Déjà Vu? Folk Music, Education, and Institutionalization in Contemporary England

By Keegan-Phipps, Simon | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Déjà Vu? Folk Music, Education, and Institutionalization in Contemporary England


Keegan-Phipps, Simon, Yearbook for Traditional Music


In a nation on the periphery of Europe, in a region most distant from the capital, the country's indigenous musical traditions are undergoing a process of institutionalization. A large proportion of the nation's population fears the loss of their ancient customs and national identity to the ever rising tide of foreign cultural influences. The locality itself, however, enjoys both a strong regional identity and a unique musical repertory, a repertory that plays a central role in both the text and context of the institutionalization in question. The resultant institution is multifaceted-its activities include: the collation and publication of music recordings and transcriptions; the promotion of performances by locally and nationally revered folk musicians; the creation and direction of a folk orchestra; and, most importantly, an extensive folk music education programme, culminating in a nationally recognized qualification. The organization has been quietly accused by other folk musicians of standardizing and formalizing the music it professes to support. Nonetheless, it receives financial support from the state departments for education and culture.

This brief account could accurately describe the processes of institutionalization undergone by the various folk musics of the USSR's many states during the Soviet regime (1922-91; see, e.g., Edmunds 2000; Nelson 2004; Olsen 2004). So too would it serve as a portrayal of fascist cultural policy such as the Ranchos Folklóricos of Salazar's Portugal, or the Falange party's collection and dissemination projects in Franco's Spain (see, e.g., Castelo-Branco and Toscano 1988; Perez 2000). Within the larger context of European folk music scholarship, these periods of institutionalization are generally regarded as having cloven traditional music apart from notions of textual and contextual authenticity, to make way for an almost entirely manufactured idiom best suited to the aspects of social engineering for which it would be employed. The processes of classicization, standardization, and recontextualization inherent in these developments are tacitly regarded-and often explicitly depicted-as shameful events in the maturation of folk music scholarship, never to be repeated. And yet the possible repetition of such processes is close at hand, as an instance of institutionalization on a colossal scale goes largely unmentioned in the ethnomusicological record. The description given above does not recount the state of folk music in the Soviet Union, or in the Fascist European states of the mid-twentieth century: it refers to the cultural processes encapsulated within the thoroughly modern surroundings of The Sage Gateshead, England, at this moment.

English folk music of the last two hundred years has enjoyed much scrutiny within the sociological record of the last half century, but this period of examination appears to be drawing to a close since most involved have treated the folk music of England as a socio-historical artefact (Lloyd 1967; Harker 1985; Boyes 1993; Frith 1994; Sutton 1998; Brocken 2003).1 In short, sociology has "done" the English folk revivals of the twentieth century, and little attempt has been made to achieve a phenomenological understanding of the contemporary folk music culture extant in England. And yet this folk culture, whose heavily ideological and largely fabricated foundations have suffered the damaging onslaughts of numerous academics-in particular, Boyes and Harker-is not only fully "recovered," but continues to develop and thrive. Ethnomusicology, too, has largely disregarded the English folk music culture for being located too close to the discipline's anglophile academic base to yield results that could quench its enduring postcolonialist thirst for alterity. In recent years, this trend has been broken by small scale studies (see Stock 2004; I. Russell 2004); however, these remain purposefully restricted in their scope and fields, so as to avoid engagement with issues of globalization, nationalism, and cultural economy, whilst larger scale works (such as Sweers 2005) revert to the historiography of existent sociological texts. …

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