That’s All Folk

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Louis Armstrong once remarked to the New York Times, “All music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” This quotable quip suggests that music-making is among the creative behaviors that set human beings apart from the instinct-driven animals of nature. This supposition has been challenged with some success in recent years. There is growing recognition of intentional sonic production (read: music) among nonhuman species from rodents to whales. Armstrong’s point reflects the conventional view that humanity’s claim to distinction—which is ever diminishing in light of evolutionary theory—is somehow proven by our musical imagination.

Although the notion of a song-less horse may be faulty, the first part of the phrase jives with the deconstructive tendencies of the postmodern age. All human music is, in a sense, folk music—or at least has the potential of achieving that distinction. This is true not only in the literal sense Armstrong implied—folk is a synonym for people—but also in the technical sense that folk music, as a category of musical material, has become less amenable to definition and more inclusive of kaleidoscopic sounds.

Folk music first entered the nomenclature in the nineteenth century, alongside other cultural elements somewhat derogatorily identified as folklore. Words like simple, savage, unsophisticated, primitive, rough and unschooled were common in those early writings. As the designation proliferated in the musical literature, its meaning expanded at a corresponding rate. A casual review of its usage over the past century and a half reveals an array of imperfect, oft-chauvinistic and non-binding definitions: music passed on orally; music of indigenous peoples; music of the lower classes; music with unknown composers; music with collective origin; music interwoven with a national culture; music long associated with an event; non-commercial music; music that comes to identify a people in one way or another.

Any one of these meanings is susceptible to collapse under closer inspection, and contradictions arise when they are placed side by side. For instance, cherished songs of unknown authorship are commonly packaged for consumers as art songs, recordings, concert performances and other profit-seeking ventures. Does this eliminate their folk-ness? Oftentimes, too, melodies identified as folk can be traced to known composers and may have been extracted from more elaborate works written with commercial aims. This is the origin of many “traditional” melodies of the church and synagogue, and describes how show tunes and other popular idioms find their way into the nursery, where they pass from the mouths of one generation to the next.

While matching a presumed-anonymous tune with its true composer is admirable and responsible, it does nothing to change its folk status. The same can be said for similar investigative pursuits. This is because folk music is a process, not a thing (we might dub it “folkalization”). Almost any music of almost any origin can become folk through widespread circulation, continuous use, accumulated associations and its role as an identity marker for an affinity group.

In his instructive book, Folk Music: A Very Short Introduction, musicologist Mark Slobin concedes that the term folk music is so widely applied and has so many nuanced meanings as to evade simple summary. He stresses that it is a fluid amalgam of sounds that constantly adapts as it travels from person to person, location to location, and age to age, and that it is best to identify it using the practical, though unscientific, measurement of “we know it when we hear it.” One of Slobin’s key points is that folk music is not a body of fossilized tunes but the record of a living experience, which is subject to shift depending on cultural trends, courses of events, a performer’s whim, etc. As he relates: “Every group has a stock of tunes and texts that have come together so skillfully that they have no past and which expand into an unlimited future.”

With all of the sentiments, convictions, disputes and controversies a discussion like this entails, the best we can do is scratch the surface. The topic is endless. Yet despite the uncertainties, speculations and counter-speculations folk music has and will provoke, it is increasingly apparent that Louis Armstrong was, perhaps unintentionally, on to something.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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