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Authenticity in the Folk Music Tradition

What is this? Do we recognise it? I’ve heard rumours of musicians having been thrown out of sessions in Irish pubs because what they played wasn’t Irish enough. And that the display of a characteristic singing accent when rendering some northern English 19th century mining song is a badge of honour and evidence of authenticity of performance. Everything old-timey in the US is treated with nostalgic awe and reverence and with the utter conviction that the way things were played in the old days was the proper way – or, in any event, better. In all of this I smell a conservative tribalism and other instincts that make me queasy. It’s not a big step from sentimentalising the folk culture of a nation – or part of – and imagining a superiority in its “authentic” expression, to comparing others unfavourably to it.

But it might be that it is the taking a folk culture and corrupting it and making it “impure” by creating further Art from it that bestows upon it a lasting value.

When I’m too long in the company of “authentic” folk musicians I feel badly in need of fresh air!

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Folk Music – Tradition and traditionalism

My relationship with folk music has always been ambivalent and has oscillated between a passion for arranging Irish and Scottish fiddle tunes for guitar to a real distaste for the precious attitude of many of the practitioners of the genre. I’ve come across examples of posturing ethnicity that is non-inclusive and reeks of a superior attitude based on perceptions of purity and supposed authenticity. There is sometimes also a whiff of nationalism and fear of contamination from other

Now I should make clear that I’m not forgetful of the benefits to me of having played innumerable folk clubs and the warmth of the people and audiences who organised and populated them. My remarks are directed to a small(ish) sub-culture that parades here and there under the banner of this aforesaid purity and authenticity. There are those who even achieve a degree of state funding to perpetuate and even educate others in the practices. This seems to me to be almost the ossification of a culture’s music and art.

To my ears, the best of folk music is to be found in what later composers have done with it in the creation of their own works. Or the way many folk songs have been passed down, have been changed, embroidered upon and otherwise developed from generation to generation of performers. Statues are for sculptors.

That folk music is even an “art” is matter of debate and dispute in some quarters (art being held as something that is consciously prepared as such – which is not the case with folk song) and the claim that the term “folk-art”, as is sometimes used, is sometimes scathingly cited as an oxymoron. This is not to devalue folk songs, but rather to clarify their genesis and, perhaps, continuing relevance.

The perceptive reader will spot the semblance of a grudge I might have, or have a chip on my shoulder, about traditional folk music. It’s true – and it’s borne out of having to compete with this music when I was playing for my living in folk clubs in the ’70s and early ’80s and that, in itself, was a function of there being few, if any, other performing outlets for acoustic guitar players. The designation of being a “folk-singer” is one I’ve learned to live with, with a shrug of the shoulder. I could hardly care less, these days, but then it doesn’t materially affect my living any more. But I have had cause to observe and reflect on the phenomenon of traditionalism as I’ve seen it emerge – most recently in Scotland. It’s inward-looking nature worries me and I hope it’s not indicative of a growing trend in Scottish “culture” in general.