The Strange Career of Folk Music

By Bayles, Martha | Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Strange Career of Folk Music


Bayles, Martha, Michigan Quarterly Review


It is a quiet evening. The stars are bright, and the meal has been eaten. The city, if there is one, is far away. There is no electricity, no media. It is not yet bedtime, so someone picks up an instrument and begins to sing. The song is old, but nobody has ever written it down. Rather it has been transmitted orally through many generations, with many different versions, some preserved and some lost. No one knows who first created it. But everyone can and does sing it.

Is this a folk song? If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, does it make a sound? Folk music has existed for ages, but to the people who first played it, it was just music, without an adjective like folk to distinguish it. To be folk it has had to be heard, self-consciously, by an outsider. And so, in a curious turn, the story of folk music is never really about the folk. It is about the outsiders. And in this country at least, that has meant not just the musicologists marching into hill country with their dusty recording devices, but a variety of highly opinionated listeners, by whose attentions folk music has come to be defined.

It was Europeans such as the English music transcriber Cecil J. Sharp (1859-1924) and the Hungarian collector and composer Bála Bartók (1881-1945) who first worked out the basic definition of folk music. Roughly, they understood folk music to be (1) rural and slow to change, not urban and dynamic; (2) continually varied, with no definitive version; (3) simple, straightforward, and plain; (4) transmitted orally, not through formal training or writing; and (5) focused more on group sharing than on individual expression.

These criteria were never strict, but their influence lingers. For example, the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston (FSSGB), a forty-five-year-old organization devoted to traditional folk repertory, mostly British and British-American, ignores the first, treasuring many songs from urban settings. But the members do adhere, more or less, to the other four.

This emphasis was on display recently at a home in Concord, Massachusetts, where thirty or forty members of the society, mostly people who looked as though they could remember the 1960s counterculture, showed up for an FSSBG house concert. They were there to hear Louis Killen, a native of Gateshead-on-Tyne in the industrial northeast of England, tell dialect tales, sing, and accompany himself on the English concertina. Killen introduced one old chestnut as a song he'd collected from a Northumbrian shepherd.

Is this an accurate portrait of the contemporary folk scene? Not really. Groups like the FSSGB have always been part of the scene-as one member commented, "We were here first." But unlike Boston's WUMB-FM ("folk radio") or the folk-oriented Club Passim in Harvard Square, the FSSGB does not look all that kindly on what is now the dominant figure in contemporary folk music: the singer-songwriter.

According to member Ruth Perry, who is also a professor of literature at M.I.T. and (together with Northeastern University musicologist Judith Tick) teaches a graduate seminar on British and American folk music, "The best folksingers are interested in preserving for people and passing on the music that is their free and common heritage. . . . People used to sing more than they do now. And what they sang and traded around and learned from each other is folk music." Indeed, some of the members present that evening took a very dim view of the whole singer-songwriter movement. To them it has negative connotations-of ego and (as one person put it) "navel-gazing"-that cut against the grain of folk music as community expression.

Is this fair? Every art form has its characteristic vice, and if one were pressed to describe the vice of the singer-songwriter, navel-gazing would not be far off. But the singer-songwriter tradition has many virtues as well, not least of which is a voracious openness to musical sounds.

Consider the lineup of performers appearing at the 2004 Boston Folk Festival. …

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