This Atlantic item by Hua Hsu points to some very good resources mulling the thorny questions of tradition, folk, authenticity, and experties. What follows is a very long post, written more for my own future reference than anything else. So … you’ve been warned.
Hsu notes a book that sounds pretty interesting: Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregating Sound. It is, he writes, “rich with examples of folklorists or academics heading south in search of something ‘elemental’ and pure, and editing out anything that didn’t fit. And there was a lot.” Hsu also points to this interview with the author, in The Village Voice:
Yes, in Segregating Sound I write about the development of blues and country music genres in the early 20th century. One of the things I found was that many scholars, particularly white scholars writing about black music, turned to the blues out of their own dislike of the pop tunes coming out of New York. They created fantasies about the Southern black experience that had very little to do with how African-Americans in the region either lived or made music. Instead of fetishizing rarity like modern collectors, folklorists fetishized isolation. Any evidence of black Southern singers love for pop music, for music by white artists, or even for music education, was systematically ignored.
Miller goes on to take a shot at a Nick Hornby essay:
The Englishman dreamed about Chicago’s South Side as a kid listening to Rolling Stones, who “owed a lot to the people who used to make music in that benighted part of the United States.” Benighted? What? That term was used for years to try to describe the South as a savage place out of time. It was not a compliment. I’ve never heard it used to refer to Chicago, the Promised Land for so many black Southerners trying to escape the terror of Southern racism and segregation. Hornby celebrates the music for confirming his own fantasies. No problem with that. But it sure doesn’t give much insight into what folks on the South Side were thinking.
Separately, Hsu points to this (audio) interview (From the podcast Exotic Pylon, with Jonny Mugwump, 7-31-10 episode) with Rob Young, author of “Electric Eden, a book about British ‘visionary’ folk tradition.” I wasn’t able to get this to stream; I had to download it, which took about 20 minutes, via my cable Internet connection. The interview itself is an hour and a half long. I took some notes.
Young set out to write about British folk in 1960s and 1970s (Fairport Convention and such). He wasn’t a hardcore folkie, per se, but became interested in the music’s connection to “slightly sort of weird, supernatural, uncanny elements”, pagan elements often, that go along with folk culture. And he wondered, for instance, if Fairport Convention’s Liege & Leaf is “authentic folk.” He realized he had to go back to “where did the idea of folk music actually start?” The question took him back to mid to late 19th century, and the first people who “collected” folk songs.
In an interesting aside, he cites the 1890 novel News from Nowhere by William Morris: It’s about a guy who travels 200 years into the future — and finds that the utopia to come is like a medieval town. Young argues for this as an example of our tendency toward being better at glorifying the past than truly envisioning the future, which seemed to him to be relevant to the way we think about folk.
Anyway, Young points out that “folk” originally made no attempt to spread — it was just what people sang for themselves, slow altering things over generations. It was the Victorians, he says, who were the first to recognize it as something specific that should be preserved — it could die out without preservation — and in effect the process of preserving is related to the idea that it could and should be in a sense spread. (The sense of no interest in spreading — that it’s for a small group’s enjoyment, period — lingers today in some music, Young argues.)
About an hour into the chat the interview turns to witchcraft and the occult. A lot of folk songs, Young observes, are connected to magic rituals. And yet, pagan witchcraft rituals by the 1960s were sort of a patchwork of stuff gleaned from old texts — basically a recombinant mashup. Wicca was essentially devised in the 1940s, by some guy. Same with folk, Young says. “What we actually have now … is all these traditions have been sort of artificially created in the last hundred, two hundred years.” And this:
Actually, is that really a problem? I was trying to get beyond these ideas of folk music being authentic or not, because actually you can never know what’s authentic or not, it’s all in a way quite arbitrarily collected and editorialized.
Academic work disparages collectors, he notes, and that’s all well and good — but there’s no alternative model. And because of that work, the music is here with us — “it has a life.” (Here the host makes reference “sonic fictions,” and says “there’s nothing more real than a fiction, when you’re in it.” I like that a lot, but it’s just a throwaway, he doesn’t expand on it.) Young goes on to say that folk recharges itself in precisely this way: by being in constant use, like a well. So why recreate an “authentic” rendition? Rather than reinterpret?
He references another book, from 1906, Folk Songs: Some Conclusions. Its case, according to Young:
He accepted that you’re never gonna find the origin of a song. Every song … someone, some minstral, troubador, probably wrote that, somewhere, back in the day, but you’re never gonna find out who it was, because it’s part of an oral culture. So don’t bother trying to find some sort of root. What you’ve got to do is accept that almost every time it’s sung, that’s the song again. That’s the new original. Like a tree producing a new acorn.
I really like this. It’s very, very relevant to the life of “SJI,” in my view. Every time it’s sung, that’s the song again. That’s the new original. Like a tree producing a new acorn.
To me that’s the payoff of this whole discussion.
Anyway the host airily says “Authenticity is for people who believe in linear time, and I gave up believing in that a long time ago.” That’s a good line too.
A few other stray notes:
- Some annoyingly dismissive comments about punk –that it failed to offer an alternative, and now it seems like an anachronistic blip. C’mon. The idea was no future. It had to be said! And doesn’t the fact that you’re sitting around talking about the past give that idea credence?
- Young also suggests we’ve “been through a blip in the 20th century” in the way music is marketed, made to spread. This argument drives me crazy: Oh, mass media was just an anomaly. Listen: If so, it was a pretty fucking big anomaly, and people will be singing Beatles songs for a long, long time, okay?
- Young mentions outdoor festivals and music’s connection to the outdoors. That’s an interesting point.
- The host mentions another book, Techgnosis, by Erik Davis, that I gather addresses technology and the mystical.