Why do I love traditional folk music so much? Part 2: What is it anyway?

At the end of my first post on this subject, I said that in this next section I was going to talk about what it is that I find so attractive and compelling about traditional folk music. However, I find that it is hard to do that without at least attempting to define what I mean by ‘traditional folk music’. So here are a few defining features of the genre.

Passed on.
The word ‘tradition’ comes from a Latin word that means ‘to hand down’ or ‘to pass on’. Traditional folk music is music that has been passed on from one person to another, or handed down from one generation to another.

Traditional folk songs have been handed down to us from previous generations, sometimes over many centuries. During that ‘handing down’ process, each successive generation has left its mark on the songs. They have been changed and adapted, written and rewritten; old tunes have been forgotten and new tunes created. Segments of one song have been re-used in another; stories originally set on one side of the Atlantic have been relocated (with appropriate adaptations) on the other. Who wrote these songs? It seems most appropriate to reply: humanity wrote them, and consequently they belong to humanity.

Music by and for the amateur
Nowadays most of the music we hear was created in order to be a source of income for someone. But traditional songs originated in a time before music was created for commercial purposes; rather, songs were put together for the enjoyment of one’s friends and neighbours, in the local pub or community hall or anywhere else where people gathered to enjoy the talents of the local amateur musicians.

This does not mean, of course, that we are not grateful for the hugely talented professional musicians who keep the candle of traditional music burning brightly in the world today (many of whose songs have featured on this blog); it does mean that we recognise that they are doing what is necessary to interpret the world of traditional music to a contemporary audience.

In commercial music today one of the most common forms is what I call ’emotional autobiography’. These songs often take the shape of a sort of letter from the singer to the one being addressed (the lost love, perhaps), in which the singer (‘I’) says the things he or she would really like to say to the lost love (‘you’); the audience is invited to listen in to the message (of love, anger, regret etc.). Often, the actual story of the relationship is not told; the emotion, rather than the story, is what the song is about. In fact, it is not uncommon for there to be details in the song which only make sense to the songwriter and to the person who is being addressed in the song.

In contrast, while it would be inaccurate to claim that traditional songs are always stories, yet it would be fair to say that the narrative genre is the most common form of traditional song. Someone has commented that these songs were the action and adventure movies of the day; attention was given, not so much to getting every word exactly right, as to telling the story in a compelling way. One song collector told of hearing a traditional singer perform the same song three different times and never giving an entirely identical rendition of it; the exact form of the wording was not as important as the tale itself.

Examples of this sort of song are so common in the tradition as to be impossible to list exhaustively; see for instance The House Carpenter, Sir Patrick Spens, William Glenn, Clyde Water, the Cruel Brother, John Hardy etc. In these songs, while emotion is definitely present, it is often not explicitly spelled out. Rather, the focus is on the story, which has the power to evoke the emotion in the listener.

True stories?
But are the stories true? Did they actually happen to someone at some point in time? Maybe, and maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter. Although many traditional songs are told in the first person, the ‘I’ in the song is not usually the singer; rather, it is a fictional person who the singer is (in a theatrical sense) ‘playing’ while they are performing the song. This is in contrast to much contemporary songwriting in which the singer-songwriter introduces a song by saying ‘This song is about a time in my life when…’.

Many people today would see a song as being somehow less authentic if it was not ‘true’ in the literal sense. It’s perhaps a difficult thing to remember that this is a very recent idea, and not an idea that creators in other genres ever worry about. Shakespeare certainly didn’t lose any sleep over the fact that none of the stories he told had actually happened to him, and (so far as I know) neither does John Grisham. The idea that a songwriter could actually make up a story and write a song about it seems very foreign to many people today, but it was probably the most common form of songwriting at the time traditional songs were being created.

Songs to be sung
This perhaps seems a little oxymoronic – aren’t all songs written to be sung? Perhaps – but is the human voice the primary instrument? Listen to musicians talking about their performances; how many of them talk about ‘playing’ songs rather than ‘singing’ them? What does that tell us about the relative importance attached to the singing of the song and the playing of the instrument? But in traditional songs, the most important ‘instrument’ really is the human voice.

People who think that folk music started with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the 60s, or Pete Seeger in the 50s, or even Woodie Guthrie in the 30s and 40s, often assume that the guitar has always been essential to the genre. But lovers of traditional folk music know that it’s a very recent addition to the tradition; it was the folk revivalists of the 50s who first added it. Before then, folk music was generally accompanied by fiddles, or accordions, or flutes and whistles, or pianos, or – strange though it may seem to modern ears – sung unaccompanied.

I’ve often thought that this is the acid test: can a song be sung unaccompanied and still sound good? Many songs would fail that test. Take a wonderful rock and roll song like the Beatles’ ‘Back to the USSR’, for instance, and strip away the guitars and drums and sing it a capella; it just doesn’t work. The tune is actually quite boring, with very little melodic variation throughout. This is because many modern songwriters start by putting together a chord progression and some lyrics, but don’t pay a lot of attention to melody (not that this is often true of Lennon and McCartney, I hasten to add!).

Take a few minutes to visit Jon Boden’s A Folk Song a Day blog and listen to some of the songs Jon has recorded for his year-long folk song project. Most of them are sung unaccompanied, but the tunes are so melodically powerful that you hardly notice the lack of instruments.

In these melodies the chord structure tends to be rather simple (in contrast to jazz, for instance); bridges are almost unknown, and choruses (where present) are usually very singable. Some of the older songs use lesser-known modes such as the Dorian or Myxolidian. Another common form is the ABBA structure (i.e in a four-line verse, the first and last lines are melodically identical and the second and third lines are melodically identical).

I’ll stop there and continue this in a day or two…

One thought on “Why do I love traditional folk music so much? Part 2: What is it anyway?

  1. Pingback: Apparently not just a ‘phase’ I’m going through | Faith, Folk and Charity

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