Guarding the Tradition Part 3 – What might folk music become?

Yes, you did read the title correctly. After the success of Part 1 and Part 2, I have finally got round to writing Part 3. Welcome to more of my ramblings on folk music, for the last instalment of this series.

Before we get onto that though, a quick plug again for my new album with There and Back Again. Sales are picking up, so if you are interested in some semi-improvisatory folk music then head over to the shop. And also, if you happen to be in Bury St Edmunds this Friday the 21st September then I will be playing solo at the Milkmaid Folk Club, supporting the superb Nancy Kerr and James Fagan. Would be fantastic to see lots of you there.

In Part 1 I was talking about the participatory nature of folk music. I argued that one way to separate folk music from any other form of music was that it was music to play and to take part in, rather than music to listen to. In Part 2 though I made a more general point, that people’s perception of something as folk music, as opposed to anything else, makes it folk music far more than any particular musical characteristic.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue over the last six months and thought that I would share a few quotes and a few thoughts with you. The first quote I mentioned in the post that kicked off this series in the first place. It is one that Chris Wood (who incidentally started the EAC Summer School mentioned in previous posts) heard on the radio. It was an Indian musician talking about how the railways were affecting the individuality of regional styles of music. I think that this quote is spot on.

“Tradition must be respected, convention can be broken, but only when you know which is which”

The point about this quote is that it is drawing a line between tradition and convention, in other words separating what is passed down to you into what is of value and worth saving (the tradition) and what is not (convention). The tricky part is knowing where to draw this line.

We talked about this a lot at the summer school. Chris Wood did quite a bit of work on “Creative Interpretation of Manuscripts” and we were taught about this technique. Much is made of the idea that when you think about altering a tune, in style or substance, you should imagine the ghosts of all the people who have ever played that tune behind you. If they approve then you can go ahead. In other words, a tune can be said to be the sum of the experiences of the people before you. For instance, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about a tune called the South Downs Jig. I altered that tune when I recorded it. I think that I altered it for the better, because I felt that for me, the tune felt more complete when I then played it. But doing something like that needs to be thought about seriously and only with the full knowledge of what the tune is supposed to be like!

It is always interesting to get the impressions of others about tradition. At the summer school we had a number of different views aired. Some expressed the view that tradition was something that brought people together, others said that there is a value inherent in the process of oral transmission. One that I particularly liked was the notion that the tradition is a way of making sense of a tune, that it is a way of finding the very essence of what a tune is about. A favourite view of mine is summed up by the quote below.

“In some ways, the notes are the most trivial part of a tune”

Which is something that I do believe and have believed for a long time (and expanded on in my previous post on this subject).

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in a living tradition. As I have mentioned before, my MEng project was on the Bolivian Charango. As a part of this project I read a bit about Bolivian Ethnomusicology, including a book written by the chap upon whose Charangos I experimented. “Music and the Poetics of Production in the Bolivian Andes” is by Dr Henry Stobart of Royal Holloway. You can read parts of it on Google Books, or else find it in a specialist library. He spent some time living with Quechua-speaking people in Kalankira, a village in the Bolivian Andes, sharing their experiences and learning about their way of life. It is a very good read and it is fascinating for someone like myself, living in a revived tradition.

Music making to these people is an integral part of life. They have instruments which they play at different times and for different reasons. Music is not something which is set aside from the rest of their life, it is completely bound up in it, hence the title of the book. Fashions change, different instruments with different decoration are introduced, different tunings and different styles develop. But the continuity of the tradition is retained.

I wonder what it would be like to live in such a society. A society where music is not only accepted, but considered vital for civilised life. I suppose the lesson that I would draw from all of this can be summed up in the following quote, which I have made up this very moment.

“Being part of a tradition is about what you are, not what you do”

That is to say that as long as you embrace the music and the tradition that has gone before you, you are playing traditional music and it matters not what you actually play. You don’t have to be born into the tradition, but you must be absorbed by it.

I always try to end wordy posts with a video, so here is some string quartet music for you. Not what you might expect however, for this is Methera. Methera is a folk string quartet, featuring Emma Reid and John Dipper on fiddle with Miranda Rutter on Viola and Lucy Deakin on Cello. Quite apart from being fantastic music, both John and Miranda were tutors on the EAC Summer School. You can listen to more of them on their bandcamp page.


1 thought on “Guarding the Tradition Part 3 – What might folk music become?

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

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