Thirty years ago, I was pretty sure that I knew what folk music was. It was traditional music, sung, unselfconsciously, by people who learned the songs in their families and from their friends. The songs, often from a long time past and many thousands of miles away (after all, I was interested in American folk music) had been shaped by geography, culture, and needs into American variations but still there were songs of the sea sung in the Blue Ridge Mountains, songs of knights and ladies sung in the farmhouses of Vermont. People, like several people here on Mudcat, went out and hunted down those songs , many of which would have been forgotten otherwise. Young singers from very different backgrounds picked up the songs brought home by field collectors because they felt somehow there was a connection in that music to their lives as they were and as they wanted them to be. But I wonder what this means for the English/Scottish/Irish taditional music of North America.
This new generation of singers came from a very different culture than did the music. They were often far more literate and more sophisticated. Their musical ears were tuned differentlty, they had different ethics, morals and experience. The unselfconscious native singer is an almost extinct species, I think.
What I am getting at is I am wondering if there can be, today, a folk music in the sense that there has been folk music for the past centuries. Can it exist side by side with the technical entertainment culture we are inside of today? Can traditional music remain vital if it is of interest to antiquarians and people who write social activist songs to convince the already convinced?
I don't mean to be saying that there are not beautiful songs being written today, songs that seem to come directly out of the folk tradition - Gillian Welch and David Rawlings come to mind as sources of some of the best new music I have heard but such compositions won't be traditional music for quite a while yet. It needs to be picked up and shaped by thousands, tens of thousands, of people who polish the tune and the lyics until it reflects their lives more clearly. Can it ever become traditional music or is our society's traditional music really now the popular songs of the Fifties, show tunes and "evergreens", songs that we can all count on each other knowing, at least well enough to sing along.
I have no doubt that traditional music will continue to be played by people who are aware of and sensitive to the beauty in the old songs but those songs are no longer a part of a living traditions where whole communities appreciated them and loved to hear them played at their festivals and ceremonies. Can they really continue to live or after a few generations separation from the source singers, will they just become beautifully embalmed?
I am really interested in hearing what people who have spent far more time thinking about this subject than I have, think about this.