creating community through celebration

What Is Folk?

February is quickly slipping away, and so of course it's time to start thinking about the Christmas Revels. That’s right, we’ve already begun the work of planning our December 2010 Silver Anniversary performance. Everything from script development to hiring performers, budgeting and publicity planning starts now. And of course we have to choose the music, dances, and stories that will enliven the evening. Entwined as Revels is with folk traditions, you’d think we’d have a pretty good handle on just what constitutes “folk”. You might think we’d have the answers to just how old, or how “traditional” or even how arcane a piece would have to be to meet our definition. But like many things in this life, the question of “what is folk?” doesn’t have a simple answer.

Here’s an example. There’s a lovely Scottish fiddle tune called The Dark Island. Almost every traditional Scottish fiddler knows it; it is played at traditional Scottish fiddle events; its authorship often bears the imprimatur of “trad” in program credits. It is evocative of a remote and hauntingly lovely place, and it certainly sounds old. But it isn’t.

The Dark Island was composed by a piper named Iain McLachlan in 1958, and quickly became the theme song for a BBC television series. Later the song was the subject of a nasty legal dispute over the authorship of two different sets of equally lame lyrics that were appended to it. Despite all of this modern baggage, the tune argues to be included in the realm of Scottish traditional music and indeed, we opened the second act of our 2004 Scottish Revels with a rendition of The Dark Island. But is it “folk”?

The 1960’s were a time of legendary foment in politics and society. Of course the excitement spilled over into traditional music as well. The folk revival that sprang up notably in America and England was not an altogether harmonious celebration. Great store was held by what was and was not real folk material and by who was or was not a proper presenter. The Weavers, for example, seemed to be folk, but Ian and Sylvia were suspect, and something like The Kingston Trio was beyond consideration. Songs written by Woody Guthrie thirty years before were folk, but songs written one hundred years before and performed by the New Christie Minstrels were hopelessly “pop”. To be sure, a lot of the demarcation was based upon the degree of popular acceptance of the material, with airplay and record sales judged as evidence of “selling out”.

Then there were questions of style. I was discussing this topic with Cambridge Revels Artistic Director Paddy Swanson and he told me about his having attended the legendary concert where Bob Dylan first went electric.

Widely touted as the emerging star of the American folk revival, the “unwashed phenomenon” sang a mixture of newly composed protest songs as well as traditional tunes upholstered in modern lyrics. He was both a balladeer and a chronicler of the times. And he played all of his stuff on an acoustical guitar.

At the concert in question, he performed the first set in the way that his adoring audience had come to expect - strumming his six string while his ragged nasal voice chewed through songs of love and protest. But when the second set began, Dylan trotted out electric guitars and amplifiers, touching off a loud and angry tumult in the audience. While many applauded his bravado, others expressed their dire disapproval with loud shouts of “Judas!”. Clearly there were divergent opinions about what was properly “folk”.

The issues aren’t easy to resolve. Many traditional songs began life as broadside ballads, composed by somebody to entertain friends, make a political point, or perhaps even to sell copies of the broadside. If we know who composed a piece, does that encumber its claim to folksiness? Few folk songs come to us with one, indisputably original set of lyrics. They have been passed down from singer to singer, each of whom made his or her contribution to the evolution of the song. Is there a premium to be placed upon the earliest known edition, even though that one may itself be the result of endless amendment?

Can a song be authentically performed by someone not of the culture or time in which it was born? Is it acceptable to translate lyrics into a language more familiar to the audience, even though the sonority of the original is lost? What of work songs or dance tunes divorced from the activity they were designed to accompany? If something just plain doesn’t make sense, do we leave the mystery unexplained?

These are just a few of the many questions we face in choosing and arranging material for a Revels performance. There are no absolute answers. All of the factors must be weighed in the light of our greater objective: to share with audiences the experience of art that nourishes on a deep and basic level. As our mission statement points out, “California Revels seeks to foster the health of the human spirit”. We do that by selecting material that speaks to the heart, and presenting it with mindfulness of its mystery and the joy of celebration.

- David Parr, Artistic Director