Oral Tradition in Appalachian Old-Time Instrumental Music


Before the advent of electrical recording mediums, instrumental music in Appalachia was transmitted directly from person to person. Most musicians were also unable to read or write notated music, and therefore relied on personal instruction and memory to acquire new tunes. Due to the reliance on memory, variations were unavoidable (similar to the children’s game “telephone”). This process, known formally as “oral transmission” or “oral tradition,” and informally as the “folk process,” is responsible for the dissemination and preservation of the large body of music now referred to as “old-time.” Although this process continues today, the majority of modern old-time musicians depend on recordings for the acquisition of new repertoire. This pathfinder provides written sources which include discussion of this process within a larger framework. All non-internet related citations are available within Appalachian State’s libraries. Ballads, which went through a similar process, are not within the scope of this pathfinder. In the absence of a singular study, the researcher should examine several of these sources in order to appreciate the complexity of this process.

Introductory Text: 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1950. ASU REF GR35 .F8
“Oral Tradition in Music,” Charles L. Seeger, vol .2, pp. 826-829.

Wooley, Amy. “Conjuring Utopia: The Appalachian String Band Revival.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2003. ASU APP COLL STACKS ML3551.9 .W66 2003, pp. 136-139.

Library of Congress Subject Headings: 

Highly Relevant:

  • Fiddletunes -- Kentucky -- History and criticism
  • Fiddle tunes -- History and criticism
  • Fiddlers -- Biography
  • Fiddling -- History and criticism
  • Folk music -- History and criticism
  • Folk music -- United States -- History and criticism
  • Folk music -- West Virginia -- History and criticism
  • Old-time music -- Appalachian Region -- History and criticism
  • String band music -- Appalachian Region -- History and criticism

Also Relevant:

  • Carter Family (Musical group)
  • Fiddle tunes -- Kentucky
  • Fiddle tunes -- North Carolina
  • Fiddle tunes -- Virginia
  • Fiddle tunes – West Virginia – Braxton County
  • Fiddlers -- West Virginia -- Biography
  • Folk dance music -- North Carolina -- History and criticism
  • Folklore -- United States -- Audio-visual aids -- Catalogs
  • Folk music -- Appalachian Region
  • Folk music -- Appalachian Region, Southern -- Discography
  • Folk music -- Appalachian Region, Southern -- History and criticism
  • Folk music -- Southern States -- History and criticism
  • Folk musicians -- West Virginia -- Interviews
  • Old-time music -- North Carolina -- History and criticism
  • Old-time music -- Virginia -- History and criticism
  • Oral tradition -- Appalachian Region, Southern

More General:

  • African Americans -- Appalachian Region -- Music -- History and criticism
  • Fiddle tunes
  • Fiddle tunes -- Alabama -- History and criticism
  • Fiddle tunes -- Tennessee
  • Folk dance music -- Pennsylvania
  • Folk dance music -- History and criticism
  • Folk songs, English -- Appalachian Region -- History and criticism
  • Folk songs, English -- Southern States
  • Music -- Appalachian Region
  • Music festivals -- Southern States -- History and criticism
  • Old-time music
  • Oral tradition


  • Ethnomusicology
  • Folk music
  • Musicology
Clipping Files Subject Headings – W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection: 
  • Folk Music
  • Music - Banjo Music - Dulcimer Music - Fiddle Music - Guitar Musical Instruments - General Musicians - Appalachia
  • Oral History
Library of Congress Call Numbers: 
  • ML 3551
  • ML 3561
  • ML 128
  • ML 1629
  • ML 1
  • ML 418
  • ML 421
  • ML 3556
  • ML 394
  • M 1629

Marshall, Erynn. Music In The Air Somewhere: The Shifting Borders of West Virginia’s Fiddle and Song Traditions. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003. ASU APP COLL STACKS: ML3551.7.W5 M37 2006.

Milnes, Gerald. Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. ASU APP COLL STACKS: ML3551 .M55 1999.

Titon, Jeff Todd. Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes. Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2001. ASU APP COLL STACKS: M1629.7.K4 O43 2001.

Wolfe, Charles K. The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press: Country Music Foundation Press, 1997. ASU APP COLL STACKS: ML3551.7.S68 W65 1997.

Wooley, Amy. Conjuring Utopia: The Appalachian String Band Revival. Ph.D. diss., Los Angeles: University of California, 2003. ASU APP COLL STACKS ML3551.9 .W66 2003.

Bayard, Samuel P., ed. Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife: Instrumental Folk Tunes in Pennsylvania. University Park, London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982. ASU APP COLL STACKS: M1629 .D2, pp. 1-4.

Beisswenger, Drew. Fiddling Way Out Yonder: The Life and Music of Melvin Wine. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2002. ASU APP COLL STACKS: ML418.W56 B45 2002.

Bevil, J. Marshall. Centonization and Concordance in the American Southern Uplands Folksong Melody: A Study of the Musical Generative and Transmittive Process of an Oral Tradition. Ph.D. diss., Denton: North Texas State University, 1984. ASU APP COLL MIC: MicF 234.

Cauthen, Joyce H. With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow: Old-Time Fiddling in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989. ASU APP COLL STACKS: ML3551 .C38 1989.

Guntharp, Matthew G. Learning the Fiddler’s Ways. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980. ASU APP COLL STACKS: ML3561 .F5 G8.

Malone, Bill C. Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993. ASU APP COLL STACKS: ML3551 .M26 1993, pp. 6-42.

Rosenberg, Neil V., ed. Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. ASU APP COLL STACKS: ML3551 .T72 1993.

Guides, Encyclopedias, and Dictionaries: 

Abramson, Rudy and Jean Haskell, eds. Encyclopedia of Appalachia. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 2006. ASU APP COLL STACK: F106 .E53 2006.
Jeff Todd Titon. “Fiddle,” p. 1151
David A. Brose. “Old-time Music,” p. 1193.

Miller, Terry E. Folk Music in America: A Reference Guide. New York: Garland Publishers, 1986. ASU APP COLL STACKS: ML128.F74 M5 1986, pp. 105-113.


Appalachian Bibliography. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1968, 1972, and 1980. ASU APP COLL STACKS: Z1251 .A7 A6 1980.
“Music,” pp. 696-741.

Bibliography File (Boxes). ASU APP COLL STACKS: Z1251 .A7 B4.
Folders: “Fiddling, Fiddle Tunes, and Dance Tunes,” and “Folk Songs.”

Abstracts and Indices: 

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature , FirstSearch, 1969-present (updated quarterly). Contains over 464,000 records from over 500 scholarly journals on a wide range of musical topics. Dissertation searches for “old-time,” “fiddle,” or “oral tradition” will yield good results. Found at:


American Folklore Films and Videotapes: An Index. Memphis, TN: Center for Southern Folklore, 1976. ASU APP COLL STACKS: Z5984.U6 C45 1976. Provides comprehensive listing of films by subject, however, not all of them are available in the WNCLN system. Search for “Folk Music” or “Folk Music - Country Music/Mountain Music.”


Journal of American Folklore. Quarterly. Vol. 1,1888 - present. Available online via JSTOR database.

The Devil’s Box. Monthly. Vol. 1, 1976- Vol. 33, 1999. ASU APP COLL STACKS ML1 .D325.

Old-Time Herald. Monthly. Vol. 1,1987-present. ASU APP COLL STACKS ML1. 035.

Old Time Music. Quarterly. Vol. 1,1971- Vol. 45,1989. ASU APP COLL OVSZ ML1. 053.

Sing Out!: The Folk Song Magazine. Monthly . Vol. 1, 1959 – Vol. 27, 1979. ASU APP COLL STACKS M1629 .S595.


The Fiddler’s Companion:
- Exhaustive database of fiddle tunes and their history / variants., including a thorough bibliography.

Music in the Digital Library of Appalachia:
-Searchable database of recordings of Appalachian music. Includes interviews with musicians.

The Old-Time Music Homepage’s Link page: http://www.oldtimemusic.com/otlinks.html
-Various links to all things old-time.

Other Sources: 

Woolf, Andrew Godfrey. The Fiddling Festival: Revivalist Old-Time Music Jam Sessions at Southern Fiddle Conventions. Ph.D. diss., Medford, MA: Tufts University, 1990. ASU APP COLL MIC: Micro- fiche 21.

Compiled by: 

Compiler: Dave Wood, 29 November 2007