Musican and NPR Journalist PAUL BROWN appears in Harrisburg, PA on April 16, 2011

On Saturday, April 16, 2011 the Susquehanna Folk Music Society presents PAUL BROWN an old-time musician, producer and on-line journalist for NPR who will appear in concert with Ann Porcella, Bill Schmidt & John Schwab. The performance is   entitled “Old Time, New Times, Radio Days, Schoolhouse Nights” At 5:00 Paul will give a talk on the topic which will be followed by a potluck dinner and a concert at 7:30 pm. The event will take place at the Fort Hunter Barn at 5300 North Front Street in Harrisburg, PA. Tickets and additional information is available at Be sure to come out for this top notch, memorable show!

During an interview conducted on March 14, 2011 Brown talks about his musical background and the upcoming performance.

Folk Mama: You’re a great lover and an appreciator of southern mountain music and I’d like to know more about how that interest started. I know that your mother was from Virginia and that she brought songs from her home-state into your home. I also know that you have done a lot of field research.

Brown: One thing that I do tell people when they ask about the connections between the journalism work and music is that for me the two things are basically the same. It’s storytelling. In other words, my idea as a journalist is to understand people’s stories and help them to share them. The music that I was first exposed to as a kid, from my mom’s repertoire out of central Piedmont, Virginia was largely songs that told people’s stories. At it got me interested in the music and the stories at once. Then as I sought out older musicians to learn from I started to understand that their stories were as interesting as the music that they played. They wouldn’t be around forever. And I wanted to understand the ways in which they lived during times that were very different from the times in which I grew up. Now, decades later, I’m really getting a lot of pleasure out of sharing some of these stories, both through the music and through the memories that I have of sharing time with these people. And because the world has changed so much with new media and new lifestyles and a new economy very different from the old agricultural economy I’m finding that people are ever more interested in the old music and the stories of those times. It’s been amazing to me over the last couple of years. That’s what people seem to want more than anything else. What was it like?

Folk Mama: I think of the Piedmont area as being where a lot of American blues comes from. Do you also do some blues?

Brown: I play a little blues, but old-time, bluegrass, jazz and blues are all so closely related. If you look back at what was going on in Piedmont, Virginia and Appalachian North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia there are more similarities than differences. My mom’s first music came from elderly black people in the Bedford and Lynchburg areas of Virginia. But what I noticed, especially when I went to college at Oberlin in the early 70s and ran into other people who were interested in old-time music, was that the old-time repertoire shared a lot of songs with the repertoire that my mom showed me. And as I met some of the older musicians I realized that the black musicians like Turner Fodrail in Stuart, Virginia and white musicians like Fields Ward from Independence, Virginia shared a number of songs. And they also shared an approach to the music. There are so many blues influences in old-time string band music and old time songs that it’s hard to mistake. Yes, so the Piedmont area is known for blues, but there was also a tremendous well of old-time music there. The Appalachian area is popularly known for string band music and hillbilly songs, but there was also quite a bit of blues influence there too. So the music that I play crosses all those boundaries because of what I grew up with and was exposed to as a young person and a young adult as well.

Folk Mama: I’m really fascinated by the topic of the talk that you will be giving on how bluegrass and old-time music was affected by the advent of the radio. From what I read the arrival of records and radio in the rural south is what first exposed people to music that they couldn’t hear in their own backyards. It also gave musicians opportunities to be heard and to play where they couldn’t before.

Brown: I think that radio had a number of effects on communities. It did expose people to music further away than they might have heard otherwise. And that had the effect of homogenizing music to some extent, even as it had a positive impact by allowing people to hear music from further away. If you listen to recordings of old-time music before the days of radio at some of the earliest recording sessions, for example the Bristol Sessions in 1927, you hear the musicians that came into that session. They sound almost like nothing that you would hear today in their uniqueness. Every band, every group, every individual seemed to have a signature that was unmistakable. As you listen to later recordings and music that went out over the radio they are still very representative of old-time music and they are distinctive in terms of their place in American culture but yet you can hear people trying to sound like other people who may not have grown up anywhere near where they lived. So radio united communities in my experience, but on some level in also homogenized music or spread styles much further than they might have been spread had radio not been around. What I found when I was working at WPAQ in Mount Airy, North Carolina in the 1980’s was that there had been a tremendous and very interesting merging of styles. On that station we were broadcasting in the 1980s everything from country blues to blues-tinged bluegrass to the old fiddle tunes that sounded very English from southwestern Virginia to the Round peak music of Tommy Jarrel which combined some of those English and Irish tunes with a real blues sensibility and all this was very vigorously represented in that community. Part of it was the music of the community itself and part of the energy of the music was I think due to the presence of that radio station. So when I was working there it was really interesting to see the interplay of the local and the National or the local and the regional through radio. Working at WPAQ taught me a lot about the positive role that radio and media can play in communities to bring them together. And the work that I’m doing at NPR is a direct outgrowth of that. Whether it’s a geographical community or a community of the mind, it doesn’t really matter to me. But, media do allow people to communicate and think about and ideas together. So it’s really been an interesting time to be in this field and also to be interested in old-time and traditional music as well as journalism. They are two very closely related aspects of my life.

Folk Mama: So, tell me how different the first half of your concert is going to be from the second half?

Brown:  A lot of the first half will be solo. Not, all of it, but a lot of it. I’m going to start with some of the earliest music that I learned from my mom; the lullabies and the mountain songs that she knew. Also some of the fiddle tunes and some of the songs of Fields Ward and other people who I met when I was a young adult that were similar to the songs that I learned from my mom. So I’ll probably take people through a little journey from those earliest songs on out to meeting some of the old-time fiddle players and going to square dances and our show will expand a little bit as we get towards the end of the first set, adding more players. When we come back in the second set we will fuse all that with the emerging repertoire of southern radio so we’ll have some old-time Stringband music, some blues songs, and some early crossover songs between old-time and bluegrass which to my ear represents some of the greatest expressions in the mountain south in the 1950s to the 1980s. It was an amazing style and still is. So that’s what we’ll do. The second half will be slightly more performance-oriented music because that was what radio was about and that was what bluegrass was about. And the advent of mass media and the advent of transportation, of sound amplification really helped to change styles somewhat. We’ll talk about that and we’ll show it. It’s really fun. The second half is really a blast. The first half will be very enjoyable too. What I hope is that people will see the connections between more modern bluegrass and Stringband music and old-time music and what was going on during the early part of the 20th century on out to the middle part. There was a big cultural shift after World War Two. Bill Monroe started with his band The Bluegrass Boys in the 30s and 40s creating some new sounds but the new economic and social conditions that emerges after the Second World War really kicked what he was doing into gear as Earl Scruggs on the banjo with his new style, but a lot of it through my own ear and through my experience had to do with social conditions. And the fiddle style changed because of that. And I will show that because I play some of the early old stuff and I like to play square dances in the more modern style. So we’ll be able to make that transition together. All of us. The people who come to the show and the musicians.

Folk Mama: Just out of curiosity, how much did that fiddle style change as economic conditions improved by musicians having access to taking private lessons? A lot of fiddlers currently study classical techniques on the violin before they start playing Stringband music. What that an influence that changed the sound?

Brown: You know back in those days I can’t really tell you because I don’t know. I d know that now, like you said, I’m seeing a lot of fiddle players who have a type of training that just wasn’t available to those early fiddlers in the beginning of the 20th century, though the Second World War and beyond. You do hear some very, very highly skilled fiddlers now. What I think did happen was radio, recordings, the advent of easy transportation and electric power to amplify sound all came together to help advance a longer bow style to fiddle playing that was better suited to big dance halls and also needed than the older style. You can’t really play in some of the older styles and be adequately heard in a big dance hall. Once you get a large band behind you that can be heard, you need to do different things with the fiddle which helps the dancers.

Folk Mama: So what instruments are you going to be playing?

Brown: I’m going to be playing fiddle, banjo and guitar. I’ll also sing quite a bit because I like songs. Songs are at the heart of the early music that I learned and I still sing a lot. And we’ll have other people playing guitar, fiddle, banjo and bass. The show should be really fun. People really want to know about this—it’s like an era that has past.

Folk Mama: I’ve had a couple of people say to me that they want to learn the music of their family, perhaps if they have a Scots-Irish heritage. Too me, this is a great way to introduce a new community to old-time music.

 Brown: I’d encourage them to come. You know, every family has a story. The number of people that have musical stories hidden in their families is probably bigger than any of us recognizes. It’s a tremendous opportunity to go after some of that stuff.


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