Social Status of Folk Music and Societal Developments

  January 18, 2024   Read time 5 min
Social Status of Folk Music and Societal Developments
Professional folk musicians have well-known resources and well-honed strategies in their quest to find and please clients. People recognize and value artists who can animate and elevate events.

They hire those who have fi gured out how to match customers’ goals with the musician’s own aim: to fi nd the most work. More educated musicians and activists—writers, teachers, composers, nationalists, bureaucrats—have a strong investment in their own resources, strategies, and agendas around folk music. Their goals have offi cial backing, in terms of positions, funding, reputation, and access to the media. Overlapping this social fi eld lies the zone of aesthetics, implicit in the villagers’ judgment of the woman pouring out her lament. People play favorites with songs, tunes, and musicians. They know what they like, keep it in mind, and value its worth. They hear other people’s music and often make it their own, just because of the way it sounds and sticks in the mind. This is the realm of taste, of “I like it that way.” Everyone who has collected folk music knows to ask who the best local musicians are and to expect an informed answer. This is a matter of taste, possibly independent of class, gender, or ethnicity. Indeed, it almost seems that one of the reasons humans have music is to sustain a domain of life where taste and memory, technique and emotion, prevail over the normal barriers that divide one group from another.

Of course, suitability must be factored in: everything in its season. The need for music to be useful tempers the sheer aesthetic pleasure of performance. David McAllester, who worked with Navajo musicians in Arizona for fi fty years, told the story of how he once asked a Navajo if he “ liked” a song they were listening to on the car radio. That person could not answer without knowing “what it was good for.” But aesthetics and suitability can converge. The Kota people of India say that their ritual music is effective when it is “tasteful to hear,” which means that singers should be in synch, have a steady pulse, and carry a strong, nicely ornamented tune for a long period of time.

So the road to folk music knowledge starts with insiders’ feelings, which take some time for outsiders to evoke. People may have their reasons for restricting either music itself or conversations around it. The mind-set of the collector can be worlds apart from the thinking of local musicians. Eric Charry cites an interchange in west Africa between Charles Bird, a linguist, and a local interviewee, Diabate. Bird says, “If you help us, we will write down your words and they will live forever.” And Diabate replies: “You and your dried words. What are they to me? The meaning of my words is in the moisture of the breath that carries them.”

Steven Feld cites a revelatory remark that a member of the Bosavi people made far away in Papua New Guinea. Feld found that his local collaborators had an elaborate system for classifying close to two hundred species of the birds around them, as well as elegant and evocative terminology for the details of bird songs. But when he asked about this, the reply surprised him: “To you, they are birds; to me, they are voices in the forest.” Local people understood the bird calls as the sounds of deceased fellow-villagers. To map the insiders’ subtle system, Feld had to learn how to talk to them about the larger domain of which folk music is a part: it becomes expressive culture, the many ways that people perform feelings and beliefs.

Henry Glassie has eloquently summed up this range of meaningful performance, drawing on his work in the northern Irish village of Ballymenone. Sound itself is highly expressive there, and “the shape of Ballymenone’s concept of sound can be imagined as a terraced sequence leading upward from silence to music and from separation to social accord.” With each type of heard folklore, “sound becomes more beautiful” and is meant “more clearly to please the listener.” This includes “silence, talk, chat, crack [witty dialogue], story, poetry, song, and [instrumental] music.” Individual effort aims to “lift people simultaneously toward aesthetic perfection and social union,” which begins with the music itself and has a life of its own—it exists and circulates as an acoustic substance that moves into memory and muscle along spatial and neural transmission lines.

When educated Europeans started writing down folk music two hundred years ago, they said the songs were doomed: the old ways will soon be lost, so let’s preserve them. This attitude never dies. People keep thinking that as villagers move to the city and as commercial media spreads across the world, folk music will vanish. The famous folklorist Alan Lomax predicted a vast “cultural gray-out.” But it hasn’t happened. The reason is simple enough: folk music keeps changing and adapting, like so many other aspects of human life, from the family to work to beliefs.

Old-time collectors thought that folk music couldn’t survive change because it was fi xed, but they were wrong. What they wrote down was not some ancient, permanent “lore,” but what the illiterate farmers and peasants happened to be singing at the time. Some of those songs are still with us, but many more have been added over time. True, the cultural environment, technologies, and possibilities keep shifting, not always for good reasons. The folk are driven by drought and desperation to migrate; they are drawn to cities for work, to serve as recruits for wars they didn’t start, or simply to get on the road for business or family needs. James Clifford advises us to think of “routes” rather than “roots.” He points out that people have always been travelers. Louis Dupree, who roamed the Middle East for decades, once told me that he decided to walk from Turkey to Iran at a leisurely pace, just to see how long it would have taken ideas (and songs) to travel in ancient times. He covered a couple of thousand kilometers (around 1,300 miles) in six months while stopping at campfi res to chat with shepherds or hang out in the local bazaar. “See,” he said, “it doesn’t take that long.” Travel and trade have always put music in the backpack and the saddlebag.

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