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Darkly Watching: The Folk Process

"Can there be any doubt that long, deep and meaningful discussion on what constitutes folk song is indicative of troubled and possibly diseased minds? These considerations also apply to the discussion of the technical attributes of ballads, poems and stories. The delight is always in the doing,'' writes Dermott Ryder.

By way of introduction, an epigraph:
‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon them.’
Malvolio: reading from a letter: Twelfth Night: William Shakespeare.

How does the chap or the chapess in the street, in the bar, in the bistro, in the folk club or at the balance sheet, bums on seats, folk festival - recognise the folk hero?

There is one certain test. The mark of a true folk hero is the appearance in the starring role of an epic song. In days of yore we enlightened activists described this type of musical narrative as a folk hero song. There are, of course, folk heroine songs but they seem to be less prevalent, less popular, often quite dull and, mostly, excruciatingly miserable. Having recognised this distinction between hero songs and heroine songs perhaps one should also note, not necessarily agree with in its entirety, Nicholas Hale-Blundell’s opinion that:

‘Folk heroines are, relatively speaking, few and far between and when they are written into the folksong stock they are most often written in by men. However, there are striking exceptions and we must gather these historically and socially aware compositions gratefully into the fold.’

In recent years there has been a movement to de-gender certain long accepted designations. In the great scheme of things, mankind has become personkind; in separating ecclesiastical leaders from lay followers’ laity and layman have fallen from grace, replaced by the ludicrous lay person; at meetings, chairman or chairwoman has become chairperson; in the air, aviatrix has become aviator; on the stage, actress has become actor. Even in the public arena the ladies and the gents have often given way to unisex facilities. Therefore the abbreviation of folk hero or folk heroine song to folk song seems reasonable and will, one hopes, avoid any accusation of gender bias.

Now we have clarified and demystified the nature of a folk hero, what in essence is a folk song? This often-asked question has spawned a billion words and has caused the creation of countless definitions, numerous journal articles and rambling dissertations but none of them are really worth a cracker.

It has also given many hours of futile employment to numerous international committees for the ‘defining of everything’ but little good or cogent has ever come from these interminable gab fests. There is, however, an almost universal acceptance of the proposition that singing folk songs is far more satisfying than writing or pontificating about them.

Can there be any doubt that long, deep and meaningful discussion on what constitutes folk song is indicative of troubled and possibly diseased minds? These considerations also apply to the discussion of the technical attributes of ballads, poems and stories. The delight is always in the doing.

The non-purist view holds that any song written or sung by a folk singer, or by a folk singer's friend, companion or random extra-curricular consort is a folk song, especially if the friend of the moment is cohabiting with the folk singer, or providing free transport, or accommodation, or supplying an aromatic herbal mixture, or buying the beer, the cow pies or the take-away Chinese. This approach, known as the Abercrombie Hypothesis, has brevity, clarity and much to recommend it.

Clearly, the folk song is the product of intellect, experience and effort. It does not come as a divine revelation from on high; I am prepared to bet that God doesn't give a continental damn about the meanderings of beggars, highwaymen, sailors, fishermen, bush lawyers lurid ladies of the night or perfidious politicians. I'll give even money that the Almighty has bigger fish to fry. Dominus Vobiscum.

The actual truth about the source of folk song is quite simple. Somebody makes it up, uses it and others find it attractive and pass it on, steal it or plagiarise it and call it a parody. The folk song might be the creation of spontaneous combustion within the culture and grow like Topsy, but somewhere, somehow, someone has put chisel to stone, chalk to blackboard, paintbrush to wall, texta colour to toilet door, pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

A significant figure in this fantasy world of folk song is the folk collector. The American folk culture has embraced its own special word for this intellectual parasite. It is ethnomusicologist. Roughly speaking this superword describes someone who can sing, read, write and steal at the same time; in essence, a person with a gramophone cylinder recorder, or an open reel or cassette tape recorder or with a digital mini-disc who plunders what they love to call the oral tradition by collecting folk songs from old gentlemen, old ladies, street sweepers, tramps, hawkers, handloom weavers, hoary handed ploughmen and from Old Uncle Tom Cobley and his bucolic mates.

They, in turn, may claim to have first heard the songs in question, at their Grandmother's knee, or at some other low joint. Or possibly from Uncle Albert who may have been a soldier, sailor or candlestick maker, or from Uncle Harry, he may have been a legendary rag and bone man, a bookmaker’s runner, a pick-pocket, a street musician or an actor.

Within the broader circle of family or of acquaintanceship of the ethnomusicologist’s wise and worldly informant there is, of course, that other great but rarely identified mastermind, the treasure trove of many improper or inappropriate songs, a reckless and unprincipled reprobate, now spoken of only in whispers.

He emigrated, under a cloud of family or community disapproval and of police suspicion, to the distant colonies. There, he engaged in various nefarious pastimes, which spawned many songs and yarns. His odyssey somehow reached family and friends in the old country. Sensationally, according to rumour, an angry mob hanged him for sheep stealing, cattle duffing or buggery.

In any event, the chances are that the geriatric informant called, for convenience or subterfuge, a ‘source singer’ had first heard the reported musical artefact on the radio or from a 78rpm-vinyl record of yesteryear. The underlying and enabling premise here is that amnesia, real, imagined or contrived, followed by oral transmission and claim of first discovery, flawed and fanciful as it must surely be, gives right of ownership. These peculiar sets of protocols have, over years of operation, gained both recognition and derision as the folk process.

This convenient social mechanism allows self-designated folk collectors to ignore intellectual property rights as they harvest the fruits of folk-life activity. It may also be worth noting that this strange branch of social engineering also gives employment to a few otherwise unproductive academics, visiting fellows and sundry other tenured or non-tenured dreamers who, in the real world, would have little hope of finding proper jobs.

To describe a song as traditional is to lay claim to antiquity. The careful researcher by not discovering the identity of the writer serves this often dubious claim. The fragmented, rambling chronicle of the informant is often set down in a rather skimpy way. The interesting thing here is that this story of the life and times of an old singer of a few old songs increases in size, detail and importance, usually after the death of the informant and according to the book deal or arts council grant.

There are more wrinkles to consider. If a source singer forgets part of a song or tune or simply makes a ‘right dog’s breakfast’ of it and is obliged to make it up on the run, a new variant is born and the collector plants another copyright symbol on another first discovery. Oral transmission is the straw in the bricks of social history and first best friend of the dedicated collector. If the collector gets thoroughly confused or drunk, or stoned or all three, and mixes up several songs, the shambles that results is known as substituting transitory traditional lyrics.

In modern times, which are always now, folk song seems to fall into four dominant streams. The first, the main stream, according to many purists, is the traditional song-stock that comes via the source singers, the almost extinct real working class, through to the collectors, the pretend working class, and onwards to the revivalists and into common usage. The folk academics, known as the 'wouldn't work in an iron lung class', wait at the end of the pipeline to fossick in the outflows.

A fellow traveller, in the adjacent second stream, is the art song. This is the dedicated work of a consummate professional. It is set, within the conventions of the day, to annoy, to soothe, to sadden, to excite and, always, to entertain. Art, in this situation, usually means doing it the same way every time. It requires a lot of practice to achieve this dubious objective. It also suggests that performance is often much more important than context or content.

The classical or fine music composer provides the third stream. This discharge usually involves some musical, ivory tower trained genius who has run out of original ideas and who, after an excess of cheap red wine and sex on the floor with a guitar-playing sister of mercy from a university or spanner college folk club, discovers the music of the people.

The next step is to note down the tunes and glorious ornamentations of these discovered treasures and then link them together, give the collection a pretentious title and claim composership. This process has worked wonderfully well for a few great composers and for an army of tone-deaf drongos.

Plundering the treasure house of the tradition has become traditional. It is a relatively simple task to capture a folk song and, with polish and practice, turn it into an art song. This process is somewhat similar to gelding a spirited colt.

It is also a relatively simple task to capture an art song and, by revitalising it with a little vigorous spontaneity, turn it into a robust folk song. This process is somewhat similar to throwing a reluctant virgin into a bawdy house or, as one might say in Washington DC, a gentlemen’s club.

The fourth great stream of creativity, modern contemporary balladry, is the musical equivalent of a storm-water drain. There are strong influences at work with currents and eddies of darkness and light as past, present and future bind and catalyse. Within this raging torrent, the sub-cultures of both traditional and contemporary expression lurk cheek by jowl.

Challenge, resistance and revolution are fundamental to original work. Though these elements may, at times, be lost to sight. A unique periodic table exists here and the first and second law of thermodynamics holds sway at the point of life and expression of energy. It is also entirely possible that Walther Nernst’s theorem embracing the third law of thermodynamics will also have influence.

Some works found here, in the fourth stream, and claimed by living, or nearly living composers, sometimes known as Schrodinger’s Cats, often have a familiar ring to them. There are old tunes recycled and used as vehicles for new lyrics, and old lyrics modified and set to new tunes. The last resting-places of the old gods and the genesis of threat to the power of the new deities are in the songs of the belligerent vigilant.

So, having written all this hyperbole, how do the denizens of all four streams, capture, in song, the folk hero, anti-hero, diabolical villain or significant prophet?

My preferred method is first, select your valiant subject; second, write an original tune, or use a good, solid, traditional tune, one that almost everyone knows; third, write a chorus that everyone can sing; fourth, write the rest of the song, based on minimal research or creative misconception, as quickly as you can.

Write it in your lunch break, or on a crowded bus, or in the back of a station wagon on the way to anywhere. Then add a portion of partiality and call it poetic licence, add a dash of discrepancy and call it topical shading, add a growl of angst and call it social conscience… and away you go. Do your best or do your worst but don't take yourself too seriously. Finally, tell the truth as gently or as brutally as you wish, but tell it, sing your ballad of bullets loud and long and proclaim it a folk song.

October 2013 Liverpool NSW © Dermott Ryder


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