At first glance you might think that it is nothing more than the 300 miles of twisting, crooked roads that join mountain towns and their music. You would be right in that the roads are indeed crooked. There are mountains, hills, streams and rivers, and everywhere you go there are curves and twists. If fact, I thought that after living for a time in the mountains of Colorado, I knew what crooked roads were. But after spending several weeks in these Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, I can tell you that I was deluded in thinking I knew about crooked roads. The twenty miles or so of “The Snake” and the one called “The Tail of the Dragon” add new meaning to the word crooked.
But the Crooked Road of Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail is about much more than just asphalt.
The music is also crooked.
Mountain Music players have been criticized for a century by “real musicians” for the way they add a couple of extra beats to a measure, or in some cases take away a few. It was considered a sign of ignorance.
If fact, many songs are referred to by mountain musicians themselves as “crooked”, in that they are not played square. Now that doesn’t mean all old time mountain music is crooked. Most of the songs are played in the normal square style. But as you watch these folks play their instruments, and observe the incredible talent they have, you soon learn that the crookedness of some songs is intentional (for whatever reason).
Some say that it started as a way to tease a banjo player. The band got together and decided to add a couple of extra beats, just to confuse the already confused banjo player. (There are lots of banjo player jokes among string bands).
Others say that the tunes had been played so much, they had to change the rhythm a little, just to keep it from getting boring. Another explanation was that the band (being the pranksters that they are) just liked to throw off the flat foot dancers, cloggers, and especially the square dancers that were always around when they were playing. I’m told that crooked music is frustrating to dance to. You sometimes have to skip a step, or add a little extra hop to keep up.
After a time, whatever the real reason, the songs got passed around from town to town and region to region and some just kept on being played “crooked”.
I have heard these “crooked tunes for a couple of months now, and they are always played the same way…..”crooked”. In fact, some of these tunes would sound strange if they were played square.
Go ahead, just play it crooked
I really have come to love this old time mountain music…. And now my banjo seems to want to play crooked too…. just like the rest…! And it’s not easy. My musical nature wants to straighten it out and make it square. But it’s a lot more fun if you keep it crooked the way it’s intended to be…
If you get a chance, drive the Crooked Road….. but don’t forget to stop, sit in a lawn chair in front of the courthouse or the general store, and listen to all of the great old time mountain music. There is free music somewhere every night along the “Crooked Trail” in Virginia in the summertime. And if you have an instrument, there’s always a jam session going on.