Folk Music and the "Folk Process"

Some Fragmentary Musings for The Folk Musician or Dulcimist Who...

...Lies Awake at Night Wondering About Such Things Instead of Getting Up and Playing Some Music....

...Needs to Cobble Together a Speech on the Subject for a Gig

...Is Just Naturally Curious About Such Things...

...Not that I'm an Official Authority...

...In fact, he term "folk process" gives me a mental image of running sheet music through a Cuisinart.

The "Look It Up in the Dictionary Approach"

For a starting point, "folk process" seems to mean the process by which folk music, folk tales and folklore generally either come into being or are passed from one person or generation to the next. The American Heritage dictionary defines "folklore" as "The traditional beliefs, myths, tales, and practices of a people, transmitted orally." and "folk music" as "Music originating among the common people of a nation or region and spread about or passed down orally, often with considerable variation" or "Contemporary music in the style of traditional folk music." The second definition implies that "real folk music", of the first definition, is not contemporary.

Since "orally" means "by the mouth", this definition would eliminate instrumental music - which is not passed by mouth. Not to quibble, but I prefer the homonym "aurally" - relating to or perceived by the ear.

So the "folk process" would be passing traditional tales and music among the "common people" by ear. Now just who are the "common people"? Here the dictionaries offer several definitions. "relating to the community as a whole"; "widely known; ordinary"; "with no special designation, status, or rank"; "average, of no special quality"; "of mediocre or inferior quality; second-rate". Assuming we can drop the "second-rate", we might go with something like "a rather large segment of the population, not selected due to status or rank".

And "tradition" leads to generation to generation transfer, by ear again.

So where does that get us? Is "Barbara Allen" a folk song? Or did it used to be, but isn't any more? Does something stop being folk music if not many people pass it on? Does a song leave the "folk process" when it is first printed?

How about the songs that get passed from generation to generation by school children with no official encouragement, like "Found a Peanut" and "Helen Had a Steamboat" and "Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall"?

Are "Soldier's Joy" and "Golden Slippers" folk music? If you learn a tune from a CD that was remastered from an LP recording by someone who learned the tune from a Library of Congress field recording of a fiddler who is now long dead, is that the "folk process"?

The Empirical Approach
Or, What Do People Mean by "Folk Music"

"Folk Music" means whatever Billboard (or other magazines in the record industry) say it means when reviewing recordings or reporting on the "Folk Music" market.

"Folk Music" is the type of recordings that Tower, Borders, Best Buys, Barnes & Noble, etc. put in their "folk" category. If the store happens to have a "Celtic" category as well, "Folk" probably doesn't include "Celtic" because they are in separate bins. (For an informative discussion of the term "Celtic" as applied to music, see Standing Stones. Just because Handel's "Messiah" was first performed in Dublin doesn't make it "Celtic music"....yet.)

"Folk Music" is whatever is sung by hundreds of guitar playing singer songwriters named "Bob" (or "Bobbie") - just ask one of them. (But what if was a guitar playing singer songwriter named "Chuck".....Chuck Berry?)

"Folk Music" is something related to the North American Folk (Music and Dance) Association, which assiduously (and IMHO, wisely) refuses to adopt a definition.

"Folk Music" is music which, somewhere hidden behind the drums, layered behind the synths, down below the distortion boxes on the electric guitars, beyond the saxes and the horns, underneath the rap and hip-hop turntables, has an acoustic guitar.

The "No One Knows Who Wrote It" Theory

Another approach is that "folk" or "traditional" music comes from the "folk process" and wasn't composed by any one person. Or, if you know who wrote it, it can't be folk music. Since all music was "composed" by someone at some time, defining "folk music" on the basis of lack of knowledge seems fraught with peril. Some tune could be a folk tune for centuries, but if more research proves that it was originally written by the butler for the Third Earl of Mountebanque, it is no longer a folk tune?

Is "Found a Peanut" only 50% folk tune, because Stephen Foster wrote the melody? ("Clementine"). Is "Greensleeves" not a folk tune, because a fairly good case can be made that Henry VIII really did write it? Is "Soldier's Joy" traditional, but "Golden Slippers" (written by James Bland) isn't?

Is .....
the vague recollection of an aged person, who has no special musical ability, that his or her grandfather or grandmother, also without musical ability, had heard the tune in his or her youth credible evidence that this is the folk process at work?
See, Fuld, Book of World famous Music, Classical, Popular and Folk, 4th Ed., 1995, Dover, New York

The Three Prong Test for Folk Music
Or, "Is it Folk Yet?"

Another thought from the Cuisinart on folk music and the folk process...

This "working definition" of folk music involves a three prong test. (Lawyers and judges love prongs on their tests; and this test has only one prong more than a tuning fork.)

Prong 1 - The tune (song) is in the public domain. It is off copyright and no one person owns it. Put another way, we all own it or the "folks" own it, not just one person or one corporation.

Prong 2 - The tune (song) is capable of being passed (and has been passed) from person to person (generation to generation) and perhaps from instrument to instrument by ear. Via the "folk process" as opposed to formal instruction. (It doesn't matter if it has also been written down and passed by sheet music.) The criterion is: can it and has it also passed entirely by ear for multiple passages.

Prong 3 - The tune (song) survives (has survived) with no financial or institutional support. (No promotion and advertising from the music industry or institutionalized religion; the tune survives without the efforts of symphony orchestras or ethnomusicology departments or hymnals. The tune may enjoy such support from time to time; but can it and has it continued to survive for long periods without such support?)

Note that it does not matter if the tune was "composed". Every tune was "composed" by someone, sometime. Sometimes we know the composer; sometimes not.

On this test, the recently composed "folksongs" won't be really FOLK until their copyrights expire or they are clearly dedicated to the public, though many of them would pass prongs two and three.

"Greensleeves" is a folk tune, even though it has had music industry support from time to time as far back as John Rich's and John Gay's Beggar's Opera, and "classical music" support such as Ralph Vaughn-Williams' "Fantasia on Greensleeves" (Though the Vaughn-Williams piece itself is too complex and too long to pass on by ear.) Greensleeves probably failed prong 1 while Henry Tudor was alive, but that was long ago. The melody to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" could also move into the folk realm, but his full Ninth Symphony is a bit too long and too complex to pass on by ear. (Imagine one full orchestra trying to learn the Ninth from another full orchestra by ear.)

But the three prong test would put Child Ballads, Playford tunes, and a lot of jazz, blues and ragtime all in the same pot...or all in the same Cuisinart.

The Old Supreme Court Porn Test

On the other hand, for a one-prong test, one could paraphrase language from an old US Supreme Court decision on pornography: "I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it." As applied to "folk music" or "traditional music" that boils down to "It's folk or traditional if it sounds like it to you".

The "Passed From Mother to Daughter in a Cabin
Way Up in an Isolated Mountain Valley" Test

There are those who propound this sort of test for the folk process. Granted, lots of what we accept as folk and traditional music did get passed on this way. With no outside influence it's easy to understand how some old English ballads survived in the Appalachians. However, the "folks" in the isolated valleys were the exceptions, not the common "folk". The blacksmith, the riverboat man, the soldier, the sailor, the house carpenter, the waggonner, the cattle drover, the miller, the tinker, the tailor and the candlestick maker, etc. all had contact with other people and exposure to whatever music came their way - in the towns, in the churches, in the taverns, at fairs, in their travels, from traveling musicians, etc. Might it not be more accurate to say that we are really speaking of popular music of olden times? See, William Chappell, "The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of Olden Times", Chappell & Co., London, 1859

The "Very Ancient, Having Been Known For Centuries" Theory

This sounds nice, but....how do you know? Unless it was recorded, how do you know how your grandfather played or sang the tune, unless he is there in the room with you? And even if great grandpa wrote it down, how do we know he played or sang it the way he wrote it? Tunes evolve now; didn't they then? That's part of the "folk process", isn't it?

(What is now called "Fisher's Hornpipe" was simply "Hornpipe No. 1" in 1780, when James Fishar published it and several others he wrote. Within 10 years or so, fiddlers had dropped Fishar's bass line and changed the key from F to D. The "folk process" at work?)


Hopefully, we've given you something to think about on sleepless nights,

or some thoughts to use when putting together a lecture for a gig,

or something to read when you should have been playing music.

If you have some new theories, let us know.

And for some music from the past, like Mr. Fishar's hornpipe the way he wrote it, look into the Pass'd Times CD, or the book, or the Timely Tunes collection.

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