The question of authenticity

(September 26, 2011)

With folk lyrics there's often a question over authenticity. How close to the original version is today's rendition of a one or two-hundred year old lyric? Does it really matter and should we even care? The answers are either labelled ‘inquisitive development’ or ‘heretical sacrilege’ – depending of course on your point of view. Indeed, we may ask the same question of the tune. How many variations are there from when a song was first written to today? The answer is probably dozens as subsequent musicians alter the tune and tinker with the melody. So does this tinkering and adjustment have any bearing on the genre? There are divided camps with strong opinions coming from each but is there some case for middle ground?

The aural tradition versus the folk song collections

The various worthies that researched, transcribed and categorised folk music worked extensively to refine their tomes. Many regard their contribution as fundamental to the continued existence of folk others see their work as irreplaceable, some see it as the prototype not the finished article. However, there are dissenters and although some regard the offerings of Cecil Sharp, Walter Pardon, Vaughn Williams and others as little short of dogmatic gospel there are many that consider it fair game to plunder their work to re-write, amalgamate, edit and re-visit to create their own brands of folk music.

It’s equally  fair game in their eyes to weld tunes and poetry that were never intended for matrimonial linkage to create new folk from old traditions – take a look at the works of Rudyard Kipling and WB Yeats to find out where their words have morphed into folk song. So if your view is that nothing is sacrosanct, that’s fine; work with what you want and good luck but be prepared for some dogmatic criticism. On the other hand if your position is one of ‘thou shalt not mess with the gospel’ then prepare to be shocked as an increasing number of plunderers rummage around and produce mongrel offerings. The again why is that bad – a good mongrel in the breed may not fit with the accepted standard but it frequently improves the gene pool.

Lyrics without a point tunes without a history

Unfortunately, along the road the lyric has come in for a fair amount of ignorant tinkering. The reasons range from liking the song but finding it too long for public performance, to simply not understanding the language used in its composition. After all, unless you investigate to a significant degree, discovering the more obscure and  the hidden meanings of certain words, phrases and historical references is a step too far for some. The mere fact that some lyrics are ambiguous or outdated by time doesn’t really mean that it’s acceptable to meddle and modify without some degree of understanding. Those that do meddle in this way often end up with a bastard song. The result is a song that has no heritage and even less ability to communicate its original meaning. Sometimes such songs are nothing more than a collection of disjointed verses, their point long since lost.

The province of the tune is no less secure. If folk musicians make lyrics into something malleable and ductile then the tune is subject to far more modification. It’s almost mandatory for some artists to adjust the tune to place their own thumb print on it. Many folk songs have more than one tune, some have many. This in itself is not an issue, indeed it goes a long way to ensuring longevity by allowing folk artists to ‘wrap old in new’ and conversely ‘new around old’ with both lyric and tune; often to the betterment of both. The problem is some folk raise the dogma of the purity spirit once again.

Refining and replenishing

The upshot of all this messing about and morphing breeds both radicals and reactionaries. There will always be someone ready, and willing, to launch into a diatribe as to why an artist should or should not ‘mess’ with the original. And whether you see it as ‘messing’ or ‘updating’ matters not. What matters is that it is done with care and consideration – not just for the song itself but for the audience as well. The continual development of folk music is one of its strengths. To ensure that strength continues to be robust and vital it’s well worth looking at the meaning and the content with an eye on the past and on the future. And should your experimentation develop a mongrel well wait and see how it does, it may surprise you.

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