic turns, the addition of rhythmic triplets, and various harmonizations (chords) by the rhythm player(s). Many tunes are in 4/4 time (Reels), but you are also likely to hear tunes in 6/8 (Jigs), 9/8 (Slip Jigs), and 12/8 (Slides), as well as Hornpipes which are in 4/4 time but have a dotted rhythm. Timing is expected to be precise, and accent placement is crucial.
Old Time music generally refers to traditional American tunes and songs, particularly those collected in the Appalachian mountains by song-collectors like Alan Lomax, AP Carter, and Jean Ritchie. There are many wonderful source recordings in the Library of Congress if you are interested in hearing some of the earliest recordings of this music. Many of the tunes and songs come from Celtic regions, but there is also a deep African influence in the music.
Old Time music sessions are also very melody-driven and are usually led by a fiddler. Banjos are played in the “clawhammer” style, without the use of any kind of picks. Guitar and bass are the rhythm instruments and the chord progressions are generally very simple. Melody may be played on any stringed instrument. Generally, percussion instruments are not part of Old Time Sessions, though an excellent bones, washboard, or spoons player would be welcome. Flat-foot dancing, similar to clogging, is also part of this tradition. Accents tend to be on beats 2 & 4 with a lot of forward momentum, though articulation of each note is not always precise. Think of this as “barn dance” music.
Bluegrass music is a genre traditionally linked to Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. This music is deeply influenced by both Irish and American Old-Time traditions, but also by blues and jazz. A greater emphasis is placed on improvisation. Each musician traditionally gets a turn to play a solo rather than all playing the melody in unison. Traditional bluegrass instruments are fiddle, mandolin, banjo (5-string, 3-finger style), guitar, and bass. Other stringed instruments are generally accepted, and Bill Monroe once had an accordion in his band. Some folks describe Bluegrass more as “listening” music rather than dance music.
Many of the same tunes are commonly played at Irish, Old-Time, and Bluegrass jams, but the way they are played is different. It is important to observe the style of a session before you join in, and it is helpful to study each genre to become a more well-rounded instrumentalist. On the other hand, it is important not to get too hung up on descriptions. Louis Armstrong once said, “There are two kinds of music – the Good and the Bad. I play the good kind.” As long as you are making good music, which you enjoy, it doesn’t matter what you call it!
Your crazy jamming VP,