FolkWords Writes

‘Belonging’ identifies people

(January 24, 2015)

‘Belonging’ identifies people. A team, group, tribe (delete as applicable) has its own stories, rituals and music. There may be a dress code or ‘uniform’ to identify those that belong. Outsiders are defined by exclusion, members by inclusion. Being one of the ‘chosen’ means ‘outsiders’ have ‘failed the test’ or don’t know the membership requirements. They don’t possess the identity. The way in which the ‘excluded’ are regarded by the ‘included’ ranges from ‘unfortunates’ or ‘heretics’, depending how the ‘included’ forge themselves into a tribe.

The existence of such ‘tribes’ may be transient but there’s always evidence left behind - legends, stories, cultural impact, fashion sense or ‘uniform’, and music. Tribes define themselves by music as much as any other means. They may borrow music from many sources and morph what they acquire into something different. They may move their music into areas perhaps not previously explored, turning their discoveries into new expression. Sometimes, regardless of how ‘new’ it appears, much of what a tribe assimilates is often traceable to other generations. Roots go back a long, long way, so when you look at a tribe’s musical legacy it’s not hard to find ‘history’.

The rise of tribal trends and music

There was a time not so very long ago, when the ‘Summer of Love’ spawned what many thought would become a world-wide tribe. Their parents were ‘squares’ or ‘straights’ that understood nothing. They regarded their offspring with emotions ranging from outrage to mild amusement. The same periodically applies to other rising tribes, however, as society becomes increasingly used to the comings and goings of subculture tribes, the sense of ‘outrage’ reduces. Social history is littered with tribal risings and fallings, each birth accompanied by distinctive or dividing tribal music.

Some divisions are more aggressive than others, some members tolerate non-tribal music others directly confront and deride another’s music. At the most visceral level, such conflict is not necessarily violent – unless you look through the eyes of popular media, in which case it’s obligatory.

Perhaps the most peaceful and non-violent musical tribes were those occupied by hippies and folkies. After all, why get into mindless, energy-sapping aggression if a joint or a pint and a song is a better solution? Unfortunately, that harmonious outlook doesn’t always strike a chord with all tribe members and that’s how fragmentation begins.

Tribes arise, fragment or fall apart – some ‘go to war’

The hippies grew their hair long, wore beards (mostly the men), dressed in raggedy jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts, smoked pot and dropped acid.  The flowering (pun intended) of this tribe came from striving to shake off what they saw as a restrictive, repressive society. They rejected its values and its music. As they poured themselves into a maelstrom of musical expression and creativity, rules went out the window, along with sexual and social inhibition. They questioned everything and anything about the ‘older generation’ and almost every part of its society. That older generation struck back with its reactionaries, the various ‘legions of light and joy’ were horrified and predicted an imminent fall into an ‘immoral cesspit’. However, it was all transient, and arguably born in 1967, practically expired by 1970 – yet the music remains.

The folkies followed a similar road, although there was less revolution more evolution. And there was not so much tribal extinction, rather periods of dormancy followed by re-birth after re-birth. There was also a uniform or sorts, beards were practically obligatory (mostly the men); although the waist-coated, neckerchief wearing stereotype probably never existed. The musical expression broadly split between preserving tradition with zealot-like fervour and riding the revival wave with home-grown or imported music. Neither tribe really challenged each other or offered violent opposition, it was more mild disapproval, peace, love and Cecil Sharp. Although, if any tribal music has longevity, folk in its broadest sense must be up there with the best – and still the music remains.

Widen the spectrum a little and you’ll find the classic tale of two tribes that ‘went to war’ – especially if you looked through the eyes of popular media, if not in reality.

These were the conflicting cultures of Mods and the Rockers. As with so many tribal inaccuracies, the fears of ‘moral decline’ and ‘social destruction’ they were expected to bring about were mostly in the imaginations of the media. Sure, Rockers looked and sounded intimidating, black-leather jacketed, jean-clad young people riding noisy motorcycles - and their attitudes were belligerent. By contrast, the Mods focused on trendy fashion, wearing suits and parkas, riding scooters - and their attitudes were belligerent. The music was equally distinct. Rockers listened to primal rock and roll, with elements their parents hated. By contrast, Mods musical tastes were as far from rock and roll as possible, moving towards soul and ska music. And their brands of music remain.

One tribe really did fight with anyone and everyone, and that was the skinhead tribe. Mostly, it found its musical roots in Jamaican music and adopted its ‘uniform’ of braces, tight jeans rolled up at the ankle to expose huge ‘bovver boots’ (usually the Dr Marten brand). At first, skinheads focused on themselves and their music, but that tribe fractured into political factions. Rather than defining themselves by uniform and music, these factions defined by politics - from far-right to far-left. Unfortunately, the violence that personified much of the skinhead culture came with them. Again, the media had a field day - and yet the music survived.

Arguably, one of the most aggressive and music-changing tribes was Punk - or Punk Rock if you prefer. It reacted against the perceived excesses of progressive and so-called stadium rock. Punk was fast, aggressive, not necessarily tuneful, anti-establishment, the epitome of rough and ready. Along with the music came another tribal uniform – ripped T-shirts (usually with ‘fuck…’ something) emblazoned on the front, leather jackets (again), spikes, studs, razor blades and safety pins all with a touch of sadomasochism. And guess what? The media had another field day: ‘Society was coming apart’, ‘youth was out of control’ and one band even swore on television! Shock horror.

Well, actually not much shock and far less horror. It had all been seen before - especially if you looked through the eyes of popular media. And the music not only remained it morphed into many other genres.

By now the point is obvious, tribes create music and define themselves through it, and when they vanish often all that remains is the music. Without wishing to turn this into a history of musical development such as: Blues spawned Rock and Roll, and that spawned Rock, which grew through Psychedelia and also spawned Heavy Metal; Punk invaded everything from Rock to Folk, which fragmented into Psych-Folk and a hundred other variations … this is beginning to read like a list of Biblical ‘begats’, so I’ll stop.

Breaking up and breaking down

Culture or sub-culture, social history is littered with the ghosts of tribes, it all depends on how far down the microscope you want to look. Sometimes tribes break apart and in turn spawn more factions and forge more division – in music especially. Thinking for too long about how many fractures permeate music would make your head swim. The plus point is this - as open-minded attitudes wander across perceived tribal boundaries, adopt differing ‘tribal musical signatures’ and experiment with fusing styles and influences, creativity blossoms.

Just as it seems a certain tribe will ‘rule the world’, it eventually founders and coalesces into smaller and tighter hard-core sections that become tiny tribes within smaller tribes. This breaking up also results in their icons breaking down. Their ‘uniforms’ cease to become exclusive, often the music follows. New tribal risings generate far less shock value and far less tribal longevity. Many uniforms that defined tribes eventually become ‘fashion flirtations’ – you can find skinhead, punk, hippy and rocker fashions worn by the hard-core tribal sections but you can also find them to a greater or lesser degree in high street shops, catalogues and online stores.

As music fragmented, it also survived. Not only did it survive, the various factions fed off each other until the divisions and distinctions became blurred and hardly anyone knew where the lines were originally drawn – if they ever were. Although this can make musical identities increasingly indistinct it fosters further expression.

As tribe’s, whatever their size, see their music as defining their existence, when that music fragments within tribal boundaries it alienates parts of the tribe, intentionally or otherwise. Individual elements within the tribe ultimately continue the division because each sees its own ‘musical signature’ as exclusive and regards any interference as tantamount to sacrilege. The good part is that such tribal music gives life to an extensive back-catalogue of nostalgia that includes not only its own niche but a steady melding with others.

And yet, part of the problem remains, as tribal factions and their music fragment that fosters exclusion. Define by excluding ‘this’ or ‘that’ taken to extremes is when ‘this’ or ‘that’ becomes more than an excluded, it becomes ‘bad’, suspicious or a threat. This creates ridiculous, spontaneous negativity across differing musical genres. Remember, we’re talking about music. Nothing more.

As music fragments … can the centre hold?

So we sit in a world where music is defined by members of a tribe, they not only hold the ‘musical signature’ of that tribe, it becomes a subject worth defending. And deep-seated attitudes remain. Today, there’s less shock value and less tribal longevity but bickering persists. The venom may vanish but the views remain. For instance, the terms ‘acid folk’, ‘punk folk’ and ‘psych-folk’ regularly take a heavy panning from avid ‘trad-folk’ fans. They’re forms of folk that are somehow not valid because they’re not part of the tribe. Equally, many ‘nu-folk’ and ‘thrash-folk’ protagonists regarded music with the prefix ‘traditional’ attached to it as being so far past its sell-by date it becomes dangerous to consume.

This attitude is pointless, for in the end, who cares? All can co-exist within their own gyres and though they may widen the centre will hold. The way forward is to cease ringing the division bell and accept that music is not a tribal exclusivity. It needs no exclusive (or inclusive) definition, it needs to be accepted for what it is - human expression. And as with most forms of human expression, some will like it, some will not. Some will borrow freely, some deride. Some will object, others let it all wash over them. Tribes can can coexist and so can their music - sharing, appreciating and collaborating.

Each time I hear a debate on definition, classification, exclusion and whatever other meaningless divisions, I try to remember we’re only talking about music … just music.

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