Tuesday, March 06, 2012


Folk Music – A Very Short Introduction
by Mark Slobin

In the movie "A Mighty Wind" the bland Weaver-esque Main Street Singers take to the stage at a big folk benefit gig and immediately ask the audience: "Does anyone want to hear some folk music?" In the same movie, the more-authentic-than-thou Folksmen find themselves arguing that The Star Spangled Banner and Purple Haze are examples of folk music. Anyone who's ever been to a concert felt a cringe of recognition.

Folk singers are indeed pretty self-conscious about being folk singers. It isn't just Steve Knightley howling "we need roots": it's Jim Moray charmingly asking the audience if they know what a Child Ballad is, and Chris Wood paying tribute to "Anon" as the greatest songwriter who ever lived. It sometimes feels as if folk music is the main thing which folk music is about. 

So what is folk music? Mark Slobin is an academic. He studies something called ethnomusicology and he doesn't know. It would be fair to say that much of what he is interested in -- Hungarian marraige ceremonies and the state appropriation of peasant music in the old Soviet nations -- wouldn't be recognised as folk music by the average English or American concert goer. The only modern English singer who appears in his index is Kate Rusby. Bob Dylan is mentioned in passing

He does think there is such a thing as folk music and that we know it when we see it. But he throws up his hands in despair when looking for a definition. The nearest he gets is a quote from One Of Those Sociologists who had did a research project in which he talked to every folk group, god help him, in Milton Keynes. "There can be no real definition of folk music, beyond saying that it was the kind of music played by those who called themselves folk performers" he concludes.

That's actually a good deal more helpful than it sounds. It's like "Science Fiction". You can define it so widely that Jane Eyre is sci-fi (it involves telepathy) or so narrowly that Star Trek is not (warp drive? warp bollocks, more like) but we know which would be more likely to be discussed at a sci-fi convention.

Last week I went to the Frome Folk Festival. I listened to songs which poor people really did listen to in the days before the gramophone (e.g Spiers and Boden singing All Along And Down A Lee) and songs that were more or less sophisticated pastiches of that kind of thing (e.g Steve Knightley's Transported). But I also heard modern compositions by young men with guitars who wanted to explain in some detail how they felt about the girl who had dumped them; and a band playing middle eastern instrumental numbers on instruments I didn’t recognise. And lots of Morris Dancing. One sort of see why they all go together, where, say, a Beatles cover band wouldn't have done, but what did they actually have in common?  Slobin cites another academic who says rather desperately "Acoustic instruments that can be heard by everyone within earshot, a certain musical simplicty and acccessible thoughtful understandable lyrics are the most commonly quoted reasons for an interest in contemporary folk music"

Not that specific definitions aren’t possible: when I interviewed a couple of local promoters last year, I was told in no uncertain terms that folk music was lyrics-based song-writing using open tunings and avoiding blues changes. Very true, no doubt, but not the kind of definition which would interest your average ethnomusicologist. .

Slobin is very interested in the trajectories of individual songs: where they come from; where they go; what they are for. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is almost his archetypal folk song: everyone knows it; no-one knows or cares who wrote it; but it gets passed on from parents to children because it can be used as a singing game or a lullaby. Indeed, I think “song with a use” might be a possible definition of what Slobin means by folk music. A song's use might be to encourage everyone on a chain gang to dig in time with each other; or to encourage your team to score goals, or to calm down a stroppy baby. He claims that a western ologist once played a piece of popular American music to a Native American and asked him what he thought of it. The Navajo said that he couldn’t say if he liked it or not until he knew what it was good for. A lot of people in the book seem to produce these kinds of gnomic aphorisms. "You and your dried words...The meaning of my words is in the moisture of my breath which carries them" "To you, they are words: to me, they are voices in the forest." I suppose traditional peoples really do speak like that. But is seems suspiciously close to how hippies and folkies would like them to speak. 

For something to really be folk music, as opposed to performance art which some professional musician has given that label, it needs to be circulating without an author "out there" in the musical culture. Playground rhymes and football chants are about the closest we can get, nowadays, and they hardly count as “music” by most people’s definition. (You wouldn't buy them on a CD or listen to them at a concert, would you?) Didn't the Opies find that, when they asked children to sing them songs, they literally didn't understand what they were being asked for? The whole idea of music turns out to be another one of those pesky Western constructs. Slobin thinks that a Muslim might literally not understand that we regard the call to prayer and the songs a mother sings to her baby as two examples of the same kind of thing.

Football songs or a playground chants are anonymous: silly words just get stuck onto classical tunes, pop tunes, and very often hymns. But then, a great number of Woody Guthrie's songs were simply new words to old tunes: in some cases, he didn't do much more than take a hymn and substitute the word "union" for the word "Jesus". American folk's most holy martyr, Joe Hill, was writing what a science fiction fan would easily identify as "filk". Slobin talks about a process of “folklorization” whereby something which had a known author is passed from listener to listener, possibly changing in the process, and thus enters the musical culture. A pop song or an advertising jingle can easily become "folklorized" in this way; swapping songs on YouTube might even be a modern version of folklorization.

Slobin is skeptical about the existence of a dying oral folk tradition in rural England and the American south which Cecil Sharp and John Lomax fortuitously preserved. Barbara Allen may be the most frequently collected Anglo American song (that is: many different collectors have heard different people singing different versions of it in different places) but it had been very frequently written down and published before the big revival. (*) The people who sang it to Cecil Sharp might very well have learned it from songbooks or even early gramophone records. He demonstrates that John Lomax learned the the cowboy song "I ride an old paint..." in a saloon in 1908, although he learned it, not from a real cowboy but from another college educated folklore student. It was published by Carl Sandburg  in "The Great American Song Bag". Aaron Copland had used it as part of his classical ballet "Rodeo" before Woody Guthrie recorded for Alan Lomax. Gurthrie probably learned the song from the Sandburg book. But this is okay, says Slobin because Guthrie re-folklorized it, adding verses about the Oakies and the dustbowl migration. This doesn't seem to me to amount to folkorization: it sounds to me like producing a more heavily authored version, just like turning Casey Jones into Casey Jones The Union Scab. (The Union Scab version is definitely Joe Hill's song.) Sloban points out that there are now lots of performances of "I Ride an Old Paint" on Youtube, including an anoymous lady in a cowboy hat and a chinese child with a toy organ. Which rather makes it sound as if “folklorization" just means “the song has been sung by lots of different people over the years”

Which isn't, come to think of it, a terrible definition. I would guess that there are more extant recordings of Yesterday than there are of the Two Sisters; but each new version of Yesterday consciously depends on the late Paul McCartney's version of the song, and indeed, of George Martin's recording of him singing it; but no single version of the Two Sisters depends on any other or supersedes any other. The song is just out there and anyone can have a go at it.

I enjoyed the sections about "Celtic" music and didgerydoos. It isn't quite clear what Celtic music actually has to do with the Celts; it isn't even clear what the different kinds of music which call themselves Celtic have to do with each other: "no one has identified traditional structural, meldodic or rhyhtmic elements that can be isolated as Celtic". But it does seem as if Irish people and Welsh people positively started to play what they at any rate believed to be old songs because their languages were a lost cause and their songs were something they could cling to and use to represent what was theirs. (English teachers, as Welsh people never tire of reminding us, used to beat children who they caught speaking Welsh in school; they found it rather harder to stop their parents singing old Welsh songs at home). Modern music with the label "Celtic" is made by professionals, played at concerts, sold on records. "It only exists after it has been produced and marketed: It has not existence outside of its commodity form." So how is it folk music? Because, er, it doesn't sell too well, so the publishers market it on their folk labels.

Lots of Irish and Cornish people went to Australia, so Australian folk music can be quite a lot like Irish music, and therefore distantly connected to the Celtic thang, but apparently some Ozzie groups have transmogrified into, god help us, “folk rock bush bands” which incorporate the didgerydoo but apparently not the wobbleboard. The didgerydoo doesn't seem to have been that big a deal for the First Peoples; it was a hollowed out log that that you blew down in certain religious ceremonies, but it has become a signifier for Australian-ness and in particular for the idea that the Aborigines were specially spiritual and in touch with nature and stuff. It has a distinct sound, of course (Jim Moray uses it in Leaving Australia and Christ Ricketts in Bound For South Australia) but Slobin thinks that it is the idea of the instrument -- what it symbolizes -- that has caused a separate musical sub-culture to grow up around it. "Turned into a myth, the aboriginal's cultural essence distills into a single object made from a log". The sound of the didgerydoo is thought by fans to be bound up with the Native Australians respect for the environment, and fans think that just listening to it will help you "reconnect with nature, earth energy and each other". They don’t seem to be playing traditional Native Australian tunes: it's the instrument itself which is special.

This reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s odd idea that free floating things called "myths", shorn of their cultural context can return your mind to a blissful, telegraph-wire free utopia. But it's also maybe not too far from Steve Knightley's idea that our stories and our songs will connect us with our roots, with all questions about who “we” are taken for granted.

Ursula Le Guin famously said that she wrote science fiction because science fiction was what her publisher called the kind of thing she wrote: but folk music is a label which certain professional musicians wish to apply to the kind of thing they sing. Martin Carthy's Prince Heathen and Jim Moray's Lord Douglas are not part of any process of folklorization: they are the result of the conscious study of multiple written versions. (But I suppose that some folkies may sing Prince Heathen in Carthy's version and believe that they are singing something unchanged since the Olden Days.) Reading this book made me wonder if it's the label which is important, symbolizing something about the Olden Days for certain middle class English people in the way that the didgerydoo does for certain Australian hippies? 

Chris Wood says that when he sings a song, he feels the ghost of the person who taught it to him standing behind him: but that person learned the song from someone else, so there is a long chain of ghosts standing behind him. You only really become a folk singer, he says, when you understand that one day you will be one of the ghosts. I don't think it matters very much whether that chain of ghosts is real or imaginary, any more than it really matters what aborigines did with their didgerydoos before white people arrived on their island. What matters is the idea. 

(*) The haunting version of the song performed as part of the Cecil Sharp project doesn't sound as if it has been carefully honed by Anon to fit the needs of a new continent; it sound more like a product of misremembering and mishearing: "Sweet William died on a Saturday night, and Barbara on a Sunday; the old woman died for the love of both, she died on Easter Monday" sounds like a something out of a playground chant: the old woman has found her way into the story simply to provide a rhyme.