The Sacred Cows of the English Tradition and how best to slaughter them.

I’ll be returning to my busking project in the next piece, but I’ve been inspired to write a few thoughts about traditional music.

Reading the somewhat jarring review by Rod Stradling of Bryony Griffith’s new CD of English fiddle playing has helped me crystallise something that’s been going round my head for a while.

You can find that review here.

I was in a folk club in Glossop last year, attending a great concert by one of my favourite singers and musicians, a gentleman who will remain nameless, now into his 8th decade, who during the second half, lamented that the youngsters of today no longer had the chance to learn from the great traditional singers that he’d been lucky enough to know when he was starting out. I thought; ‘Wait a minute, I’ve been listening to your music since I was a kid, picked up songs and tunes, been able to ask you about them on numerous occasions. What’s the difference?’

The older generation for the most part can’t quite bring themselves to see themselves as source singers and musicians for the next generation.

There are probably two reasons for this. The first is a modesty that comes from largely having initially taken up traditional music as an interest rather than having learned it as a matter of course. A feeling that no matter how hard they try, they will always lack that ‘authenticity’ that comes with having been born into the tradition. The second is that where generations prior to theirs could only learn from the oral tradition, the prevalence of recordings of source material have created a body of material that has come in some people’s minds to constitute the totality of the English tradition, in terms of repertoire, playing styles and instrumentation.

I’ll address the second point first. Each generation has always changed and shaped the music as they collectively saw fit. The vast difference in musical styles from the time of John Playford’s first collection of tunes in 1651 and what the collectors were finding in the late Victorian era shows just how much things had changed in the interim. Not least because innovations in technology had hugely changed the instruments available to ordinary people. Similarly, any quick study of traditional song will show that songs were added to the tradition continuously, being newly written, drawn from popular music of the day, borrowed from elsewhere and adapted.

It is abundantly clear that both the repertoire, instrumentation, and playing styles of the English tradition were varied and in constant flux. Each generation building on what had gone before. Why should the generation who merely happened to exist at the same time as this sudden wave of recording be a singular definitive moment?

The generation known perhaps unhelpfully as the revivalists were hugely creative with this material. In England, we got folk-rock, a genre that produced many of my personal favourite albums and performers. Nowadays, there’s something of a patronising sentiment towards this style of music that characterises it as an aberration, a silly foolish blip that must be corrected back to the purity of the collected tradition. Yet for many of us, these are the musicians and the music that invited us into traditional music. It logically follows that we would take it as our starting point for our adventure with the tradition. Why on earth would we be expected to leapfrog back another two generations? Why is this music seen as less authentic than that of the generations before?

I remember being at the English fiddle Expo, in Newcastle, three years ago, where one speaker was earnestly attempting to make the case for a particular English fiddle style off the back of a small number of recordings of very old men playing the fiddle very badly. This was problematic in two ways for me. First, the players were so old and incapable when they were recorded, that I couldn’t take their playing seriously as a representation of the style of the time. Second, at around a century’s distance to me, even if they were representative of music in that era, I don’t see how it would help me. I would have to take a large number of technical steps backwards to emulate that sound. As a fiddle player myself, I’ve spent years trying very hard not to sound like that, in order to explore the depth of the music I play.  The general low standard of English fiddle playing, as I see it, is not helped by the belief that to be ‘authentic’, you have to adopt a scratchy, jerky sort of style. Some people seem to regard it as a badge of honour to play with a shonky, limiting technique. The vast majority of collected traditional singers were not particularly great singers either. A few were, but mostly, their techniques fell far below the standards of the revivalist generation. That’s understandable and not a criticism of them, as today’s performers tend to have access to tuition, better quality instruments, and enough leisure time to learn properly. But why would we want to play in the low quality style of those who didn’t have such luxuries? The idea that these idiosyncratic and low quality styles are uniquely ‘authentic’ as opposed to any other interpretation is pretty much the most unhelpful attitude in traditional English music.

To be clear, the fact we have this body of source material is a wonderful thing, but we mustn’t be hamstrung or dazzled by it. It is a snapshot in time of a living tradition. A historical record of great value. It’s the musical version of the Anglo Saxon chronical. There was plenty that went before it that we’ll never know much about, and everything that came after, no matter how weird and wonderful is just as authentic and important.

It is great stuff to know about, in the same way that charting the development of Modern English from Anglo Saxon is illuminating and interesting. But the author of a modern English novel would not routinely be writing in Anglo Saxon, although they will probably have a passing knowledge of it, and may certainly pinch an idea or two. Yet we have folk clubs who won’t book singer songwriters because they don’t like singer songwriters. Who do they think wrote all the traditional songs? They weren’t already on earth when humans evolved. It all comes of an attitude that sees the tradition as immutable and sacred.

Progressing the tradition is not just acceptable, but essential. Playing solely in the manner of what went before is re-enactment, not tradition. Successful traditions survive by changing a little, year-on-year to remain relevant to their practitioners and audiences. Something can only be traditional if it has an element of re-invention and progression about it. Otherwise, you are the musical equivalent of the Sealed Knot. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but such performance should be labelled re-enactment, not tradition.

Every previous generation of traditional musicians in England learned from the generation that went before them. My generation are the first to have the luxury of the knowledge of more than one generation to learn from. However, the people that inspired me to take it up are the revivalists, and their music is that which I largely seek to build on, shape and alter. I will know I’ve made it as a musician (Unlikely, I concede!) if the following generation takes my music as the standard to overthrow. All creative arts live in a state of destruction and re-invention. To remain relevant, traditional music must be free to do the same.

The traditional musician sits on the fulcrum between past and future. They know where their music came from, and they will shape it and alter it with total freedom of expression. The best ideas will be heard by the next generation who will repeat the process. This act is the folk process that so polished the songs and tunes collected in the past and allowed them to survive. Restrict it and you kill traditional music.

Oh, and I’m thoroughly enjoying Bryony’s record.

3 thoughts on “The Sacred Cows of the English Tradition and how best to slaughter them.

  1. This here is an amazing piece of writing. Thanks so much. I’ve tried to say as much on my own blog about French music (L’Accordeonaire), but you have said it very well.


  2. Great piece and one I agree with . I do listen to old source recordings when I can to maintain s link to stuff I never had personal experience of.
    I have heard enough music from excellent old players to know that scratchy crap was not valued by audiences, dancers or other musicians

    Liked by 1 person

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