As an artist who performs traditional Appalachian music and dance, I get lots of questions about the styles of music and dance that I play.
“You play banjo–does that mean you play bluegrass?”
“What’s the difference between flatfooting and clogging?”
And, quite often, “Will you play Dueling Banjos?”
In this episode, I sketch out the major differences (and similarities) between all those things, and share how I came to understand them in spite of a background where we tended to just call it all “music and dance.”
And I discuss the fluid nature of folk music, along with the phenomenon of “prescriptive culture” and the tendencies of traditions to evolve over time, even as there are some groups and individuals who would wish for it to be static or to fit neatly into boxes or rules.
Cowan Creek Mountain Music School
Appalachian Flatfooting & Clogging Academy
Paul David Smith
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welcome to the what dreamers do podcast. i’m your host carla govan and appalachian musician flatfoot dancer, mama creative and dreamer from kentucky. i’m on a mission to inspire others to realize their dreams and live their most creative lives. grab your mason jar full of sweet tea or something a little stronger, and pull up a chair, because it’s time to get your dream off.
that’s what dreamers do. hey there, dreamer, it’s good to be back with you again this week, i always enjoy our time together. and today, i’m going to be talking about some of my very favorite subjects, appalachian music and dancing. i want to talk about flat footing clogging bluegrass old time. and the reason i decided to do an episode about the subjects number one is because i get asked about them a lot. i’m often asked, what’s the difference between flat footing and clogging? or do you play bluegrass, so i’ll try to shine some light on those subjects. for anybody that’s curious to delve into that a little bit more. but there’s also some interesting cultural conversations to have around these ideas. and so let’s just go ahead and dive right in. so i’m going to take a little bit of a left turn to get started. and talk about the first time i read noam chomsky, who is a linguist, as well as a thinker and writer in the socio political realm. he writes a lot about politics. and he has so many fascinating papers and books that you can read. and i’ve mentioned it before, if you’ve heard me talk on podcasts, or on this podcast, even i have talked about chomsky before. and one thing that was so profound to me when i discovered him is that he put forth this idea, called the idea of universal grammar that all children perfectly learn the grammar that they’re raised with. now, there’s more to it than that it goes into how they seemingly do so without having enough information to formulate all the rules that they seem to learn, almost effortlessly by the time they’re three or four years old. anyway, that was not the part that really made the most difference. to me, the part that made the most difference to me, was the way he talked about all children perfectly learning their grammar, which caused me to reflect on the grammar and the dialect that i grew up with. and to realize that, unlike i had been told my entire life, which is that hillbillies are just so dumb and ignorant and backwards, that they can’t learn how to manage the rules of standard english grammar, then, in fact, there’s just an entirely different set of rules. and they are logical and coherent. and the children of appalachia learn them. the children of appalachia who have english teacher, mothers, like i did, sometimes learn both sets of grammar at once or if not at home, then in school, you’re learning these two different, somewhat overlapping, but also somewhat different sets of grammar. and the reason why that was important to me is it just helped me to release some of the shame that i had internalized about growing up in appalachia and to understand my place and my culture and my people in a new way. and this was especially important to me as a teenager, when i had moved schools. my dad had lost his job, i was trying to fit in with a new group of friends who were nerdy and played d&d, and were on academic team and among whom, whenever little slips of my appalachian accent came out. it created such a big stir that it was easier for me to just kind of hide it. especially because i didn’t want people mentally subtracting iq points from their estimation of how smart i was, because i had broad bowels. anyway. as i study linguistics, i digress a little bit there. but that’s something i get fired up about. as i studied linguistics, i learned that there were two basic ways that you can think about grammar, the one is prescriptively, and one is descriptively. so descriptive, grammarians are people who study grammar, and they’re just interested in how people use language and what rules are used in this part of a place or region versus what rules are used by a different place or region. and of course, in the united states, we have many different dialects, many different grammars that use different rules. depending on the languages that influenced the formation of that dialect, whether you go to louisiana or boston or eastern kentucky,
or mississippi, we have a lot of different dialects. and so descriptive grammarians study those differences in what i would consider more of a non judgmental way. now, the prescriptive grammarians are, we all have known them, like the sadistic english teacher that thought you were a lesser species if you didn’t use the correct past participle or the standard english conjugation of the verb. and in general, the culture of power whatever group or culture is the dominant culture is the one that gets to decide these things. and in fact, my linguistics professor used to say, and he would say it in spanish language as wouldn’t be electrical, a hair seto, which means a language is a dialect with an army. and that was just another way of saying that. it’s the people in charge. it’s the culture of power that makes the kinds of decisions on what is quote, unquote, correct and what is, quote unquote, incorrect. so i’m bringing this up, only to intro to our topic of music and dance, because there is sometimes a certain amount of this going on, when it comes to the music and dance of the mountain region of appalachia. and it seems like sometimes it’s people that learn about a tradition from outside the tradition that can be the most prescriptive about how things are supposed to be. so i’m going to tell you a few stories from my own experience that elucidate the point that i’m trying to make. and i think this is probably a good time to interject that the term appalachia itself feels a little bit constructed sometimes in that our grandparents that were from eastern kentucky, or western west virginia, or virginia or whatever, they didn’t really call themselves appalachian. i don’t think they even thought of that aspect of their identity too much. maybe on a stretch, they would have said they were mountain people, but for the most part, that they were surrounded by people that were similar to them, they didn’t travel a lot. and so they weren’t brushing up against a lot of other identities that they had to compare themselves to. but academia and literature and spaces like that have created some of the strongest ideas about what it means to be from appalachia. and they’ve also promoted the usage of the term. so i’ll give you an example. i went to the university of kentucky, i studied music, and i studied spanish. and i took a lot of appalachian studies classes, so many, in fact that i eventually wound up with a degree in it. and in general, i loved all the classes that professors turned me on to some amazing literature and thought provoking sociologists and helped me to understand my culture in a deeper way. but i had one professor who was from outside the region, and he was teaching folklore and culture of appalachia. and he had very definite examples that he gave of appalachian culture. and sometimes those of us who were from eastern kentucky, would raise our hands and share how maybe our family did it differently than he was talking about in his lecture was in the reading that he had given us. and he didn’t really, he didn’t like that he didn’t appreciate it. and we definitely felt not very safe to express ourselves in his class. and in fact, that was the worst grade i ever got when i was at college. and i think it was because sometimes our definitions didn’t fit what he thought fit into his categories of appalachian culture in his mind. and so i’ve encountered that going on in the music and dance.
so i’ll start by talking about the music. so when i was growing up, i didn’t learn the difference between the terms, bluegrass, and old time and some of you’ve possibly heard me say this before. the players that i heard didn’t really use the terms. they played the sets that they wanted to play in the different environments that they were playing in. they might choose different songs. but in many cases, they played what i would consider now that i know those terms, to be both bluegrass and old time. paul david smith was a fiddler that played both. marian sumner played bluegrass and old time and swing, just excellent swing fiddler. he played for a lot of the square dances when i was growing up, along with a banjo player, lee sexton, who taught me how to play banjo. he sometimes played with the picks on his fingers and did rolls that was more scruggs style, but he also played the more traditional style that some of the older people call overhand or knock down style, or maybe even you’ve heard the term claw hammer. and he also did sort of a two finger thing like his uncle morgan played. so there were a lot of different banjo styles. and i didn’t really think, strictly bluegrass and old time, john herod was another. he’s a contemporary fiddler still teaching and doing his thing. and, you know, he played bluegrass tunes old time tunes. art stamper was another one who could play the heck out of the old tunes that he learned from his father and grandfather, but also competition style, lightning fast bluegrass fiddle. but a lot of times, we just weren’t thinking in terms of a hard line differentiating the styles. and they would get played sometimes at the same, you know, campground jam or the same event. didn’t think anything of it. so when i went to college at university of kentucky, and i started to attend more jam sessions and just hang out with more musicians, and some who weren’t from eastern kentucky, i started hearing those terms more bluegrass and old time and i learned that the old time tunes were more like the ones where the fiddle and the banjo would play together. and it usually wasn’t ones where the banjo player was wearing the picks on his fingers. and it was like what i had heard, lee sexton and marian do when they were playing for square dance, or when they were just sitting around playing for their own pleasure. whereas the bluegrass music, i mean, i knew what that was, i’d grown up going to ralph stanley’s bluegrass festival back home. and so i knew it was faster and they took breaks, which was different than old time music. they often had a mandolin which many times there was no mandolin representation, at the jams that i went to growing up sometimes there was but in general, you know, you hear more mandolins in the in the bluegrass world. and sometimes the repertoire was a little bit different. but there was also a lot of overlap a lot of the murder ballads, a lot of
work songs and train songs and coalmining songs. so really, to me, just like the people that i learned it from the big categories music, mountain music, and that good old timey music, and that’s what i loved. and that’s what i played. so i got the opportunity when i was 21. to make an album with june apple records, which is the apple shops record label, that was a dream come true for me. and i had been meeting musicians, some of whom were more in camp old time i met bruce masky at a fiddle festival. and he plays really good old time fiddle. he really emphasizes the playing of tommy jarrell and some of the north carolina styles. but he’s just a great all around filler. he agreed to be on my project. and then mark schatz, who’s a really awesome, well known bluegrass bass player, produce the album. so i was up in washington, dc. i was just starting to work with eileen carson in her dance group. so i actually moved up there and i was recording at the same time, i started going to jam sessions in the baltimore washington area. and one of the very first ones i went to, everybody was going in a circle, trading songs at the jam. and, you know, i was just, i was probably one of the younger people there. and it was a lot of people from the northeast, i’d never met them, and they were really good players. i was a little bit intimidated. and they were playing these old timey, really thumpy haunting banjo tunes, and i was really enjoying the jam and it got around to me, and i thought, well, i’ll sing one because that’s what i felt most confident about my ability to do. so i had my guitar. and i can’t remember which song it was, but i went into what many people would consider more of a bluegrass tune, but it would have been a song that i sang at home a lot. and i could tell right away that i had made a faux pa i the vibe got a little weird, and i finished my song and everyone was polite, but it was kind of like somebody even said something like, oh, that’s nice. we don’t usually do bluegrass tunes at this jam. and i nobody said anything overtly snarky to me, but i knew that i had done the wrong thing at the wrong time. and i felt embarrassed. and at the time i just i just wanted to fit in, i wanted to play the right thing at the right time. and in retrospect, it seems a little ironic to me that i was the only person from the mountains, singing at the jam, but i wasn’t fitting their image of it somehow of what the mountain music did, they wanted to play. so that was one of my first introductions to that feeling of perhaps a prescriptive idea from outsiders about what i should be performing or sharing with the world from my culture. so when i was in dc, making that album and starting to work with aileen carson, that was about the time that i really started to delve a lot more into doing performing appalachian dance because it was something that i grew up with, but had never really performed as much as as i did music, partially because my granny was holiness. and while she was still alive, it was hard for me to dance i had to sneak i couldn’t tell her that i was going to the square dance, although fortunately, my mother supported it and would often take me but i was exposed to a lot of different dance styles. of course, we had square dancing and my favorite square dance was at the carcass on community center, which is a square dance, it still went on to this day. and it was a very old school, literally in an old school with an old wood stove in it and members of the community of all ages, multigenerational dancing together, and there were always people doing some little flat funding steps or clogging steps as i’ve later learned to call them over at the side. there was more of a flat footing style dance that would sometimes happen at a little store in letcher county called gibson’s. so i’m from letcher county, kentucky and it was like proto walmart. so it was where we had to go to get fabric or a coffee maker or some clothes
or a toy, dry goods type store. and so every once in a while, they would have what they call a hoe down and they throw down some hay bales. and they would hire this man who called himself oh, joe clark, and he would get up there and flat foot and then he would do a contest. i guess the store sponsor did that. anybody that got up and flat footed, would get a silver dollar and the winner would get $10. so that’s what got me to answer. and i was trying to make some money even though i didn’t really know what i was doing. i was just imitating the people i saw around me. so when i got older, and i started venturing out into the world and i started working with eileen, what i started to realize is that clogging was more like what i grew up seeing at a place called hoedown island in natural bridge. oftentimes people were wearing white shoes when i saw it with jingle taps, but it tends to have a shuffle. the clogging steps come out of a clogging basic which has a shuffle and a step ball change in it. flat footing. as i learned from just watching some contests at some of the fiddle festivals, you’re not allowed to bring your feet very high off the ground and you’re not allowed to shuffle, you make little sounds with your toes and heels. then there’s another style that i often get asked about called book dancing. and what it seems like to me, i’m no expert, but there’s a big book dance community in tennessee. and it kind of looks like flat footing, but they also do shuffles in it. and in north carolina. there’s a style of book dancing that looks to me a little bit more like flat footing that doesn’t have shuffles. so i’m not maybe the best person to speak on it. but that’s the simplest way that i can sort of give you a cliff’s notes version of the difference between flat fitting and clogging. and to whatever extent i was accurate in that description, book dancing, but when i was growing up again, it was more just something that you did for fun and entertainment without analyzing a lot. but once again, when i was living in the the baltimore, washington dc area and i was at a jam session where some of us were dancing, and mostly flat footing. i did some steps that were more from like a contemporary clogging kind of white shoe tradition. and somebody just casually said something afterwards, somebody from up there like oh, you’re doing some some y shoe steps. hmm. but it wasn’t. again, i was once again made to understand that i had crossed an invisible line and i was a jam buster, the dreaded jam buster. so again, i wanted to fit in and so i tried to be more flat footed up there my jams after that. and then i was only up there for a couple years, it’s the only time i ever did not live in kentucky and i was so homesick, i thought it was going to die. and when i got back, once again, nobody cared what i called it, they just wanted me to dance and sing and play music. and there was less emphasis on the terminology and the stylistic differences. so i don’t mean to, to cast aspersions on trying to understand these different forms and what the differences and similarities are and breaking them down. but i think the the thing that i don’t like is when we get too prescriptive about how somebody is supposed to perform them, especially somebody that grew up with this stuff. so i’ve often for years called myself a clogger. and in the past few years, a lot of times people will ask me, can you come and teach a flat footing workshop, i just noticed that started to grow in popularity, i am still teaching and performing the same style of dance that i always have, which some people might call old fashioned clogging. if i know that somebody specifically wants me to focus on flat footing, i will do steps with no shuffles in them. but otherwise, what i’m doing is pretty much the same between flat footing and clogging. and i tend to market my classes on the internet as flat footing because that’s what people seem to be interested in right now. and i think there’s this idea that might be somehow it’s more or fashion or more authentic than clogging. and i get it, you know, because clogging has sometimes been given a pretty cheesy image by some of the outfits that people have chosen to wear to clog in
making fun a little bit but you know, he hall has been some people’s only experience of clogging. and while there were some amazing incredible dancers on there. it is a very specific image and a very specific style. that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. and so maybe it’s just that people find flat fitting more relatable. to me, what it’s all about, is getting in the groove with a really good fiddle player, letting my feet make music with said fiddle player or banjo player and having a musical conversation and being a member of the band. so if for me if that comes out in flat fitting steps, great if i put some shuffles in there, great, but i want to be a musician with my feet above all. and i think that flat footing for many people has that sensibility in that association. so i’m going to finish up this segment about flat footing and clogging and bluegrass and old time with a story about a time that i traveled to the west coast to an old time music festival. and there’s a big old time scene on the west coast, california, oregon, washington. there’s a lot of towns that have great old time scenes, and there’s festivals, and a lot of bands from out there. and in fact, one of my friends was recently telling me she played somewhere in california. and after they finished, they got reviewed in the paper and somebody put in the paper. oh, their ballads were great. and the fiddle was great, but they didn’t dress the part where was the calico. and she had actually listen to my episode about my culture is not your costume. and you know, we were just talking about the expectations that you’re going to be wearing calico and old timey bonnets and stuff when you’re on stage performing appalachian music. so i thought that was a funny little story. but anyway, i did not encounter anybody wanting me to wear calico. but i traveled to this festival with my daughter and her husband, who play music with me sometimes. and we were excited to be there. we were listening to bands and we had a set ourself. and one of the first things that i noticed that was different for me that i wasn’t used to is the way the bands that were performing approached their introductions and the music that they were sharing is that they would often introduce these tunes that they had learned from recordings. and i loved the fact that they were paying homage to the people and the families that they’d learned the tunes from but they’d say no, and here’s when we learned from so and so family of west virginia. and it was just contrast to me because i was used to introductions you know, i learned this from the old man i used to go across the creek to sit with in the afternoons or i learned this at my family reunions when i was growing up. so it came time for us to do our set and we perform have a song that i do. it’s my song that i do in every show me and the redbird river. and i always introduce it by saying, i wrote this song for my grandmother, ali hudson, who was born in 1898. and i always introduce her that way. so anyway, it was a great set, we had fun. i really enjoyed sharing our music and our stories about our family. and i came offstage. and a gentleman came up to me, and he said, are you sure that song wasn’t about your great grandmother? and i was like, yep, i’m absolutely sure. because i have knew my grandmother my whole life. and my mother also knew her her whole life. and we’re sure that it was indeed my grandmother. and so we had a chuckle about that. and then i went backstage, and i was chatting to another one of the acts that was performing that day. and she hadn’t heard the first exchange. and she asked me the same question. she said, are you sure that wasn’t your great grandmother? because born in 1898, like the math wasn’t working out for her for her or something? and i said, oh, yeah, yeah, it was definitely my grandmother. you know, my mom was a late in life, baby. and i was like, ninth baby. and she just looked at me with the funniest look on her face. and she said, what’s the latin life baby? and i guess she just had misunderstood my accent. you know, i was born later in my mother’s life. and she was born later in her mother’s life. and so my grandmother was born in 1898.
so i don’t know if that was a cultural difference. but i found it really strange that people were questioning whether or not i knew who my grandmother was. but anyway, no big deal. we left and we went to see the headlining act, who were some really hot pickers. just really doing a great job. it was my most enjoyable act of the evening. and it was in a gym, at an old school that they’d converted into community center something. and this band was just tearing it up. and i was doing what i always do, which is hollering and making a bunch of noise, and whoo, you know, and clap and really loud. and especially man, this mandolin player was burning it up. and he played this one solo, he was just blistering. and i just, i just let loose with a big whoop. i wanted him to like, feel appreciated, and hear it and i clapped a bunch. and this woman turned around to me, and looked at me and said, do you mind, she was so irritated. and that was one of those. i don’t think we’re in kansas anymore toto moments, because honestly, in eastern kentucky, that is the polite thing to do when somebody’s really good. you hoop and holler and make a bunch of noise, because that’s how that’s how you express appreciation. and i felt really strange and kind of embarrassed that. you know, i had made a faux pas at this old time music festival. so that my shows, i promise you, you can hoop and holler as loud as you want to. and i will welcome that and it’ll make me play even better for you because that energy and enthusiasm is so contagious. and i guess that brings me around to the last thing that’s on my mind regarding the subject, which is also something that i state regularly. and that’s how important it is to have some people from appalachia teaching and sharing a culture a tradition, because it’s more than just the music and it’s more than just the dancing. and so that’s why i’m the artistic director for cowan creek mountain music school. some of you may have heard of, but if not, it’s an awesome opportunity to come together in june. in fact, our slogan is music from the mountains in the mountains, and we make it a real priority to center teachers from the traditions. now we have guests artists from outside kentucky as well. but we always have a really core group of teachers that have learned from the elders and learn from members of a community and it’s really special that way. and it’s also why i started my online appalachian flat footing unclogging course during the pandemic because i wanted people to have a resource for learning the steps, both flat footing and clogging in a way that would also give them cultural context, music, kentucky tunes history of the musicians, history of the people that i learned the dance from so that they’re getting a comprehensive overview from somebody that grew up with it. so that is going to be opening the doors again soon in february to start in march. and i am so excited to offer that again, i’m probably going to only offer it once this year. so if it’s something that you might be interested in, or if you have been on the fence about taking it or if you’re a new dancer and you think you might want to learn more about it, visit my website you can get on the waiting list for the appalachian flat footing and clogging academy or you can just sign up for my mountain mama digital care package. and one of the things you get is the three essential steps to appalachian flat fitting and clogging video, so that you can start learning those steps in preparing for the challenge in the workshops that i’m gonna have coming up in february. so i wanted to make sure to tell you about that. i have absolutely loved meeting new students and new friends. during the pandemic. i’ve made some real connections, more connections that i thought i could actually make in an online format. i’ve made real friends at this time, so please spread the word. tell your granny, tell your buddies, tell your babies. and we’ll all get together and dance online so that when things open back up, we can all get together and dance in person. as always, thank you for listening. thank you for entertaining my perspectives and viewpoints and i love hearing from you so please feel free to send me an email or a message and i do try my best to answer them all it might take me a while but i value hearing from you.
and i can’t wait to talk to you next time on the wet dreamers do podcast
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Carla is currently based in Lexington, KY, ancestral lands of the Adena, Hopewell, S’atsoyaha (Yuchi), Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), ᏣᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East), and Wazhazhe Maⁿzhaⁿ (Osage) nations.
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