The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #104168   Message #2132246
Posted By: Joe Offer
23-Aug-07 - 05:23 PM
Thread Name: Songbooks: Review: The Folk Handbook
Subject: RE: Review: The Folk Handbook
Well, I was tempted to start a new thread about antipathy/hostility towards English Trad. song, and ask that this thread be limited to discussion of The Folk Handbook, but I see that Shimrod mentioned that antipathy in the very first post.

My first-hand experience of English folk music was just three weeks - a week at Whitby Folk Week and two weeks in Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, and London. My gracious Mudcat hosts made sure I had music every night, so I think it was a pretty good opportunity to observe the health of English folk music. It seemed pretty healthy to me - very similar to the American folk music community in many ways, except that it seems to be easier for traditional musicians to make a living in the UK.

In the U.S., most "folk" music festivals feature commercial acts that do country, bluegrass, and singer-songwriter music. If you're lucky, you might get to hear an old-time performer or two. You're not likely to hear traditional-style musicians unless you go to the non-commercial festivals sponsored by the folk music clubs in San Francisco and Washington. The Philadelphia Folk Festival seems to be all commercial stuff, so I haven't bothered attending it. Same with the Strawberry Festival in California. But Whitby Folk Week had a full measure of traditional music, and it seemed to be in reasonable fiscal health. Yes, I know about some of the problems and personalities involved, but it still ends up being a wonderful festival with lots of good, traditional music.

For me, the high point of Whitby Folk Week was the chance to hear Cyril Tawney before he died. Now, I suppose you could jump all over me and scream that Cyril rarely sang a song he didn't write - but I think that Cyril fit very well into the "traditional" category. He knew his traditional music very well, and the songs he wrote fit well into a traditional context.

When I sing with people in Washington (DC) or San Francisco, I think that most of the music we do is "traditional" - but when I analyze it, I realize that most of the songs we sing are less than 75 years old, and many of the older songs are not rigidly "traditional," either. The only purely traditional sessions are the ballad sessions, and they draw a relatively small number of people. I found the same thing in the UK, at Whitby and at singarounds in London, Yorkshire, and Hertfordshire. People may call themselves "traditional" musicians, but most of the songs they sing are not historical artifacts.

I think that's healthy. Most of us can't handle a steady diet of history. We're eclectic - and I think that eclecticism is an important element of truly traditional music. Yes, we do need to preserve and resurrect the old stuff, but truly traditional music is living music that reflects the life of the community.

I don't think it's true traditional music when it's an audience listening to a performer, even if the performance is a pure diet of historical artifacts. I don't think it's true traditional music if the musicians slavishly adhere to the style of another performer or to their perception of a historical style. I don't think it's traditional if it's a singer-songwriter performing music only he/she can perform, even if that musician uses acoustic instruments. And I don't think it's true traditional music is the only songs allowed are certifiably historic ballads.

In many places in both the UK and the US, I have seen people come together to share music that is important to them, music that involves and provides expression for everyone present even though it might not always require everyone to sing or clap or whatever. Much of this music has a historic context, even though it might be recently composed. Now, that's what I call real traditional music.

"Traditional" music is no longer the predominant style in either the US or the UK, but it still exists in both places, and it's still quite healthy. One thing that can kill it, is restrictions - people who say you can't do this or you can't do that. Another thing that can kill traditional music is pettiness and squabbling and innuendo and bitterness and animosity - and all of those flaws see to run rampant in parts of the UK folk music community - and I've seen it in the US, too. So, lighten up, all you people, and let's just make music and not worry so damn much about what's traditional and what's not.

I suppose it IS sad that music festivals (even in the UK) have become increasingly oriented toward commercial "star" performers, but that seems to be what the admission-paying public wants. If that's what Ma and Pa Cherwinggum want, let them have it. Let's gather in a pub or a living room and make real music, and forget the Chewinggums. But forget all the pettiness, too - you UK folkies seem to spend a hell of a lot more time fighting, than you do making music.


I haven't received my copy of The Folk Handbook yet, so I can't comment on it. The companion Website,, is terrific.