Monday, August 3, 2009

Dogsbody has his say ...

Pursuant upon my earlier comment, Ken has generously invited me to make a properly-argued response regarding the future of folk music.

I wonder - when, in Victorian times, the fictional Joseph Poorgrass sang in the local hostelry, or Bathsheba Everdene charmed her harvest-supper guests with ‘Bushes and Briars’ accompanied by Gabriel Oak’s flute, did they call it ‘folk music'?

Did they even know the term?
Does it matter?
The ideas of ‘folk’ and ‘tradition’ have been much debated by our elders and betters for over a century and even I have been permitted a humble contribution in an earlier posting. That, of course, is irrelevant to Ken’s proposition, but we do need to know where we are coming from.

Let me begin with the comment I made as a knee-jerk reaction to Ken’s outrageous motion: I wrote, "Folk music will continue to live so long as people like you/me/we contrive to get together, in a non-commercial scenario, on a regular basis and share music and songs that appeal to us." I here describe The City Folk Club as well as a significant number of similar congregations.

I recall that such clubs became popular and thrived in the nineteen-sixties, if not earlier. Every town and village had a folk club. Whether the musical material was ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ was of only academic importance. It was the scenario that defined the music. These gatherings were, of course, contemporary contrivances and probably bore little similarity to the rustic gatherings of earlier times. Despite that, music and songs were performed, heard and shared. A style that we recognise as ‘folk’ germinated in the communal consciousness, even if you’d written the song only yesterday.

I acknowledge with regret Ken’s final point wherein he states the obvious – we’re all getting older and I guess the average age of CFC’s participants is in excess of 50. Youngsters are rare visitors. Even the young 'up-and-comings' who are gaining national popular acclaim are in it for commercial reasons and distribute their material of questionable copyright through recordings and large concerts. Informal gatherings have been put at risk by regulations surrounding public performance. If the laws were to be strictly applied, maybe the folk club would die.

On the other hand, does that mean the terminal demise of folk music? The melodies and lyrics have been recorded and transcribed. Certainly, in modern times, the notion of oral transmission is an anachronism. People like RVW and Gustav Holst have brought traditional melodies into the classical canon. The first time I heard the delightful tune ‘Lovely Joan’ was in a recording of RVW’s ‘Fantasia on a theme of Greensleeves’, years before Martin Carthy gave it an 'authentic' setting. To argue that any form of music is dying is to deny the creativity of the human spirit, and ignores the fact that music (and indeed any art-form) has the ability to outlive its creator for many generations. After all, is Beethoven really dead? Is John Lennon?

Let’s take the example of a traditional, probably Irish melody, ‘Dives and Lazarus'. As far as I know, this is anonymous and very old. In addition to the song that Roger G. so ably performs, this tune occurs in various guises regularly throughout the folk canon in songs such as ‘The Maid of County Down’, ‘Moorlough Shore’, ‘The Foggy Dew’ (F. P. O'Neil) and even ‘John Barleycorn' to name but a few. This melody has a life of its own and is the main theme for RVW’s 'Variations of …', in addition to which, he used it as a hymn tune. Here we see/hear Berry’s ‘enduring popularity’.

So, here is my argument. Folk Clubs may well outlive their usefulness and, as Ken suggests, become unsustainable. The same cannot be said of folk music. The past century and more has seen folk song revivals in various forms, albeit sometimes unapologetically commercially-based. I have faith that such cyclical re-examination of our musical heritage will continue. Future generations may receive it in scenarios as yet unbeknown to us. Perhaps the very idea of ‘folk’ will be redefined, but so what?

The music lives!

God Save the Queen!

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