Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Tradition refers to the transmission of customs or beliefs from one generation to the next, or the fact of something being passed on in that manner. There are family traditions, cultural traditions, national traditions, religious traditions, and so on. Precisely why some things are treated in this way and other things are not is a topic too broad and varied to be reduced to a simple formula. But, underlying almost everything regarded as traditional is the term’s Latin root, traditio, meaning “surrender.” In no small part, the act of surrendering to and accepting what has been passed down is what makes it traditional.
Even when tradition is used as a noun, it has an active connotation. An object, practice, or conviction does not burst into existence with the authoritative label. Rather, it gradually assumes that status through a process involving usage plus time. A recipe, for instance, becomes traditional through continued preparation and consumption. Likewise, the Western classical tradition is an assortment of Greco-Roman ideas, institutions, designs, rituals, and artifacts that have been received and integrated into later cultures. By definition, those things that have a lifespan extending beyond their originating time and place are, in some sense, traditional. Everything else is not.
This has relevance for music. Songbooks are filled with selections printed under the heading of traditional. Most of these are orally transmitted songs of anonymous authorship. However, it is not unusual to find songs with known composers listed as traditional. Strictly speaking, such ascriptions are errors: the songs did not emerge organically through an oral tradition, as the attribution suggests, but from the creative minds of individuals. The editors of such books can be faulted for a lack of careful research. Yet, there is also a sense in which the ascriptions are correct.
If we understand traditional as an active adjective rather than a static noun, then it is an accurate depiction. More often than not, so-called traditional melodies are so familiar as to have lost ties to any person or moment. This phenomenon, call it “traditionalization,” has at least four interrelated features: (1) The composer’s identity is forgotten and/or becomes irrelevant; (2) The music becomes the “property” of the masses; (3) The melody achieves a sense of timelessness; (4) The song is felt to be universal, no matter how closely linked to a specific situation, population, or storyline.
From this perspective, a song can be simultaneously traditional and written by a known person. Moreover, any melody—or, really, anything—can become traditional by way of its passage from generation to generation, and the power that such passage yields.
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