Mudcat Café message #2599463 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #119547   Message #2599463
Posted By: Don Firth
28-Mar-09 - 05:30 PM
Thread Name: 1954 and All That - defining folk music
Subject: RE: 1954 and All That - defining folk music
Somewhat further back, I concluded that this thread, similar to some others like it, was degenerating into a series of hissy-fits and was going nowhere. Yet, miraculously, it seems to have developed into a fairly reasonable exchange of viewpoints.

My record and CD collection consists pretty much of the same sort of thing as yours, glueman. Mostly traditional songs (songs I have always thought of as "folk songs"), some sung by traditional singers such as Jean Ritchie, many sung by non-traditional singers (urban-born, not raised in a folk singing tradition or community) who sing traditional songs, some in a more or less traditional manner, others (like Richard Dyer-Bennet) not so. But traditional—folk—songs nonetheless.

However a folk song began, whether written by a professional composer (such as an ancient troubadour or minstrel who made his living writing songs to sing) or a couple of guys sitting in an ale house making up new verses to a well-known tune, it doesn't become a "folk song" until it acquires certain characteristics that come only from being learned and sung by other people, and being gradually modified through conscious or unconscious "editing." This takes time, and it also requires that a sufficient number of people over, perhaps, a number of generations, like the song enough to learn it, sing it, and pass it on to others.

One of my grandfathers was a shoemaker. I have the hammer he used all his life. The wooden handle is polished from decades of use, and there are indentations worn in the handle by his thumb and fingers. The essential characteristic of a genuine folk song is that it have this kind of polish and wear from being used over a period of time, and in the case of a folk song, by many hands.

That is the intrinsic quality that a song must gradually acquire before it becomes a folk song. And it is this intrinsic quality that I referred to above as "prestige." Now, whether anyone recognizes this prestige or not makes no difference to the song. And since this is an intrinsic quality, it has nothing to do with who sings it or how or where it is sung. A folk song sung by an operatic baritone from a concert house stage and accompanied by a piano or symphony orchestra is still a folk song. And the words and tune to "The Anvil Chorus" from Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore, whether you are singing it a folk club or in your own back yard while chopping firewood, is not a folk song.

It is this "prestige" or intrinsic quality that someone is trying to claim when he or she announces that "this is a folk song" that they have just written. It is not a folk song. It's fresh from the factory, right out of the box, and has not yet acquired any of the polish and wear that comes from the kind of usage that makes a song a folk song.

Now, this is not a qualitative judgment. The folk song in question many be a really dorky song—such as "Billy Magee Magaw," a degenerated form of "The Three Ravens" (Child #26), which, in Thomas Ravenscroft's 1611 collection, Melismata, is well-constructed, poetic, and haunting. Traditional songs and ballads can degenerate into doggerel in this manner—through the folk process, which does not always improve a song. Yet, it's still a folk song.

The newly composed song may sound like a folk song, be really well-constructed, expressing emotions that resonate with just about everyone who hears it, or that tells a really gripping story that rings true, while, at the same time, is set to an interesting and memorable tune. It may inspire may people to want to learn it and sing it. In short, it may be a really great song.

But—it is not yet a folk song.

Now, I don't derive this viewpoint form the 1954 definition, but from years of association with folk music, much reading on the subject, and many conversations with folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and singers of this kind of material, some of whom have been raised in the tradition and many who have not.

Don Firth