Traditions invented, preserved or living

So Carter @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar wrote about the invented “English tradition”, with particular reference to a picture (which I haven’t seen) of David Cameron with blackface Morris dancers. I don’t want to go into the social justice impact and social relevance/history of what that means (Carter nods in that direction sufficiently for now, and it could be a whole post on its own). I was interested in a few of the other themes in Carter’s post.

The overall theme was discussing the relationship that the “folk revival” movement has to the traditional material that they perform; and how much of what we call “traditional English” culture is a much later construction, something imposed upon the sources to create a narrative that suits the needs of the modern nation-state. As Carter puts it:

So any time you hear a politician, or a journalist, talking about English traditions run away quickly dear reader, because they’re making it up as they go along. There is no English tradition that encompasses Cornwall and Northumberland, Shropshire and Norfolk. There is no tradition that explains the beautiful Celtic churches of the coastal north and the Romanized towns of the south. There is no single tradition that can explain all that has happened between the Tweed and the Thames, or the Severn and the Ouse. Any wise historian will write of the English peoples, not the English, and hedge their remarks about with as many caveats as the reader can bear.

Now, I’m someone who grew up surrounded by the culture of the folk revival movement. There are photos of me as a baby being washed in a plastic tub on a Folk Camp holiday; most of my teen years involved at least one weekend break at a folk camp, and many of my friendships were developed in such surroundings. The common cultural language around me was pretty much forged by the folk revival of the 60s and 70s.

I am not sufficiently well-versed in the history of folk, and folk revival, to know whether all the folk music that was around in the 60s and 70s was “revival”, or whether there were parallel streams of traditionally-transmitted forms; and I don’t know how to tell the difference. Were the Yetties folk, or folk revival, for instance? (I pick them because of family friendships, they were another part of my growing-up.)

There is a lot of value in knowing and understanding where you have come from. There is also a danger in attaching too much significance to it. My current experience and culture has nothing to do with the experiences of my ancestors whose children worked down the West Yorkshire coal mines, or who slaved in the cotton mills. The non-English aspects of my genome (those same ancestors) have little relevance to my current identity, however romantic the notion might be. Similarly, as Carter describes, the modern folk movement dating from the revival in the 60s and 70s is something distinct from the traditions that produced the original music.

The Folk Camp Holidays community and culture may have a common cultural language gleaned from the past, but it also has its own cultural and “traditional” ways of doing things: some things become customs associated with specific camps, but many of them are widely known and widely expected. A folk camper from one region will be able to fit in okay elsewhere. Some of the traditions are generated by the organised structures: it’s a business, with a business model, and a way of running things, after all. Some are generated by the people themselves, and in many ways if the organisers tried to change too much, there would be resistance to that change because of the traditions around it.

The point being, that a “tradition” can be invented, indeed, perhaps must be invented, and can be young, without being “fake”. The fake element of modern folk is that it is now removed from the communities and causes that originally produced it. Which is the thrust of Carter’s piece, of course.

Carter wrote:

[M]ost of the English folk dancing tradition is fake, an artificial synthesis of badly remembered traditions appropriated by performers and enthusiasts for their own purposes.

[T]he same ignorant re-enactment of a forgotten past that gives us the Banbury Morris men posing for a selfie with the Prime Minister, utterly unaware of the irony of re-enacting a tradition of poor people undermining authority and resisting poverty by posing with an authoritarian politician who’s determined to use poverty as a way of making people like him wealthier.

There is a question of “authenticity” versus “genuineness”. Some revival folk musicians strive for “authentic” performances, stressing that English folk song would be sung by a capella groups, reproducing the sorts of modal harmonies or whatever that would have been traditional. But it’s no more genuine, for all its veracity and attention to detail. While there is some educational and experiential value in “experimental archaeology”, and even something to be gained from renaissance fayres, war reenactments and the like: they are just reenactments, and “authentic” folk performance without the underlying causes is no more relevant than that.

But that brings me to the point, and question, towards which the post has been building. I touched on it in my comment on Carter’s post, and the question or point is, where is today’s folk tradition being forged? Rapper and longsword Morris dances were forged in the mining communities of the North East, using the tools of their trade as a means of entertainment. Protest songs have resonated throughout the centuries (I recall listening to a CD by Chumbawamba of “English Rebel Songs 1381 – 1984” for example), the concerns and issues of communities have always appeared in some form or other of entertainment and communication, by which they express and share the reality that they face.

To understand folk music in this way, we have to understand it not as a genre but as a mode or means. From what little I know of the history of dance music, house played a role that shared at least some points in common with this conception of folk music, when it first developed. What interests me is not so much the folk revival, but the other music, the original music, that the same types of people scooped up, and that certainly had become a part of overlapping traditions by the time I was exposed to it: The Pete Seeger (and Peggy Seeger), Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, singer-songwriters whose music spoke to social and political concerns of the day. It’s the point behind the differing analyses that Carter and I made of “Britpop” (though we came to conflicting conclusions about it).

Up to a point, social media has changed the landscape for the modern folk-equivalent art forms. If we take oral tradition to be not (as the academics would seem to have it) a thing generated in the past and now static, but as something that is active and generating material in the here and now, then we claim concepts of “folk”, and “genuine”, and “authentic”, back from the hands of privilege and academia and place it back in the hands of the people who have something to say about their own lives, in the here and now. Oral tradition just means, “I heard a song from my mate, let me sing it to you.” When the third person sings the song again without reference to the first person, you have oral tradition**. And I’ve seen this on youtube! Youtube videos produce grandchildren that reference as the source not the original video but a cover version of it (Jerryl C’s Canon Rock is one example; the cups-and-clapping video is another).

What this reveals is just how threatening a living, active oral tradition is to capitalist modes of communication. The interesting thing about social media as a site for folk-generation is that we plunder the art that surrounds us, produced and packaged by Capital, and repurpose it. We produce our own, and transmit it further. We copy things to say, “this has meaning”. We share what we produce, and what we consume. We don’t need to pay to talk and commune. And social media makes that even more widely possible.

I am not sociable enough, in my little introvert shell, to know what and how and by whom is being shared as folk-generation, creating the traditions of our time that will one day a hundred or more years from now be reenacted by the equivalents of those Morris dancers hugging the PM. I am sure it’s out there, though.

** I have a fond dream that one day someone I’ve never met will say, “I learned this song off my mate, what do you think?” and play one of my own songs to me, unaware that I wrote it: it will be the moment I know my music lives.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Economics, Music, Philosophy, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Traditions invented, preserved or living

  1. Pingback: Is performance always artifice? | Valery North - Writer

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