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Article in Guardian:folk songs & pop junk & racism

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Chris Amos 04 May 07 - 10:02 AM
katlaughing 04 May 07 - 10:47 AM
Richard Bridge 04 May 07 - 11:07 AM
Goose Gander 04 May 07 - 11:23 AM
greg stephens 04 May 07 - 11:43 AM
Grimmy 04 May 07 - 12:06 PM
GUEST,wordy 04 May 07 - 12:14 PM
Mick Tems 04 May 07 - 12:27 PM
michaelr 04 May 07 - 03:24 PM
McGrath of Harlow 04 May 07 - 03:37 PM
greg stephens 04 May 07 - 03:53 PM
The Borchester Echo 04 May 07 - 04:02 PM
Jack Campin 04 May 07 - 04:42 PM
greg stephens 04 May 07 - 05:20 PM
GUEST,MikeofNorthumbria (off base) 04 May 07 - 06:49 PM
Azizi 04 May 07 - 07:47 PM
Jack Campin 04 May 07 - 08:05 PM
Joe Offer 04 May 07 - 08:27 PM
Azizi 04 May 07 - 08:48 PM
GUEST,Shimrod 05 May 07 - 11:16 AM
Chris Amos 05 May 07 - 12:34 PM
Big Al Whittle 05 May 07 - 02:57 PM
Richard Bridge 05 May 07 - 07:09 PM
GUEST 05 May 07 - 07:52 PM
Chris Amos 06 May 07 - 05:02 AM
McGrath of Harlow 06 May 07 - 05:34 AM
GUEST,Hugh Barker 06 May 07 - 07:35 AM
Ernest 07 May 07 - 02:34 AM
bubblyrat 07 May 07 - 03:50 AM
GUEST,jeddy 15 May 09 - 10:11 PM
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Subject: Article in Guardian
From: Chris Amos
Date: 04 May 07 - 10:02 AM

There is this in the Guardian today Link like most short articles they overstate the case a little, but you can't deny that they have a point. Traditional singers, for the most part sang for the joy of singing without much thought as to the origin of what they were singing. We, having lost our innocence, bother about such things.

Chris


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: katlaughing
Date: 04 May 07 - 10:47 AM

Here ya go:

Segregation blues


Folk music is liberalism with guitars, right? Wrong. Our understanding of it is based on deep-seated racism, argue Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor

Friday May 4, 2007
The Guardian

In 1964, the Texan folksong collector James Ward Lee noted that for every "real" folk song a collector found, he'd get six or eight "penny dreadfuls", or pop songs. "One of the things highbrow collectors do not like to admit," he concluded, "is that their informants have no taste whatsoever."

One of the main tasks folk song collectors have always faced is choosing which of the many songs their informants sing are folk songs and which aren't. Most of them have thought this a relatively easy task: folk songs are uncommercial, pure products of a shared heritage, passed on from generation to generation, whereas pop songs are outside interlopers, invasive species that endanger the survival of the genetically unmodified, authentic, living tradition.

Article continues
But it's not always so clear, especially when informants claim that all their songs are traditional, which, since they are usually being paid per song, they usually will. It is up to the collector to apply discriminatory skills and ferret out those songs of greatest value in defining a range of folklore untainted by outside influences.

Every performer has outside influences, even if they are only birdsong and river sounds, though more commonly they would have come from the next town over or a visiting traveller. These influences are more likely to be perceived as "outside" if they are similar to music from another tribe, region or race. The object of the folk song collector, then, has historically been to keep the tradition ethnically clean. The ethnically "dirty" songs are labelled "pop junk" and quickly expunged.

But that ambition to create a tradition of the untainted folk song is not only ethically suspect, but quixotic. Every folk song, no matter how old, was composed by a real person, and its transmission usually involved some sort of border crossing. In other words, the folk song collector would have to apply his or her own ideas about the purity of a certain heritage, to label some songs as folk and others as junk.

So what exactly does folk music purport to be? Nowadays, it's almost anything at all - Lester Bangs called Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music "folk", and if you're playing steel-string acoustic guitar, you're almost automatically a folk musician, even if you've never heard a song that predates the Beatles. But the term "folklore" was coined in 1846, and its anthropological definition is, more or less, the orally transmitted expression - often anonymous, unselfconscious and spontaneous - of a small homogenous group with a long common tradition. It's certainly not hard, then, to call the music of the Navajo or the Ba-Benzélé pygmies "folklore".

In the early 20th century, however, problems arose. The main one was that cultural integration had all but eliminated the purity of most of the groups in Europe and America producing "folklore".

But most folklorists assumed that distinct and culturally separate groups ranging from American blacks to Appalachian whites still existed, despite the evidence that their music had undergone countless transformations through the mixing of traditions. John Lomax, who, along with his son Alan was the premier collector of American folk music, embarked on his monumental quest for black American folk songs in 1933 by defining them as the "songs that are ... the least contaminated by white influence or by modern negro jazz". What Lomax was really after, though, he had revealed a year earlier: he wanted to feel "carried across to Africa ... as if I were listening to the tom-toms of savage blacks". (Remember that at the time he was writing this, "black" was a derogatory term.) In other words, when deciding which songs were "most unlike those of the white race", Lomax would always choose the most primitive forms of expression, disregarding the jaw-dropping complexity and sophistication of much of the black music of his time.

The "white influence" was, of course, impossible for Lomax to escape. In the Southern black penitentiaries, where he assumed the prisoners would "slough off the white idiom they may have employed", his informants inevitably sang garbled versions of songs of black, white, and mixed origin, distantly remembered from their days of freedom. Lomax was also forceful in suggesting the kinds of songs he was looking for. In one recording he tries to cajole the blues singer Blind Willie McTell into playing some of that "complaining music" about hard times, in spite of McTell's protests that he didn't know any.

By contrast, the English folksong collector Cecil Sharp was interested in isolating white Britishness. He travelled the country lanes of England seeking out rural workers for their unadulterated traditional material. In their songs he saw a distant reflection of the "merrie England" of myth. Sharp then travelled to America to document the survival of the English and Scottish tradition in the isolated communities of the Appalachian mountains. At the time, one out of every eight Appalachians was black, but Sharp dubbed black Americans "a lower race", recoiled from towns with too high a proportion of them, and concentrated only on those songs he considered pure British folk song.

Dave Harker and other writers have attacked Sharp for his bowdlerisations, and for sanitising working-class culture. Their criticisms take issue with his search for the voice of "common people", but they also suggest there is a true voice of the working class or proletariat, which Sharp had misrepresented. Sharp can certainly be described as a proto-fascist, but we should view him in context. He shared a widespread fascination with identifying the "roots of the nation", which he assumed to derive from a homogenous racial group. At its most extreme, this fascination led to the formation of deranged groups such as the British Israelites, who sought to prove that the British race was one of the lost tribes of Israel, and the Thule Society, precursors of the Nazis, who claimed that the origins of the German race lay in the mythical land of Ultima Thule, and who were also associated with the Völkisch movement.

Sharp's quest for the Aryan roots of folksong and his disdain for racial groups such as the Celtic Irish and Appalachian blacks was inherited from a European tradition that dated back at least to the Brothers Grimm, according to which, the rural "peasant", rather than the urban working class, was the repository of the remnants of a golden age. But rather than debating whether the urban or rural working class is more "authentic", the more relevant question is: is any tradition pure?

Must Sharp's and Lomax's racist views tarnish their wonderful song collections? Of course not. However, their views do tarnish the folk-song tradition, since they helped provide its modern foundation. By defining "folk" music as the most racially pure music, they established a heritage that was racist at its core.

By the late 1930s, these views were becoming unfashionable. For folk enthusiasts such as Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Ewan MacColl and Pete Seeger a more functional definition was needed. Following communist theory, they defined folk music not by the song, but by its performance method. If it were sung without expectation of remuneration - while working, around a campfire, on a ship, among children - it was folk.

Such attitudes had been a minority view in the earlier folk movement. The song collector Dorothy Scarborough had given folk a far wider definition than her contemporaries Sharp and Lomax when she said: "A song that starts out as sheet music may be so altered ... by singers who learn and transmit it orally, as to become a folksong." Scarborough was happy to study material from both black and white musicians.

But look at what qualifies as folk under this more functional definition, and you are left with nothing but the detritus of pop songs. And that has always been the case. With a few exceptions (sea shanties, camp-meeting songs, playground songs, field hollers) the songs people sing while working or among friends were once performed by paid entertainers. Nick Tosches put it best: "Street balladry, the roots of traditional American music, was pop. The purest mountain airs, lustily pursued by sweaty, obsessive folklorists and concerned young things, were once the pop junk of urban Britain."

Have songs like R Kelly's I Believe I Can Fly and Green Day's Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) now become folk songs? Already they are sung in social gatherings without expectation of remuneration.

If separating folk songs from pop junk isn't based on racist or tribal ideology, and if a functional approach is incoherent, is there any way left to defend classifying some songs as one, and others as the other? Is there any such thing as a real folk song any more? Probably not. Let's jettison these old ideas of folk music, then. If we do, perhaps we can celebrate the inherent democracy of "pop junk", and more quickly overcome the racism in which our "folk" heritage has been steeped.

· Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor are the authors of Faking It: the Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (Faber, £14.99)


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: Richard Bridge
Date: 04 May 07 - 11:07 AM

The article fails to consider the matter in the round. Every long-lived social grouping has its folk songs, within the correct meaning of the term. It is these authors, who define their notions by reference to two white middle class (or upper middle-class) collectors, and who ignore all other collectors and all other collections, who are guilty of bias.

It also applies another assumption without seeking validation. Indeed, an assumption with two layers. First it assumes that "pop" music is democratic. It is not. It reflects only "effective demand" as any economist would regognise. Second, it assumes that merit lies in common acclaim - a fallacy that may in time be seen to have been the defining error of the C20th.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: Goose Gander
Date: 04 May 07 - 11:23 AM

"Our understanding of it is based on deep-seated racism . . . ."

To whom does the pronoun at the start of this sentence refer? I don't know anyone with any knowledge of and interest in folk music who still buys into the racially essentialist musings of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars and collectors. Do these two think they've stumbled onto something new?

On the other hand, if you're interested in English or Scottish or Irish or German or Lithuanian or West African or indigenous Latin American or any other category of traditional music, there's nothing wrong with seeking out your preferred music.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: greg stephens
Date: 04 May 07 - 11:43 AM

Woody Guthrie, interestingly in the light of the Guardian piece, was a pretty deep-seated racist in his early years. But he is one of the "good guys", so doesn't get criticised for it by the writers of this article. Cecil Sharp and John Lomax, on the other hand, get the boot put in. The phenomenon of selective indignation.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: Grimmy
Date: 04 May 07 - 12:06 PM

"The phenomenon of selective indignation"

Yep, and it's apparently contagious, as of the posts are beginning to demonstrate.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: GUEST,wordy
Date: 04 May 07 - 12:14 PM

Yes, that's just how I see it too. Great article.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: Mick Tems
Date: 04 May 07 - 12:27 PM


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: michaelr
Date: 04 May 07 - 03:24 PM

Well, that's about 2 1/2 screens' worth of copy/paste. How many times have we been told that that's a no-no on Mudcat?

Cheers,
Michael


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 04 May 07 - 03:37 PM

"What is folk?" Guardian style - I think we do it better here.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: greg stephens
Date: 04 May 07 - 03:53 PM

michaelr: I fondly believe that Mudcat rules(guidelines?) are that it is fine(indeed encouraged) to copy and paste in articles about folk music likle this. What they prefer is that BS articles on Iraq, the Israelis being resposible for 9/11, and William Shatner's personal philosophy, should be provided with clickies.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: foilk songs and pop junk
From: The Borchester Echo
Date: 04 May 07 - 04:02 PM

I fail to see the point of copy/pasting in a lengthy piece when Chris Amos had already linked to the Guardian site.
Complete squandering of bandwidth, if you ask me. Which no-one did . . .
I actually fail to see the point of linking to it anyway. I was writing this sort of bollocks a quarter of a century ago but grew up a little and no longer do it.
    That's standard procedure - if it's information about music, we ask that people post the link AND the entire text. Experience has shown that links often die, and we're in the business of preserving music information. We have plenty of bandwidth.
    -Joe Offer-


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian
From: Jack Campin
Date: 04 May 07 - 04:42 PM

Just what we need, somebody digging up and reanimating the putrefying corpse of Julie Burchill.

Popster selfrighteousness was just as boring twenty years ago.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: folk songs and pop junk
From: greg stephens
Date: 04 May 07 - 05:20 PM

It was not the fact that it was well done that was interesting, it was the fact that it was published at all(to paraphrase Dr Johnson)


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: folk songs and pop junk
From: GUEST,MikeofNorthumbria (off base)
Date: 04 May 07 - 06:49 PM

Exactly Greg!

As Oscar Wilde put it: "There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

Criticism (even hostile or ill-informed criticism)we can usually live with, but being ignored altogether is harder to endure.

Wassail!


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: folk songs and pop junk
From: Azizi
Date: 04 May 07 - 07:47 PM

"With a few exceptions (sea shanties, camp-meeting songs, playground songs, field hollers) the songs people sing while working or among friends were once performed by paid entertainers."

This may be only a minor point, but if the authors of this article meant to imply that playground songs are a "pure" form of folk music because these rhymes aren't derived from pop music, the authors may not be aware that quite a number of contemporary English language playground songs include lines from recorded R&B songs. ["contemporary" here means about 1950s to date]

I know this for a fact. I'm on more shaky ground regarding the inclusion of lines from popular songs in so-called traditional English language children's rhymes. But, I wouldn't be surprised if those traditional playground rhymes also contained lines from what were then popular songs.

True, the performers of children's rhymes didn't and still don't get paid to sing them. But-if I read that excerpt correctly-the authors of that article appear to be saying that the fact that folks don't get paid to sing {or chant} lyrics is only part of what they think makes sea shanties, camp-meeting songs, playground songs, field hollers "pure" forms of folk music.

Imo, "song purity" is as undefinable, unrealistic, and undesirable
a position as racial, ethnic, and cultural purity.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: folk songs and pop junk
From: Jack Campin
Date: 04 May 07 - 08:05 PM

The more significant thing is that the composed originals of those playground songs are long forgotten and the kids' songs aren't.

It's the contribution of the people who transmitted and modified the songs is what made them still worth hearing. The raw material was basically crap.

The writers of that article want us to believe that professional pop musicians have always been the only real creators and everything the rest of the human race has done to turn that raw material into art is "detritus". They have it exactly arse backwards.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: folk songs and pop junk
From: Joe Offer
Date: 04 May 07 - 08:27 PM

I dunno. Usually, whether you like it or not, somebody wrote the song - and I think the author is right in saying that most songs moved into our culture by being performed first by paid entertainers. Then, if it's a good song, people make it their own and change it to suit themselves. That's the folk process, ain't it?
-Joe-


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: folk songs and pop junk
From: Azizi
Date: 04 May 07 - 08:48 PM

"The more significant thing is that the composed originals of those playground songs are long forgotten and the kids' songs aren't."

The recorded songs that either birthed or somehow found their way into contemporary playground rhymes aren't long forgotten.

**

"It's the contribution of the people who transmitted and modified the songs is what made them still worth hearing. The raw material was basically crap."

One person's musical crap is another person's musical treasure. Besides, "crap" is a form of fertilizer. So...

**

Also:
..."most songs moved into our culture by being performed first by paid entertainers".

I guess it depends on what the definition of "our culture" is. And I guess it depends on what the definition of "paid" is.

I mean whose {and which} culture/s are you referring to as "ours"?
I don't think your statement holds true for all cultures.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: folk songs and pop junk
From: GUEST,Shimrod
Date: 05 May 07 - 11:16 AM

I'm with Joe Offer - that just about sums it up, Joe!

I'm not sure that there's much mileage in belabouring the dead bodies of Cecil Sharp and John Lomax with the 'racist' stick. Most of us know better now (at least I sincerely hope that we do).


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: folk songs and pop junk
From: Chris Amos
Date: 05 May 07 - 12:34 PM

Everyone does the best they can in the times they live in, there were some pretty loopy ideas regarding race and genetics doing the rounds when both Sharp and Lomax were working. To judge them as fascists by today's standards is harsh.

We can criticise Maccoll (for instance), for forcing folk music down a very narrow path although he undoubtedly was acting from the best of intentions. The early collectors were anxious to preserve a cannon of songs that they considered in danger, they showed less interest in the history of the singers or the details of their performance.

We do not have to repeat the same mistakes, consider for a moment Fred Jordan singing Paul McCartney's "Yesterday", would it be a folk song? Obviously not but the performance would be worth hearing and would have it roots firmly in the tradition. It would have been interesting for the collectors to have, at least, listed the other songs in their informants repertoire.

All European Folk Music forms are subject to cross over, and this fact is better understood today.

Like all threads concerning What is Folk, we are unlikely to come to any conclusions but, these days, I find that the performance is the thing, and what ever folk music is it lies there


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian: folk songs and pop junk
From: Big Al Whittle
Date: 05 May 07 - 02:57 PM

All the people I know (who are any good) sing for the joy of it.

For most of us, the returns are too thin to do it for anything else.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian:folk songs & pop junk & racism
From: Richard Bridge
Date: 05 May 07 - 07:09 PM

I do wish people would distinguish beween a cannon and a canon.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian:folk songs & pop junk & racism
From: GUEST
Date: 05 May 07 - 07:52 PM

Phil Ochs wrote "Cannons of Christianity". Get it?


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian:folk songs & pop junk & racism
From: Chris Amos
Date: 06 May 07 - 05:02 AM

OK OK already, wasn't as bright as I might have been when I wrote that, be careful or I might train my canon on you.

Chris


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian:folk songs & pop junk & ra
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 06 May 07 - 05:34 AM

"most songs moved into our culture by being performed first by paid entertainers" - there are so many exceptions to that that it's hard to know whether they are the exceptions or the rule.

Paid entertainers sing songs which had previously been sung for free, and vice versa. The same people song songs on some occasions as paid entertainers or just as a social activity. If someone buys a drink for a siger in a pub does that make them a paid entertainer? Do buskers count paid entertainers in this sense?

To me it seems that the central thing about the various types of song and music that we call "folk music" is that it breaks down these kind of divisions, and doesn't treat the distinction as significant.


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian:folk songs & pop junk & racism
From: GUEST,Hugh Barker
Date: 06 May 07 - 07:35 AM

Azizi,

You're quite right about playground songs - as one of the authors of the article, we meant to add a modification - "(for instance some sea shanties, camp-meeting songs, playground songs, field hollers)" -to reflect the fact that these can have a more complex history, but this didn't make it into the final edit for various reasons.

Other than that, interesting conversation to read...


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian:folk songs & pop junk & racism
From: Ernest
Date: 07 May 07 - 02:34 AM

While the article questions the political backgrounds of the folksong-collectors it never mentions those of the popsong-composers or performers of the day. Would be interesting to compare, I am sure...
Regards
Ernest


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian:folk songs & pop junk & racism
From: bubblyrat
Date: 07 May 07 - 03:50 AM

There seems to be so much angst and hand-wringing over what does and does not constitute " Folk " music, that I suggest ( respectfully ) that all those who cannot decide, should refrain from any kind of involvement ( including the animated and sometimes ludicrous outpourings on this forum ) , and leave the whole genre to those of us who love this music, play it and/or sing it for pleasure,and don"t really give a toss about its political origins ,or anyone"s ethnic or racial sensibilities relative to its performance-----after all, one can always politely apologise AFTER the performance, IF someone has been offended in some way, and has complained, but to NOT risk a performance because it MIGHT offend someone is ,---well, paranoia !!
( in my opinion !! )


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Subject: RE: Article in Guardian:folk songs & pop junk & racism
From: GUEST,jeddy
Date: 15 May 09 - 10:11 PM

i don't know about anyone else, but in places reading that article felt abit like pulling teeth. this makes sound really thick i know, but your right in saying it was a long way round.
now to my thoughts, in my mind most things are acceptable in folk songs of racism to whaling to murder and jiggy jiggy, with not only someone who is married but with a boat load of people one after the other.
its time to chill out people and just take it with a pinch of salt.

i'm not saying that they can't move you to tears or have you on the floor in fits of laughter, but isn't the fun in listening not disecting.
rant over take care all night night x


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