I was about to give up on this thread figuring that either I wasn't able to phrase my question well enough or no one was interested in the question - then all of a sudden came some very interesting (imho) posts. Actually, there is too much material there to respond to all that I want to. Reading the recent messages, though, helped me to understand that I wanted to think in terms of societies and cultures but many people responding were looking at traditional music from the point of view of the performer.
I am wondering about the role of traditional music in the future. I too certainly hope, and believe, that there will be performers and researchers who will help to keep the songs alive to enrich the lives of people today by giving them a glimpse into cultures that have either disappeared or have been so transformed as to be almost unrecognizeable.
Amos: It would be very interesting to learn when the term "folk" came into use in its current form to distinguish the music from popular. With the knowledge base we have on Mudcat, perhaps someone will be able to add to this topic.
Peter T: Your post was really interesting to me. Although I'm not familiar witht he "Snowmobile Revolution", I am familiar with the work of anthropologist Aasen Bilicksi which. Before the techniques were lost, he contracted with a Netsilik Eskimo family from Pelly Bay to spend the cycle of a year with them, living the traditional Eskimo way. No Netsilik lived this way any longer but this family still knew the skills and were willing to give up their snowmobile, rifle, fish hooks, etc. for this year. The film(I think it's about 120 edited hours) is wonderful. There are crafts, songs, hunting skills, survival skills. The scene of the little bare baby, giggling comfortably in an igloo heated by a walrus oil lamp is one of the warmest, most human moments I have ever seen. But, even then, while Biliksi filmed, the culture was dying. There were no other bands of ekimos out on the ice living that way. Many people commuted from villages by snowmobiles to the ice pack to hunt. Instead of waiting for hours, motionless and with a patience that defies understanding, to spear a seal when it might appear, they hunt with Winchesters. Their life experiences are different, their leisure is different, their material desires are different, their dangers are different - and those are what make up a culture.
I would guess that young, creative Netsilik are finding ways to fuse their traditional music style to a wider "world" music that they hear on their radios and purchase on CDs. However, the diversity of the product of a different culture which is itself the product of thousands of years is being submerged. I don't think you can say it is evolving, it is more like it is being swallowed up. It changes the mix a little but the diversity is lessened. If you consider the Netsilik a folk, what happens when they become more like everyone else? The "folk music" may be saved by those who care, to be a source of cultural pride about a time so remote that the ancestors of the traditional people would not recognise the lives of their progeny. Is it then "folk music" without "folk"? Like Lonsesome EJ, I don't think a museum curator analogy is bad. Just as museums provide a useful educational purpose(in the best educational sense of understanding the excitement of the experience of the world), the music that is the broad-based product of a culture gives an immediacy to lives lived long ago and far away. It also helps us, if we care to think about it, the opportunity to understand our place in the world and cosmos.
M.Ted, I think, was saying the same thing about life in Naples about how changes in lifestyle have removed the opportunities for the unselfconscious music that once was a hallmark of that city.
Catspaw, I think you put your finger (paw? - or maybe we can say you nailed it) when you said that people aren't likely to sing in front of a computer screen with their fellow workers (it would be an instrinsicly funny scene in a Mel Brooks style movie, though, wouldn't it?). As more people work in an increasingly homogeneous service oriented economy, the chances for work songs disappears.
It is three thirty in the morning here in Sonoma County and perhaps I should not be allowed at a keyboard at this hour, running on like the last patron in the bar but I really was impressed with the thoughts you all were sharing and I wanted to add something to the mix.