Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Colin Asks "Precisely what is a traditional folksong...?

Precisely what is a traditional folksong?
Discuss in not more than 2000 words (single-sided A4, double spaced, with appropriate references.)
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There are two key words to be considered: 'traditional' and 'folk'. They are not necessarily the same thing.

Considering 'folksong', there is a wide spectrum of perception.

The exhaustive definition adopted by the Folk Music Council in 1954 includes the following phrases:
'musical tradition'
'oral transmission'
'rudimentary beginnings'
Anonymous authorship is another consideration, although not part of FMC's definition. Such anonymity is assumed in many quarters. In these days of widespread literacy and sophisticated recording and communication technology, I question the validity of 'oral transmission'. It could be said that this notion went out of the window when Cecil Sharp (GBHHN) started writing things down over half a century earlier. To his dubious credit, he did decline to document a plethora of music-hall type songs that were in circulation at the time.

At an alternative extreme (and perhaps more realistic these days,) I read in a national newspaper a response to the question 'what is folk music?' 'Well it's what you hear in folk clubs.' Now, of course, this couldn't be more different. In today’s folk clubs, in addition to what may be intuitively received as a traditional folksong, you are likely to hear contemporary pop, the personal contributions of a singer/songwriter, songs that originated in the Edwardian music hall, jazz, a Child ballad, and to join in a Wesley hymn, all within the space of one evening. Such is the diversity of taste in folk club participants.

Then we have the throw-away remark commonly attributed to Louis Armstrong (GBHHN too): 'All music's folk. After all, I ain't heard no horse singing it!'

Considering 'traditional', where do we go? It is traditional for folk to join in Land of Hope and Glory at the last night of the proms. This is an orchestrated piece written by Thomas Arne (marginal blessings on his holy name). Does that make it a folksong? Maybe it is the occasion and the performance that are traditional, not the song. What, also, of the bygone age when people rushed out of the cinema in anticipation of a rendition of God Save the Queen? (Well, '... King', if you're as old as Beresford!)

Is Berry sufficiently aged to be traditional?
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Well, there you are, that's an introduction for this project.
Before Ken criticises, I point out that using the contraction 'folksong' instead of 'folk song' reduces your word count.
Bear in mind that you are only qualified to contribute if you've digested, cover-to-cover, A. L. Lloyd's almost-unreadable tome Folk Song in England (Panther, London, 1969.) A high-fibre diet, supplemented by milk of magnesia and liberal doses of senna, is almost obligatory. In my case some would advocate colonic irrigation!

Colin.

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