Conceptual Articulation of Folk Music: Intellectual Sense of the Folkhood

  July 14, 2021   Read time 2 min
Conceptual Articulation of Folk Music: Intellectual Sense of the Folkhood
The folk themselves do not tend to study, analyze, and publish their musical folkways. Why did the intelligentsia—the educated elite of thinkers, scholars, artists, and upper-class amateurs—take on this task by intervening in the everyday experience of what they defined as “the folk?”

The variety of this list of activists signals the mixed motivations and crossed networks of an ill-assorted group. Only in the early nineteenth century could romantic artists coincide with upper-crust aristocrats and bourgeois dabblers, or have much to do with pedantic scholars. It all has to do with two main trends of the emerging modern world—identity-seeking and institution-building, and two agendas—the nationalist and the universalist.

Modern life disrupted and reorganized Euro-American life. Industrialization brought a shift to the cities, made peasants into proletarians, and raised the bourgeoisie above the aristocrats. The small, educated, and artistic elite scrambled to fi nd new identities. In 1724, Allan Ramsay, a wig-maker turned writer, put out his quaintly named Tea-Table Miscellany, a goulash of folk songs and his own work, meant to be read aloud as the elite of Scotland gathered for tea and conversation.

By 1765, the title of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry cast the folk song as a picturesque and affecting remnant of the good old days. On the Continent, the search for new identity was perhaps more urgent, as Napoleon swept away the old social order. Often, the personal combined with collectives that ranged from the utopian to the political. Particularly the Germans, fragmented into dozens of little states until 1860, needed a common purpose in their quest for unity, to be founded on the volk, a complex compound of sentiments and semantics. Nationalists across Europe eagerly touted folk music as the “spirit” of that hard-to-defi ne concept the “nation.”

As the 1800s advanced, science, technology, and nation-states enforced rational forms of control. But a pushback of the passions drove thinkers, artists, and collectors to consider the countryside as an alternative space of feeling, a place to look for personal and group grounding in turbulent times. The remaining preserves of peasantry and village life offered an arena of intellectual and artistic play. Composers whipped out their notebooks to catch local tunes they could weave into their works. Scholars searched for the origins of modern languages in antique song texts, and writers turned folk song genres, particularly the ballad, into high-culture poetry in the years from about 1800 to the 1930s, from Wordsworth through late Yeats.

The German volk needed an English counterpart; in 1846, William Thoms, an amateur antiquarian, suggested the old word “folk” and the new coinage “folklore.” It’s a suitably vague word that took the place of terms like “popular antiquities.” Thoms’s words made “folk song” and “folk music” possible, as well as the founding of scholarly institutions, such as the American Folklore Society in 1888. Amateurs like Thoms gave way to professionally trained academics in the emerging English, anthropology, and music departments of expanding universities, the ancestors of today’s ethnomusicologists.

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