The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #13068   Message #113617
Posted By: Sandy Paton
12-Sep-99 - 12:08 PM
Thread Name: Threads on the meaning of Folk
Subject: RE: Threads on the meaning of Folk
Well, friends, I thought I'd just sit this one out. These debates do get a little old, don't they? But then I got to thinking about the contribution to the discussion that Val made a few days ago, and I felt I ought to address it from my point of view.

I can think of no good reason to scuttle taxonomy. It may mean nothing to you, but some very dedicated scientists have spent a lot of time and study trying to draw distinctions that may prove to be important. I recall the story of the city feller who bought a place in Vermont. He saw his neighbors tapping the trees in their woodlots, so he went out and did the same. His syrup didn't turn out so good, since he was tapping elms instead of maples. "What the hell," he said, "they're all just trees, aren't they?" He would have done better if he'd done a little homework and learned to draw the distinction.

Let's create another scenario: You're walking hand-in-hand with a six-year-old daughter through a lovely garden. She points with delight at a beautiful rose and asks, "What's that, Daddy?" You, in your role as her source of all things profound, reply, "That's a plant, dear." "What kind of a plant, Daddy?" "What the hell, honey, they're all just plants. If you want to draw some silly distinctions, that's a flower." "What kind of a flower, Daddy?" "Aw, flowers are all just flowers, aren't they?" Yes, and trees are all just trees, but if you don't know the difference between a spruce and an oak, I don't think I want to buy the guitar or the violin you build.

A lot of very wise people have spent a lot of time drawing similar distinctions, sorting and classifying all kinds of things, describing their differences and identifying their special qualities. . It helps us to communicate, helps us understand one another. Let's look at literature: is there no difference between a novel, a math textbook, and a collection of poems? Nah, they're all just books. Next time you want to woo a lovely youg maiden, try reading some of those math problems to her. And we can take it a bit farther than that by opening the book of poems. Is their no difference between, say, a nursery rhyme and an elegy, or between the sonnet and the haiku? Of course there is. When your English professor assigns you the task of writing a sonnet, you'd better not turn in a haiku! Some people study the use of language, pointing out the functional differences between nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Unimportant? Not if you want others to understand what you're saying. These scholars take it even beyond that, distinguishing between, say, a simile and a metaphor. When they discuss literature, such distinctions enable them to actually understand one another.

And so, at last, we come to songs. It may not seem significant to you, but to those who study folk music seriously, there is a difference between a ditty from Tim Pan Alley, an omphaloscopic melodic ego trip, an orally transmitted occupational song, and a classic traditional ballad from the 15th century. Right now, in another Mudcat Forum thread, some very knowledgeable folk are discussing the differences between delta and piedmont blues. Unimportant distinctions? Not to them! Is it wrong for them to care about the differences? I don't think so.

What I'm trying to say, in my long-winded, old fogey way, is that distinctions can be very important. Some radio people call any slow song a "ballad," which demonstrates their ignorance so plainly that it ought to embarrass them. When Elvis sang "Love Me Tender," he wasn't singing a ballad, no matter what the DJs called it. Look up the definition for yourself and you'll see what I mean.

Perhaps I can put it in a way that everyone can understand. If you're talking about voting rights, yes, all people are just people. But if you're trying to make a baby, you'd damned well better be able to distinguish between male and female.

Sandy (finally tired of anti-academic nonsense)