What We Mean When We Talk About Traditional Music
From the Mel Bay book “Irish and American Fiddle Tunes”
“Now, there are several kinds of tradition, two at any rate – the true and the false. There are traditions that spring from from the need to live, and there are traditions that spring from the need to seem. Those who practice the second do not love those who practice the first, and they are generally more clever.”
– from “Ennemonde” (published by Peter Owen, London, 1970), by the great French writer, Jean Giono.
When a child hears music, it can enter him or her without having to pass through the filters that adults have erected between themselves and the direct experience. It takes effort to remember what that direct experience is like, and obviously there are many things that a child is not likely to be able to appreciate. But much of the filtering that we learn when growing up doesn’t really heighten our appreciation of music so much as enable us to say the appropriate thing about pop sound of the moment. Consider teenagers that listen to bubble-gum rock on the radio. It may be impossible to anyone outside of their group to discern what on earth they hear as good or bad in the music they listen to, but it is important to them to be on the beam of whatever their crowd likes, so they learn a system of discrimination that has little to do with music. To a greater or lesser extent this is true of adult rock fans whose taste is largely formed by the choices they made as teenagers. The only way for people who grow up listening to the radio to ever develop a taste for traditional music is by making a conscious effort to understand it. It might be suggested that in a society that most folks agree is short on spiritual values, the appreciation of music that isn’t just commercial is particularly significant. And there are few pleasures in life as great as those we derive from appreciation of the arts. The effort it takes to develop the taste for sounds that seem strange to mass-media-informed ears is so small compared to the rewards that I’m always amazed at how few people take the trouble.
In our haste to embrace contemporary culture at the expense of all that is seen as passe, we have in a half century “progressed” from a society that was rooted in the family-owned farm to a suburban culture dominated by corporate enterprise. Where Ma and Pa Kettle had to provide themselves with food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment, their suburban grandchildren get it all at the mall or off the radio or TV. Our focus here is not on what’s wrong with the latter – this would be a long, long, book before beginning to cover that list of sins. But it is important to consider some of what has been lost in the process.
In traditional societies, music is not a way to get rich and famous. It is a part of community life, providing the magic that makes dancers of backwoodsmen, historians of homemakers, and celebrants of mourners. In an Irish fishing village of a hundred years ago, there were no music journals propping up the images of the newest stars. If one singer reached a deeper level of feeling than others on a given evening of music, it was felt by the whole room. If a particular fiddler had taken his art further than others in his district, it didn’t take readers’ polls to identify who it was. The music that was played consisted of songs and tunes that were handed down, reworked, embellished and polished by succeeding generations, but was not seen to be the product of genii in ivory towers (though I am quite comfortable in the view that the greatest traditional players are equals to the greatest classical composers) but the common property of the people. These things were taken for granted even through upheavals like the settlement of America. The slaves brought from Africa met their bitter destiny with some of the most spectacular musical creation in history. The lot of the Scotch-Irish indentured servant wasn’t a bowl of cherries either, and the music of the traditional Appalachian is another national treasure. Again, very little if any Irish music dates from prior to English rule, and much of it dates from the periods of cruelest oppression. I suspect that for people pushed to the limits of endurance music is much more immediate and important than for those living the easy life.
What we are talking about is a sort of group mind. The fiddler, piper, or singer is expressing things that are much deeper than the personal sorrows chronicled by contemporary songwriters. The traditional community lived in a no-frills environment that needed the catharsis of music and dance as surely as it needed water. There are truths contained in the words and melodies that traditional people nurtured through hard centuries that you are never going to learn anywhere else. Not on the internet. Not on the radio. And certainly not on TV. When people lament the loss of traditional values, I think that to a large extent they are feeling the loss of the folkways that sustained their forbears.
I realize that not all readers of this book will have aspirations as to performing the music, but to any who do I will emphasize the need to listen hard to the music as played by the older traditional players on record and seek out live performances of revivalists when possible. I have included a discography to indicate some outstanding recordings, and a bibliography that includes a few historical studies among the tune books. I should add that, though it is entirely outside the scope of this book, learning to play back-up to fiddlers is probably the best way to soak up the music. Playing solo is great, but there’s a special joy in sharing music, especially traditional music, with other players. And no matter how many jokes are told at the expense of guitarists at Irish sessions, a good accompanist is always welcome.