I remember when I was at school there was much polemic in the pages of Folk Review from the likes of Dick Gaughan and Pete Bellamy about whether one could truly call singer-songwriters “folk” at all: specifically about the extent to which they were likely to be writing songs that would become the “traditional music” of the future. I suppose the exemplar there would be Ewan MacColl: when I listen to the old Radio Ballads I can’t always tell which songs are Trad. arr. MacColl and which are MacColl. Or this one which has been around for ages and has come pretty much detached from knowledge of its author (I’d certainly forgotten who wrote it). “Anon” being the larval form of “trad” I’d say it was on its way. And there are plenty of what you might call genre songs, like “Dorset Be Beautiful” and “Drink Up Thee Zyder” on the same journey.
I’m not sure. I’m a bit of a puritan – or possibly a pessimist – with regard to “traditional music of the future”: I don’t think there will be such a thing, unfortunately. Borrowing some stuff I wrote earlier (on Mudcat):
If recording technology were somehow abolished next week, a 22nd-century collector might well pick up local variants of Blowin’ in the Wind and Mr Tambourine Man. But we’ll never know: Dylan isn’t music of the people, Dylan’s a recording artist. Traditional and folk-transmitted music survives here and there – football chants, playground rhymes, some hymns and carols – but there’s really no music that’s “of the people” in the sense of living and developing among ordinary people in the course of their lives.
The ubiquity of broadcast and recorded music changed everything. Once a song’s recorded, there’s a single, readily-available answer to the question: “what should that sound like?” We know the right melody, the right chords and the right words, and if we want to know how it all fits together we can listen to the writer singing it. That’s a huge change from the conditions that existed as recently as a hundred years ago. Traditional music – folk music, as far as I’m concerned – is all about reaching back before that break and finding out what people used to do for music, before they could all listen to the same thing at the flick of a switch.
The problem is that the availability of broadcast music cuts away the ground from under the oral tradition. Do you sing while you work? Do your workmates? Do you sing at home to relax? When your friends or family want some music of an evening, do they suggest having a few songs? The oral tradition works in communities and societies where people can, by and large, answer Yes to all four. Those conditions may still obtain in some parts of the world, but they certainly don’t in Britain (or the US).
This isn’t something that’s happened overnight. The uniformity imposed by mechanical reproduction has been eroding the oral tradition for a long time, going back to pianolas and mass-produced parlour songbooks. Ironically, the oral tradition finally gave up the ghost (in this country at least) at around the same time the Revival was really getting going. Oral transmission among folkies does go on, but we aren’t so much a community as a network of hobbyists. Live music made by ordinary people without making a big deal of it – because it’s what you do, because it passes the time, because everyone’s got a song in them – has basically died out.
This isn’t an anti-folkie point – quite the opposite. (I think some of the anti-trad polemicists get this far and then take a wrong turning, writing off the music on the basis that (a) some people demonstrably claim too much for it (b) they don’t like those people and (c) they don’t actually like the music either. It’s easily done – ask me about opera some time, or rather don’t.) As far as I’m concerned, live music made by enthusiastic amateurs (and a few enthusiastic professionals) is great – it’s one of the brighter spots in my life at the moment. Live traditional music, in particular. The songs that have survived from the oral tradition – or survived long enough to be collected – are, by and large, really good songs: in performance, they work in a way that most new songs don’t. It’s true that there are new songs coming through in the style of the old songs – Shantyman, Bring us a barrel and so on – but they’re only ever likely to be heard by a tiny minority of the population. A bit of humility, and a bit of awareness of what’s gone, are in order. We’re not the folk, and any new music we make is never going to be folk music.
Which, apart from anything else, is what makes the folk music we do have so valuable. Counting variants, there are hundreds of songs out there from the traditions of England and Scotland alone. So much music, so little time! What’s more likely to sound good – a song that started life on a seventeenth-century broadside, passed through countless hands and voices before being collected in 1904, and has since been taken up and shaped and polished by three or four generations of revivalists, or “a song you won’t have heard, because I’ve only just finished writing it”?