Some thoughts about folk songs and the folk process

I wrote most of this piece several years ago when I was all fired up about creating a network of folks interested in folk music. A few of us met a few times but I eventually abandoned the project and moved on to other ways of promoting the music I love. There are some ideas in this post, however, that are worth preserving, so here it is in April, 2021, with a few edits:

When I talk about folk music I mean songs and tunes that have been sung and played by many non-professionals in nonperformance settings, usually changing over time, with simple, predictable musical structures and direct, clearly understood lyrics. The music is simple and accessible, telling stories that everyone can understand in language that is easy to learn. Changes are allowed, even inevitable, as songs and tunes make their way through generations of people singing and playing them.

There are a few other characteristics described by folklorists to distinguish folk music from other forms, but that is the gist of it. What has come to be called folk by the music industry is a much broader category that has more to do with sound (voice and guitar) than content, musical structure or social process.

There are quite a few songs by people of my generation that have now passed into oral tradition, and they have changed; they have sometimes had the harder bridges abandoned and the tricky bits rubbed off like old stones. Then there are some songs by newer singer-songwriters that are very singable and direct and may even become folk songs some day (time will tell). However, most songs recorded by professional musicians and labelled folk are poetically obscure and complex in musical form. They do not invite participation and are too difficult to sing along with unless you have memorized the recording. Many are very good art songs or very good pop songs but they are not folk songs.

When folklorists began collecting folk songs they all thought this musical practice among the ordinary people was dying out and the songs needed to be preserved. They were right to a degree. Although some communities continued to pass on their songs and singing styles despite outside influences, and these collectors made sure that songs were available to successive generations, nothing could stop the combined consequences of technological and sociological change that have taken singing out of the home and into performance venues. At least we still have the old songs, and some of us are grateful for that.

Many so-called “folk,” “traditional” or “Celtic” music scenes are oriented around either professional or semi-professional performance to a consuming audience or gatherings of sophisticated and often formally-trained musicians for virtuoso jams, with little room for those who aren’t close to their level. In the past, people of different ages and abilities came together in homes across Canada to make music, both as solos and in groups, with skilled musicians both modelling for and encouraging others. These gatherings weren’t necessarily serious affairs, but involved conversation, humour, food, and friendship, and often songs, recitations, or stories as well as instrumental music. The Gaelic word ceilidh, which we associate with musical venues, simply means “visit,” and, in many countries, house visits on winter evenings were settings in which people shared varied traditional skills and arts. While these types of house sessions continue, they must be nurtured if we are to own our music and not hand it over to either professionals or a musical elite, especially if we want to pass our music to our children.

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