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Variant vs wrong

30 Nov 00 - 09:08 AM (#348845)
Subject: Variant vs wrong
From: MMario

The "Minnorie/Binnorie" thread got this perculating through the coffee grounds of my mind...

Mopndegreens and just plain not hearing correctly can lead to changes in lyrics. These can then be passed on - either by someone recording them - or singing them often enough that others learn the "new" version.

My question would be - and I realize it will only be opinions expressed - WHEN would the change be considered to be a variant version rather then just a "change". For example - if a band learns a variation from someone - quite possibly orally - and then records it without realizing it is not a traditional variation but just a mistake on the part of those they learned it from. And it gets popular...

Or even when someone makes a deliberate change, but then it is learned by a series of people orally - how many transmissions would you say it takes to make it a "variant".

I don't know about you - but there are a good many songs from WWI and WWII and the fifties that I learned from friends and relatives singing - rather then off the radio or any other form of sound reproduction. (and of course, human memory being what it is - a lot of them are not identical with the written music)

30 Nov 00 - 09:27 AM (#348853)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Allan C.

I think that sort of thing happens all the time. An example that comes to mind is from "California Dreamin'":

"Well, I got down on my knees And I pretend to pray"

I have never heard anyone other than the Mamas & Papas sing the words this way. I have heard folks sing "began" and I, myself, have always sung "pretended". I think the problem arose from the mixing of tenses within the sentence. It would seem that the grammatically corrected version(s) are the ones which are now in use. It is part of the neo-folk tradition, I suppose (or whatever label you wish to use).

30 Nov 00 - 09:34 AM (#348857)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Mrrzy

I don't believe you can sing what you mean to wrong - That is, if you MEANT to say (to use Allan C's example) Pretend and accidentally sing Begin, that's wrong. If you like it better with Begin and sing it that way on purpose, it is a variation. My $.02... comes from being a linguist, who believes that there are no "substandard" variations on English, only NONstandard.

30 Nov 00 - 09:43 AM (#348865)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: paddymac

In terms of the famous "folk process", of course, the question is irrelevant. But it could be hugely important, as implied by MMario's post, where a "version" becomes copyrighted and commercially successful. As an example, Pete St. John's "version" of "Fields of Athenry" is a copyrighted knock-off of a trad song dating to the 1880s, with no recognition of that fact given. Or Elvis Presley's copyrighting of the melody to "Nora".

30 Nov 00 - 10:17 AM (#348883)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Bill D

I guess you can argue that if it is a "written" song, i.e., one with known author and copywritten ...then any deviation is 'wrong'...but I have heard authors sing 'em a bit differently....

the answer is, of course, that it is highly subjective....I tend toward being a purist snob and not liking 'many' changes to old favorites, but even I have messed with songs at times because I just think there's a better way...or I simply mis-rememberd some minor phrase. I do NOT usually make gratuititous changes which will make it hard to sing in a group that 'knows' it.

30 Nov 00 - 10:50 AM (#348904)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: mousethief

I don't get the california dreaming thing. "Got" is past tense, and "began" is past tense. "pretend" is present tense. The original version of the song is grammatically correct.

Am I missing something?


30 Nov 00 - 10:53 AM (#348909)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: radriano

I would say that the discussion here shows the difference between an oral and a written tradition. With a written tradition you have a master to which all variants can be measured. With an oral tradition changes are bound to happen, some good and some bad.

30 Nov 00 - 11:14 AM (#348924)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: MMario

And that leads back to the question - when songs are transmitted orally - how much change, and under what circumstances would you say leads to a "variant" rather then just - "oh he heard it wrong" ; considering that we currently have such a wierd mixture where songs may be learned in an oral tradition, but the person you learn them from learned them from a recording - or even from sheet music.

30 Nov 00 - 11:17 AM (#348929)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: mousethief

Variants are caused by just hearing it wrong. The historical question maybe should be, which version appears to be earlier? The real question is, of course, which version do you prefer? Which will be different for different people.

And I'm about as different as they get.


30 Nov 00 - 11:21 AM (#348931)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: George Seto -

Paddymac, it seems to me that we had a thread covering that song, Fields of Athenry, where it was suspected the fake was NOT Pete St. John's, but the "older" one.

Please check the Forum threads. When I get back on (I'm at work) from home, I'll look it up.

30 Nov 00 - 12:21 PM (#348987)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: GUEST,Russ

If you only did music solo, it is an interesting theoretical question and it is your call. The question stops being purely theoretical when other people are involved. Carter Family stuff, for example. By now everyone knows that the first verse of their version of "Wildwood Flower" is mondegreen city. But everyone has been singing it the way the Carters did it for decades now. If you tried to sing it "right" you'd simply confuse your audience. What's odd in this case is that the mondegreen version is now the standard. If you tried to sing the original words you would be viewed as doing a variant version.


It looks like it is not really an individual's call. It is a (musical) community's decision as to what is acceptably variant and what is just plain wrong.

30 Nov 00 - 12:22 PM (#348990)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: mousethief

Good call, Russ. I was thinking in terms of singing solo.


30 Nov 00 - 12:44 PM (#349002)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Ferrara

'Nuther factor here, is: why and/or how was it changed? There are singers who "mess with" songs. So what you have isn't the trad song, it's that person's deliberate revision of the song. But it's still a variant. Only, people think it's the original and that's maddening to people who are deeper into the folklore thing.

Helen Schneyer,for reasons known only to her and God, changed the last line of "The Nurse Pinched the Baby" from "Mother's gone down to the beer saloon to pray" to "Mother's gone down to the beer parlor to pray." Helen is a very very knowledgeable folklorist. I suspect she just forgot, because in the liner notes, she mentions that the original was "beer parlor." I've known this song since about 1962 and it drives me nuts to hear or have to sing "beer parlor." Oh well. It's a variant.

If you are singing with a bunch of people who know it your way, maybe the song is not a variant in those circumstances and it's not wrong either.

I (usually) take the position that if a person is leading a song, all other versions are variants until that person is finished. I utterly hate to hear people "correct" someone's rendition of a piece while they're performing it.

Holstock and MacLeod seem to have recorded "Rose of Allendale" mistakenly using a harmony line as the melody. Around here we tend to be purist snobs to some point, so this was explained to the people who learned H&M's melody and they switched to the local gold standard melody. As far as I know, H&M didn't write it as an alternative melody, they just picked out the wrong bunch of sounds from the recording. So now their version is a variant. Mostly it's only a problem if someone who learned H&M's version tries to "correct" someone who learned the Copper Family's version.

In the end, for me, the question is, what is the operational impact of someone doing a piece "wrong"? If the only impact is that it's getting on my nerves, I may or may not be able to control myself and keep quiet about it....

At the Getaway, Lani Herrmann started singing "Faded Coat of Blue." It was gorgeous, but the tune of the chorus wasn't quite the one we're accustomed to. I don't know if this was the right thing to do, or not, because I'm a little crazy during the Getaway from lack of sleep etc; but I could hear people already starting to sing over her with the familiar local variant of the tune, so I asked her to stop. I pointed out that we needed to listen very carefully to the way Lani was doing the chorus and follow her, not sing over her. Then she started again from the top and we all got to hear her and sing what she was singing on the choruses.

Whoa. Sorry for the spate of words and I'm not even sure I said anything... but it's interesting.

30 Nov 00 - 12:52 PM (#349007)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: The Walrus at work

Just my two penn'orth,

I think that the first test to be applied is "Does the version/variation make sense?" For example:- In the "Queen" song "Bohemian Rhapsody" I have HEARD someone sing "..Beealzebub has a devil for a sideboard..." Obvious rubbish and therefore either misheard or someone trying to be silly, however, in "No Man's Land" is the chorus
"...Did the bugle PLAY the Last Post in chorus.."
"...Did the bugle SING the Last Post in chorus.." ?
Only a minor variation, I admit. By the same token, In the song "Gallipoli" I tend to sing<1>
"...They dressed me in khaki, they gave me a gun..."
instead of
"... They gave me a tin hat, they gave me a gun..."
just from a point of historical accuracy (steel helmets were never used in the Dardenelles campaign).
In both cases the variation from the original make sense and COULD (were these "oral tradition" songs) have formed new versions while the first example would be forever wrong.

Does this make sense to anyone?


<1> I should point out that I sing purely for my own pleasure, (with a voice like mine there's no pleasure for anyone listening).

30 Nov 00 - 12:56 PM (#349010)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: GUEST,Russ

Ferrara's note got me thinking. (Uh Oh!)

I am at an old time music concert. The fiddler says he's gonna play Sally Ann. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the tune I heard sounded nothing like any of the other Sally Anns (note the plural) I am familiar with. What I would ask after the concert is "Whose Sally Ann was that?" The point is that as an old time musician I have a high comfort level with diversity.

I am at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert. The program says "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony." I am following with my score. I would be astounded to hear several measures of notes not in my score. What I would ask after the concert is "Where the hell did those come from?" The point is that as a classical musician I have a very low comfort level with diversity.

"Folk" musicians seem to fall somewhere between old time musicians and classical musicians in terms of their comfort level with diversity. I do an idiosyncratic version of Bill Staines' "Roseville Fair" that I learned orally/aurally and NOT from Bill himself. I have been told more than once that I am doing it wrong. But I have also been able to get away with it more than once.

In none of these case are my expectations the result of my personal choice. My expectations have been molded by my participation in a musical community.

30 Nov 00 - 01:28 PM (#349034)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: MMario

Ferrara - your story about Lani illustrates courtesy. In my opinion you did the exact correct thing. It really bugs me when someone does a song, and it gets warped by people singing along into the "old standard"; the "local standard" or "how *WE* do it". And that's whether I prefer the new version or not. People owe the performer the courtesy of LISTENING to what the performer is doing - not overriding them. (Not that I don't sing along, but I try to do THEIR version, not mine - and if I can't adapt, then I shut up)

Russ - I agree that what and where does tend to affect things - but even with classical music different conductors "play" with the emphasis on various portions and can come up with quite different sounding pieces even though the written notes are identical.

Walrus - "Beeazulbub has a devil for a sideboy DOES make sense though - and very very similair to what you are hearing....(I don't know the song)

30 Nov 00 - 01:54 PM (#349062)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Ferrara

Russ -- in response to your 'idiosyncratic version of Bill Staines' "Roseville Fair"'... I realized I do idiosyncratic versions of a great many songs. When I'm singing them to people who are likely to know them differently, I often explain ahead of time that the song is different, and why.

Examples are songs I learned from my mother, who learned them when she was a kid in Georgia; songs I learned first orally from a singer who did a nonstandard version; songs that I first learned from a source book or one of Bill's wonderful old hardback collections; and once in a while, songs that I've "messed with."

For example, I misremembered Helen Schneyer's tune for the last line of "Sheath and Knife" for years. Once I re-heard it and listened to Jean Redpath doing the song, I looked it all up in Bronson's tune book. Well, it didn't agree exactly with either Helen's or Jean's versions. So, who is the authority here? Have they been messin' with it? Is my way wrong because I messed with it?

So, I sang it at the Getaway with my misremembered tune for those few measures, because it works for me. I Warned Everybody Before I Started to listen carefully, and it was one of the most wonderful group singing experiences I've ever had. They listened and they filled that room with harmonies and it was glorious.

But since then I've learned that most of the time, people do NOT listen, so I'm trying to sing Helen's version as comfortably as I sing my own. Just makes it easier for everyone. (But I may yet switch back....)

30 Nov 00 - 01:56 PM (#349064)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Stewart

I agree with Russ. I have a strong background in classical music, but now listen and perform mostly folk. The thing I enjoy about folk is the liberty to make changes in the music and lyrics. As a fiddle player I know that no two fiddlers play the same tune in the same way, even repeats are changed slightly - otherwise they would sound monotonous. Traditional folk singers tend to vary the melody slightly in every verse for the same reason. It is this freedom to make changes and variations that makes folk music interesting to me. I think we should respect other people's variations, even though we may not prefer them. Or we may be surprised to hear something we like even better. To me there is nothing "wrong" with a variation, but I just might prefer one over another.

S. in Seattle.

30 Nov 00 - 02:12 PM (#349080)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: GUEST,Sarah

Here's one:

When I first tried to learn "Wearin' of the Green" on an instrument -- oh, long, long ago -- I kept feeling that something was terribly wrong. So I asked my grandmother, the first person I remembered singing it, to sing it again. I realized that she changed to 3/4 time when she hit the line "I met with Napper Tandy...". I pointed out that the scored music I had didn't do that. She, in turn, pointed out that she had it from her own grandmother, from Dublin, and felt that that was authentic enough.

I played around with it, and decided I liked me gran's variant best. Admittedly, this may have been influenced by a visceral "family feeling," but it WORKED, and, I thought, added punch to the song. Besides, I reasoned (or rationalized), who's to say 150 years of family oral tradition is "wrong"?

Of course, I've discovered that there are those who will do just that. Mostly, audiences like it, but there's always that self-styled Purist out there to hurry up to me after the set and try to "correct" us, even after I've explained in the intro what we're doing and tossed around phrases like Folk Nazi.

The point is, it's music, not mathematics. It all moves, grows, alters. And even errors in understanding beget interesting variants. Look at some of the wildly different verses to the same song inside this site. It makes for more enjoyment when I go to a concert prepared to hear songs "as done" by the people who are doing it instead of taking my seat with a preconceived idea of what constitutes the "correct" interpretation.


30 Nov 00 - 02:25 PM (#349083)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: GUEST,Russ

Ferrara, I've learned the hard way to give the audience a "heads up" when I do the more idiosyncratic parts of my repertoire. It usually works.

Stewart, I think you put your finger on one of the main reasons a lot of us got into traditional music. As the title of a friend's CD says "There are no rules."

Sarah, purists, can't live with 'em, can't stir-fry 'em. However, in the old time music scene, in any discussion of "correctness," the ace of trumps response is "Well, that's not the way my grandmother did it." Game, set, and match.

30 Nov 00 - 02:26 PM (#349085)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: sophocleese

I'm nervous and particular and always want to be sure that I'm singing something properly. Then I go and hear somebody else singing or playing a song and they do a marvelous job of it and its like no other version I've heard and sometimes I like it and sometimes I don't. So then I go home and decide "The hell with it I'll change this line that has always bugged me to the way I want to sing it!" Then I sing it and somebody says in a condescending, repressive tone, "That's an intersting thing you do in that line, Where did you learn it?" Then I go back to being particular and start the whole damn cycle over again. A confident musician calls it an ornament or improvisation, a nervous one blushes for the mistake.

30 Nov 00 - 02:28 PM (#349087)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: GUEST,Russ

Sophocleese, never show fear!

30 Nov 00 - 02:32 PM (#349091)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: MMario

I think the rule of thumb here would be - that if the person (suppossedly) listening uses condescension towards you and your performance - ignore them!!!! *grin*

and HUZZAH! someone actually came up with a response that DID address my original question - (though everyone is hitting 'round the mark) approx 150 years of oral family tradition is good in some peoples books - or - three generations...(inclusive)

30 Nov 00 - 03:01 PM (#349102)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Whistle Stop

I don't have much to add to this, since I've never had much use for the concept of "authenticity" in music -- I think music is at its best when people aren't too conscious of the "proper" way of doing things.

But this topic did remind me of an interesting Paul Simon interview I read once. He said with a chuckle that when he recorded Davey Graham's "Angie" (on S & G's "Sounds of Silence" album) he made a mistake. Since this has become a ubiquitous guitar piece, and many more people have learned it by copying Paul Simon than by going back to the source, he now hears his one-time mistake being played note-for-note on a regular basis.

30 Nov 00 - 03:01 PM (#349103)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Don Firth

There was a pretty interesting thread on this same subject some time back. "Is Lyric Creep a Sin?"

(I tried to do a blueclickything, but I still don't have the hang of it.

Don Firth

30 Nov 00 - 03:06 PM (#349105)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: MMario

that would be here:



30 Nov 00 - 03:16 PM (#349111)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Don Firth

Thanks, MMario -- Don Firth

30 Nov 00 - 05:01 PM (#349170)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: GUEST,Russ

MMario, I hoped I was answering your question, but let me try again.

In old time music you validate a version by citing a lineage. If you can trace your version back to one of the "founding father", e.g., Tommy Jarrell, everything is cool and everyone knows you are playing an acceptable variant. If that is not possible, you can refer your version back to a lesser or completely unknown figure from the "dim past," e.g. Sarah's grandmother. Here the reference is to a personal family tradition whose validity is equal to that of any "founding father", and not just to Sarah. Old time musicians take oral tradition very seriously and authentic members of a tradition are cut serious slack. My wife has "pulled ranks" a few times by referring to her Grandmother. If you cannot cite a family tradition, you can make a vague geographical reference tied into a reference to "dim antiquity," e.g., that's how they used to play it in Pocahontas County WV. Here the reference is not personal but to a recognized source area. The key word is "recognized." Nobody's going to be impressed when you explain that you're playing the tune they way you heard it growing up in Brooklyn. What makes all this work is the fact that most of the old time repertoire consists of material, which has been in the pubic domain for centuries. There is literally no "original" to refer to and compare anybody's version with.

As I said, with "folkie" music things get a bit less free. The above rules apply to the "real old" stuff in the public domain, e.g., "Two sisters." But a certain amount of music that is termed "folk" is actually of rather recent vintage, with known authors, published versions, and canonical recordings. You really start messing with people's expectations if you stray from these and change these songs, and you can get burned. That's where Ferrara and Walrus' suggestions kick in. Some people can get away with it (Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris), others cannot (me).

But anyway, the rules for determining how a variant gets classified are the rules of a given musical community. Different musical communities have different rules.

30 Nov 00 - 05:14 PM (#349181)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: MMario

Thanks russ, interesting answer - but *grin* that wasn't the question I was asking. or at least it wasn't the question I thought I was asking.

Perhaps I wasn't asking it correctly - I wasn't asking about the validity of a variation - but rather what standards someone would use to accept it as a variant - rather then just a "personal twist" or "learned wrong"

and I'm curious. if a brooklyn neighborhood has a consistant set variation of a tune or song - what makes that less valid then one learned in Pocahontas County WV?

30 Nov 00 - 05:38 PM (#349202)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Jon Freeman

George and Paddymac, the thread you want is The Fields of Athenry.


01 Dec 00 - 08:48 AM (#349535)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Grab

Even classical music isn't immune to interpretations - most obviously the Paganini theme, but plenty of other variations on other composers' work. And don't disregard typos - I learnt the Moonlight Sonata with a single-note mistake in it due to a dodgy manuscript! Anything played by an entire orchestra has to be "scripted" though, which means that any variation is recorded in a new version of the score. Music learned mainly by ear such as folk/rock/pop is played by maybe half a dozen ppl working together who know each other's style and work with that to produce something which may not be accurate to the recording but sounds good to them, so if a group says "We're going to play Johnny B. Goode" for example, then you can pretty much guarantee it's that group's variation on the theme rather than a note-by-note copy of Chuck Berry's version.

But these are variations on the tune or in solos, which don't affect ppl singing along. Variations in the words - I don't know. House of the Rising Sun is an obvious song with variants, and after a few embarrassing episodes I've stopped singing more than the first verse, cos it generally diverges after that! I'm prone to "editting" stuff slightly if I can't really get behind the original version, but maybe that's just me. I don't pretend to be an expert at a song and I'm never likely to record, so I'm unlikely to contaminate the musical gene pool! :-)


01 Dec 00 - 03:55 PM (#349776)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: McGrath of Harlow

"Nobody's going to be impressed when you explain that you're playing the tune they way you heard it growing up in Brooklyn." But maybe you leant it growing up in Brooklyn from your grandmother who grew uop in some place with more cred in the old-timey world?

And if anyionbe doesn't have the time to take up that link to the Fields of Athenry, to cut to the chase, it sesm pretty certain that Pete St John did write it, and that the alleged original from back in the 1880s didn't actually exist until some time after he wrote it. Only rumours like that have a tendency to spring up like weeds.

I'd call any variation a variant or a version myself. Some start as mistakes, some are conscious alterations to help a singer feel right singing the song. Even the simple mistakes are bringing out the potential variants that a song has, lyrically or musically.

Oh yes - I've always heard it and sung it as "Did the band play the last post in chorus". Though come to think of it, it's bugles that play it - but band scans more easily. (I've just checked with the Ossian "Songs & Ballads popular in Ireland", and it's got "the band played the Last Post and chorus" - that's four variants on that one line. Not bad.)

01 Dec 00 - 04:24 PM (#349804)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: paddymac

George S. - Seems there were several threads on that song. I haven't gone back to re-read them, but do vaguely recall someone positing originality for St John's song. Certainly, he can claim a right in his own words, and pehaps in a musical arrangement, but I was not persuaded by the originality claim. With all the wisdom (and humor) of hindsight, ir seems a bit "Gore-ish." (Sorry, folks, I just couldn't pass it up.)

01 Dec 00 - 06:58 PM (#349897)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: GUEST,Sarah

Re Pete St. John's Athenry:

Tom Paxton tells of the time he heard a street musician in New York playing "Last Thing On My Mind" and asked her if she knew who wrote it.

"Oh," she said confidently. "It's an old song -- you know, traditional."


01 Dec 00 - 07:55 PM (#349913)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Bill D

...and I expect Tom just smiled and nodded....*grin*.....

There is, for me, the 'authority' problem...that is, when someone of **STATURE** does a song in a new way...which then completely overwhelms an older, or traditional way.

I am thinking particularly of an old hymn (maybe brusharbor?) called "Bright Morning Stars Are Rising"...I heard a lovely rendition on a set of records called "Music of the Ozarks"...sung by a group of singers from the hills of Arkansas, and I learned it. Then Joe Hickerson, of the Library of Congress, and a few others discovered a more 'interesting' tune, which went up and down more and a had almost a bit of 'sean nos' quality about it. Lovely tune, but NOT the simple, powerful one I had learned to, when I try to sing it occasionally in THIS town...*grin*, there is almost palpable resistance to doing my version..It is not a big deal, but it is frustrating.....same thing happens when someone famous does a reworked version of a song on a big selling CD...thereafter it's "Oh, that's not the way The GrundlePluckers do it!".....never mind if it has been recorded more traditionally 8 times before...

01 Dec 00 - 08:13 PM (#349915)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: GUEST,Sarah

If they want the GrundlePluckers version, they need to go to a GrundlePluckers concert. This is YOUR gig, and tonight it's YOUR song, by yimminee.

Maybe that's why I love "obscure" stuff. No one knows...

P.S. I've also been known to start off by mentioning that this is NOT the song the GrundlePluckers recorded. Or, in the case of a Paxton song, "The Mail Will Go Through," where my group accidentally altered the melody line and then decided we like our own melody better, we warn folks, should they happen to hear Paxton do it, not to go up to him afterwards and say, "That's not how it goes."

01 Dec 00 - 09:00 PM (#349937)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: McGrath of Harlow

The thing with the Fields of Athenry is that nobody has come up with any evidence of the song being around, noone has ever claimed to have collected it in the hundred years plus it should have been around, and the name of the alleged publisher given in what seems to have been the internet assertion doesn't match up with any known printer or publisher or collector of the period.

My initial asumption had been that it probably had been a set of words in a locally printed broadsheet or newpaper, and Pete St John had come across them, and tidied them up and put a tune to them.

But since there is actually no evidence whatsoever of this being the case, and my understanding is that Pete St John says they are his own words, I think we should believe him.

01 Dec 00 - 11:29 PM (#350011)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Vinland

As an editor and arranger of folk and traditional song collections, I've come across most of the dilemmas described and a few others not mentioned.

For example, I recently decided to publish a rare World War I ballad called The Valleys Of Kilbride. The collected version was twelve versions long, and badly needed editing. (Many of the old Newfoundland songs were written to tell several stories at once and tend to wander). Not wanting to be the one responsible for altering the tradition I looked around and found a newly recorded version (variant?). With further research it turned out the song had been collected and edited by one of our most prominent folk singers (and a folklorist herself). She had edited the song to six verses, and happened to mention to me that song had been been written by one John MacDonald, the grandfather of a good friend of mine! This led to further editing when I contacted my friend (who was a poet and songwriter herself). Now, at least , I know I have the approval of the songwriter's family, and perhaps helped rescue an historic song from obscurity. Being a part- time songwriter myself, I know that my own songs are often improved by a good editor and oral transmission. I'd be only too happy if any of my songs survive me, not matter how they're varied. I suspect that Mr. MacDonald would feel the same...

01 Dec 00 - 11:44 PM (#350016)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Gypsy

Mmario....i think that the problem is that the answer you seek will vary from group to group. In some, it will be called a variant. In others, it will be called blasphemy! It is entirely according to how open minded the group is.

02 Dec 00 - 02:44 AM (#350062)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: Martin Graebe

I'll come at this one from both sides - for now anyway.

For songs I have written I know that after a few weeks/months/years what I sing differs from the text what I wrote. That is an inevitable consequence of the way a singer makes a song comfortable for him/her to sing. Sometimes the change is for better because I might have thought of a better word that I used originally. Sometimes the 'better to sing' word may be less poetic - but the point of a song is the singing.

If other people want to sing my songs that's also what they're for and if they feel the need to change them I'm big enough not to cry. The only time I might feel the beginnings of a tear is when they change what I regarded as an important metaphor or other subtlety in the writing that actually changes the sense. Then I am likely to grieve for my poor molested baby.

The same, of course, applies to tunes. They change and, above all, the phrasing will change to fit the performance and the singers style. That, too, is what singers do, unless they are deliberately setting out to copy soemone elses performance (not my thing but probably very flattereing for the person being copied)

So, if you come from there with written songs it has also to apply to collected, traditional songs. If they have passed through an oral process then each of the successive singers will have made it 'comfortable' for her/himself. The collector will have mediated in writing the song down. A recorded performance can be on a good day or a bad day. But basically most of the best singers I know will take a song and make it work for them at the level of words, meaning, message, music and performance. A good,sensitive singer can't do 'wrong'


02 Dec 00 - 08:12 AM (#350099)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: John P

I've always found folkloric studies and musicology to be rather interesting, but not really relevant to the actual singing or playing of music. The correct way to do a traditional folk song is the way you do it. A "definitive version" in trad music seems like a contradiction of terms. Historicity is academic, which in many ways is the opposite of the oral tradition. The people who started the tradition weren't setting out to start anything -- they were just playing music.

I find it somewhat unsettling when people do one of my songs without changing it slightly to make it their own. I can't imagine trying to copy another performer's version of a song or a tune. Why would anyone do that? Why would anyone want to listen to it? Why would people get together to sing as a group and not want to hear anything new, including new versions of their old favorites? why not just stay home and sing along with a CD?

As I said above, I have always found folklore studies interesting. This is mostly becuase I am endlessly fascinated by the strange versions of songs that pop up all over the place. How can anyone be into traditional folk music, with all its roiling mess of hand-me-down versions of songs, and think there could possibly a definitive or correct or "real" version of any song or tune?


02 Dec 00 - 10:27 AM (#350135)
Subject: RE: Variant vs wrong
From: GUEST,Sarah

There's a fellow here in my town who writes excellent songs, and is happy to teach them to anyone -- but he throws a hissy if you alter so much as a word. "Sarah, I agonize over every word in my songs. You shouldn't do that..." You rearrange the verse/chorus/bridge setup and he's devastated by your betrayal.

I don't do his songs anymore.