Tradition is good - for without it where would ‘new’ be?

(January 11, 2008)

Despite the best efforts of the media to mock the genre there remains great power and strength in English traditional folk music.

Admittedly, English folk has taken a bashing over the years and fallen from grace in a way that has not happened to its Scottish and Irish neighbours. Even so it lives, breathes and is doing well thank you. This is not a rant from a rabid traditionalist against change or development. Neither is it a pitiful plea from a niche within a niche. It’s more a desire to avoid burning down the listed building to build breakthrough architecture – both of which can be good.

The fight between ‘old’ and ‘new’ – misunderstanding or bloody-mindedness?

The true issue is those who listen to and perform folk music perpetuate (though for different reasons) the problems by bickering among themselves. They do this by the traditional deriding the new and the new blaming the traditional. So what prompts this ridicule and accusation? It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about each other and the values each bring. Of course there’s the bloody-minded element too but as my granddad used to say: “There’s nowt you can do about them folk, my boy.”

However you choose to consider it, new music (folk or otherwise) has to recognise the debt it owes to tradition for without its existence there would be no new. On the other hand, tradition has to realise that without growth and development it will remain stuck where it is and eventually fade away. The problems begin when both take a stab at each other. And despite that fact that folk music is only a niche in the vast array of musical expression the dubious practice of ‘taking a stab’ seems doomed to continue. The debate about the relevance of ‘new folk’ will continue. The argument that anything traditional is a euphemism for ‘stuck in a rut’ will continue. And as long as they do, neither tradition nor new will gain the full benefits they can offer each other.

I have discovered (far too quickly) the open mind is something that doesn’t truly exist in musical expression and not in folk music – expressly English folk music. And that came as something of a shock.

Tradition is something to respect (although not follow slavishly) the point is to recognise the value of tradition, but also make possible change and adjustment of tradition. Sometimes a body of tradition will restrict music. When rules are rigid and unbending, the result is dead music – much like Latin is a dead language. However, traditional music that accepts change while nurturing its roots - remains alive.

As traditions develop in an open-minded multi-style environment so does the music. This allows diverse or even incompatible beliefs to exist alongside each other without resorting to the mindless exercise of damaging each other. When open minds close the reverse is true. A question arises whether any musician who makes a choice between new or traditional is free of the influence of tradition. The answer is musicians don’t make those choices unless the musical style has developed a tradition of allowing a free choice without fear of rejection.

Consider for a moment the basis of tradition. Mostly, tradition is shared experience. Experience in music is perhaps more important than anything else. One definition of tradition is: “Something that embodies reasons that people dimly realise and cannot rationally explain, however these reasons contain truth and understanding based on amassed experience.” Perhaps too grand and philosophical for a discussion on a folk music tradition, but nonetheless there’s an interesting angle there. Another dictionary definition of tradition defines the word a stemming from the Latin word traditio. That means "to hand down" or "to hand over." From that Latin definition, one can refine the term as the passing down of ideas, principles, beliefs and practices.

Surely that’s the basis of the oral folk music tradition - passing down ideas, principles, beliefs and practices. And when those change as the world changes surely those changed elements can in turn pass on and preserve the richness of tradition.

Should we analyse tradition or accept it and be comfortable when it develops?

Traditions develop gradually over centuries. Yet it’s important they keep on developing, becoming a cultural dynamic that grows out of the efforts, sacrifices, experiences and trials of a people. Especially people with an inborn sense of their own ancestry - such as their religion, customs, language, literature and music. This sets up ‘core values’ passed on from generation to generation. Such traditions become a way of life that endures. However for that spirit to endure it needs the people to subscribe to its value and want to perpetuate its existence. Once that happens, music (with many other arts) continues and endures, and importantly remains alive in the lives of those people.

The English folk music tradition includes spiritual, moral and cultural values. These remain firmly fixed in the minds of a people – something real but indefinable. Only those people can live and experience them. The oral tradition was so important because few people could read and write. So an oral tradition was the only way to pass on and communicate their history, moral and cultural values. Today the Internet is important because so many people use it as a primary method of communication and to pass on their values. When the communications medium develops and so does the society then ‘new’ is unavoidable but not always at the expense of tradition.

There are people in the folk world that want to tear down tradition and replace it with ‘new’ at the expense of realising where the ‘new’ came from. There are people in folk who want to exclude ‘new’ arguing that tradition is all there is and nothing outside of it should be classed as folk.

It’s vital to understand that ‘new’ with all its different (and perhaps unusual) branches, is both good and healthy. Also, tradition has an inherent value and still has much to give. For without their roots where would the branches be and if the branches don’t spread the roots will wither.

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