Guarding the Tradition Part 1 – What is Folk Music?

Update: Part 2 and Part 3 of this series

In my last blog post I touched on the current state of affairs in the English folk world, with regards to the relationship between contemporary and traditional folk music. I thought that I would expand on this a little, in case you hadn’t got the message. I’m splitting this up into a number of posts, for my sake as much as yours, hypothetical reader.

This first post is on defining folk music in terms of the musical landscape. It is going to involve huge generalisations about things that I don’t fully understand, so please feel free to be utterly offended.

Folk music may be defined in many ways. Some say that folk music is orally transmitted music; others say that it is music composed by and for the people. People define it in terms of class, in terms of geographical location (rural as opposed to urban). People define it in terms of continuity with what has gone before it.

The world repository of knowledge, Wikipedia, even distinguishes between traditional folk music and contemporary folk music. The fact that this distinction exists is a very sad reflection on the current climate in folk music. After all, all tunes were made up by somebody originally! A good friend of mine and a superb singer (appearing on Jackie Oates‘ newest album playing handbells), now describes himself as “traditional” rather than “folk”, as he feels that much of what is labelled folk is alien to him.

How did this state of affairs arise? As I mentioned last week, part of it is that we have a revived tradition, rather than a living tradition. The decline of folk music and the more recent surge in popularity has resulted in two different extremes, those who seize on folk as a convenient label for music which doesn’t fall within the popular sphere, the jazz world or the classical scene. Then there are those that revere the tradition of music going back hundreds of years, who frown on people playing untraditional music, using chords other than I, IV and V and playing with instruments that date from later than 1899. Most people fall somewhere between those extremes, but pushed to one side or the other. I’ll examine those points of view in more depth in the next instalment.

I will readily admit that folk music is difficult to define and all the above definitions are accurate to a certain extent. I think that part of it is about outlook. I have always said that what distinguishes English music from Goidelic music is not the notes (there are loads of “English” tunes which actually come from Scotland or Ireland), but the style of playing. The same concept holds for defining folk music apart from other genres; it is not about the notes that you play, it is about how you play them, where you play them, who you play them with and most importantly, why you play them and what you think of them.

I am learning from my fourth year project that it is always important to find out the purpose of an instrument before you start to analyse it and the same goes for music.

Classical music is something that professionals do. These people train for years, they go through very formalised grading systems, they are taught technique and play a number of pieces selected by others so as to provide a rising scale of difficulty. They study music at university or at a conservatoire and then call themselves a classical musician. I have been through this, except that I only got as far as a first level diploma.

This is not because Classical music is intrinsically difficult. Some of it is, some of it isn’t. Much of it is challenging musically, much of it is challenging technically. Some of it is both, as I know to my pain. But there is nothing about Classical music in general, I would argue, which is inherently difficult.

Classical music is about listening. The music was written for people to listen to. Some was written for the glory of God, some was written for the concert hall, some for the opera theatre. But the majority was written for listening. Learning to play classical music reflects this. When you are young, the aim is accuracy and technique, but as you get better (most notably post grade 8), musicality becomes more important. When you play in a concert, you are playing to your audience. Of course, there are lots of amateur classical musicians and lots of people play in orchestras for fun, but they tend to always look towards the next concert. I think that I am unusual in playing in an orchestra completely for fun, on an instrument which I taught myself. This is probably not as unusual as the fact that I can’t play the instrument in the slightest, which possibly also explains why I won’t be performing in the concert.

Let us now consider popular music, which I know nothing about. A lot of the many and varied genres which are popular with people nowadays are music which is danced to, whether quantised-thumping trance(?) or head-banging heavy metal. Again, there are loads of people who explore this kind of music for fun, but again, they explore it with an aim to perform. I know this, in a misguided incident that is no longer mentioned, I was in a “rock” band, playing keyboards. We never gigged, but always hoped to.

Folk music, on the other hand, is not music designed to be listened to, it is music designed to be played. And this I think is the defining characteristic of the genre and something that people sometimes forget. Anyone can take part in a classical concert, or a rock concert, but they do so by listening. Anyone can take part in a session, but they do so by playing. A session or a singaround is not an opportunity for people to listen; it is an opportunity for people to join in, to contribute without thought of an audience or any repercussions arising from it. Folk music is music for the moment.

When folk music is in a performance setting, opportunities to perform are generally available to punters, through the floor spots. This is one of the things I love about folk clubs, that everyone is placed on an equal footing and everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the event. The clubs came out of the revival, but kept to this key characteristic of folk music, that anyone can and should participate.

This however is close to being undermined at the present time. Nowadays, people are professionals. We go to school, get educated, go to college, then university (I’ll save the spiel about the lamentable decline of apprenticeships, the prioritisation of academic subjects and so on for another time, probably never) and then get a job, where we will need to do even more training. We end up increasingly specialised and when the job market turns sour then we are left behind. Turn back 150 years and amateurs were everywhere, in sport, in natural philosophy (science to you and me), in every kind of research. Nowadays the assumption is that you must train formally in order to do anything. There is obviously a lot to be said for this move towards people being competent, for instance it would be nice if the pilot flying your plane had been properly taught to fly. But training requires time, effort and investment and so people generally get one shot at it, which is slightly unfortunate for those of us who choose wrong and also doesn’t really reflect the diversity of human expression. Of course, this trait is not universal; the notable exception is the open source movement.

It is my feeling though that this culture is drifting into the folk world. There are such things as professional folk musicians. Much as I would love to make my living playing folk music, the concept of a professional somehow devalues the right of others to play. You can now get a degree in folk music through Newcastle University. I am not degrading the people coming out of that degree, I know some of them and they are superb musicians. But the idea of a qualification in folk music I think is utterly apart from the ideals which are at the heart of the genre. As soon as you get a qualification, the assumption is that you are better and have a greater right to contribute than someone without such things. Which is simply not the case in folk.

In conclusion then, folk music can be defined in many ways, but to me, folk music is music intended to be played by anyone, something which we should always bear in mind. In the next instalment I shall explore what folk music is not.

That was a long post, so here is a video to reward those who got to the end. This is one of the groups who personify the best of the current folk scene, Lady Maisery.

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9 thoughts on “Guarding the Tradition Part 1 – What is Folk Music?

  1. Edwin Beasant from Pilgrim’s Way posted this on my Facebook profile and has allowed me to reproduce it here:

    “A thought on learning to play classical music vs. learning to play folk music:
    (This is probably stretching the allegory somewhat…..)
    Difference between leaning to fly a passenger plane in peacetime, and a fighter in wartime.
    In one, one must be precise, orderly and to the book, and you are directly responsible for the lives and livelihoods of many. You are proud of your skill and precision and the honour of flying something designed by people far more skilled than you may consider yourself to be. You need to keep your mind on the job no matter what, determination and reliability will see you through.
    In the other, you may be required to learn in a hurry to satisfy other’s needs, you will find yourself having to improvise early on, with little or no guidance beyond the first steps. You may be shot at on all sides by people who have different ideas as to how to get the job done, but ultimately, your survival is the judge of your successfulness (and luck). You may be required to fly machines designed by blind monkeys, and watch others fall from the sky into obscurity with no support. But ultimately, a pride in ones own background and tradition will see you through.”

  2. Copied from my FB response!
    “Really interesting and I want to read more of your thoughts Owen. I thoroughly agree with you on the participatory aspect of folk music. There seem to be a number of “musicians” who are technically brilliant, but don’t understand that a session is primarily for sharing the joy of playing. The occasional difficult solo piece is OK (though probably rude to do as your first contribution to a session), but thinking of a session a a performance platform misses the point.”

  3. On the whole I agree with your post….it seems logical and well thought out.
    IMO There’s room for varying degrees of folk music from the more commercial end, the ‘is it pop or folk, I can’t tell’ stuff to the ‘grass roots’ playing in sessions. I started at the more pop end of folk and have worked my way to the trad end of the spectrum. Folk music can’t be defined because it has so many facets and sub genres…it can’t conform to that little box people want to put it in. Its a completely subjective genre where you come from musically speaking and what aspect of the music you participate in colours your view.

  4. If it makes you want to play it in the pub then it’s folk.
    If it makes you want to play it on the jukebox, then it’s pop?

    I’m coming to the end of my working life (well, maybe) – you have some scarily accurate observations for someone just beginning.

  5. Pingback: Guarding the Tradition Part 2 – What is not Folk Music? | Music and Melodeons

  6. Pingback: Am I a folk musician, or a traditional musician? | Traditional Fiddle

  7. Pingback: Guarding the Tradition Part 3 – What might folk music become? | Music and Melodeons

  8. Pingback: A year of Music and Melodeons | Music and Melodeons

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