Saturday, 3 March 2012

There's nowt as queer as Folk

Brian Boru's March a video by joe with a camera on Flickr.

Hello again all… Lucy’s on her way to Morocco at the moment, so you’re stuck with me again, in cold, murky Nanjing. It’s trying to be spring, but not quite managing it yet. We did promise all sorts of random discussions on here, so this one is going to be more random than most…

There we were the other day, sitting in Finnegan’s Wake (the local Irish pub) and listening to the Irish Rover (or something), and the discussion started meandering over what makes something folk music. We ended up getting tied up in so many knots, and having to think about so many different things, that we decided we ought to write some of it down. As you may know, we both sing a bit of traditional folk, while I do a spot of harping and Lucy flutles (flauts? flaunts?), with a bit of persuasion. We used to go to folk clubs in the UK, and were often struck by what many people were performing. To us, Bob Dylan isn’t folk. Neither is Simon and Garfunkel’s stuff. They may be very nice, and perhaps one day we will class some of it as folk music, but not yet, surely? But then, why not? And what about Enya? Was everything that Clannad did folk, or Runrig? It started to get quite complicated…

When we personally talk about folk music, we mean the really traditional stuff – you know, at least a century or so old, and (if it’s a song) preferably in a long-lost Celtic language. Or Elvish. But obviously, there’s more to it than just the age – a lot of classical and religious music goes back just as far. Of course, one doesn’t dress up in black tie to go to a folk concert, and a typical folkie in the ballet theatre would stand out a mile, so there must be a deep division somewhere. So what other differences are there, besides calling a violin a fiddle?

You could argue it was partly down to the instruments, but there’s a lot of similarity. Some of Rodrigo’s solo guitar stuff could almost *be* a folk rendition, and a lot of the folk instruments have near-exact (although admittedly grander) counterparts in classical circles. Except perhaps bagpipes… can you imagine a ‘Great Highland Pipe sonata in E minor’? No, don’t even try. [Edit: just checked, and Bartok, believe it or not, did indeed write a bagpipe sonata. And he’s not the only one.] You could find differences in the style of the music, perhaps, but how much of the classical repertoire is based on folk melodies? Mazurkas, anyone? The point is that there are a lot of points of overlap, and occasionally it’s very hard to tell the difference.

Eventually we decided it was all about the purpose and meaning of the music, and what you’re allowed to do with it, rather than anything about the music itself. Modern pop music is mostly about the performer – the good old celebrity. They can cover someone else’s song, but people talk about the singer rather than the song. Classical seems to us to be about the performer some of the time (but only really when you’re dealing with the best), but more often it is the composer – it’s the perfect arrangement of notes written down a century ago, and the arrangement of notes must remain. Of course, there are ‘fantasias on a theme of…’ – but these also are fixed. They are like paintings: to be admired in the form in which they were created. Leeway is allowed in the interpretation and intonation of the notes, but the notes themselves must remain. I remember once when Pavarotti hit the news for making three mistakes in a concert. The crowd were screeching for their money back. When Loreena McKennitt started singing the wrong song, everyone laughed along with her, and the poor confused musicians thought it was hilarious.

Folk tunes, in contrast, are about as loosely defined as it gets. Usually only the melody is written down – you’re meant to make up the harmony as you go along. Better than that, though, is that the tunes themselves are flexible. They’re often organised simply, with several repetitions of a primary section, and the musician is actively encouraged to make twiddles and add squiggles here and there, as they see fit. And what about the lyrics? They’re even more subject to change: for old songs, there are often numerous versions in circulation, and you can pick up different verses of old favourites from buying a new recording. Of course, being out of copyright helps a lot…

Perhaps the best example of this is “Two Sisters” (or numerous other titles, including “The Bonny Swans”, and “Dreadful Wind and Rain”). The basic story is that two sisters walk along a riverbank (or the sea), and the older pushes the younger in. She refuses to help her out unless the poor girl gives her ‘her own true love’ (or some variation on that). The girl drowns and gets swept away, eventually being found by a miller, his daughter, or a passing minstrel. Usually, she gets made a harp (yes, yes, I know… just accept it, right?), and eventually gets taken back to her old home, where she spontaneously sings a song (yes, you can do things like that in faerie tales) denouncing her sister. There are hundreds of versions across Europe, in many languages, and no-one even knows where the original came from.

It works backwards too – popular lines can be transplanted into entirely different songs, and turn up anywhere. An example of a ‘floating line’ is “I leaned my back against an oak, thinking it was a trusty tree; but first it bent, and then it broke, and so has my love done to me” – a popular sort of theme for folk songs in general.

So what’s it all about, then? It’s partly about the performer, but it’s noticeable that the most successful Celtic folk musicians tend to diverge more and more from the traditional tunes and move towards creating their own. Enya, for example, started out with Clannad, but wanted to perform her own, more commercial material. Interestingly, Clannad also headed in the commercial direction, but their early recordings are almost entirely traditional tunes. Many of the best folk musicians today (e.g. Julie Fowlis) are almost unknown outside followers of the genre. I have some beautiful cds for which I can’t even remember the singer’s name. Somehow, though, that doesn’t really matter.

So folk does not centre on the performer, and obviously not the composer. The lyrics and the notes are flexible, and the instruments and style, although they tend to conform to certain stereotypes, also overlap with classical. We decided the answer was that folk music is about the meaning of the music rather than the outward appearance. The songs reflect moral lessons or helpful ways to think about things in order to overcome one’s own difficulties, or they are ways of remembering old stories. In many ways, folk songs are like faerie tales, or the stories told around campfires. The tunes themselves, like all music, carry with them emotions and atmospheres, but most of the folk tunes I know of that have no songs attached are for dancing to. There are slow tunes – airs – as well, but these inevitably seem to have lyrics added, if they’re weren’t around originally. The musicality of folk is really just for the sake of being musical; it’s not the main purpose of it. There’s a joyousness in folk performers that you rarely see in other types of music (except jazz, maybe).

So there you have it; I’d like to think that folk really is primeval. It’s maintaining what music was first made to do: as a way of remembering things, of passing on stories and ideas about what really matters. But perhaps the true folk tradition is an anachronism in the music world today, because the situations it refers to don’t really happen nowadays? I think I’d disagree – the situations are the ones most fundamental to the human world, even if the specific examples are long gone. These songs are mostly about life, love, and loss. Perhaps they can’t solve all your worries, but at least you can share them with long-lost minstrels, and know that someone understood.

As a final word, I’m also glad to say that Wikipedia seems to be having as much trouble defining folk music as we are. There’s much more to the discussion over there:

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