|What I point to when I say "folk music"
||[Aug. 15th, 2013|10:24 pm]
I am blocked on this post: that is, it feels like the next post I want to write, and when I am not actually working on it, the various ideas that feed into it go round and round in my head. But when I try to write it, it looks a) muddled. b) either self-evident or obviously wrong (or both) and c) boring, boring, boring. It gathers up into one incoherent mess some ideas I've been kicking around for some time, a book post and some thoughts about a recent concert which loop back into some thoughts about a less recent concert. For the past three evenings I have sat and looked at it, crossed bits out and put them back in, tried reversing the order and then decided I liked it better the way it was to begin with, and meanwhile if I play a couple of games of solitaire it will all make sense. This hasn't worked so far. I'm tempted just to delete it and move on - there's so much else to write about. But I'm afraid that if I do that, it will carry on spinning around in my head; the only way out may be through. So tonight I press the button and post it. No-one has to read it.
Apparently - that is, according to Wikipedia - it was Damon Knight who came up with the definition that "science fiction is what we point to when we say it". It is, of course, not so much a definition as a justification for not defining the term: we can talk about the stuff just fine without a definition. The same is surely true of folk music, and for many years I managed without defining it beyond the point that it was what I was accustomed to hear in folk clubs. Since my regular club-going years were the late 1960s, and the clubs were in Essex and London, the mix was of traditional and contemporary music, the occasional instrumental piece but mostly songs, usually accompanied by a guitar but sometimes unaccompanied. Now my club going is more random, and the mix is different, but equ;;y eclectic, so the point still stands: if there was a common feature at all, it's that this was, by definition, music performed live and unamplified - which is a feature of the performance, not of the music itelf. I don't have a problem with this: I don't believe that there is One True Definition which will sort the sheep from the goats. Child ballads, protest songs and half-remembered fragments may live in the same space in my memory, but if you tell me that they are not all folk music, they are different kinds of things, I can't argue.
I've been talking about "traditional music" as one strand of what I think of as folk music, and as if it were one that could be defined unambiguously: the music dredged up from the collective memory of the collectors' sources and accepted by those collectors as authentic, uncontaminated. There's a touch of the If You Know Who Wrote It, It's Not A Folk Song about this definition, and I don't think that works: I don't believe that the process of oral transmission gradually polishes a song or a tune, so that the best music is that which has passed through the most hands. At best this might result in a particularly good version of a song, a version which I prefer to the original, but even so, some individual had to create the original to begin with; the words and notes didn't gradually accrete like a pearl. More likely, the 'folk process', like a game of Chinese whispers, creates noise, degradations of the original which have their own enigmatic charm.
Thinking about this, I became curious about traditional music, where it comes from, and what makes it 'traditional'. So when I found out about Elsie J. Oxenham's Girls of the Hamlet Club, the earliest of the series of stories which would become the Abbey School books, I was eager to discover how this active member of the English Folk Dance Society would depict the setting from which so much of our folk music was collected. As I said when I wrote about the book, I was bewildered to discover that the folk dancing which is central to the story is introduced to the girls of the villages by Cicely who has learned it in London. The girls of the hamlets seize on it as something particularly appropriate to them, but the dances do not (in 1914) survive as part of village life. This is fiction, but it is fiction by someone who could be expected to know what she was writing about, and it puzzled me. Wasn't this the sort of place where Cecil Sharp had collected all those traditional songs and dances? What music did those people have in their lives? And if folk music didn't come from here, where did it come from? Luckily, wolfinthewood recommended Georgina Boyes's The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival, which didn't fill the musical void of Oxenham's hamlets, but did explain it.
An alternative subtitle for the book would be Why the EFD(S)S was Wrong (repeatedly). I'm pretty sure the Society did, and does, some good stuff, too, but that's not what Georgina Boyes is writing about (the words 'culture' and 'ideology' are fair warning, and 'cult of the personality' wouldn't have come amiss). She points out that the song collectors were selective in which songs they chose to collect (and publish), which is obvious enough, so that the definition of folk music becomes what Cecil Sharp and his friends are pointing to. Traditional, rural topics are acceptable; industrial worksongs and music hall numbers are not. The fact that songs have been collected from the same source does not validate the undesirable material; on the contrary, it tends to invalidate that singer as a guardian of the true folk songs. Collecting becomes less of a treasure hunt, more a piece of rescue archaeology. Oxenham's plot is a faithful reflection of this viewpoint: the villagers cannot be relied upon to preserve the old songs and dances, but must be taught how to perform them correctly by the educated Londoner, who will reconstruct this aspect of village life as it should be, the imagined village of the title.
The Imagined Village also looks at the Society's struggles with what women were, and were not, permitted to dance: another topic which Oxenham struggles with, and a fascinating story, but not the one I want to engage with at this point. And the book ends with a consideration of the folk revival of the 1950s, which is more or less where I came in (so that was interesting). Despite not being the book I hoped it might be, it is an interesting, if rather dense read: it's academic enough in style that I sometimes struggled with the level of abstraction (and she has a fondness for the word 'premisses' which is a perfectly good word, but that double s disconcerted me every time), but perseverance was rewarded.
These days, my most regular supply of folk music comes from Folkworks and the folk music degree students at the Sage. A high proportion of it is what I think of as 'traditional' music, but I'm still left wondering what that word means. I remember one particular student concert introduced by the tutor (was it Sandra Kerr? It may have been) with the words "Most of what you're going to hear tonight is traditional music," at which student after student explained the provenance of what they were about to play: I learned this one from the person who wrote it, I learned this from my tutor who learned it from the person who wrote it, I wrote this one myself... I enjoyed most of the music, and I couldn't have arranged the material in order of age (though that may just be incompetence on my part), but in that case, what does 'traditional' mean? Traditional instrumentation? In these cases, yes, though that definition would exclude Bellowhead (not to mention the predominantly guitar-accompanied folk I grew up with). Traditional forms? Plenty of jigs and reels and the odd rant, but also some dance forms I think of as nineteenth century - polskas and schottisches. Perhaps in this context the nineteenth century is long enough ago to qualify as time immemorial...
We returned from holiday just in time to benefit from the end of the Folkworks Summer School programme: a performance by Alistair Anderson and his band of A Lindisfarne Gospel, a piece commissioned by the vicar of St Mary's Church, Lindisfarne to celebrate the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham, and make sure that Lindisfarne wasn't entirely overlooked in the celebrations. This had premiered on Lindisfarne the week after we were there, and I'd been sorry to miss it; now we had the chance to hear it in Durham. Alistair Anderson's programme notes describe it as "[drawing] on the roots of Northumbrian traditional music" rather than as traditional in itself. A Lindisfarne Gospel was only half the programme, though - the first half was closer to the usual sense of traditional: a couple of tunes composed by Will Atkinson, which sounded as if they would be music hall songs if I only knew the words, some pipe tunes by Billy Pigg, plus some tunes where we were told who they'd been learned from rather than who they'd been written by. The concert hinged on a concertina solo, which was for for me the high point of the evening: Wild GeeseFlight, which had been commissioned by Wooler United Reform Church Partnership for a community project on migrating wild geese. Then the music stands came out, and we had the Lindisfarne Gospel itself, a pleasant piece which evoked the island of Lindisfarne rather than the gospels themselves, and allowed my mind to wander through some of the mental knotwork traced above.
And that's quite enough of that: normal blogging will be resumed as soon as possible. Meanwhile, have a picture of St Mary's Church, Lindisfarne: