Questions, questions ... but are there any answers?(March 23, 2009)
Since setting out on the FolkWords journey and speaking to hundreds of people along the way, I’ve explored some questions time after time. The accumulated responses make interesting reading but also prompt more questions.
For the interested, observing or merely curious I thought it would be a worth recording some of the more frequent questions and just some of the raft of responses. Here’s a few ... more excursions into the views gleaned from various folk will follow.
Let's discuss defining folk music
Despite the fact that I’m no lover of definitions that restrict and confine, there seems to be a myriad of definitions surrounding folk. Some make sense from an historical perspective. Others at least allow the influences that impact on folk to be clarified. As a broad brush then, many possible definitions make sense. That much is fine and for everyone from the avid folk student to the new kid on the folk scene, potentially helpful, however sometimes those and other definitions become exclusive.
There’s the traditional definition: the product of an oral/aural tradition over a long period of time amongst a culturally and ethnically homogenous population. The traditional is also called the Victorian definition: based on the belief that much of what defines traditional only came about during England’s ‘Victorian’ period. The ‘socialist’ definition: music made by ordinary people (with other non musical jobs or vocations) for their own entertainment, without thought of remuneration. The Irish or Celtic tradition: broadly covering pub music that's based on fiddle and tin whistle music, or songs about oppression and rebellion. And latterly the ‘protest’ definition: songs about 20th century injustice, which of course can be directly linked to the civil rights definition: American music from the 50’s and 60’s using spirituals with altered lyrics as a form of protest against racial inequality.
There's a need to define in the human nature. Once you begin however, you find yourself in a world of defining folk styles that has no end. You’re off down the road of folk, folk rock, electric folk, folk punk, folk metal, psyche folk, nu folk and ‘every other word from the dictionary folk’. And so we go on defining, categorising and cataloguing.
A recent observation placed on the genre is as follows: “Today’s folk is steadily adopting a universally middle class approach, delivered and listened to by a minority and fixed in nostalgia for a particular time. Despite the rise and rise of marketing in even such narrow musical niches as folk, there are artists that have allowed image to overcome content. Folk music contains fewer professional musicians than one might expect, and in addition contains all sorts of cultural contaminants.”
And another view: “Folk music is from all over the world, it’s not just an English pastime. And however you define it, it’s just music to me. It’s music written by people about their own culture, lives and what happens to them."
"Admittedly, in the main what we call folk is written by the everyday people, rather than the upper classes and exceedingly well off. Also if the music is right it’s without borders. Look at the history of gospel music from the deep-south of America, black people singing their own music about the things that moved them. But have you looked carefully? In the early gospel music you can find songs from the Western Isles. Music derives its definition from whatever people sing and wherever they take their influences – it doesn’t matter.”
The word folk means everything that ordinary people like to listen to – and the range is infinite - tribal rhythms, bangra music, warrior music, Celtic music, nu-folk, indie folk – definitions should be there to make it easier to understand and to find what you like.
“To define is to fence in some way and that’s not always a bad thing as many fences have gates the only point for me is that the fence helps define and the gate is always open.”
The minute you define something you do one of two things – put a ring around that says: “Keep out!” or you bring something into focus to help everyone understand. The whole point about definition is to make clear, to help people understand - definition should not categorise or be proscriptive.
And another valuable input: “Ultra-reactionary traditional folkies and trad-jazzers come from the same point of fixation – any change is negative. Be proud of the tradition but not to the exclusion of accepting something new. It is an ongoing education to see how stuffy people can be – at times I find they’re just over educated people arguing about music.”
Folk music - fixed in style and format?
That question raises another definition point - The usage definition: music that has some subset of musical and/or lyrical and/or historical features, such as jigs and reels, narrative songs, or songs with a lack of a known composer. These have randomly been lumped together by historical accident and are perceived as ‘folk’.
The vagueness of this definition is what leads to the negative aspect of the ‘What is folk?’ debate, which is ultimately not about content but about definition. And that’s the point where I usually drop out of the conversation before I decide to strangle someone with their own pettiness.
"Is the widening of the folk definition (if there is one) making folk more popular? Some traditional folkies might not regard popular folk music as folk at all. From that point of view, folk remains as obscure as ever, and that's how many people like it. Surely all folk is different branches of the same tree."
If adding definitions creates niches in which artists feel comfortable to perform then is the definitions quest a bad thing? If adding a small defining description to what you do makes you happy who am I to comment? However, (and it’s a big ‘however’) if your definitions become either restrictive or exclusive then that’s where I’ll take option with you.
In Anglo-based cultures folk has a tendency towards certain formats, i.e. narrative song, dance tunes, and limited technological complexity. Genre traditional folkies will generally eschew technological complexity to retain the illusion of a pre-computer end result. The audible and obvious use of computer technology is one of the identifiers of ‘nu-folk’ v ‘traditional-folk’.
There's a drive for traditional folk to appear to use only traditional technology, whereas nu folk is happy to embrace any available technology. Actually, that may have been true once but not so much today. The rise of young folk artists from the base of tradition but with the modern edge of youth has made a huge difference. There is no fear of expeirmentation. "There is an acceptance of the widest sphere of influence. There is a need to take tradition further (if for no other reason than to ensure it exists)."