Friday, 1 June 2012

People and places – Folk music

This entry never got finished or posted - so it may as well be posted now - only four months on!

I’m reflecting on ‘folk music’. This is sparked by a variety of stimuli, not least the Paul Simon sessions on
BBC4 as I’m starting to write this (20th Jan). There seems to be an impression, or expression of belief, that ‘folk music’ was the music of the poor and downtrodden (and hence ‘authentic’), or maybe the music written by musicians about them, or the music of agonized young men about themselves and their social perceptions. And this is, to some extent, still so.

Mary Soutar or Brooksbank was one of the noted ‘folk’ heroes of my childhood, and later someone whose music I played, and indeed still do, as much as I can be said to play anything now. I see her songs as being ‘about’ something and located historically, socially and geographically, but she was herself composing verses that were political as well as reflecting a social milieu, and she did this quite overtly as a political player. Her verses aren’t a straightforward reflection of ‘what people sang then’.  How does this compare with the hundreds of people singing her things, or with the much later efforts of Paul Simon or others? What are songs about and how does this create them as ‘folk’? 

Some things are claimed to be ‘traditional’. These are often later redactions – nothing wrong with that, as long as in the song histories or acknowledgements the redaction is made plain, as part of the history of the song – or that simply people say ‘I like singing this’ and don’t make any special claims for it. But both within Scottish songs and ‘Pagan’ songs I keep seeing claims which grate on my academic mind greatly – that something is a ‘traditional’ when it was composed up my your great-aunt in 1967, or that something is ‘authentic’ because you got it from an older (read: my age) singer, though s/he may have had it from the telly, the internet (yes, it’s been around long enough), or a record.  I sing things that I had from many other people – that does not make them ‘traditional’. I sing things I got from Paul Simon records too! I sing things from one of my ‘heroes’, Ewan McColl, who while writing things that were generally understood as ‘folk’ didn’t claim them as ‘traditional’.

There is a key interplay between the published and the recorded as ‘traditional’. Does it matter?  I think in some senses it does. And I want to see authors and composers, where these are known, credited with what they have done. Embedding songs and poems in their context, understanding what they have come from...

(Something to reflect on, anyway.)

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