Letters - 1997
Despite critical and historical focus on (obsession with?) the blues artists on Chess, it was not a label reserved for black artists only, and so far from being 'a mild embarrassment', Frank Floyd was announced in 'Billboard' in August 1951 as follows:
"Now that both Leonard and Phil Chess are absolutely thrilled by the reception Jackie ("Rocket 88") Brenston's new disc received, "Juiced," (sic) they claim they've got one in the hillbilly field that is "just as great if not greater," called "Swamp Root" with Harmonica Frank."What David says about it being necessary to make a performer's race apparent applies to some extent prewar, but it's nonsense in the postwar context. Read 'Billboard' again: the industry was delighted when white kids started buying black R&B. It meant increased sales.
[From 'First Pressings: The History of Rhythm & Blues Vol. 1: 1951' ed Galen Gart (Big Nickel, Milford, NH 1991)]
Even prewar, the chief purpose of having a separate 'race catalogue' was to point out to black customers that the company sold records by black artists. Black purchasers usually didn't have much disposable money, and it was good marketing to try to sell them product they were likely to want. (For similar reasons, very few classical music labels advertise in present day blues journals.)
The fact that the Allen Brothers sued Columbia for including them in the race list tells us that the Allen Brothers were racists, not that Columbia as a company was. Companies would include white musicians in the race lists, and vice versa (eg DeFord Bailey), if they thought the music would appeal to potential purchasers. The colour that really interested record companies was green.
As for 'Elgin', it's David who is doing the imagining, not Frank Floyd, who doubtless knew that 'Elgin' (correctly pronounced with a soft 'g') was a brand of clock and watch. They incorporated a movement that was supposedly guaranteed for 20 years, hence the frequent sexual punning on 'Elgin movements' in blues. This subject has been done to death in blues commentary - for more than the guaranteed 20 years - but it seems there's always one more person who has missed all the correspondence!
My father, incidentally, likes to joke that he's a prime example of the folk process, 'which is the process whereby songs get shorter, as singers forget the words'.
This isn't the discussion you were proposing. Sorry about that. Clearly, I have no interest in reinstating 'folk' or any of the combinations in which it commonly appeas. On the contrary, it happens to express many of the ideas that I'm keen to challenge and resist. And if terms are to be defined, we must define all of the key terms that are likely to arise. No-one's use of a term can be dismissed as a red herring, if we're not agreed on the meaning of that term. You and I cannot know that we reject 'folk' for the same, or even compatible, reasons, since we appear to rely on different definitions.
If a folk song is not, at least in theory, a product of the folk process, operating within a folk tradition (in other words, what we prefer to call a traditional song), or if it doesn't have to be that, what does it have to be?
Regarding John Peekstok's comment that the truly traditional approach is 'no approach at all'. I'm not questioning anything as basic or necessary as consciousness or awareness, and I'd like to think he wasn't, either. I reject the idea that anyone is unconsciously or 'innocently' creative. (That is a notion of 'the folk' which the term 'folk' has been used to popularize and perpetuate, but which remains prevalent among those who prefer 'traditional'.) I mean merely that the approach of an able traditional performer is that of the craftsman rather than the ideologue.
The question of the Revival's effect on traditional performers is a fascinating one, isn't it? It's a process I've observed at close quarters, since my granadparents were introduced to the Revival by my father. I think the main effect on them was a belated expansion of their repertoire, as they took to learning songs from the revivalists around them. But they did it in a perfectly traditional manner - i.e. they learned the songs they particularly liked, as they had done in their youth.
Now, here's an intriguing example, and you many well know the answer to a question that's puzzled me for years: what are we to make of Fred Jordan's insistence on dressing 'like a farm labourer', rather than in the suit and tie that a farm labourer of his generation might be expected to wear for going out of an evening? Is that just plain old eccentricity, or an English equivalent of Bill Broonzy's adoption of work clothes and a cotton-pickin' country persona, when he found his white audience? Or of Leadbelly's miraculous conversion, in the same circumstances, from murderous sociopath to dignified old socialist?
You seem to want to redefine 'traditional' so that it can include the likes of you and me. (see Ed's comment below) I'm not sure what purpose that would serve, though I dare say we share a certain frustration at having no convenient, uncontroversial label for what we do. For me, 'traditional' has the advantage (and disadvantage) that few outsiders even think they know what it means, whereas most people assume they know what 'folk' means. Of course, I use the term only with reference to my repertoire, just as reflective revivalists in the '60s learned to call themselves singers of folksongs rather than folksingers. I suppose that the only future for 'traditional' is in referring to material and technique, and perhaps style. That leaves plenty to argue about, after all - though how interesting an argument it will be, once we remove the Romantic implications of 'traditional performer/artist', is another question.
Seems I need to be a little less cryptic in future. What I hoped my Enthusiasms piece would do was to point up the fact that the currently accepted definition was already suspect for that very reason. If one makes intelligent modifications to terms like culture, social group, local, time, area, learning process, method of transmission, to make them tally with conditions in the world of the 1990s, then the current definition already includes the likes of us! This is confounded, of course, by the simple fact that we know very well that we aren't. I was hoping to elicit some ideas towards a new definition of traditional which takes this paradox into account. - Ed.
"Dialogue Reviews - we are considering reviews on the same record, book etc. by two people of differing outlook, gender, nationality, point of view, training - whatever - where each will have seen the other's original review, and will have had the opportunity of commenting upon, amplifying, correcting or even denying various points."Excellent idea. The approach taken by the great French newspaper LeMonde, I understand, on political topics admitting to a great variety of underlying premises.
"Your editors will then attempt to combine the two reviews and the reviewers' dialogue into a cohesive account of their views and arguments."I suggest leaving the reviews standing as written, unedited.
"Tell us what aspect of traditional music you'd like to see covered in the future."English; Northumbrian, Shetland. We are quite buried in descriptions of Irish music here (USA); always excellent but so self-promoting.
I agree with your comments about needing to define our terms in order to have a rational discussion. The problem with tossing out all definitions (at least on the Internet), as many seem to advocate, is that it makes it impossible to know where to go to have a discussion. Why not just have one big newsgroup called rec.music? Then we could have arguments about the definition of music. Saying that most modern singer-songwriters are the in same genre as traditional music is only true in a very nebulous way. And it doesn't really do me any good - I don't like to listen to most singer-songwriters, so why should I have to read about them in a newsgroup in order to have a discussion of traditional music?
I have to say that most of the Dick Gaughan quote didn't mean much to me. I am not in much danger of allowing a desire to define traditional music replace anything musical within me. But this may be because I am not in any sense a traditionalist, although I play traditional music. I'm not dipping any buckets into any rivers and thinking I have thereby defined anything. I have never been particularly concerned with how some piece of music was played at some point in the past in some particular place. I agree with Mr Gaughan that any tradition is a river which flows out of the past and into the future and I am one who is looking to the future. I just don't think that most recently composed music has much to do with all of this.
But in any attempt to define traditional music we are also faced with the problem of which part of the tradition we are talking about. There are many different definitions running around and most of them have some pretty big problems if we are going to adopt them as a basis for discussion.
Do we mean the way in which the music is played, i.e. which instruments are used, what ornaments are used, whether or not the music is arranged in any way? This definition, if pushed far enough, would force one to conclude that the Bothy Band was not playing traditional music because they used a guitar and a keyboard. Or that most contra dance music is not traditional because of the piano accompaniment. It would certainly become clear that Steeleye Span never played traditional music - a silly concept if I ever heard one. What else would that music be called? Does Martin Hayes play traditional music? Have you ever heard any else who sounds like him? If he is playing in a traditional style there surely should not be anything new in his playing?? Are we to say that the presence of a bass guitar meant that Malicorne was not playing traditional music on their early albums? Here's a good one - they also used a nykleharpa on French traditional music. Did it stop being a traditional instrument when someone took it out of Sweden? This method of defining traditional music has some problems that would make any discussion using it pretty difficult.
Or shall we take the historical definition of traditional music? Do we mean the way in which the music was played at some point before the advent of recorded sound? If so, which point in history do we choose as our "perfect traditional date"? Certainly guitars are out - they are a modern invention. As are octave mandolins. Going back not much further, we need to get rid of accordions. And probably modern Uilleann pipes. And harps with sharping levers. Is it appropriate to play some the older English country dances on a violin? Where does this all end? Maybe the only truly traditional music is played on simple bagpipes, bone whistles, crude drums, and voices. I play music from medieval times, I play originals, and I play traditional music from all over the place and from almost every era. If I had to pick a date - or even a century - as being traditional I would lose half of my repertoire. Or if I had to choose "appropriate" instruments for each song I would need a moving van to haul around all the different permutations of historical instruments I would need to play each song in a completely "traditional" way. Again, this definition poses some big problems if we are to use it for any real discussion of music.
What about how the music is used? Many would say that playing a concert is not a traditional thing to do, so concerts of traditional music don't exist. The argument is that traditional music happens in the home, or at the village dance, or in the fields, or wherever it used to happen before it came to the city. And before it died and was revived. The problem with this argument is that it would have me believe that I am playing traditional music if I am sitting around the house playing a tune with my friends, but if I play that same tune in a concert it is no longer traditional music. This strikes me as another rather silly concept. If I play for a dance that folks pay money to attend, does than mean that I'm not playing traditional music? Or does it only stop being traditional music when I get paid for playing? The world has changed since the days when villages were the center of commerce and society. And even back then the music was not played by everyone. The village dance would be played by the village fiddler or piper or whatever - the members of the community would listen to "their" musicians play. Is that really so much different than members of an urban folk community listening to their music in a concert hall or coffeehouse? And remember that in most places and for most people the music died and was revived. It's a new world and a new tradition and the old rules don't apply.
Here's another concept: one could argue that people who are studying the traditions of some particular place and time in order to be more fully traditional in their performance are actually being anti-traditional. The act of studying the music and/or the culture it came from is so untraditional that any attempt to thereby achieve pure tradition is doomed to failure. The only way to be completely traditional in your approach is to not have an approach at all. You must just BE. The most traditional way to play music is to use whatever instruments and styles are at hand. Indeed, the folk process depends on this. Could it be that using electric guitars, synthesizers, and jazz or rock stylings is a more traditional way for modern folks to play this music? Since we don't have a time machine to transport us back to the mid 1800s or late 1700s or whenever, and since even if we did we couldn't grow up in the culture that produced the music, it is impossible to play traditional music in a completely traditional way for completely traditional purposes.
Well, of course it is easy to push discussions of this type way beyond any level of practical application. The point is that getting into a discussion of traditional music is hard enough, faced with the "if folks play it, it must be folk music" crowd. But once we get there, we still have a bunch of clarifying to do to make sure we are talking about the same thing.
The definition of traditional music that works best for me is centered around the actual music - the melody and the lyrics. With this definition it doesn't much matter what instruments are used, how the music is arranged, where or when it is from, or how it is used. The music is defined by actual musical considerations, not social or historical ones. Traditional melodies sound very different than composed melodies. There are, of course, lots of people writing new tunes in traditional styles. These are also a vital and necessary part of traditional music. There are composed songs that don't sound traditional at all but probably will in after getting played continuously for a couple of hundred years. These are also part of the tradition, but we have no way of recognizing them until they get there. They haven't been through the folk processor yet. And saying that all songwriters are part of the tradition because all traditional songs were written by someone is denying the existence of the folk process and is also demonstrating the inability to hear the difference between a traditional melody and one that is not.
But I don't want to include a discussion here of the folk process and how traditional music differs from composed music. That is really another topic. But just another quick note on that subject: I have heard lots of people commenting that the advent of recorded music killed the oral tradition. I disagree. I recently listened to a couple of albums from which I learned songs ten or fifteen years ago. I haven't listened to the albums in all those years. And I have no memory of ever having altered the songs in any way. But what I am playing now is so different that I would have to say that I have come up with different variants of the songs. And a couple of months ago I heard a young person playing a tune that I wrote a few years ago. I was pleased to hear that her take on it is very different than mine. She even changed the time signature, which completely altered the feel of the tune. The folk process lives!
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