Guarding the Tradition Part 2 – What is not Folk Music?

UpdatePart 3 of this series

Before I begin, a quick gig plug. I’m playing with Marianne Neary and friends at the Maltings Arts Theatre in St Albans this Friday the 2nd of March at 8pm, supporting Malcolm Hobbs. It would be great to see any hypothetical readers there! I will post about this after the event, as it’s something very different from what I usually do.

My last blog post in this series got a fair number of views and aroused a fair bit of discussion on and elsewhere. The purpose of this post is to propose a different definition to the one that I proposed last time and hopefully to challenge a few preconceptions along the way.

As an aside, the main criticism that was dealt out last time was that “Folk music is indefinable, so it’s a pointless discussion”. I don’t think that this is a particularly helpful attitude for the following reason. Although it is probably true that folk music is difficult if not impossible to define, the same can be said of most genres. And even if you accept that it is impossible to define, it is still worthy of thought, so that we can better understand the music that we play. So if that is still your view then feel free not to read the below!

For those of you that haven’t read it, have forgotten it or have blocked it from your memory, my post concluded that folk music is a participatory artform and that this participatory nature is one of it’s characteristics. I got some criticism based on “I can think of an exception to this” and “I think a better definition is x”. I was not saying that this is the only characteristic of folk music, nor am I saying that it is right in all instances, but I do still hold that this characteristic is a useful distinction between folk music and some other forms, particularly classical. However, it is true that not all folk music is participatory, and that not all participatory music is folk music.

One very good point however was raised about dance. I concerned my post with folk music, ignoring the link between the music and dance. How does my definition fit in a social dance context? It’s an interesting question. Social dance is participative, no doubt about that, but what difference is there between a ceilidh and (say) a ballroom dance session where the dances are called? The obvious answer is the tunes and the dances, but do they give a meaningful distinction?

Let us first look at the tunes. There is a long history of tunes composed in a non-folk context becoming part of the tradition and this is something that continues to the present day. Morris repertoire is a good example of this, it includes Scottish airs, Irish reels and music hall songs, all played to a dance which is considered quintessentially English. Indeed, some whole genres of music have been subsumed into the broad church of folk music based on how they are played now, rather than how they were written.

Consider Scottish pipe music or Irish harp music. Piobaireachd, the great music of Scotland was a professional endeavour.  Piping ran in families and the post of piper was associated with a clan. Across the Irish sea, harping was a similarly professional occupation. O’Carolan even had a patron. I’m not saying that we should lump these musics together with European classical music, I’m saying that they share some traits with that genre. You could consider Piobaireachd to be the classical music of Scotland, or you could not. But if you don’t, you must agree that to pigeonhole these musics into what people generally think of as folk music is to deny them of their full story.

Nowadays of course these tunes are played mostly in a folk setting. But there are some tunes which are played both the classical world and the folk world, including much of Playford. So can we say that a particular tune is a folk tune, not a classical tune? I’d argue not. I don’t think that there is anything about a particular tune which gives it a genre, I think that it is (as I mentioned in my previous post), down to three things: style, context and attitude, not notes. So I don’t think that there is anything inherent about a collection of notes which makes it folk.

As an aside, I am not convinced that oral transmission is key to the folk music definition, as some people claim. I have learned some of my repertoire from dots, does that make them not folk tunes any more? Folk tunes have been notated in various forms as long as notation has been around, both for memory purposes and for teaching. I think that the orally transmitted characteristic is a by-product of the context of playing folk music, rather than a separate factor in its own right. i.e. people tend to play folk music in very informal settings where there is no programme of music, meaning that if you don’t know a tune you have no choice but to pick it up by ear.

To return to my question, what about the dances? How meaningful is the distinction between ballroom and traditional social dance? I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that traditional dance is free of outside influences; most traditional dances are adapted directly from dance forms popular elsewhere. There is a constant exchange of ideas between what we would now call folk dance and what we would now call ballroom dance. The Waltz, the Schottische, the Polka, the Mazurka and the Hornpipe are all dances that have had popularity in and outside the ballroom. Many dance forms made their way from traditional setting (e.g. Bohemia) to traditional setting (e.g. England) via the ballroom. So how closely are traditional dance and ballroom related? My hunch is that they have more in common than people think, even if certain TV offerings make you think otherwise. So I don’t think that there is anything inherent about a collection of movements which makes it folk dance.

So I have so far argued that the distinction between a ceilidh and a called ballroom session is not found in the notes and is not found in the dances. Where is it found? Is there even a distinction? I think that this question goes some way to explaining the difficulty inherent in defining folk music. Let’s return to my three factors of classifying genre (style, context and attitude).

I’d argue that style doesn’t distinguish between the music in our two events. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, dance music should be played for the dancer, so arguably style is subject to the dance. If the dance is not a distinction (see above) then nor is the style. What about the style in which the dance is done? There may be some differences here, I admit, but in an instructive setting like a ceilidh then these differences are probably minimised.

What about context? Both a ceilidh and a called ballroom session are participative, instructive and open to all (potentially). Instrumentation may well be radically different, but saying that the difference between folk music and everything else is that the former is played on a melodeon is not a definition that I like. Instrumentation may be different, but almost any instrument that you care to mention will be used for different genres in different places.

What about attitude? Is there any difference in attitude between our two groups of dancers? I can imagine cases where there would be no difference in attitude, with one exception. That exception is that one party considers what they are doing to be folk dance, the other doesn’t.

So my conclusion is that the difference between a ceilidh and a called ballroom dance is that the former is considered folk by the participants and the latter is not. And so that is your definition for today. Folk music is music which is considered to be folk music by those that partake in it. Or, to match in with the title of this post, folk music is not music which is considered to be anything other than folk music by the participants. I know that it’s an unwieldy double negative as well as a recursive and fairly meaningless definition, but what do you expect at 2am? And it serves you right for reading to the end of the second instalment!

Note the use of the word “participants”. I’m referring back to my definition of participatory music and using that word to mean musicians, dancers and listeners. The fact that the musician on their own thinks that it is folk music is meaningless (as many festival stages bear tribute). It is whether the others agree with them that is key!

I hope that you will have realised that the title of this series is meant ironically. Next time I will think a bit more about what the tradition means and how we can best guard it, or avoid it being guarded. What hope is there for folk music? Is it worth saving? Is there anything to save? Is the whole thing a waste of time? None of these questions will be answered, but I can guarantee you post midnight ramblings, for which “stream of consciousness” is a euphemism for “incoherent”. So that is something to look forward to: Guarding the Tradition Part 3 – What might folk music be?

As usual, I’ll leave you with a video. Since I’ve been talking about dance, I have to link you to “Time Gentleman Please”, the stage show marrying traditional dance and hip hop, both dance forms being popularised by amateurs and fully participatory. I have no idea whether you, hypothetical reader, believe this to be folk or not, but I do think that it makes a fantastic show.

2 thoughts on “Guarding the Tradition Part 2 – What is not Folk Music?

  1. “I am not convinced that oral transmission is key to the folk music definition. I have learned some of my repertoire from dots, does that make them not folk tunes any more?”

    For example, what would we do without resources such as that by Kohler? Or O’Neill’s 1001 and O’Neill’s 1850? Gathering tunes and putting them into tunebooks has been going on for ages (in its most recent for at, for example) and without there is a real threat that tunes could be lost. It is one form of passing on a repertoire, and is as much a part of the tradition as passing on the tunes by ear. Listening skills themselves are of course vital to understanding the genre, phrases and “feel” of a tune.

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

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