A curious comment about folk music

Recent events remind me of a comment that came my way during a gig  twenty years ago.  This comment has weighed on my mind ever since.  My blog, now just over a month old, makes it possible to at last toss it out there for the rest of you to chomp on and think through with me.

The story: In April 1995, I was playing background music on the hammered dulcimer durging the lunch hour in the cafeteria of a pharmaceutical company near Trenton, NJ.  My repertoire was the usual smattering of extemporized fiddle tunes, classical music, and popular songs, going heavy on the fiddle tunes (there’s something about the happiness in these tunes).

Between tunes, a young man–30-something, tall, thin, handsome, clean-shaven, wearing an Oxford shirt with wool slacks and a necktie, perhaps an M.D. or Ph.D.–had apparently listened for quite some time before coming forward to speak with me.  I don’t remember if he stood close by for a bit while I played the tune of the moment (a usual response, as every dulcimer player knows), but when I finished playing, he said:

“You play with precision.  Folk music isn’t precise.”

And then he returned to his office to work.

Suffice it to say I’d been decked.  I think.

What did he mean? Here I am, twenty years later, still pondering this.  Was he suggesting that I was playing folk music “wrong” because my approach was precise?  Or did he at last find folk music to be appealing because the tunes were played precisely in rhythm and harmony?  What should my response be in the future when I play fiddle tunes and other folk melodies?  His words leave a lot to interpretation.

So I’m asking you: What was the first thing that came to your mind about what he said?  Leave a (cordial!) comment to share your thoughts, and be sure to return here from time to time to see how thoughts progress.  There are no right or wrong answers; you can tell from my own questions that even I am conflicted in trying to interpret what he said!  I look forward to your thoughts.



  • Rolly says:

    Hi, Lucille,
    I mean no reflection on your playing, although your long ago listener might have been dismissive. Here are some thoughts: Are you familiar with the term “ragged but right”? It describes music in which the emotions expressed take precedence over the precision of the music. Guitarists like Joseph Spence, Rev. Gary Davis (in his later years), and Lightnin’ Hopkins might be examples. One can play their music with perfect precision, but, if it doesn’t have a human feel (dynamics, articulation, vibrato, phrasing), then the player is missing the most important part. Of course, it’s also possible to play with great precision AND great feel; better yet!! If the long ago you were open to seeing whether the guy’s comment had merit, you could have asked yourself whether your music was as expressive as it could be. Of course, if the long ago you answered “yes”, then maybe the guy was just an asshole…hard to tell…;^)

  • Cheryl says:

    My first thought is, he needs to listen to Peter, Paul, and Mary all afternoon, and then we’ll talk. Or he could go to a flatpick contest.

    My second thought is, lobbing a backhanded compliment at a total stranger and walking away is a jerk move. Luckily, you responded correctly by continuing to play, learn, and grow as a musician.

    And my final thought is, he doesn’t express himself very well if, two decades on, you are still trying to figure out what he meant.

  • John Kroner says:

    Most of the music I hear at Winfield (at least on the stages) is in fact precise – the flatpicking, especially the bluegrass, must have every note clean and in the right spot, and usually at lightning speed. Folk music (whatever THAT entails) and blues can be a little muddy, but doesn’t have to be. Folk music as performed by nonprofessional musicians (i.e., folk) will not be precise. Don’t know much about playing the fiddle, but what comes out can be awful if it is NOT precise.

  • Mike Phelan says:

    Folk music is honest. If you’re playing it the way you feel it, you’re playing it correctly. If someone else plays it differently- that’s to be expected- that’s the folk process.

  • Laura Gregg says:

    “Thank you for sharing.”
    Doesn’t sound like there was time to engage in a lengthy conversation; if there was, I’d be inclined to respond, “Huh. I wonder if you can say more about that?”

  • Dave says:

    Makes me think of my own experience with “expert” fiddle players. The ones who are used to playing for contra dances and such understand about lilt and lift. That’s what makes the music move the dancers. Those (usually with classical violin training) who play off off the written page are precise but the music is without life.

    So how to make the music be alive on the autoharp? It’s a challenge because we can’t slide into notes. I wind up doing a lot of hammering-on to fake the slide. The lilt is a matter of syncopation – the ear can figure out the rhythm but it isn’t captured by the dots-on-a-page notation. As for lift – the fiddle player lifts her bow. Harpers try to lift the right hand off the strings on long notes – it makes a different feel tho I can’t figure a logical reason why.

  • Janet says:


    The first thing that came to my mind is, because folk music is not precise, how could he know you were playing precisely? Actually you were playing a version of each tune because, as we all know, there are many variations of any fiddle tune out there. You picked a version you liked and played that, and I’m pretty sure you did some variations of your own on it, too.

  • Ken Sluce. says:

    Hi, Lucille. “You play with precision. Folk music isn’t precise.” What did he mean? My thoughts on this statement for what its worth. I think he was referring to the folksy technique’s that I would love to be able to use on the Autoharp but cannot they also apply to the Hammed Dulcimer. I would love to be able to. “Hammer on. Slide. Pull off. Bend notes.
    ( All Guitar techniques. ) Slur notes together Fiddle style. The lack of these effects can tend to make our instrument’s mechanical sounding when playing up tempo tunes……..You may disagree. I have felt these limitations when playing Autoharp for a long time now…….

  • Ms Lucille: I too have been accused of playing autoharp “dfferently”:
    One grand old man said, “You play classical autoharp.”
    I too did not know what to make of it, but take it as a compliment:
    Playing precisely and classically sounds pretty good, I think!
    Paul of Flowerland Mountains

  • Wendy Snook says:

    Hi Lucille,
    My guess from the pharmaceutical company context and his dress code is that your commentator is the sort of person who appreciates precision. So I would favour your second interpretation and take it as a compliment.
    However the first idea, that folk music ‘ought’ to be imprecise and organic is very prevalent in folk music circles, and is an argument that we have within our band Journey Bound regularly! e.g. if playing fiddle tunes on recorder and autoharp together, (plus guitar and bodhran), and I am playing the melody on the autoharp, I expect us to play in unison or in harmony. Colin thinks we play in unison for the first time through the tune, and then after that he can extemporise on recorder as he feels, no matter if it clashes with what I am doing. I feel it sounds like we don’t know what we are doing, because we are not playing the same tune. I am happy to change the octaves and style each time through, if it is organised in advance about who is doing what. He thinks that organic mayhem with the tune is what you do in folk music, like it is jazz! What do others think?

  • It depends on the tune. Ashokan farewell is like an old wagon on a dirt road at twilight under the stars and it should be a little ragged. too polished it loses an edgey ruggedness that grabs the heart. Shenandoah played on the autoharp smooth and placid and precise is perfect. I think you’re were presented with someone who as overanalyzed what they believe to be true. folk music isn’t true it’s honest.

  • Carol says:

    Maybe he meant that he thinks your music is too perfect, kind of like those big hairdos of the 60s where every hair was sprayed into place so it didn’t appear natural. That’s just a guess since only he really knows and he didn’t stay to explain. Everyone has their individual taste in music. Some people like spontaneity, some like a lot of emotion, and others think it’s most important that all the notes and intervals are correct. It’s hard to please everyone. Even if you’re great, some people just won’t like your style or the type of music you play. I wouldn’t worry about it. Be yourself and enjoy!

  • Nadine White says:

    Several ideas occurred to me in rapid succession (here they are in that order).

    My guess is that one (or several) of the following were influencing the man in question, and it’s more likely than not that the man what he said to be positive, perhaps not realizing the ‘kick in the tail’ that he was delivering.

    * He may have previously encountered too many musicians of limited ability but greater enthusiasm who were playing in a slap-dash way and excusing their play as ‘it’s only folk music’.

    * He may suffer from the delusion (supported by generations of piano teachers) that ‘real’ music is the stuff written down in dots on the page… and it needs to be played as written. Therefore ‘folk music’ is not real because because it’s not written down and so to his way of thinking can’t be ‘precise’.

    * He may never have listened to nuanced performance of traditional tunes (i.e. ‘folk music’) before, only to basic scraping away on fiddles, banjos, etc. by players of limited ability.

    * He may never have heard of traditional tunes (I’m presuming that you were varying your ‘goes’ through a tune with either pre-arranged or improvised variation).

    * He may never have heard a hammered dulcimer before…and I’m pretty certain that he may never have heard anyone play with your speed and precision.

  • Jeff Boyer says:

    Having jammed with you at Winfield (at the lake the year of the flooded campgrounds), I can’t imagine the gentleman’s comments harbored any hint of criticism toward your playing. If I were to try to parse his response, I’d say it might have had more to do with the actual sound of the dulcimer as opposed to a fiddle say, or mandolin, guitar even. The notes come off your instrument crisply, no sliding, bending, shaping etc. of notes. I’ve always thought of the dulcimer as the “harpsichord” of folk or bluegrass—sounding somewhat classical in its precision—the hammering producing a different sound than fingers on strings, pick or fingers initiating the tones. Other than varied phrasing or staccato rhythm patterns, it’s probably harder to “folk up” the hammered dulcimer’s sound. It’s a mesmerizing instrument, especially when played in a masterly fashion, as you do. When you think of a Woody Guthrie, a Cisco Houston, a Pete Seeger, you think of folk’s personal testimony element—the pathos and ethos of singer/player at the fore. You don’t usually think of precision and crispness of sound. But that’s why we like the hammered dulcimer—it tidies the song up somewhat. It’s a counterpoint to the other instruments. Keep hammering away, Lucille—you’d be a welcome addition to any of our jams, folk, bluegrass, blues, or otherwise. Jeff Boyer (Kamp Konza, a Winfield attender since 1972).

  • If folk music is the peoples music it is what it is. In our life time the contemporary folk is without question more polished to say the least. If the young man was referring to say “his” ideal traditional sound like Josiah Combs, or any of the Alan Lomax recordings he would be correct. I will liken my thoughts to what I also consider to be traditional, that the dulcimore and fiddles were not played with disciplined arrangements. The recordings are not perfect and only distort the play even more. There are those who prefer the vinyl LP and its distorted sound scratches and all, or the romantic electric guitar player pining for the warm sound of the “tube” amp? I would direct you to the book by Gerald Alvey about Homer Ledford when he explains this contemporary progression. I would add to his discussion the professionals influence on the folk circuit. Slick polished arrangements for forty years has a tendency to change perspective for most folks!

  • Mary Ann says:


    I liked Wendy’s observation of this young man, if he was at or working at a pharmaceutical company everything he stands for has to deal with “precision”. I think he was “precisely” making or stating an observation, neither good or bad. If he did intend it as a slight than shame on him. What I wonder more is his background, perhaps if he came from the East or even the Southeast he could have heard from his ancestry allot of “folk music” and had heard allot of “variations” in it’s playing , and for him he would not find it “precise”. However, even that said folk music is “precise” as it is played “precisely” how the person interprets it or wants to play it!
    Having listened to you, you play exactly and “precisely” how you “feel”, your music come from your heart and soul. Lucille, play on precisely how you do and don’t give his comment another “beat” of thought.

  • Wes Sims says:

    Like the difference between a violin and a fiddle. Subtle, but real.

  • Ken Bloom says:

    Your commentor was imprecise in his comment. Traditional music from all over the world is indeed precise whether it comes from this country, Bulgaria, Greece, the UK etc. So much is dance music and dance music has to be rhythmically precise or it doesn’t work. Joseph Spence’s approach to rhythm is subtle and exact. I only know of two people who can really do it well. Good blues playing is the same. I would give this comment the regard it deserves, which is none. Keep plyaing from the heart and all will be well.

  • Robin Clark says:

    “You play with precision. Folk music isn’t precise.”

    I can understand that. We suffer from the inexorable move from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft – the ordering of the natural. I can think of examples like ‘Can the Circle be Unbroken’ where the Carter Family played it with the odd bar of 3/4 thrown into the tune to ‘chase it along’ for the 1927 recording. Now everybody plays it straight 4/4 and doesn’t notice the rhythm changes in the original recording because their ears won’t let them hear the awkwardness – it is too incongruous so the original must be ‘wrong’. ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ was never played as a straight 12 bar blues by Robert Johnson – now everyone plays it as a 12 bar. I have a number of old mountain dulcimer recordings where tunes are played or sung in a way we would find audibly awkward today, such as Nettie Presnell playing Shady Grove in C,c,c mixolidian or Amazing Grace in 4/4 mixolidian. Or Basil Blake playing Soldiers Joy in 5-1-1 mixolidian as a reel. The use of just intonation or the makers own fret spacing on old noter drone dulcimers and quills for strumming threw out the modes and timing in ways that gave the instrument a character that today we ‘tidy-up’ with equal temperament, chords and guitar style strumming. Countless Homer Ledford dulcimers have been re-fretted by their owners so they play ‘properly’, completely missing the point that his fretting pattern is a sonically perfect natural scale against root and 5th drones. But it is hard to play dulcimer traditionally – it is far easier to throw in some chord changes to ‘tidy up’ a tune rather than work with the natural dissonance and highly complex often crooked rhythms of Appalachian music.

    Yes, I can understand the sentiment of the commentator. It is the natural imprecision of folk music, its organic nature, that is sooo hard to follow and capture — so today we tend to simplify folk music by adding order and precision.

  • Ken Sluce says:

    Back again, Lucille. Follow your muse and play it your way.

  • If your playing was polished and you never missed a note or always hit a clear chord, he meant your playing was too precise, you sounded too professional to be playing folk music. He was giving you a complement!

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