Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music

By Peter Van Der Merwe | Go to book overview

10 The Rude, the Vulgar,
and the Polite

The general aim in music is to make other people feel outside it—or
outsiders, compared to yourself.

Stephen Potter 1

'Folk' music (and indeed the 'folk' themselves) was a discovery of that momentous age of discoveries, the late eighteenth century. The earlier attitude is neatly captured in the words of Joseph Addison:

When I travelled, I took a particular Delight in hearing the Songs and Fables that are come
from Father to Son, and are most in vogue among the common People of the Countries
through which I passed; for it is impossible that any thing should be universally tasted and
approved by a Multitude, tho' they are only the Rabble of a Nation, which hath not in it
some peculiar Aptness to please and gratifie the Mind of Man.2

Addison's lordly condescension is pre-, or perhaps proto-Romantic. In modern terms, what he is describing here is partly 'folklore' ('come from Father to Son') and partly 'popular culture' ('universally tasted and approved by a Multitude, tho' they are only the Rabble of a Nation'). The distinction between the two was first made clear, some fifty years later, by the German Romantics. To them, the art of the 'common People' came in both deserving and undeserving varieties, like the Victorian poor.

To this day, there remains something faintly Teutonic about this dichotomy, and it is significant that the adjective 'folk', applied to the deserving variety, has never made much headway beyond the Teutonic sphere of influence. In the Latin countries, 'folk music' is still popular, popolare, or populaire (though one also hears of la musique folklorique), and even in English, 'popular music' remained the accepted term till late in the nineteenth century.

1Some Notes on Lifemanship, 85.

2The Spectator, no. 70, 21 May 1711, first sentence. This is the first in a series of two essays on 'the old
song of Chevy-Chase'. Reprinted (with modernized spelling) in Selections from Addison s Papers Contributed
to
The Spectator, 378.

-131-

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