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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
lamarca Folklore: What are the Motives of the Re-definers? (124* d) RE: Folklore: What are the Motives of the Re-definers? 11 Dec 06


This discussion has, so far, been very detailed in describing situations and traditions in the British Isles (not to be ignoring your contributions, Art!).

In the US, I think the waters are somewhat muddier. Because we are a country of immigrants and many different kinds of communities, defining "traditional" or re-defining it becomes difficult. I'm trying to define some different classes of tradition as I sit here and type, and will probably not succeed in being as clear and concise as CountessRichard, but here goes!

1. There are some traditional songs that came out of a particular type of profession - lumbering, gandy-dancing and track lining, manual fishing techniques, etc., where the activities and communities from which these songs emerged no longer exist. These traditions cannot evolve within the original community. Folklorists and musicians who love the songs and music are keeping them alive by continuing to sing them, and members of this "revival" community sometimes add to or alter the repertoire in the way in which they perform them. Do these new renditions of old material still qualify as "Traditional?"

2. There are new forms of older communities, such as Union workers, cowboy poets, etc. that have a historical body of song, poetry and music that is still being added to, even though the communities and jobs have changed with time. For example, there is a thriving Cowboy Poetry festival each year in Elko, Nevada. Even though there are no longer cattle drives to the railhead at Abilene, there are still working cowboys and ranchers, and they continue the traditional art forms of that community, but reflect modern changes to it. Similarly, there are other, modern groups of people who have a shared culture that has produced music and other art forms - Vietnam and other vets, modern deep-sea fishermen, oil workers, etc. Although newly written or composed works may not be passed along except for within these communities, these are a part of a tradition.

3. There are bodies of music that have long roots and a history of musical forms that have been passed along both within a geographical or ethnic community, and also within a more widespread community of musicians who play or sing within the "traditional" parameters of that form. Some examples are Irish tunes and songs, old time fiddle music, Klezmer, etc. I think of these as "living" traditions, because both the older tunes and songs continue to be played, and new tunes and songs are being created in the traditional form. The musicians who take up the tradition may not be from the original community. The diffiiculty here, then, is what is "traditional"? Is a new fiddle tune by Liz Carroll that follows traditional Irish tune forms and has been taken up by other fiddlers traditional? How about an Irish tune whose composer is known, but who is now dead (O'Carolan, or Willy Clancy)? Is an electric rendition of a traditional old-time tune by Olabelle or The Duhks traditional? How about a fiddle tune by Rafe Stephanini, played in a more old-fashioned old-time style?

Other community-based musics, like Cajun, Zydeco, Conjunto, Polka, Bluegrass, different Cuban and Puerto Rican styles, etc, all came out of traditional forms played within a certain ethnic community, but have evolved and incorporated features of other musical forms, both within and outside of the original community. Many of these have a commercial form, where the musicians are specifically performing pieces for an audience, and a home-made form, where enthusiasts of the music get together to make music with each other. If a Puerto Rican bomba y plena group includes jazz and rap influences in their dance music that is played and accepted within their own community, is this part of the tradtion? If a Conjunto band (Mingo Saldivar, a National Heritage Award winner, to be precise) has a conjunto version of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" as one of their most popular numbers both within and outside of their ethnic community, are they still traditional musicians?

We have folklorists involved with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that will invite a band to play music of their community, but forbid them to include musicians in the band who aren't from that ethnic community. Some folklorists will hire black musicians to perform acoustic blues that they learned from old recordings, but won't hire white musicians who learned from the same sources. Is one more traditional than the other?

On the other hand, our government's National Endowment for the Arts awards National Heritage Fellowships each year:
"To honor and preserve our nation's diverse cultural heritage, the National Endowment for the Arts annually awards one-time-only NEA National Heritage Fellowships to master folk and traditional artists. These fellowships recognize lifetime achievement, artistic excellence and contributions to our nation's traditional arts heritage."
Winners have included Mick Moloney, Irish musician and folklorist; Eddie Blazonczyk, a polka master; Bill Monroe, the "father" of bluegrass, and even B.B. King, electric blues master. To the government arts agency, all of these artists are somehow "traditional". (See the complete list of winners here: http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/allheritage.html)

I don't have any conclusions to offer; there just doesn't seem to be any bright line dividing "Traditional" vs "Non-traditional" any more than there is one to define "Folk". There are musicians and songwriters who are creating within traditional forms, even though the sources and communities for those forms no longer exist, and there are people creating, melding and evolving music in traditional forms from both within and without the living communities from which those forms came. I think all of these have some claim, however tenuous, to being traditional.

What I don't agree with is defining music being written solely for performance by songwriters with no knowledge of or experience in a traditional form or community being labelled as "Traditional". It may be "Folk" by whatever jumbled definition people have for that loaded word, but it ain't trad. Every week, our beloved local folk DJ, Mary Cliff, hosts her radio show called "Traditions", which she advertises as "Traditional music and things you can see from there..." When she's playing the seventh or eighth electrified singer-sonwriter's new CD that just arrived in her mailbox that week in a row, and the person is droning on about his or her traumatic break-up, or their stolen car, or the oneness of everythingness, and they all seem to have mastered the "Singer-Songwriter Guitar Strum" (you'll recognize it when you hear it), my husband and I wail "I can't see it from here, Mary..."


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