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Value of going back to the tradition?

GUEST,Santa (at work) 24 Mar 03 - 08:38 AM
GUEST,Russ 24 Mar 03 - 09:24 AM
paulo 24 Mar 03 - 12:49 PM
John P 24 Mar 03 - 01:48 PM
GUEST,emily b 24 Mar 03 - 01:56 PM
GUEST,emily b 24 Mar 03 - 02:01 PM
Don Firth 24 Mar 03 - 02:45 PM
SeanM 24 Mar 03 - 03:48 PM
MMario 24 Mar 03 - 03:52 PM
greg stephens 24 Mar 03 - 06:59 PM
John Routledge 24 Mar 03 - 09:05 PM
GUEST,.gargoyle 24 Mar 03 - 11:23 PM
Benjamin 25 Mar 03 - 12:17 AM
Mudlark 25 Mar 03 - 01:19 AM
Mudlark 25 Mar 03 - 01:21 AM
Hrothgar 25 Mar 03 - 03:17 AM
Gurney 25 Mar 03 - 05:53 AM
Dave Bryant 25 Mar 03 - 06:37 AM
treewind 25 Mar 03 - 07:03 AM
GUEST,Santa 25 Mar 03 - 07:33 AM
treewind 25 Mar 03 - 08:08 AM
GUEST,Russ 25 Mar 03 - 08:23 AM
GUEST,Santa 25 Mar 03 - 08:47 AM
GUEST,Claire 25 Mar 03 - 11:11 AM
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Subject: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: GUEST,Santa (at work)
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 08:38 AM

The recent Thursday evening programme threw up a large number of interesting statements, and I'd like to chase this one down.

Proposition 1: that a singer of traditional songs should go back to the sources, to determine how they were sung. In particular, that a newcomer shouldn't just learn a song from a CD....(for fear of simply repeating some modern idiosyncracy?)

Proposition 2: that the songs as originally recorded were only one version of the original

Proposition 3: that some individuals have, or have had, an influence that affects how entire generations will treat a song (or genres of songs).

It seems to me that these three are intertwined. Although the first seems sensible enough, it is significantly weakened by the following two. If you want a particular example, I would put forward my opinion that the nasal "finger in the ear" style has severely damaged English folk song for decades.   (Perhaps that should be a separate thread!)

I feel that it is a (fairly generic) Good Thing to look at the roots of a song, but then I'm not a singer. It could even be a bad thing, in restricting "creativity".   So, in the collective wisdom of this board, is it really important for a singer to consult the earliest versions of the songs he/she sings, or not?


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: GUEST,Russ
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 09:24 AM

I can speak only about American old time southern mountain music.

I and the people I play with consistently go back to the sources for a number of reasons including curiousity, a sense of duty, a quest for authenticity, a tendency towards purism, and looking for inspiration.

But mostly we got back because the source musicians are REALLY REALLY good. They also give you a take on the tune or song that you simply cannot get from a modern musician.

Speaking from my own experience, it can take a while before one can fully appreciate the source musicians. The more one brings to the table, the more one gets out of the listening experience.

It's a little weird but every time I listen to Maggie Hammons Parker or Ernie Carpenter or even the Carter Family I notice that they've gotten better. Amazing that they can continue to improve after death

They're not good because they're old. They're old because they're good.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: paulo
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 12:49 PM

Well 'Guest Russ' do you really believe that ALL source musicians are really really good.   Just because someone remembered a tune a number of years ago doesn't automatically mean they were the best.   I'm sure that whether you learnt the tune from source or not doesn't impinge on how well you play it.

Folk music is a process and I believe that if some of the old timers were around today they would believe that 'A' could play 'B' better than they did.

Paulo


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: John P
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 01:48 PM

In some ways, research into the roots of a song is an academic, musicological acivity, and as such is in some ways antithetical to the nature of tradtional music.

I listen to source musicians because many of them are good (many of them are really, really, bad as well) and to get ideas for performance, but not to make any rules for myself about how to do a song, or about the authenticity of anything. I listen to modern fusion versions of tradtional songs because many of them are good (many of them are really really bad as well) and to get ideas for performance, but not to make any rules for myself about how to do a song, or about the authenticity of anything.

You have some lyrics, you have a melody. What do you want to do with them?

John Peekstok


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: GUEST,emily b
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 01:56 PM

I think a certain amount of research about a song is a good idea. As the Child Ballad books show, there are often many versions of the words. A singer should pick and choose what words to use so that they make sense to the singer. Often, the meaning can be twisted with just a slight word change. Take for example the "Gypsy" songs, Raggle Taggle, Seven Yellow Gypsies, Gypsy Davey, Gypsy Rover. In Gypsy Rover, the woman is the man's daughter which makes for a very different song. As a singer, I need to make sense out of the words and then the arrangement. I guess like an actor would make sense out of a script to help define his character.
I believe in the folk process and most important, I believe that I can be part of the folk process. The folk process didn't stop a generation ago, or 100 years ago. It is still working on the songs, fashioning them as each performer sees fit. A generation from now, today's singers will probably be regarded as "the tradition."
Going "back to tradition" is hard to do. Often there are no dots. What has been recorded is one persons take on a song.
The movie, Songcatcher, illustrates this by the main character coming to the US only to discover that English folk songs were better "preserved" in the US than in England. Does that make them more real? I don't think so. Not if you believe in the folk process.

Emily


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: GUEST,emily b
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 02:01 PM

John P,
Your approach in determining how to do a song is very similar to mine. Listen to what you can, the good and the bad. Get on mudcat and read all the threads about the song. As you say, you have lyrics and a melody, or maybe multiple versions of each. Then toss is around in your head and your voice for awhile and see what comes out. It's actually one of my favorite parts of the whole process, the creativity to make it my own. Is it "authentic?" Probably not. But it is certainly folk music. Such fun.
Interesting thread.

Emily B


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: Don Firth
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 02:45 PM

Wow! I just posted a long screed on the "Who or what are the 'Folk Police'" thread HERE that contains one of my favorite quotes on this particular question. The late Rolf Cahn, one of the finest singer-guitarists I've ever met, and a very intelligent, knowledgeable, and thoughtful man. I will be so bold as to post the quote again here, because I think it directly addresses this matter.
The most ticklish question still results from that awful word "Folk Music", which gives the erroneous impression that there is one body of music with one standard texture, dynamic, and history. Actually, the term today covers areas that are only connected in the subtlest terms of general feeling and experience. A United States cowboy song has less connection with a bloody Zulu tale than it has to "Western Pop" music; a lowdown blues fits less with Dutch South African melody than with George Gershwin.

Most of us agree in feeling as to our general boundaries, but more and more we search for our own particular contributions as musicians within these variegated provinces. There doesn't seem to be much point in imitating—what, after all, is the point of doing Little Moses exactly like the Carter Family? Yet it seems vital to convey the massive, punching instrumentals and the tense driving, almost hypnotic voice of the Carter Family performances.

One the one hand, there is the danger of becoming a musical stamp collector; on the other, the equal danger of leaving behind the language, texture, and rhythm that made the music worthy of our devotion in the first place. So we have arrived at a point where in each case we try to determine those elements which make a particular piece of music meaningful to us, and to build the performance through these elements. By continuing to learn everything possible of the art form—techniques, textures, rhythms, cultural implications and convention, we hope to mature constantly in our individual understanding and creativity in this music.
Don Firth


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: SeanM
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 03:48 PM

Point 1: Actually, just performing the song as someone else has recorded it can get you in trouble for more than just authenticity. Copyright issues might rear their ugly heads - if you're performing for profit, that is. Heck, given the trigger happy lawsuit hounds, you might get in trouble regardless.

Point 2: Other than the original, EVERY "version" is a copy of something relating to it. Even a lot of what is accepted as "pure traditional" is actually just someone's version of a traditional song. The sticky bit (if you're an authenticity fan) is determining WHICH variant, WHICH Child Ballad, WHICH Norwegian Sardine Finning shanty it came from...

Point 3: Definitely. The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. Pete Seeger. Bob Dylan. The list goes on, and on, and on. I'd say that even before mass communications, individual singers would likely have left their 'mark' on the towns they lived/sang in. It's fairly natural - someone performs something very well, the audience is likely to imitate it later. With mass communication, it's more obvious in comparing the styles chosen.

M


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: MMario
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 03:52 PM

point 1 - given the actual wording and interpritation by various agencies of the US copyright and performance licensing laws - it is performance *in public* regardless of profit or non-profit that could get you in trouble.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: greg stephens
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 06:59 PM

Well, I dont say you cant learn anything from Vaughan Williams arrangements,Peter paul and Mary, Waterson/Carthy. Fairport Convention, Kinston Trio, EII, Sean O'Riada, Ry Cooder,Nic Jones etc etc etc. Of course you can. But you may have a more profitable and fun journey if you go to the sorces of the music, the "pwoplw qho made the names we call it by" as well


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: John Routledge
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 09:05 PM

To me the advantage of going back to the "source" is that I then know where I am starting from when considering how I wish to sing a song.

However I try not to copy source singers or indeed other performers although I sometimes do unwittingly :0)

There is usually sufficient information out there to create your own version of a song which is unique to you yet still respects the history and background of the song.

Happy singing - Enjoy


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: GUEST,.gargoyle
Date: 24 Mar 03 - 11:23 PM

Said - it years before - will say again.



Each "true" musician re-creates - re-interperates - the tune within the experience and skills of their understanding at the immediate moment.



Too many of the posters in this thread are trained seals or nickelodians performing mechanically....because someone before was really, really, good, implying that no-one, and particularly themselves, could never meet the performance of the past.



Boll---sheet!!



No imagination, no soul, no REAL connection to the essence of REAL music ... this slock only makes you a resourceful resonator of ghosts past.



Sincerely,

Gargoyle


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: Benjamin
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 12:17 AM

It is my oppinion that a performer should understand the music (including the historical context) he or she performs and/or the music that they are influnced by. Having said that, we are all living here and now and culture (which music is a direct reflection of) has to change over time to keep going. There is nothing wrong with a musician performing what it is they hear in a song as what they hear is theirs. I'm also a firm believer that a musician brings his/her past experiences to the stage. You really can't escape yourself onstage, so there is no point in trying to leave a personal element out of the music.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: Mudlark
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 01:19 AM

For myself, I just like to sing. If I hear a song, even an old song, done by a contemporary artist, that not only moves me but feels like something I could make my own, then I go for it. (Not being a public performer, I don't have to worry about infringement rights, but then, I never try to copy the way someone does a song anyway). Indeed, if the performance is strong, I might wait for some months, even years, before I tackle it, to be out from under the influence of that first experience.

If the story in the song really interests me, or if I dont understand the words, I will go on a hunt for source material, but ... sometimes not. Phillistine that I am, I don't even always like the Carter Family all that much.   Source material is intersting, but to my ear is not always musically satisfying. I value the old "source" records I have for their authenticity, but I don't really listen to them all that often. Once I get interested in a song, and start playing around with it, I don't WANT to hear other versions...at least until I've found my own.

It is important to me, on contemporary music, to be able to credit the writer, even in informal settings, as a matter of respect and courtesty. And I try to get time frame and origins reasonably factual for old songs, just to put them in context. And if someone should ask if there really was an Mary Hamilton, it's nice to have some kind of answer...altho from what I've read it wont be entirely satisfactory.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: Mudlark
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 01:21 AM

PS...that is not to say that I don't find discussions of traditional background fascinating...some of the best reading on Mudcat concerns this very thing and I am sometimes interested even in songs I don't know, because the erudition and committment to this music is so evident in the posts.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: Hrothgar
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 03:17 AM

Well, if you're going to imitate somebody, imitate somebody who is really good!


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: Gurney
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 05:53 AM

Does it matter to the world? The tradition comes from people no longer with us, and their contributions are a matter of record, sometimes literally. BUT, they did it 'their way,' and every-one else who sang the same song at the same time did it a little differently, which is why there are 'versions.'
Been there, been a rabid traddy, a researcher. I don't care anymore. Sing it any way you like, I'll try to pick up the chorus.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: Dave Bryant
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 06:37 AM

The "source" singers who people keep referring to got their material from earlier sources. I'm sure that very few of them felt that they had to go back to an earlier version to find out if they'd got it right - even if they'd had the time and resources to do so. I'm also certain that many of these "source" singers would have found nothing wrong in a bit of judicial editing here and there. The "Mondegreen Effect" is also very evident when you compare versions of songs, as well as the replacement of some "foreign" dialect words with more local ones. In fact it is these little changes and variations that have contributed to the wealth and variety of our oral tradition.

Nowadays we have much more time and resources (Internet for one) to search for earlier versions of songs and it's interesting and useful to look at these and sometimes change our own versions accordingly where we think that it improves it in some way. However, perhaps "natural selection" appplies to folk song as well. If songs are not allowed to adapt to different times and customs perhaps many of them will cease to be sung.

Interestingly as the result of another current thread here, John Dudley of the Copper Family has discovered that they sing a word wrong in "The Innocent Hare". He reckons that as it's been wrong for probably three generations, they'll stick with what they're singing - and I applaud him for that decision.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: treewind
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 07:03 AM

In the first message of this thread, Santa suggests that
'to look at the roots of a song... could even be a bad thing, in restricting "creativity". '

How can widening your knowledge restrict anything?
If anything, learning a song from a collection in a book is going to result in a more creative performance that learning it from someone else's later interpretation of it.

There is nothing wrong in having your singing style informed by listening to traditional 'source' singers. That's emphatically not the same as imitation.

Surely it's valuable to see or hear as many versions as possible of a song, at least some of the time in order to appreciate the whole process and that there is no "definitive" version of anything. After that you may choose to make your interpretation similar to someone else's, but at least you know you are doing that.
---
I have a pet peeve about people who get up in a folk club and introduce a traditional song with "this is a Martin Carthy Song" or whatever. All that tells me is that the singer is too lazy to do their research properly. Singers like MC will look at many versions of a traditional song and pick the one that best suits their voice, temperament of understanding of the song. The result may not be the best for another singer, who could do the same thing and maybe come up with a totally different tune, arrangement or performing style.

If you don't go back to the source you'll never know what you missed!

Anahata


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: GUEST,Santa
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 07:33 AM

"How can widening your knowledge restrict anything?
If anything, learning a song from a collection in a book is going to result in a more creative performance that learning it from someone else's later interpretation of it"

I think that there are two sides to this one. (Which is why I posted the question, I guess)

Yes, learning that there are other interpretations than the one which first struck your fancy can be useful - or at least interesting - but there certainly are times when "too much information" bogs down your thinking. Or that going back to an "original" can bias your approach to a subject. "This is the way it really was, therefore I mustn't stray too far...."

What happened in the past is there - in the past. It had meaning for the people of the time that is different from the message it gives to us. It is interesting, yes, informative, yes, even fascinating, but in the end what matters is what the singer of today brings to the people of today, through this song. Not being a singer, I don't know personally whether I would find deep research for a song helpful or restrictive in how I would then perform it.

In the end, why isn't Martin Carthy's interpretation of a song every bit as "definitive" as Joseph Taylor's? We don't actually know how idiosyncratic Taylor was in his time - or what the song was like when he learnt it. Even when he wrote it, we don't know if he changed his approach to it during his lifetime. (I'm sure I'll be corrected if I'm wrong there ...) And whatever Martin Carthy does to the song, Taylor's original is still out there.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: treewind
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 08:08 AM

I don't think I'd ever say "this is the way it was, therefore I mustn't stray too far".

In your hypothetical development of my example, if I've heard both Joseph Taylor's and Martin's version, at least I know which bits of Martin's performance are Martin's idiosyncracies and which parts he's inherited from an earlier singer (I'm carefully avoidng the word "original" here). Without Taylor's version I'd only be guessing.

Of course Joseph Taylor (especially !) will have had lots of idiosyncracies of his own. There's no such thing as "source" really - only "as far back as we can go", but at least if you go back before the latest or only version you have ever heard, you have a choice, even if it's only between second hand and third hand.

I don't really believe in the word "definitive" in this context. I guess the only definitive version of a song is as sung by the writer, and even then that may not be the best performance. At best "definitive" is a very subjective tag. Even in the serious musical world where everything is written down, we find, for example, different recordings of Igor Stravinsky conducting his own work at different times and you'd hardly recognise them as the same piece.

Anahata


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: GUEST,Russ
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 08:23 AM

At various times during my life I could've been the author of almost any of the responses to Santa's question in this thread.

paulo,
I didn't make a claim about "ALL source musicians." I am speaking only of the very limited sample ("American old time southern mountain music") with which I am familiar.

I consciously chose the word "good" and consciously rejected the words "better" and "best." My point is that whatever OTHER reasons I have or have had for returning to the sources over a lifetime of involvement with traditional music, I do it now mostly because I really like what I hear. Maybe it's just one of the symptoms of a deteriorating old brain.

John P,
It's kind of hard to explain.
I must admit that there was time when I might have been more willing to agree with you that "many of them are really, really, bad," but not today.

In my life I have listened to my share of source musicians purely out of a sense of duty because homage to the sources is one of the hallmarks of "American old time southern mountain music." These days I hear them with different ears.

Granted, some of them are past (sometimes far past) their musical prime and their reach sometimes/often exceeds their grasp. All I can say is that there was a time when that was important to me, but not much anymore. I must confess that am sometimes bemused by this. I've arrived at a place I didn't expect to be.

gargoyle,
I did not intend to imply that "that no-one, and particularly themselves, could never meet the performance of the past." To be honest, I cannot begin to see how saying that someone is "really really good" could imply that.

My statement was (again consciously) specifically about source musicians. I consciously omitted any and all references to and comparisons with non source musicians

Mudlark,
I must confess that once I didn't like the Carter Family all that much either. I listened to them because everybody listened to them and learned from them, but my attitude was pretty patronizing: not bad for simple, unsophisticated, rural musicians. Nice tunes, good beat but not much happening. I felt I could show them a thing or two.

Boy was I young and arrogant and naïve. (Now I'm old and...) All I can do is report that these days I listen to them and I am awestruck at the subtle mastery and musical sophistication I hear.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: GUEST,Santa
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 08:47 AM

Hmm, I don't think I'd say it, either, but I might think it deep down. A respect for the tradition (and I don't mean "dead weight of") would influence me, subconsciously at least. Or worse, make me feel that my version just had to be different. I'm not sure how you escape that trap.

But if the "original" is not "definitive" in any way, then it is to be regarded only as another option. Yes, if the only version of a song you have heard is by Martin Carthy (sorry, Martin, nothing personal) then hearing Joseph Taylor's version will widen your knowledge and teach you something. But if you've already heard not just Martin Carthy but Maddy Prior, Fred Jordan, Jane and Amanda Threlfall, even Ron Baxter....then is going back to Joseph Taylor adding more than just another version?

Historic interest excepted.


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Subject: RE: Value of going back to the tradition?
From: GUEST,Claire
Date: 25 Mar 03 - 11:11 AM

I sing Irish traditional music, and knowing the history of a song greatly enhanses my experience. So, for me, knowing the historical context of the song has huge value. It affects my interpretation of the lyrics, my introduction of the song on stage, the way I pace the song. I have to confine my research to the internet (thank you mudcat and other sources) and to the various books that I have, because of where I live and the time pressures from the rest of my life.   

Getting to know a song is a long process. For an intricate song, the process generally takes me several months even though I may learn the song in a week or two. There is a point in the process when I find myself obsessed with finding out about the history of the song. It has nothing to do with feeling I Have to do it to be a valid singer. It is totally because I MUST know. Yes, it does affect the way I sing the song.

For example, I was singing a gaelic song in a dark mysterious way, until I asked a gaelic speaker from that region to read through the lyrics with me. He thought it was a mischevous song rather than mysterious. My final interpretation is somewhere between the two.

I like to hear several versions of a song, if availabe, but after I have the feeling for the breadth of interpretation, I don't feel compelled to listen to all the interpretations.

This is just my point of view, at this point in my development as a singer. It is very interesting to hear how the rest of you approach this subject.

Claire


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