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I'm a trained percussionist who for years has appreciated traditional American folk music. I've also been frustrated for years by the complete lack of any drums in this music. I've searched the web and found no good answers.

I recognize any answer would be necessarily complex and have to take into account the evolution of music in Western culture. But that's no excuse for there being no answer...

There are many responses to my question that I consider unsatisfactory. These answers include things like...

The melody and harmony itself is rhythmic! There's no need for drums! (Sorry, weak answer--there is plenty of rhythmic melody and harmony in music from cultures where drums also play a big role. The presence or absence of rhythm in melody and harmony is irrelevant to the presence or absence of drums.)

There are "drums" in American folk music---just look at the spoons, the washboard, clogging and flatfoot dancing, etc. (Sorry, another weak answer, because while they're all forms of percussion, none of these are drums.)

Nobody could build or play drums in the hollows of Appalachia, so they didn't have them! (Sorry, another weak answer--if people could make and learn to play a fiddle, they could easily make and learn to play a drum!)

Drums just aren't needed in American folk music--it sounds good without them! (Again, another weak, subjective answer--fiddles and gutbuckets are no more or less "needed" than drums in this music.)

As I mentioned above, there are plenty of cultures around the world whose music has everything American folk music has (melody, modality, simplicity, etc.) yet in many of these cultures drums also play a key role. So why not in American folk music?

Did early Americans (or the Scots/Irish/English/Dutch/Germans who emigrated to America) have something against drums? Were they considered "primitive" or "evil?"

The same question can be asked of folk music of the British Isles, which is also devoid of any drumming. The one notable exception to all of this, of course, is the bodhran in Irish music. And the popularity of the bodhran suggests that there is no inherent bias against drums in this music. The bodhran fits in beautifully and plays an integral role in Irish music. So how or why did the "drumming influence" of the bodhran not spread to other forms of folk music?

Were early Anglo-Saxons so daft that it never occurred to a single one of them to beat on something with their hands or sticks to create rhythm? (Conversely, how exactly did drums evolve to be such a central instrument in African, Indian, Chinese and Japanese music? Were these people smarter than early Anglo-Saxons and just figured out how to make and play drums where the Anglos didn't?)

Discussion and speculation (and facts too, of course) are appreciated! :-) (And please try to avoid posts like "American folk music doesn't have drums because it doesn't have drums. It's different." This much is clear--but I'd like to dig a bit deeper!)

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  • Of note: those large drums I see and hear every Chinese New Year's celebration look and sound a lot like taiko drums, which are Japanese. I therefore believe that Chinese and Japanese music traditions influenced each other.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 0:52
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    Fascinating question - especially the aspect as to why much folk music of the British Isles doesn't make much use of drums! Unfortunately the most obvious - and sinister - part of the reason why American folk music as a whole doesn't feature a lot of drums is that many plantation owners saw fit to ban African slave workers from playing them. TED talk: youtube.com/watch?v=YLG871tKZUM Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 1:16
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    Frankly, I find this question offensive. Were the early Anglo-Saxons daft or Eastern people smarter? No, of course not. Were Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven idiots because their music doesn’t feature a lot of drums? C’mon. American folk music doesn’t have drums because they didn’t want drums. It doesn’t feature a lot of flutes, either, even though flutes are pretty cheap and easy to make. If they had wanted drums, they would have included them. Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 1:58
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    @AlexBasson I think that phrase is a little tongue-in-cheek; if it seems offensive when taken literally, it's better take it as a joke (and an invitation to give an answer containing the 'real' reason!) Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 8:00
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    Apologies to anyone who found my original post offensive. When I wondered if Europeans were "daft" it was tongue-in-cheek (I know they certainly weren't daft!). Alex's excellent answer below notwithstanding, I do believe the general question of why drumming traditions have thrived in many cultures around the world and not in others is a valid one that has not been sufficiently explored. Even the American drumset tradition (which evolved from early jazz) pales compared to the percussive traditions of India, Indonesia, African countries, etc. Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 17:08

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I’m sorry you don’t find “spoons, washboards, and flatfoot dancing” an acceptable answer. I would invite you to consider that spoons, washboards, and feet all feature some things in common that drums do not—they’re inexpensive, they don’t take up much space, they’re very portable, and they’re ubiquitous—every household, even in impoverished Appalachia, had spoons, washboards, and feet. When I see a folk music tradition create percussion using common household implements and their own body parts, the conclusion seems obvious: they were making do with what they had.

Update: Longer, more involved answer

To begin with, let's acknowledge that there is no one such thing as American traditional music. At a minimum, American traditional music includes:

  • Cajun Zydeco (which features drums)
  • Mississippi Delta Blues (mostly solo acoustic guitar)
  • Chicago Electric Blues (again, features drums)
  • Appalachian String Band (umbrella term for old time & bluegrass)
  • New Orleans Jazz (drums optional)
  • Kansas City (and then Harlem Renaissance, etc.) Jazz (drums prominently featured)

You're asking primarily about Appalachian String Band music and why that music doesn't feature drums.

Ok. Consider who created that music and their circumstances. The Appalachian settlers were primarily Scots-Irish fleeing extreme poverty and persecution by the British.

If you were one of those immigrants, imagine the circumstances of your journey—you're extremely poor and you'll arrive having traveled across an ocean owning only what you were able to carry. Fiddles are small. You could maybe carry a fiddle. Drums, though? Probably not.

And so now you've settled in Appalachia. You're still extremely poor, as is everyone around you, but some people have fiddles, and everyone has spoons, washboards, and feet. So on Saturday nights everyone gathers around and makes the most of what they've got, and a folk music tradition is born.

In the comments, I see a question about guitars, banjos, and bass fiddles. Those came later. Banjos and steel-string guitars are both American innovations—banjos, in particular, come from the African-American slave tradition and were originally made from gourds. And bass fiddles are rare in old-time folk music until much later. Even today, it's quite common to show up to an old-time jam and find numerous fiddles and guitars, but no basses (that's why, despite the fact that I play guitar and banjo pretty well, I always go to a jam with a bass, because I'm almost always the only bass there).

In short: folk music (almost by its very definition) is the outcome of a people making the music they liked with the tools available to them. Poverty-stricken Scots-Irish Appalachian farmers had fiddles, spoons, washboards, and feet, and they built a folk music tradition from those tools on hand.

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    Why did they have fiddles, guitars, bass fiddles, and banjos? Certainly a bass fiddles are larger and less portable than many types of drum. Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 2:17
  • May be they were afraid that the indian tribesmen could misunderstand the message :) Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 7:39
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    Further, "spoons, washboard," etc. qualify as percussion instruments, of which the vague term "drums" is a subset in any case. Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 14:28
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    @ScottWilkinson Honestly, the more I think about it the more I'm even more intrigued by the lack of flutes in Appalachian folk music. Flutes were prominent back home in Ireland, and moreover they were small and easy to make from readily-available materials. So why didn't a flute tradition survive immigration? Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 1:33
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    @marcellothearcane Yes, it's an American folk term for double bass. Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 0:16
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Drums are too loud to compete in small groups of acoustic players and non-operatic voices. Especially inexpensive instruments.

This is from my personal experience playing with and without a drummer.

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The music that you are referring to is mostly that derived from country dance music of Britain and Ireland.

In the history of that tradition, drums have not played any significant role. This was a pattern set down before English, Scottish or Irish settlers came to America.

In the dance traditions of Britain and Ireland, the tune is the thing. A single fiddle can give all the rhythm, lift and phrasing needed for a dance. It is complete, nothing needs to be added ... though of course we do.

As for the bodhran, it is an instrument that was introduced into Irish traditional music in the 1950s, primarily by Seán Ó Riada. So dump all that nonsense about "Anglo-Saxons" and "Celts", it's got nothing to do with them in terms of either drums, music or dance.

There were traditions of playing drums in Britain and Ireland. Drums were used in military music, and in theatre and concert music. Also think of a tradition like that of the Lambeg drums. There was also the widely played small tabor drum and three-holed (tabor pipe) pipe that was often used for Morris Dance.

So, the answer is that drums were not really used in the country dance music of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The settlers who brought this music to America in those centuries did not have a tradition of playing drums. It may confuse or perplex you, but that's just the way is was (and often still is).

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I think fife and drum music would be the genre with exactly what you are looking for.

I don't know if you would exclude that genre for some reason (martial music, the tunes aren't specifically American origin, etc?) but it seems that a lot of the repertoire in that genre includes popular folk tunes, and of course, there are bona fide drums.

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Many times bass sound was add by a bucket bass with a wire and a broom handle for pitch changing. Making an adequate drum head though involved time and effort to scrape hides stretch and cure and secure to a hollow wood chamber. Calfskin is dramatically affected by humidity so small hand drums were more common in the Scottish traditions. Western Cowboy and Appalachian traditional music didn't embrace drums until the 20th century. It's not weird it's just the way things were settled and it hung on. TRADITION! (sucks)

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