logo Enthusiasms No 1
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...


Traditional?

Is it just another instance of fin de si├Ęcle uncertainty, or is it really getting more difficult to understand what people are talking about these days?

I recently initiated some discussion in a UseNet newsgroup about traditional music.  The intention was to find out the level of interest in the subject, and to get some feedback on whether an e-zine like this would be viable.  The response was startling - in several ways.

It was soon clear that there was plenty of interest - the thread became the longest running and most contributed to in the group's history.  It was also soon clear that each of the contributors had often quite radically different ideas about what the word 'traditional' might mean.  When I commented about this I was goaded by several of them to come up with a definition.  Not wishing to attract too much hostile fire, I responded with a few basic premises which I felt might stand as a starting point for further discussion.

I was further surprised to receive a flood of complaints on the lines of  "How dare you suggest that my particular interest area should have any defining parameters - No Definitions Here!!"  The longest, most balanced and most coherent of these came from Dick Gaughan, and I'd like to quote him.

"There is a phenomenon in the modern world which I find highly amusing as it has its root in ancient superstition.  That is the desire to 'name' everything, to define and categorise all external phenomena and label them in order to 'understand' them better.  This is useful practice until the label replaces in our consciousness that which it is describing and itself becomes the most important feature.  When I say this is rooted in ancient superstition, what I mean is that it is the modern form of the belief that objects, and words, have powers and that if we can give names to these objects we can neutralise their power to harm us or we can take their power for our own use. I t's a recurring theme in much of our ballad tradition.

The danger inherent in this is that we can become so obsessed with definition that we can lose the creative, organic relationship with that which we are defining.  The subjective then takes precedence over the objective - but this is denied because we describe our efforts to define as being 'scientific' and that word in itself carries power, i.e. it carries the assumption of objectivity and the undefined is consequently classed as 'unscientific', i.e. subjective.  Defining a word to describe a method of description to exclude that which does not fit in to that particular method until the word itself has 'power'.  'Scientific' is the rational, 'unscientific' is the irrational.

An overdose of education with an underdose of humility is one of the most dangerous trends in the world today.  Some things are so intangible that to place an existing definition on them using techniques developed for use elsewhere frequently only serves to further obscure them.

A tradition is like a river, constantly flowing and changing.  To take a bucketful of water from that river and then claim that you can use it to construct a comprehensive and accurate description of rivers is absurd.  The best we can claim is that it is representative of one particular part of one particular river at the precise moment when we dipped in the bucket and that we can only use it to construct a useful theory of rivers which must be kept open to change as more evidence becomes available. That is scientific.

The story of all creative advances is that of people doing things constantly confounding those who said it was against the rules.  Whatever any individual, or group of individuals, decides to define 'the tradition' as, it will continue to develop in its own merry way and may or may not develop in accordance with our theories.  All that is then required is an open mind and a willingness not to take ourselves, or our wonderful theories, too seriously".

Now you may not find too much to take exception to there, and in general I agree with him.  But this is only the 'acceptable face' of the viewpoint.  It is a representative of some very aggressive and ill thought-out responses, most of which were transparently partisan.  Dick admits that to define and categorise phenomena in order to 'understand' them better is useful practice - but I think this really misses the point.

Surely the most important purpose of definition is that it enables discussion - which may then lead on to a better understanding.  Without a reasonable agreement among the participants as to the meanings of the terms to be used, any purposeful discussion is impossible.  This was what my "Traditional Topics" thread revealed above all.  Approximately 25% of the discussion generated was in any way related to a traditional topic.  Most of the rest was argument about what should, or should not be discussed.

My response, aside from slight disappointment, was to decide that putting MT on the Internet would be a very helpful move, in that it might prove an enlightening experience for some readers who'd not encountered it in paper form.  I guess I really though that most of the misunderstanding was caused by the 'instant response' syndrome, inherent in newsgroup practice.

This view was severely undermined by a correspondence I had recently with a chap who seems intelligent, concerned and aware, yet has a viewpoint so utterly different to my own that I began to wonder if we'd accidentally stumbled upon a gateway between parallel universes.

Listing half a dozen performers from around the club/festival scene (one of whom learned much of her early music from me) he stated "If you want to tell (list of performers) - to name but a few - that they are not 'traditional performers', then feel free.  But I would suggest getting out of arm's reach, throwing distance - and preferably earshot - first..." Later, talking about some of Peter Bellamy's self-composed tunes, he said "Many of them are sung in folk clubs by folk artists - many of whom no doubt are convinced that they are 'traditional singers' - does this help?  No?  I wonder why not".

Having replied to the effect that I didn't quite see what their convictions had to do with it, he responded "I would suggest that since they will inevitably have given the matter serious thought, somebody's opinion of his or her status has to be relevant - or potentially so - until the reasoning behind that opinion is shown to be at fault".  I keep thinking "It's logic, Jim - but not as we know it".

All of this has had the effect of making me wonder whether I've been shunted up a siding somewhere and forgotten, whilst the great mainline express of life thunders onward into an incomprehensible future without me.


I'm also tempted to wonder whether any of the above isn't indicative of a wider malaise afflicting modern society - this being the increasing difficulty of discussing anything, publicly, anymore.  A whole range of prohibitions, often subsumed within the blanket designation 'political correctness', inhibit our once customary ease of speech, confusions as to the accepted meanings of terms abound, and ideas become overwhelmed with semantics.

Politicians and the media, between them, have so set things up that such central issues as policies and methods are rarely, if ever, discussed.  Elections are decided on personalities, fears and lies.  Referenda are judged to be irrelevant because the issues are considered too complex (there are moves to get rid of juries for the same reason).  Clearly, they were always too complex for a proportion of society, but it was considered that the rest would be able to come to a judgement, given sufficient information, usually via some sort of 'national debate'.  Nowadays, they are too complex because we never get as far as debate - just a series of partisan dogfights over side issues.


From my possibly blinkered point of view, the situation relating to traditional music seems to be this.  Anyone with half a mind can see that any definitions of 'traditional' which might have applied to performers prior to the widespread availability of the gramophone and radio (let alone the social mobility of more recent years) can no longer be considered remotely appropriate.  That this could beneficially be discussed seems self-evident.  But to respond with a denial that there should be any sort of definition, however loosely drawn or tenuous it might be, leaves us unable to discuss the very subject this magazine was created to serve - without the certainty of misunderstandings and arguments.

I fully accept that argument, even if it ranges far from the point of discussion, can have positive and productive results.  But I do feel that this is far more likely an outcome if the parties concerned at least agree as to what it is they are arguing about.

I would like to invite readers' comments on the above (send to me, headed Letters), together with any initial ideas about what might constitute a musical tradition as we approach a new millennium.  I hope that contributors will see this as a horizon-broadening discussion, and not an attempt to narrow or restrict our areas of interest.

Would you also please notice that I have not once used the word 'folk' in this piece, nor do I have any wish to attempt to discuss or define it - whatever it is!

Rod Stradling - 8.9.97

Top of page Home Page Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 23.1.03