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folk process: tune evolution?

GUEST,ripov 28 Nov 17 - 08:35 PM
GUEST 28 Nov 17 - 04:30 PM
Brian Peters 28 Nov 17 - 01:52 PM
Brian Peters 28 Nov 17 - 01:22 PM
GUEST,Richard Robinson 28 Nov 17 - 01:11 PM
Jack Campin 28 Nov 17 - 10:42 AM
Jack Campin 28 Nov 17 - 09:36 AM
Lighter 28 Nov 17 - 09:21 AM
Brian Peters 28 Nov 17 - 07:38 AM
Pamela R 28 Nov 17 - 04:11 AM
Pamela R 28 Nov 17 - 03:31 AM
GUEST,Richard Robinson 27 Nov 17 - 12:12 PM
Brian Peters 27 Nov 17 - 10:00 AM
Lighter 27 Nov 17 - 09:58 AM
Richard Mellish 27 Nov 17 - 09:27 AM
GUEST,of 24 Nov 17 27 Nov 17 - 03:53 AM
Steve Gardham 26 Nov 17 - 05:18 PM
Brian Peters 26 Nov 17 - 02:57 PM
GUEST,of 24 Nov 17 26 Nov 17 - 02:31 PM
GUEST,of 24 Nov 17 26 Nov 17 - 02:29 PM
Pamela R 26 Nov 17 - 02:14 PM
Brian Peters 26 Nov 17 - 12:48 PM
GUEST,Richard Robinson 26 Nov 17 - 12:35 PM
Steve Gardham 26 Nov 17 - 10:23 AM
Jack Campin 26 Nov 17 - 09:55 AM
Brian Peters 26 Nov 17 - 09:36 AM
Lighter 26 Nov 17 - 09:27 AM
Brian Peters 26 Nov 17 - 08:50 AM
Brian Peters 26 Nov 17 - 08:46 AM
GUEST,Richard Robinson 25 Nov 17 - 12:13 PM
GUEST,Richard Robinson 25 Nov 17 - 11:37 AM
Jack Campin 25 Nov 17 - 11:28 AM
GUEST,Richard Robinson 25 Nov 17 - 11:04 AM
GUEST,of 24 Nov 17 - 03:41 25 Nov 17 - 10:55 AM
Lighter 25 Nov 17 - 08:45 AM
GUEST,of 24 Nov 17 - 03:41 25 Nov 17 - 05:16 AM
Richard Mellish 25 Nov 17 - 12:55 AM
leeneia 24 Nov 17 - 06:26 PM
Brian Peters 24 Nov 17 - 05:44 PM
GUEST,of 24 Nov 17 - 03:41 24 Nov 17 - 05:19 PM
Steve Gardham 24 Nov 17 - 05:08 PM
Brian Peters 24 Nov 17 - 04:15 PM
Jack Campin 24 Nov 17 - 04:12 PM
GUEST 24 Nov 17 - 03:41 PM
Brian Peters 24 Nov 17 - 02:17 PM
GUEST 24 Nov 17 - 12:11 PM
Gibb Sahib 24 Nov 17 - 05:00 AM
Lighter 23 Nov 17 - 02:14 PM
Steve Gardham 12 Jan 16 - 02:50 PM
Jack Campin 12 Jan 16 - 02:39 PM
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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,ripov
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 08:35 PM

regarding musical literacy;

from the University of Michigan-

Crowley, Robert ? The Psalter of David newly translated into English meter in such sort that it may the more decently, and with more delight of the mind, be read and sung of all men (my italics). Whereunto is added a note of four parts, with other things, as shall appear in the epistle to the reader 1549 London

four-part Psalter melodies
Contertenor.
Tenor.
Playn songe.
Bassus.

Which suggests that the writers assumed at least a small number of "readers" in the congregations, not necessarily instrumentalists.

Purely a surmise, but the youngsters in the community might have been encouraged to sing in the church choirs, so they may well have gained some literacy.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 04:30 PM

Cheers, Brian. Actually Andy Hornby's worked harder at that than I have, I've just stuck 'em on my website, and play some of them.

Duplicates ? I can only say, I'm pretty sure there are some, but not always with the same titles, I'd have to go full-bore geek to get a list. Which is an interesting thought and I might get round to it, but I'm not promising.

The only one I have immediately to mind is Cuddle Me Cuddy (aka Mad Moll, Peacock Followed The Hen), which is intriguing for the key signature - same notes, but the John Winder version (1797) gives a signature of 2 sharps, A mixolydian, the 1840s version gives it as we have it now, no accidentals, Amin. Which is a very startling change[*], and leads me to think that perhaps "literacy" is not an absolute. ie, how far can we trust someone to have written it down accurately ? (there are some ... _odd_ ... things in that 3rd volume). But if they can both be trusted it's a drastic temporal variation over just a few decades; and if so, was it a widespread change or one person's "it seemed like a good idea at the time" ? I don't know of enough other versions to check. VMP gives another version with 1 sharp, A dorian.

[*] This is the sort of reason why I thought it important to give links to the originals rather than ask people to believe me. I think & hope I've found the glitch, they should work again now.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 01:52 PM

Pamela R wrote:
"I do still find morbid or violent themes seem to be conspicuously prevalent, particularly familial murder (e.g., The Cruel Mother; Dowy Dens of Yarrow; The Cruel Brother; Lord Abore; Little Musgrave; Two Sisters; Willie Taylor; Young Edmund in the Lowlands; Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender)."

Just for interest, amongst the top 20 Child ballads (by number of variants collected) in Sharp's Appalachian MSS are:

Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender (1st)
House Carpenter (2)
Little Musgrave (6)
Two Sisters (10)
Lord Randal (12)
Young Hunting (13)
Two Brothers (14)
Cruel Mother (16)
Earl Brand (18)
Edward (19)
Sir Hugh (20)

Pretty Polly was the most popular of the non-Child ballads.

So I'm sure you're right that murder (especially familial) was a very popular theme in that place at that time.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 01:22 PM

Thanks for all that, Richard. I've been playing tunes from the Winder MSS for many years now, thanks in the first place to your efforts to disseminate them.

My own experience with the Thomas Watts MS (Derbyshire Peak District) is similar. Whoever wrote that down (and it may have been more than one person) played dance tunes and psalms, as well as a very few songs (NOT what we would generally regard as 'folk') and one or two oddities like the cello part for Handel's 'Judas Maccabaeus'. So there was an overlap between folk dance, religious, and art music.

I should probably know this already, but how many tunes are reproduced in more than one of the Winder MSS, and is there any evidence of temporal change?


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,Richard Robinson
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 01:11 PM

Pamela, Brian, literacy - I don't really know. I'm not any kind of historian, I'm just someone who plays "The Tunes" in the way we do it these days (which, broadly, is oral/aural transmission, but with a lot of literacy in the background). So don't trust me, I Know Nothing, I'm only guessing / projecting from my own experience. But, some scattered thoughts anyway ...

I think my comment earlier about the economics is relevant - it turns out that a lot of notation has been hanging about, lost in someone's attic, buried in libraries, whatever, and is surfacing now that printing and distribution doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Handwritten manuscript, not stuff put out commercially by a printing house a la Playford. Which leads me to guess that they would have been the working notes of someone who played them, spare memory. Because that seems (to me) the most likely reason for taking the trouble, given that they weren't for publication; and because it's what I do myself (it's behaviour that's beneficial in a certain context. Selection ? I'd pick up a tune by ear, maybe look for notation to clarify any details I wasn't quick enough to get hold of, and then write it down when I had it straight, because my live memory isn't big enough to hold all the tunes I've learnt at the same time. What I mean is, the abilities don't necessarily conflict). Given that musical skill would likely have been relatively sparsely distributed in a less-generally-educated time, it seems more likely that someone who played an instrument would have learnt to read & write it than someone who didn't ?

But how that (relative) literacy might have affected the actual practice of the tunes, performance, I don't know - where people got tunes from, how often they got chances to meet up with other players and swap tunes, and how they'd have done that, I don't know. Those old manuscript collections often do also contain printed material, people were learning new tunes from print as well as writing things down themselves (assuming it was them). I'm heavily biassed towards assuming oral/aural would have been predominant just because it's so much easier to do, and literate players would (surely ?) always have been a subset; even now, I meet quite a lot of players who aren't comfortable with notation, and it's not a handicap, whereas someone who can't use their ears/memory and insists on having everybody wait till they haul their sheet of paper out is a pain in the proverbs. But that may just be an artefact of my experience of the current situation.

I notice the way that song people refer to "collectors" - a sense that songs have been "snapshotted" by people who weren't part of that world, rather more than has happened with the tunes themselves. So, yes, perhaps instrumental players tended to record their own material, while singers were recorded by other people ?

I'm reminded of a comment by, I think it must have been Jack, long ago in a different place, that it could be a mistake to regard someone who played the tunes as "only" a folk musician. I think he was talking about 18C Scotland, saying that in an economy that could only support a limited number of musicians, they'd have found themselves needing to occupy all the different musical niches. String quartets for the posh people on Friday, dance tunes for the village people on Saturday, kind of thing. Also a piece by Henrik Norbeck remarking that Swedish music had a tradition of clarinet players playing polka; because one of the main ways people learnt to play an instrument was via military bands, clarinets was what they used and polkas were what the army wanted from them. I know nothing (as usual) about any such history in UK (I probably mean English, actually ?) tunes, but if you look at the Village Music Project, a lot of their 18C stuff seems to be the March of So-and-so's Militia or Lord Whatsit's Regiment (I'm not suprised they've been forgotten, either. Ahem)

I live in Lancaster (UK), where the Winder Manuscripts are a local Thing - a bunch of papers found in a farmhouse attic a few miles away, tunes written down by 3 generations of the same family. Relevant point #1 - the first of these was one John Winder, who advertised himself as a Dancing Master, working in the local Assembly Rooms. That was a Respectable Society thing - the "folk" who made use of the tunes weren't all peasants. Relevant point #2 - as I understand it, the original bundle of papers also included an amount of "West Gallery" material - hymns, church music. The same people played for dancing and for church. Sub-point - I've seen & transcribed the tune, I've never seen the church stuff; the collection as a whole got split up and went to different people - these days, "tunes" and "West Gallery" are different interests, a couple of hundred years ago they weren't. (Sub-sub-point, relevant mainly to myself - those tunes are supposed to have links to scans of the original, but they seem to be broken. Curses. I'll try and fix them).

So what am I getting at ? Pass. Perhaps, that "folk" music hasn't been entirely isolated from all the other worlds of music ? That I know nothing about the history of the concept of musical traditions, or the idea that the ones we're talking about were that separate from some of the others ? I've pointed to mechanisms that could have led instrumental players to come into contact with literacy - would there not have been equivalent stuff going on for singers ? Meaning nothing pejorative, maybe it was easier to be a singer without having to make so much commitment to identifying as a 'musician' ? (the expense of acquiring an instrument and learning to play it, for example).

Um. "Hope this helps", as they say.

Previewing this, I think it's too long. Sorry.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Jack Campin
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 10:42 AM

by 1800 (when the kind of tune books that Richard Robinson was talking about were being written out) there seems to have been a cohort of village musicians who were not members of the educated middle classes but could nonetheless read and notate sheet music

The tunebooks from the fifers of the Black Watch that I transcribed and put on the flute pages on my website are an interesting example. They were presumably young soldiers from Argyll, training near Oban on their way to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Their tunebooks are competently written, as far as the notation goes - a few boobs and discrepancies but nothing to get in the way of practical usability. But their handwriting was semiliterate, and most of them used the covers to practice signing their names. So it didn't take a high educational level to become a user of music notation.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Jack Campin
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 09:36 AM

The idea that modal or gapped scales are in some way archaic is one that I was taking the piss out of a few posts back. There are no fewer tunes being created now in these scales than there ever were, and there has never been a time when they fell out of favour. For one particular genre - the pipe marches of the British Army - the vast majority of the pentatonic ones now played date from after 1850, when the pipes became fully accepted as a military instrument for marching to. In this instance. modality became military technology. If you're playing for a column of soldiers slogging along through a valley in Afghanistan in the middle of a three-day march, anything to relieve the boredom. Switch from a phrygian/dorian/minor pentatonic tune to a lydian/major/mixolydian one and the change in sonority will echo off the hills, catch everyone's attention and keep those feet moving. (The same idea survives in civilian life as used by ceilidh bands for long dance sets).

And modality survives just fine in pop, both vocal and instrumental dance music. The age of jazz-inspired chromatic heptatonicism was fad that's decades gone.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Lighter
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 09:21 AM

It's been a while, but I don't recall many modal tunes on the Library of Congress LPs.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 07:38 AM

"Brian, interesting point regarding the selectivity of revival... I confess I am highly partial to modal scales particularly pentatonic scales, which is probably the reason I was attracted to traditional folk in the first place."

Same here. The revival is what it is, and I'd never criticize any contemporary performer for making the same kind of choices that I have. It's more of a problem when you hear people get up and say that the folk song repertoire is full of songs about fairies etc., which creates a false impression. A lot of the magical ballads in Child are represented by a tiny number of source versions, in some cases only one (usually the famous Anna Brown).

"Do you think the earlier audio field recording collections, such as Voice of the People or US Library of Congress's archive (e.g., Lomax), are representative of the vernacular repertoire of the time, or also slanted to over-represent modal tunes and morbid themes?"

I've never checked systematically, but certainly in the case of VOTP there is a wide range of material including several CDs devoted to themes like romantic love, farm work, merrymaking, etc., and only a couple devoted to tragic ballads. I would guess that the choices there were made to showcase the best performances, and represent reasonably broadly the repertoire that those singes performed. Though you could argue that, like Sharp's collections, VOTP under-represents music hall material. If you listen to the double CD of Walter Pardon put out by Musical Traditions with the 'World Without Horses' release on Topic, you'll find more music hall and other recent songs on the MT release, which was a deliberate attempt to present a more comprehensive sample of his repertoire than the 'folksong' release had done.

"In addition to any revivalists' or collector's bias, it is also possible the singers (and indeed the "folk" in general) were more influenced by scholarly analysis and/or commercial music by the time audio recordings were widely collected (after the invention of the phonograph, and most of them post-radio) compared with the singers Sharp, Baring-Gould etc collected from."

There are examples, I believe, of singers learning ballads from earlier published material. And, in the US at least, the reason that many audio recordings of ballads made after 1930 are significantly shorter than the kind of things Sharp collected, is that those singers had learned them from 78 rpm recordings on which the ballads had been edited to fit the maximum playing time of the record.

"It seems to me (without having done statistics) that pentatonic scales are more common from Appalachian sources than European ones. Anybody know of systematic analysis of that?"

Well, there's good old Cecil himself. He was very interested in Appalachian 'gapped scales'. You can download (free) the book he co-wrote with Olive Dame Campbell in 1917, and take a look at his introduction:

English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, 1917

"At the Broadside Ballad Archive project they take a stand to use only tunes that were documented (notated) before 1701, and it turns out they get most of those from fiddle or dance tune books."

If you listen to the tunes EBBA has put online, they tend to sound nothing like the tunes to which the same ballads were collected 200 years later than those Roxburghe, Pepys, etc broadsides. Which leaves the mystery of where those later tunes came from. In any case, you're certainly right to say that earlier studies downplayed the role of print, which is now much better appreciated.

"This suggests to me that many folk instrumentalists in the 1600s read musical notation but singers generally did not?"

I can't speak for the 1600s, but by 1800 (when the kind of tune books that Richard Robinson was talking about were being written out) there seems to have been a cohort of village musicians who were not members of the educated middle classes but could nonetheless read and notate sheet music (Richard, what do you think?).


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Pamela R
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 04:11 AM

Richard R: regarding instrumental music vs. song: I don't know much about that (being an unaccompanied ballad singer myself) but I found the following to be of interest and perhaps relevant:

(Background): A couple of years ago I came to realize that what I knew about folk songs, folklore, or ethnomusicology (as at least some would use the term) has been highly influenced by an "oralist" slant (my first teacher on the subject was an admirer of Walter J Ong). While still fascinated by the ideas about how primary or secondary or residual orality qualitatively influences culture and cultural transmission, I increasingly realized that the extent of literacy in Europe and the role of print (Broadsides) in the history of English language ballads had been somewhat underestimated by my earlier sources. So to educate myself more about that I paid a visit to the English Broadside Ballad Archive up at UC Santa Barbara (as well as the Wax Cylinder Archive at the same institution). This began a most fruitful conversation*.

Getting to my point, I learned that broadside ballad sheets almost never had a notated tune, instead simply stating "to the tune of...". At the Broadside Ballad Archive project they take a stand to use only tunes that were documented (notated) before 1701, and it turns out they get most of those from fiddle or dance tune books. This suggests to me that many folk instrumentalists in the 1600s read musical notation but singers generally did not? This makes me wonder if the role of aural/oral transmission in instrumental music would have had less influence than it has for songs.

PR

*Incidentally: if anyone is going to Camp New Harmony in Northern CA this winter I'll be holding a workshop to share (and sing) some of the broadsheet versions of ballads we also know from oral tradition.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Pamela R
Date: 28 Nov 17 - 03:31 AM

Brian, interesting point regarding the selectivity of revival. Witness also the abundance of Robin Hood ballads collected vs. the scarcity of 20th century recordings of them. I confess I am highly partial to modal scales particularly pentatonic scales, which is probably the reason I was attracted to traditional folk in the first place. I'm sure my repertoire selections have a strong bias in that regard, possibly for the reason you mention or perhaps due to intrinsic qualities, it is very hard to know even of myself.

Do you think the earlier audio field recording collections, such as Voice of the People or US Library of Congress's archive (e.g., Lomax), are representative of the vernacular repertoire of the time, or also slanted to over-represent modal tunes and morbid themes?

In addition to any revivalists' or collector's bias, it is also possible the singers (and indeed the "folk" in general) were more influenced by scholarly analysis and/or commercial music by the time audio recordings were widely collected (after the invention of the phonograph, and most of them post-radio) compared with the singers Sharp, Baring-Gould etc collected from. And finally, perhaps the post-WWI popular sentiment was simply quite different from that of the 19th C. It would be hard to tease these apart though there are ways to try.

For the last three years I've been studying these early audio field collections (not as a scholar, just as a singer, for repertoire, alternative versions, and singing style). Although I haven't tabulated any statistics, I do still find morbid or violent themes seem to be conspicuously prevalent, particularly familial murder (e.g., The Cruel Mother; Dowy Dens of Yarrow; The Cruel Brother; Lord Abore; Little Musgrave; Two Sisters; Willie Taylor; Young Edmund in the Lowlands; Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender). As of yet I have only revivalists' versions of Sheath and Knife or Clerk Saunders in my collections, however.   It seems to me (without having done statistics) that pentatonic scales are more common from Appalachian sources than European ones. Anybody know of systematic analysis of that?

It has been more difficult to access the even earlier (wax cylinder) collected recordings but these are beginning to be digitized so I have hope.

Pamela


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,Richard Robinson
Date: 27 Nov 17 - 12:12 PM

"I was talking there about song collecting. Instrumental music is interesting in its own right, but the OP was asking about songs" (Brian P) - true. I don't know the world of songs so well, I guess I was assuming that the same thing would have happened there. But if it hasn't, that's probably fodder for a different thread.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 27 Nov 17 - 10:00 AM

"But a major determinant now of which version gets learnt and performed by new singers is not any of its inherent traits but who recorded it, e.g. Joan Baez, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones ..."

As witness the popularity in the folk revival of ballads like 'The Selkie', 'Willie's Lady' and 'Annachie Gordon', all of which (whilst fine ballads) were very rare in tradition. It's all too easy to assume that balladeers of 200 years ago sang mostly about fairies, demons or incest, on the basis of what's been popular in folk clubs over the years.

When I reviewed the 'New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs' - which selected for popularity in oral collections, rather than appeal to modern singers - I was struck by the small proportion of modal tunes and gothic ballads, relative to the 'folk scene' repertoire of the last 60 years.

Seems that the tastes of a mostly well-educated and urban community in the late 20th century were different from the rural working class of 100 years before. Who'd have guessed it?


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Lighter
Date: 27 Nov 17 - 09:58 AM

> But a major determinant now of which version gets learnt and performed by new singers is not any of its inherent traits but who recorded it.

Significant observation, Richard.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Richard Mellish
Date: 27 Nov 17 - 09:27 AM

Mudcat doesn't offer a "like" facility, but it it did I would be liking most of the recent posts.

One big difference between biological evolution as concisely described by Pamela and that of folk songs is that the population of song S in generation N in a particular locality was often only a single specimen or, at most, a few. So there would have been very limited scope for selection of one version rather than another. Rather, selection certainly did happen between one song and another, some becoming widespread, some being collected only a very few times, and many broadsides falling by the wayside long before a collector arrived, if indeed anyone ever sang them. (Selection between versions is more relevant nowadays when those with sufficient interest can have access to many versions including those from the various collections and recordings by revival performers. But a major determinant now of which version gets learnt and performed by new singers is not any of its inherent traits but who recorded it, e.g. Joan Baez, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones ...).

As in biology, the source of variation is imperfect heritability: the singer (or in the case of the words the broadside printer) makes changes intentionally or unintentionally.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,of 24 Nov 17
Date: 27 Nov 17 - 03:53 AM

The analogy here with biology would be the influence of man upon biological evolution, unnatural selection if you like.

Isn't that a different analogy? If an analogy with evolution through natural selection is being made for a human process then I think the human aspect has to count as 'natural' so far as the anology is concerned.

However, if not doing that then Pamela's mention of an issue within biology of "How does "unnatural" selection (criteria imposed by human intervention) relate to, and interact with, natural selection?" is interesting. I wonder if some of the more overtly commercial aspects of change in songs are similar to, say, the creation and propogation of garden palnts or fancy poultry. One aspect of that is creating a fashion for people to follow. If that is a better comparison it could be that social psychologists (or ethnomusicologists) are the ones with better conceptual tools.

Going back to Sharp, rather than modal tunes being polished by selection amongst 'the folk' doesn't what we know about them suggest that they are a more like an early-evolved form that has survived with little obvious change because there has always, somewhere, been niche for them. Jack Campin's penatonic slime is doing very well all over the world.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 05:18 PM

There are bound to be minor differences but on the whole I believe the analogy is a pretty useful one. One of the points we were discussing on Saturday in Sheffield was the great amount of influence sophisticated rewriting has had on oral tradition and this goes back to the earliest records of oral tradition and print, even further. The analogy here with biology would be the influence of man upon biological evolution, unnatural selection if you like.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 02:57 PM

"I feel obligated to clear up a very common but extremely mistaken view that seems to be persisting here. In Biology "evolution" does not in any way imply "improvement" nor progression towards any higher form. That is simply not part of the theory as presently understood."

I think most participants here do understand that.

The conclusion of Sharp's 'pebble' analogy was that folksongs evolved towards a form "congenial to the taste of the community, and expressive of its feelings, aspirations, and ideals" which, as I suggested before, is in tune with the Darwinian idea of adaptiveness, with community taste acting as selection pressure. That, however, is the thing I feel will be the hardest to demonstrate, because of a lack of evidence of how rural singers and listeners of 100 or 200 years ago reacted to particular musical characteristics. We puzzle, for instance, over the fact that the most dreadful tales of tragedy or murder might be sung to the jauntiest of tunes. Again, modal tunes have always been popular in the folk revival partly if not mainly because they sound so different from the commercial music of the day, but we don't really know how singers in 1900 perceived the differences.   

Sharp goes on: "Those tune-variations which appeal to the community, will be perpetuated as against those which attract the individual only. The nature of that appeal may be of two kinds. It may be an appeal to the sense of beauty i.e., aesthetic in character; or, it may be an appeal to the understanding, i.e., expressive in character."

Here he was suggesting (and, to be fair, he did admit that he was speculating) that aesthetics were a key adaptive characteristic, and thus the argument gets muddled with the very value judgements that you as a biologist want to steer clear of.

I don't disagree with any of your latest post, Pamela. Your paragraph beginning "Of course that's not the really interesting part of the conversation..." addresses exactly the kind of issues I've been trying to raise.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,of 24 Nov 17
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 02:31 PM

Crossed with Pamela R, who I was hoping would be back :-)


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,of 24 Nov 17
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 02:29 PM

I think so far as 'voluntary' versus 'involuntary' change is concerned it depends how you want to apply a 'natural selection' analogy. I was thinking of it as the song that was undergoing selection and it wasn't doing anything voluntarily.(and they hate anthropomorphism :-))

For example, it has been suggested that organisms can retain apparantly useless features at times of 'low selection pressure'. If the environment changes there may be a competitive advantage in losing the features or they may turn out to be an advantage. So maybe corruptions in a song could persist for a long time if they didn't bother the audience or singer and there were no preferred versions around. Along comes 1960's vinyl as a potential 'ecological niche' and a singer or producer may decide to tidy it up to suite a wider audience. Conversly, a corruption making something slightly mysterious (Residue, sing residue ...) may make it a succeed with a new audience where a pristine original would not.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Pamela R
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 02:14 PM

As a professor of biology who teaches in a science-focused university, I have found it instructive to use the analogy of Darwinian evolution (which my students in general know) to inform a discussion of folk process (which in general is a foreign concept to them). What I learned from my initial post here is that within the folk music community, understanding of the theory of evolution is so uneven that the analogy only causes confusion, at best.

However, as this thread continues, I feel obligated to clear up a very common but extremely mistaken view that seems to be persisting here. In Biology "evolution" does not in any way imply "improvement" nor progression towards any higher form. That is simply not part of the theory as presently understood.

For those who care to know what the basic theory actually is, I will give a brief and necessarily incomplete summary. It's really a simple logical inference. But to make all the points necessary to usefully compare AND CONTRAST folk process to biological evolution would require several lectures, which is too much to type here.

Proposition 1: Variation. Members of a species are not all identical.

Proposition 2: Heredity. Some of the characteristics that vary among individuals are heritable - obtained as some kind of "copy" from one or more previous copy, which we call its parent(s). Therefore an individual's trait is more likely to resemble its parents and also its closely related relatives (siblings, cousins, etc) than it resembles a randomly selected individual of the same species.

Proposition 3: Selection. Some of the characteristics that vary among individuals have consequences for the chance of the individual surviving long enough to leave behind copies (offspring), or affects the number of copies made, or chance of those copies surviving.

Logical inference: IF a trait varies, AND is heritable, AND has a consequence for the chance of survival, then those variants which increase the probability of survival will by definition tend to be more numerous in the next generation. Because this iterates, the population composition tends to change gradually over time.

That's the essence of it.

Some things to note:

"Evolution" only means "gradual change" - in any direction good or bad, by any process.

"Evolution by natural selection" means gradual change in the composition of a population due to the factors mentioned above.

The variants that increase in representation are not necessarily more complex or "better" in any way; they are merely the ones that increase in representation. Value judgments are a human construction that have nothing to do with this.

Evolution does not tend toward perfection and there is no top to any pyramid, no such thing as a higher life form. From bacteria to fruit flies to humans, everything surviving on earth today has evolved to an equal extent. Arguably the flies have evolved more, and bacteria the most, because they have had so many more generations than mammals.

So *to the extent that*
~not all versions of a folk song are identical (variation)
~one person's version is obtained as a copy of one or more previous versions (heredity)
~some versions have attributes that make them more likely to be sung or copied by others (selection)

It follows by analogous arguments that some versions in generation N will be more prevalent in generation N+1. Not necessarily *better* versions. But the influence of selection could help explain why prevalent versions share certain characteristics.

Of course that's not the really interesting part of the conversation. Many other issues that come up in folk process have also been intelligently grappled with by biologists -- are mutations random events, or are they directed toward a goal, and how can we know that? How do we assess this process when we have limited or no access to what the earlier variants were? what about traits that are not heritable, or that have no survival advantage? why does one variant sometimes take over completely? why are different variants found in different locations? what about the fact that the conditions for survival keep changing over time? how do some lines go extinct? how do new ones come into existence? How does "unnatural" selection (criteria imposed by human intervention) relate to, and interact with, natural selection?

The answers to these questions may be the same or different for folk process vs. biology, indeed the answers are different for different biological examples, and probably different for different folklore examples. The point of drawing on analogy is it allows us to leverage human learning - in both directions. Great ideas are hard to come by and it's likely each discipline has insights the other hasn't discovered yet. The transfer of knowledge doesn't come free, however. One must first truly understand an idea within its own field, and then critically evaluate whether or not and in what specific ways it applies to another field.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 12:48 PM

I was talking there about song collecting. Instrumental music is interesting in its own right, but the OP was asking about songs. There is source material pre-1880s, just not enough as far as I know now to make meaningful comparisons, e.g. between singers of several generations in the same family or village.

You could also argue that song collecting went on post 1920 as well, but the picture then gets complicated by records, radio and so forth.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,Richard Robinson
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 12:35 PM

"most of the collecting went on between the late 19th and early 20th century".

The advent of software, followed by the internet, has made it so much cheaper to publish tunes that there is now a lot of material available going back considerably earlier than that. Try the Village Music Project, for example, and Jack's website.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 10:23 AM

I spend a lot of time looking at the evolutions of particular songs and song families. I've never looked on using that word as any qualitative description as a researcher. I accept that one meaning of 'evolution' implies improvement, but 'improvement' is most often an opinion. One man's improvement can be another man's degeneration.

On a more personal aesthetic level generally I see the evolution in oral tradition as an improvement, if that's not a contradiction. The songs I choose to sing are generally those that have spent many generations in oral tradition and I wouldn't dream of adding to them from a broadside unless in extreme cases where a broadside version actually makes more sense.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Jack Campin
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 09:55 AM

it seems an odd idea that a tune might float around the tradition for centuries before settling on a definitive mode (though it does occasionally happen). The way people think about mode in Middle Eastern music applies to a lot of Western tunes too: you create new tunes by assembling phrases characteristic of a particular mode (consciously or not). The mode comes first, and the modal system is fairly static. Tunes emerge from it like new plants budding off a cactus.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 09:36 AM

ALTERATION: voluntary

EVOLUTION (in either sense): involuntary

I wouldn't disagree with that. Voluntary vs involuntary is not critical in discussing whether songs evolved or not (Darwinian evolution is involuntary); it's just an additional complicating factor in determining how the songs might have changed.

'Involuntary' might cover mishearing of the source, misremembering it later, or inaccurately reproducing it in performance. I'm not one of those people who believe that traditional singers never sang a wrong note.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Lighter
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 09:27 AM

Brian, as I see it, in this context,

ALTERATION: voluntary

EVOLUTION (in either sense): involuntary

Or is this a distinction without a difference?


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 08:50 AM

"Sharp and others of his era found modal tunes so aesthetically pleasing that they must have arrived at that state as the result of improvement through evolution."

At the same time, Sharp believed that modal scales were an ancient form that folksong had somehow preserved, so there's another contradiction there.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 26 Nov 17 - 08:46 AM

Misunderstanding now cleared up, 'Guest of 24'. I don't think there's any disagreement on the issue of selection in the sense of the body of material that never took hold on the public imagination. The archives are full of unsung broadsides, for one thing.

I felt that Gibb was quite reasonable in the flexibility of his personal position, and simply pointing out that a class described as 'Ethnomusicological' might attract criticism if it ran counter to the tenets of that discipline. I found the reasons for the evolutionary concept having been rejected in the 1950s very instructive, but of course that doesn't mean that we folksong people necessarily have to reject it as well.

So, to return to the original question:

Lighter: "A process of gradual change occurring in a system, institution, subject, artefact, product, etc., esp. from a simpler to a more complex or advanced state. Also: a gradual and natural development as opposed to a sudden or instigated change (often in contrast with 'revolution')."

The second of those is more likely to be applicable in the case of folk songs. Sharp and others of his era found modal tunes so aesthetically pleasing that they must have arrived at that state as the result of improvement through evolution. At the same time they were well aware that in the real world the old songs were dying out in the face of competition from the music hall and elsewhere. The asteroid had struck, and they were struggling to survive in the altered environment.

There are several problems with Sharp's analogy of the pebble being polished to perfection. First, the songs he collected were in many cases insufficiently old for gradual evolution to have occurred across many generations. Second, even he was well capable of identifying numerous variants they found in the field as 'degenerate' or 'corrupt'. As for demonstrating the process at all, it's difficult to find much hard evidence of change in tunes over the previous hundred years, simply because most of the collecting went on between the late 19th and early 20th century. I can think of a few examples of changes occurring between one singer's rendition and that of the person who learned it from them, but demonstrating the process over additional links in the chain would be very difficult with the data we have.

As it happens, the topic of change in folksong tunes came up at the Songs in Tradition and Print conference in Sheffield yesterday. You can certainly identify examples of clearly related, but interestingly different (in respect of mode, for example) tunes in the old collections, the degree of difference sometimes reflecting their geographical separation. What is not at all certain is whether the changes that did occur were voluntary or involuntary, whether individual singers were even aware of, say, the distinction between a sharp or flat seventh, and whether the collectors were able to notate accurately the sometimes ambiguous intervals they were hearing.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,Richard Robinson
Date: 25 Nov 17 - 12:13 PM

Hi, Jack, I'm only very occasional here. Has anybody made The Old Git's Lament For The Death Of Usenet yet ?


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,Richard Robinson
Date: 25 Nov 17 - 11:37 AM

Re tune comparisons :- another possible approach is to use abc2midi, mftext (supplied with abc2midi) and a scripting language, to extract the bare pitch&duration from a (ABC) tune and then turn that into something that can be compared using fuzzy text matching (Levenshtein). It doesn't work spectacularly well, but nor does anything else. The quality of the input ABC is a major drawback, as someone already pointed out. Variant repeat structures are a particularly misleading PITA.

Pamela, thank you for a fascinating thread.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Jack Campin
Date: 25 Nov 17 - 11:28 AM

(Welcome back, Richard!)

The reason tune evolution is not of much interest to ethnomusicologists is probably because they have other fish to fry. They're mostly concerned with how music fits into social phenomena, and the social role of music is governed by dialectical rather than evolutionary processes. It doesn't take adaptation of a melody to suit it to becoming a football anthem or an "Oh Jeremy Corbyn" or a wedding request, it takes a certain kind of familiarity.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,Richard Robinson
Date: 25 Nov 17 - 11:04 AM

"I occasionally try to morph tunes I really detest into something else" (Jack C) - I've finally got sick of the never-ending demands to play "Stranger on the Shore", and have decided it's time to turn it into something I want to play (probably a hornpipe, which I shall call "Charlie Stewart's").

I have yet to actually do it, mind ...


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,of 24 Nov 17 - 03:41
Date: 25 Nov 17 - 10:55 AM

Academics may want to avoid the words "evolution" and "evolve" because they could be misunderstood as meant to suggest "survival of the fittest" or "continual improvement or increased complexity," but those connotations are not essential to the meaning of these familiar words.

Some academics might want to clarify their understanding of terms. Pamela R made clear what she, a biologist, meant. In the first post and then later. Rejecting a line of inquiry because some people don't understand, or other people in the past, may have mis-applied it, is akin throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

There is also the possibility, though I think it's unlikely, that the 1950's ethnomusicologists attempts fell down because what then for almost a century had been a big "non-no" in biological evolution - the inheritance of acquired characteristics - clearly does happen in folk songs and tunes. However, within some constraints, it is back on the menu of concepts and might, I suppose, have something to offer in the way folk song changes in time are thought of.

It is, after all, only an analogy that might be an aid to critical thinking.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Lighter
Date: 25 Nov 17 - 08:45 AM

Some participants in this thread may not realize that "evolution" has more than one accepted (and acceptable) meaning.

In addition to several other senses, including the Darwinian, Oxford gives:

"A process of gradual change occurring in a system, institution, subject, artefact, product, etc., esp. from a simpler to a more complex or advanced state. Also: a gradual and natural development as opposed to a sudden or instigated change (often in contrast with 'revolution')."

Printed examples go back to the early 18th century, long before Darwin.

According to this definition, folk tunes and songs commonly "evolve." It's one reason they're considered "folk."

Academics may want to avoid the words "evolution" and "evolve" because they could be misunderstood as meant to suggest "survival of the fittest" or "continual improvement or increased complexity," but those connotations are not essential to the meaning of these familiar words.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,of 24 Nov 17 - 03:41
Date: 25 Nov 17 - 05:16 AM

@Brian Peters. Misunderstanding. I wasn't that suggesting you were speculating. I was making the point that in an evolution analogy the pebbles that didn't survive are part of the story and anticipating an obvious criticism that we don't know what didn't leave a trace.

I am a visitor here following in interesting discussion by knowledgeable people. However, I can't resist sticking my oar in.

The discusion was started by a biologist who knows about evolution "as used in biology today" and who finds "that many of the phenomena that are observed and questions that arise in collected folk songs are analogous to phenomena and questions also studied in biological evolution (or really, population genetics). The context is teaching, not ethnomusicalogical research.

Pamela R gave a very clear response to Gibb Sahib's post, which may be have been a fair warning if she was writing an academic paper rather than teaching*, but it still reads very like 'get off our patch'. Despite Jack Campin's excellent post the discussion keeps coming back to a popular miss-representation of evolution and we don't know if Sharp (if he really was appealing to "Darwinian principles") or the 1950's ethnomusicologists were applying ideas from evolution in a way that biologists today would agree with (whos 'patch' is it anyway?).

* I own up to a hard(ish) scientists frustration with branches of academia that need to always go back to the literature of the first time a subject was ever mentioned in their discipline. If it's accepted enough to be in the textbooks or rejected enough to be in the books on the history of the subject why go over it again if nothing has changed?


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Richard Mellish
Date: 25 Nov 17 - 12:55 AM

Leeneia >I would call it the opposite of tune evolution.<
No, it's the opposite of "improvement"; but evolution (biological, musical or any other) can go in any direction. For example some breeds of dogs that have evolved by artifical selection can have serious anatomical problems. They have evolved to be best fitted for the show ring and ill fitted for an ordinary life.

Can Gibb please come back and explain
a) how the ethnomusicologists on the 50s understood and used "evolution" and
b) what the present generation use instead?


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: leeneia
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 06:26 PM

More than once I have seen (I mean heard) the interesting, distinctive bits in an old piece of music be thrown out by people who play by ear. They change everything they hear to match the conventions of their own era.

I would call it the opposite of tune evolution.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 05:44 PM

"It's not really helpful to speculate about the pebbles crushed to sand in the waves"

I'm not speculating, and didn't mention pebbles being 'crushed'.

The actual quote from Cecil Sharp is:

"Many, perhaps all of [the folk song's] most characteristic qualities, have subsequently been acquired during its journey down the ages, and represent the achievements of many generations of singers. Individual angles and irregularities have been gradually rubbed off and smoothed away by communal effort, just as the pebble on the sea shore is rounded and polished by the action
of the waves."

Sharp was describing improvement in the songs. Darwin would have said 'better adapted to their environment'. Pamela has already made it clear she was describing only 'change'.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST,of 24 Nov 17 - 03:41
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 05:19 PM

Why the need for 'improvement' in order to demonstrate the influence of something analogous to natural selection on the diversity of forms songs and tunes can take? It may have been Sharp's (and by the sound of it 1950's ethnomusicologist's) understanding of evolution but it's not the way Pamela R refers to it in the first post and, so far as I recall, it wasn't Darwin's either.

It's not really helpful to speculate about the pebbles crushed to sand in the waves or the offerings of broadside authors that a printer wouldn't waste ink on. But are there no examples of song variants being selected for survival and collection because of the way they fitted a particular cultural or linguistic niche?


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 05:08 PM

But then 'selection' was arguably the most important of the 3 descriptors. Both 'continuity' and 'variation' are also major factors in the print tradition.

'Continuity' in the sense that the most 'popular' continued to be printed in large numbers by the broadside presses.


'variation' I hope to demonstrate at tomorrow's conference was a major feature in the print tradition particularly with those ballads that later entered oral tradition.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 04:15 PM

"That small changes that make the song work better for listeners tend to be kept? That verses that don't make sense because they have been mis-heard or include words that have fallen out of use are dropped or changed?"

That's what Sharp thought, with his 'pebble smoothed by the waves of the sea'. The problem is to demonstrate that there actually was a steady 'improvement' in the songs as they were passed on down generations. I think there is evidence that some of the awkward edges of broadside lyrics were smoothed away in oral tradition, but on the other hand lots of songs were collected that were garbled and contained nonsensical and/ or misheard words.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Jack Campin
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 04:12 PM

Bartok was not an ethnomusicologist

Neither was Newton a physicist.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 03:41 PM

because it does suggest some analogy with Natural Selection which is much more difficult to demonstrate.

Does it have to be any more than that songs that people like most get sung more and spread and less popular ones don't and tend to fall by the wayside? That small changes that make the song work better for listeners tend to be kept? That verses that don't make sense because they have been mis-heard or include words that have fallen out of use are dropped or changed?

I know more about paleontology than folk songs so maybe there is something I don't 'get'.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Brian Peters
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 02:17 PM

Gibb, that is the clearest description I've heard yet of what ethnomusicology is, and how it differs from what the folklore people do. Thanks.

Like Pamela I come from a biology background, and I do have some difficulty applying the Darwinian model to temporal change in folk songs. Of Cecil Sharp's three folk song characteristics, 'continuity' and 'variation' are easily observable, but 'selection', though obviously a factor in that some songs survived and others didn't, is rather distracting because it does suggest some analogy with Natural Selection which is much more difficult to demonstrate.

FWIW, Sharp was no great fan of Darwin anyway, according to a letter of his that I once read.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: GUEST
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 12:11 PM

Did ethnolmusicologists of the 1950's apply concepts from evolutionary theory, as mentioned in the first post, correctly ? Did any of them have the "ascent from the slime" misunderstanding that may have given it a bad name.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 24 Nov 17 - 05:00 AM

How about the evolution of a Mudcat thread?

I have no idea how a couple of the last posters in this thread got the idea of talking about song researchers as "Nazis." I mentioned WWII and Nazism in my comment and then you just go free association with the term??

Bartok was not an ethnomusicologist.
There have been folklorists who deal with songs. They are not ethnomusicologists.
My posts explain how ethnomusicology developed after WW2.
None of this stuff is static; what people were doing in 1950s vs.today, and vs. anything before that that you might presume to call an antecedent to ethnomusicology, is vastly different. Likewise Biology.

I had only made the point that if one is using the language of "evolution," one is not speaking the language of ethnomusicology, which roundly banished the term in the 1950s.
In the 1960s-70s, some people found it glamorous, for some puzzling reason, to link themselves to the term "ethnomusicology" without actually practicing it, but rather presuming that if one did anything -- studying, playing, recording -- with any music outside Western art music and commercial popular music then somehow you were "ethno" (lol).

As I've mentioned many times on this forum as well, ethnomusicologists also tend to avoid the term "folk," except when referring specifically to a a cultural group may use that term.
Plenty o hucksters out there who hope some of the academic quality of the term "ethnomusicology" will rub off on them. Oh the irony—if they were actually ethnomusicologists, they'd probably be wanted to distance themselves from that term and from academic artifice.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Lighter
Date: 23 Nov 17 - 02:14 PM

Folk process factoid:

A character in the movie "Hell or High Water" (2016) briefly sings the first stanza of "Get Along, Little Dogies" to the "Streets of Laredo" tune.

He keeps the original tune for the chorus, however.


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 12 Jan 16 - 02:50 PM

I like that, Jack. Neat!


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Subject: RE: folk process: tune evolution?
From: Jack Campin
Date: 12 Jan 16 - 02:39 PM

There was an idea which you find in a lot of music-appreciation books that music evolves from primitive music to better music - perhaps this reached its fullest expression in Wagner's circle. This was associated with a whole lot of proto-fascist ideas, and it wasn't just academic ethnomusicologists in the US who had a problem with it. (Victor Zuckerkandl's "Sound and Symbol" - cheap paperback from Dover, if you're curious - argues an anti-evolutionist standpoint which he presumably formulated when living as a Jew under the Nazis. He's surprisingly quiet and moderate about it, considering).

The evolution of tunes (or temporal change, to be more neutral about it) doesn't carry anything like those associations. You don't need to see it as a progression from the primordial pentatonic slime to ripplingly muscular blonde beast sonata forms pulsing with Dynamic Tension and kicking sand in the faces of music from inferior cultures, and hardly anybody does.

What the categorization of tunes (and other musical elements) does sometimes help with is decoding their history. Bartok did that and wasn't anybody's idea of a Nazi. The conclusions you get from that sort of comparison, as with DNA sequencing of modern populations, don't help the nationalist case one little bit. Usually everything comes from somewhere else and you pinched it from the smelly gits you most despise.


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