logo Enthusiasms No 3
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...


Rod Stradling, in his short piece in the Enthusiasms section, raises questions about the difficulties inherent in the process of making definitions. 

However, my major problem with definitions was that, in Ireland at least, they were too often used to confine action.  Had the singing and musical tradition of Ireland been constructed according to the definitions which seemed to be in the minds of many of those who talked about it, we would have had no fiddles, no pipes, no songs in English.  Definitions seemed to impose rigid boundaries whereas the tradition seemed to take in novelties and then to negotiate a balance between the old and the new content, the old and the new technique.  Whatever definitions we adopted had to reflect the flexibility of the tradition itself.  My meanderings and wonderings about this occupied my mind on and off for the best of thirty years - I wrote things down, I came to conclusions - I called them "rules of thumb" because they were not exact but they did appear to work.

Last year (1996) a conference of Irish music was arranged.  It was intended to clarify whether, as people seemed to think, Irish music was at a Cross-Roads.  In particular, there was considerable controversy over the matter of innovation.  Some people believed that the new sounds, the new styles, the new instruments and groupings, the new alliances between classical, pop, jazz and world forms and Irish music, being forged by the commercial edge of the Irish music scene, would lead to the disinheritance of the majority of Irish players and singers, to the music becoming elitist.  Papers were invited on, among many other topics, definitions.  I decided to submit my rules of thumb to academic and general scrutiny.  When asked to send an abstract I wrote as follows:

Sing us a folk song, Mouldy

This paper presents a personal perspective of the vocabulary of traditional music and song, attempts to review some definitions and considers some of the attitudes revealed in conversations about traditional music and song.

The speaker has been involved in music and singing since the late fifties and is well known as a researcher, lecturer, writer and publisher.  He has come to regard all activities concerning traditional music and song as parts of a seamless web but at the same time sees most attempts to define it as divisive, restrictive and misleading, telling more about the person issuing the definition than about the matter being defined.  From these two viewpoints he hopes to develop a few rules of thumb which will serve to provide a framework against which to judge past and present ideas.

The paper is a synthesis of opinions which have already been articulated in articles in Treoir, Folk Review, Honest Ulsterman, Fortnight, Slow Air and The Living Tradition and in notes in his books.  It is hoped that through the exercise of repetition, selection and variation some of the ideas will be enabled to transmit.

The text of the paper which I eventually gave follows - to an extent it takes the form of a reductio ad absurdem, that it is puts up points and shows them to be ridiculous.  If there are those who cannot understand it, I beg you make the affort or ask me to explain.  If there are those who think that I am being ridiculous, please tell me where you think I have gone wrong.  If there are those who find that my rules of thumb are too nebulous, I reply that my intention is not to define but to empower.

John Moulden
10 Apollo Walk, Portrush, Co Antrim, BT56 8HQ
tel: 01265 825025)  e-mail: jmoul81075@aol.com

Crosbhaleach an Cheoil (Dublin April 1996)

"Sing us a folk song, Mouldy"

I have embraced assertion and activity, as distinct from theory, for the best part of the last twenty years.  However, that avoidance followed a period of intense mind searching and argument which took place in the sixties.  That, if you remember, and I suspect that there are few who do, was the time of the eruption of folk song clubs in England and Scotland, from the nine in England of 1959 to towards seventeen hundred in 1973 and the time of the ballad boom here.  It was a time when aspiring singers and musicians many of whom came from middle class backgrounds and had little or no previous connection with any kind of traditional music suffered a series of crises, principally of confidence and of identity.  Hearing beautiful songs, believing that the people who sang traditional songs appeared to have contact with a real popular art form, which they themselves owned and made and had control over, they wanted to have a place in this tradition, but were told they had no right to one.  My own position was fairly typical: I wasn't the right sort of person because I didn't live in a "comparatively unlettered homogeneous community".1  I hadn't learned my songs from my granny, I hadn't learned them solely through hearing them.  I lived in a city, not the unchanging countryside.  I wasn't really Irish though born in Belfast; my parents were blow-ins through and through, both from London and English for all the generations since they'd been Normans.  Woe was me.

I and some of my contemporaries tried to understand our position through argument and study.  It was felt that traditional music and song were in crisis, that the conditions and the people who appeared to have sustained the tradition were changing or dying and only "revivalists" were available to carry it on;2 hence an examination of the sort of argument which went on at that time may be useful to us in the context of this conference.

This is mainly a talk for practitioners; it offers a set of rules of thumb which allows musicians and especially singers to turn to theoreticians, pundits and cultural fascists, who would seek to legislate for, explain or codify the art they practice and say "So what?", or something rude.

I want to lay before you those principles, the manifesto, the ideology by which for the last thirty or so years I have judged my own actions and those of others.  It appears to me that they are self evident, it may appear to some that my ideas are iconoclastic, to others that they are foolish.  They stem from an almost total disillusionment with the ways in which traditional musicians and singers, traditional music and song are described and commented upon.

My title, Sing us a folk song Mouldy, is a quotation from a singer in the Harbour Bar in Annalong, Co Down (a Protestant pub incidentally).  It dates from around 1962-3, from a time when most people used the nickname which my age now rules out for all but my oldest friends.  There were singing sessions in this bar and the local men sang what I would then have described as folk songs, but they called them songs and themselves singers.  They were, in their own eyes, people, not folk, sophisticates not peasants, so the word did not apply.  But in my case - I was a University Student, a climber, a weekend arrival, not even a blow-in - a blow-by; when it came my turn to sing it was "Sing us a folk song" not as they said to one another "Give us a song".  It put me in my box - and the songs I sang - and the box was labelled alien.  I now avoid the word 'folk' except when forced.  It has the effect of putting a distance between the person who uses it and the song or singer it is used to describe.  It is a word which can only be used by someone who is, at least for that moment, acting as an observer.

My suspicion of the terminology of traditional song extended to other words too3 - 'Irish', for example, is often used to make a political statement rather than to describe the currency or origin of a song.  It began to appear to me that no reliance could be placed upon books, that most of them were by outsiders, that most of them used vocabulary derived from literary or musical studies to describe an activity markedly different from that for which they had been developed and, in consequence, were misleading.  Worse, the principal definition of traditional song4 defined the process whereby songs were or became traditional.  It said nothing about whether the songs were worth singing or not.  The definitions and discussion provided no guide to aesthetics and yet it was obvious that this was a crucial factor in a song's survival, it had to have been a good song.

I decided to base my thinking around absolutely subjective criteria.  It seemed to me that those who sang traditional songs, sang what they thought were good songs - it didn't matter where the song came from: the historic depths of the oral tradition, from the music hall, from poets, from their countries, from ballad sheets, other singers, books; if they were good, they were sung.

However, I next began to think, there was no point in worrying about what people sang if they didn't sing.  No attempts to preserve the tradition in its 'real' form had any point if there was no singing.  The first necessity was to nurture the habit of singing; unless ordinary people sang all else fell.  It was pointless to inquire whether a song in my mouth or anyone else's was a folk song or traditional, when my stopping singing was a certain way to ensure that I had no part in the tradition.  Another realization concerned attempts to persuade people to take these songs seriously: if they weren't persuaded that the songs were worthwhile by the songs themselves, no amount of argument would suffice.

Two things appealed to me about traditional song: the first is that each song exists in as many different ways as there are singers of it.  Some of these ways are very beautiful, each song may appear in very different shape, each of the shapes may be very beautiful.  Each singer will make slight changes each time the song is sung, the song will always be fresh.  The second and most amazing thing is that ordinary people, living in their own communities, have this amazing power to express beauty.  They have not become famous, they have not become closed off from their peers.  And this happens, not because they have been talent-spotted, not because they have met some guy with a cheque book who has said, "I'll make you a star!"  It has happened because they have heard songs and they have liked them enough to want to learn them: they have taken the risk of singing them and they have been lucky enough to be approved of, or else they have been bloody minded enough, or sufficiently in love with songs to carry on until they were approved of.  There is only one thing in all of that which is necessary: singing.  No singing; no songs.  Then came the realization that singing produces all this beautiful variety because after learning the song each singer sings without going back to the source and the song is free to change.  Opera singers go back to the score to find the notes and words they are to sing.  They study the score, seeking for the composer's original intention.  They do not interpret, they carry out the composer's wishes,as far as they understand them.  In traditional singing every singer's original can be different and every singer's way of a song becomes the original.  So how do these songs live?  By being learned and sung after being heard from someone who has heard, learned and sung them.  The whole process is encapsulated in the individual.  There is an undervaluation of the part played by the individual as distinct from the controls exerted by the community,5 but the community only affects the matter insofar as it is the source of the singing experience or forms a more or less receptive audience.  We need only look at the part played by the individual.

Singers choose songs according to their own experience and vocal capability and forget and invent though an interweaving of experience, imagination and capability.  If we imagine a chain of singers, we can imagine it interrupted by a singer whose performance of a song is so poor that it does not encourage the next member of the chain to learn it: similarly we can imagine a singer whose flights of fancy, whose exercise of invention, are so far from the commonplace, in form or virtuosity, that continuity is risked.  Hence, while there are no [external] controls upon the individual singer, there are some conditions which make it more likely that the song will be learned by others.6

It is interesting that the mere act of singing and continuing to sing, without allowing the way the song was first heard to fix the way in which it is performed, is at the essence of this process and is very like the way books describe the way traditional music and song is formed.

I began to believe that the tradition was encompassed in nothing more than the act of singing.  Few people learn songs for any other reason than that they really like them.  Seldom does anyone sing a song they do not like - except for commercial reasons.  I now believe that there is no point in any activity which does not further the habit of singing.

The breakthrough came when it began to appear that there was a connection between the subjective enjoyment of a song and its quality.  That it was impossible to continue really liking any song which was not of high quality.  I'm not sure whether that idea came before or after my reading of CS Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism.7

The introduction to my most recent book8 asserts: "The only criticism I would take seriously would be that the songs were not worth singing."  Ordinarily I wouldn't take this seriously either, at least not if the criticism was made of a song which someone had sung.  Under the conditions I have outlined, songs are first liked, then learned, then sung; liking implies that the song has a degree of quality, learning entails a degree of effort and singing involves a constant examination and re-examination of the song; no poor song stands such scrutiny for long, and even if it does, there is little likelihood that anyone else will want to learn it; decent oblivion follows.

My position is akin to that adopted by another Protestant Ulsterman, CS Lewis, who in his An Experiment in Criticism outlined his doubts about the worth of evaluative criticism of literary work.  Stating that literary criticism is used to judge books, and that accordingly 'bad taste' indicates a liking for poor books, he proposes the reverse: that the judgment of the book should derive from the way it is read.  The idea attracted me because it follows that no book which is truly, deeply enjoyed by anyone should be condemned by anyone else; my blindness does not reduce the beauty of a landscape for anyone capable of seeing it.  In the same way, it is arrogance for me to reject a song another finds absorbing.  I am entitled not to like it but I may not condemn.  More especially because, if I condemn, the singer may be affected by what I say, a worthwhile song may be abandoned; it may have been the pearl and I the swine.

My rights as a singer are the same as everybody else's - I sing what I like, they sing what they like, we each work on our songs.  In an ideal situation we learn from one another, generations learn from previous ones, songs drop out of usage, other songs replace them, airs are varied and introduced, words change.  After a period of vocal activity within a community there arises a way of singing and a body of songs which to an outside observer appears homogeneous but every singer and every song, every performance, is individual and some are more individual than others.  There may even be sets of homogeneity and the observer may conclude that some individual singers, or songs, or sets are aberrations from 'the tradition'.  But who can tell what the succeeding generation is going to like well enough to learn and sing?  Who is to judge, but 'the tradition' - certainly not the observer, the outsider.

So my argument stands - nothing is important except singing what one likes; nothing else is essential.  Particular songs are of no relevance unless they speak to me with a force that impels me to learn them.  Thus a small part of the tradition is 'preserved'.  Numbers of people in contact with one another make and carry a tradition.  The tradition is spoken of as if it had a being of its own, but it functions only through the functioning of individuals.  The totality of each individual's contribution to the tradition lies in the learning and singing of songs.  As individual repertories and styles change, tradition is constantly in flux.  The community plays no part whatsoever unless it interferes with the freedom of singers.9

The survival of 'the tradition' depends on songs being learned and sung by successive generations.  This has been said before: the American Shakespearean scholar, Harry Levin in his preface to Albert B Lord's The Singer of Tales (1960)10 describes tradition as "an organic habit of re-creating what has been received and is handed on".

The proof of a song being worth singing is that it is sung.  This too has been said: Ginette Dunn in her The Fellowship of Song11 (1980)  " ... the performance of songs per se is the prime aesthetic." (That is, the proof of quality.)

I said above that the mere act of singing and continuing to sing, without allowing the way the song was first heard, to fix the way in which it is performed produces a situation very like that discussed in books about folk song or traditional music.  Albert Lord in The Singer of Tales said something similar: "Song books spoil the oral character of the tradition only when the singer believes that they are the way in which the song should be presented."  This means that any kind of prescription, any kind of attempt to preserve the old way, as though in stasis, is in opposition to the essential oral character of the tradition and inevitably destroys that which it seeks to preserve.

So, I would assert that if we are concerned about the survival of the Irish song tradition we must apply the following:

These remarks are the basis of my activity; I compile and publish books of songs.  The first of them, published in 1979, an edition of 100 songs from the collector Sam Henry,12 I dedicated to: "The chaunters, in whose mouths, these songs will breathe."  In another, The Songs of Hugh McWilliams,13 (1992) I pointed out - that while I believed that the songs as the poet wrote them were the original forms of certain traditional songs, the versions we had of some of them, from traditional singers, showed that they had been changed.  I hoped that others of the songs would be freed to go their own way.  I also pointed out that although I made references to books containing traditional versions of Hugh McWilliams' songs, this was not merely academic but in order to allow singers to make choices, to make changes.  I first made that point in 1969 when I wrote an appendix of references for Robin Morton's Folksongs Sung in Ulster.14  Most importantly, I never deny anyone any information I have; all my songs are anyone else's for the asking.  There are only three things to do with a song: sing it, give it away15 or both.  If the recipient spoils it, it doesn't make me any less: with luck I'll hear it again in a form I could never have made myself and I will be the richer.

It is, I believe, restrictions, rather than licence, that threaten the health of a tradition.  I believe that every singer and player who plays for love of music is valuable.  I believe that every sincere musician has a right to be proud of their place in the tradition.  I believe that Tommy Potts,16 exploring the music from the inside, knew things which more technically gifted flyers miss.  I believe that there is no stopping the commercial development of Irish music.  I believe there is no controlling the spurious authority which mass media, recording, radio and television give to some players or styles of music and withhold from others.  I regret the effect this will have on the average understanding of Irish traditional music.

But does it matter?  The tradition is not a competition.  If my reasoning is correct and we can be sufficiently confident of our own place within it, then it does not matter.  I fully expect that when market forces and world music fashions have finished with all the famous musicians, they'll be back among us, playing, encouraging us all to be a bit more adventurous, or perhaps they'll explore the inside of the music a bit, where only those who really know the music will be able to follow.


The main text presented here is that prepared before the conference but with some punctuation changes.  Asides or augmentations given during the presentation, and other clarifying remarks, are given as footnotes.  The argument is developed somewhat differently in my article 'Is our tradition living? a 'very wise Irishman' responds' in issue 11 of The Living Tradition (Kilmarnock, June/ July 1995).  p.20 ff.
  1. This description of the sort of circumstance which early scholars believed necessary to the creation and continuance of a song or ballad tradition is imprinted in my memory but I cannot now trace it precisely though I think it was coined by Francis B Gummere, chief protagonist of the comunalist theory of ballad formation.  He uses a similar description on p13 of The Popular Ballad (Dover Publications, New York, 1959)
  2. Boyes, Georgina - The Imagined Village (Manchester, 1993) p xi
  3. There are other words of which I would be cautious: authenticity, respect, traditional, canon for example but there was no time to expand and this would now require too much space.  This is a very incomplete and tentative thesis.
  4. The one adopted by the International Folk Music Council, Sao Paulo, 1954 (International Folk Music Journal, vol VII, 1955 p23)
  5. This comment refers partly to the IFMC definition mentioned above.  This is quoted in the article "Folk music" in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1980)
  6. An examination of these conditions is the next stage in the process initiated in this paper.
  7. Lewis, CS - An Experiment in Critisism (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1961
  8. Moulden, John - Thousands are Sailing (Portrush 1994)
  9. It will be clear that this is a vast oversimplification but it and my other statements about the rôle of the community, while needing augmentation, are I believe generally true.
  10. Lord, AB - The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960)
  11. Dunn, Ginette - The Fellowship of Song (London, 1980)
  12. Moulden, John (ed) - Songs of the People, songs from the Sam Henry Collection part one (Belfast 1979)
  13. Moulden John - Songs of Hugh McWilliams, schoolmaster, 1831 (Portrush 1992)
  14. Morton Robin - Folksongs Sung in Ulster (Cork, 1969)
  15. Well, pass it on: publications are usually sold rather than given away
  16. The Liffey Banks - (Dublin, Claddagh Records, 1971, CC14)

© John Moulden, Portrush, Co Antrim - 28.10.97

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