Category Archives: folk song

Folkalization

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The name Tin Pan Alley likely started as a linguistic reappropriation: a disparaging term that was flipped into a positive, self-describing label. The etymology is sometimes traced to journalist-songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld. In one version of the story, Rosenfeld visited the New York office of music publisher Harry Von Tilzer in preparation for an article on the music business. He noticed that Von Tilzer had pieces of paper wound over the strings of a piano to make a tinny sound—a nostalgic trick harkening back to his playful youth. This allegedly gave Rosenfeld the idea for an article titled “Tin Pan Alley,” published in his column for the New York Herald or the New York Clipper in 1899 or 1900 (to my knowledge, the actual article has not surfaced). Von Tilzer later claimed coinage of the term. Others cite it as a derogatory description of cheap upright pianos heard on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. The cacophony of clashing tunes reportedly resembled the banging of tin pans. The term was eventually applied to the U.S. music industry of the late 1800s to the 1930s or 50s (depending on the periodization).

The name’s organic emergence predicted the treatment the music itself would later receive. Although created for financial gain and distributed through commercial means, many of the songs entered the popular vernacular. In so doing, they became subject to a folk process, wherein cultural artifacts are changed, minutely or significantly, to form new artifacts. A combination of performance restraints and cultural dissemination stripped these songs of their particularistic trappings, and left the universal core. The result can be dubbed “commercial folk music.”

A number of Tin Pan Alley tunes survive in the collective consciousness. Some, like Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” “Always,” and “White Christmas,” are so universally known as to lose association with the composer. They consolidate and articulate popular sentiments, and reaffirm and express an aesthetic mainstream. By virtue of aural reception and oral transmission, they are functionally the public property of the American people.

Among the elements contributing to this perpetual resonance was the elimination of the verse. Tin Pan Alley standards, such as those listed above, began as self-contained story songs. The generalized emotions of the chorus were framed by specific details, usually of a personal nature. “White Christmas” (1940), which Berlin wrote while sitting poolside at a Phoenix hotel, opened with the verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway/There’s never been such a day/In Beverly Hills, LA/But it’s December the 24th/And I am longing to be up north.” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (1908), written by Albert Von Tilzer (Harry’s brother) and lyricist Jack Norworth, began with a baseball-obsessed woman: “Katie Casey was baseball mad/Had the fever and had it bad/Just to root for the home town crew/Ev’ry sou/Katie blew” (“sou” is a small amount of money). These verses gave narrative context to the familiar choruses we sing today.

Several factors led to the erasure of the verse. In some instances, the melody, meter, or pace of the verse clashed with feelings conveyed in the chorus (e.g., minor to major, 4/4 to 3/4, slow to brisk). These shifts, while musically intriguing, made the songs difficult for singing and dancing. There were also technological constraints. 10-inch 78-rpm records could only hold about three minutes per side, thus necessitating the trimming of “extraneous” verses in favor of catchy choruses. The radio format likewise restricted song durations to three and a half minutes in order to give time to news, announcements, and advertising. Furthermore, the rise of Broadway and film musicals, where songs punctuated larger story lines, made the contextualizing verses obsolete. For example, Berlin cut the verse from “White Christmas” for the film Holiday Inn (1942).

Concurrent with these top-down commercial considerations was the bottom-up folk process. The choruses were easier to remember and more inclusive than the set-up verses. Rather than being tied to a particular setting or idiosyncratic emotion, they could be assimilated as one’s own expression, whether patriotic, nostalgic, romantic, or something else. With this folkalization, artist- and context-specific tunes were transformed into the durable pseudo-folksongs we still sing today.

Tin Pan Alley is not a stand-alone illustration. Popular music of all kinds—industry distributed music of wide appeal—challenges conventional separations of creators/producers and consumers/audiences. Consumers become potential producers, capable of recreating the songs in their own voices and reading their own experiences into them. Subtle or drastic changes inevitably creep in, bringing a fluid orality to the ostensibly fixed media of sheet music and recorded sound.

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

Advertisements

Gestalt Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The division of labor between composer and performer, while central to Western art music, is foreign to much of the world. This does not owe to a lack of performers. Every human society, ancient and modern, has its musicians. What tends to be absent is the separate role of creator. Not only is it common for music to arise from an anonymous or semi-anonymous folk process, but musicians are also given to improvisation. Melodic lines and tonal archetypes (modes) are treated as canvases for spontaneously conjured embellishments and departures—or what pianist David Dolan calls “walking freely on firm ground.” It is only with the proliferation of notation that the composer and performer become truly distinct entities. The composer sets ideas on paper, and the performer meticulously renders those ideas into sound. The goal of “correct” performance replaces real-time interpretation.

Part of what differentiates folk music from Western art music is its gestalt approach, wherein a musical motive is conceived as a whole, rather than as a sum of individual notes. Thinking nothing of notes, the musician permits different tones and tone sequences to replace each other, so long as the motive retains its basic character. It is similar to an artist setting pieces of glass or stone within a framework, and is sometimes called the “mosaic technique.” This contrasts with Western notated music, which, by its very nature, is built from individual notes that are unalterably fixed on the staff.

This distinction is best illustrated by example. Musicologist Michal Smoira recalls when a Bedouin musician visited a class at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. The musician played a “marvelously concentrated and highly inspired piece” on a one-stringed bowed instrument. When he finished, the professor explained some details of the performance and asked the musician to play the same piece again. Bewildered, the Bedouin proceeded to play a new improvisation, which resembled the first but was not identical. Smoira relates: “The experience illuminated for me the true significance of the art of performance. I realized that the supposedly primitive Bedouin knew better than all of us the real value of music.”

This “real value” is part and parcel oral societies, where improvisation is a fixture of story, dance, song, and instrumental playing. Each performance is a re-creation involving identifiable elements that are manipulated, arranged, and supplemented in new and unreplicable ways. Compare this with the non-spontaneity expected of classical musicians, who work tirelessly to actualize a composer’s vision. Their performance may add a subtle interpretation, but the fear of wrong notes results in general sterility, and solidifies the separation of composer and performer.

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

Traditionalization

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.

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

Musical Dialects

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Charles Darwin received a package in 1858 from Herbert Spencer, a philosopher and evolutionary theorist whose reputation rivaled that of Darwin himself. Spencer’s gift was a collection of essays on wide-ranging topics, including “The Origin and Function of Music.” Darwin wrote Spencer a letter of gratitude, noting, “Your article on Music has also interested me much, for I had often thought on the subject and had come to nearly the same conclusion with you, though unable to support the notion in any detail.” The idea proposed was that music developed from the rhythm and pitch contours of emotional speech.

As the years went by, Darwin remained “unable to support” this intuitive hypothesis, and eventually flipped the scenario. Rather than putting speech before music, he proposed that biological urges gave rise to musical sounds, which then developed into speech. Specifically, he situated music’s origins in courtship displays, when our ancestors, “like animals of all kinds [were] excited not only by love, but by the strong passions of jealousy, rivalry, and triumph.” The cries that sprang forth, presumably akin to animal mating calls, were the precursors of language. Darwin’s theory had the benefit of rooting music (and subsequently language) in an adaptive process: “[I]t appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.”

The issue is far from conclusively decided. Contemporary theorists are split between Spencerians, who view music as an outgrowth of language, and Darwinians, who view language as a byproduct of music. This chicken-or-the-egg debate is likely to remain unsettled, in part because of the absence of the proverbial time machine, and in part because music and language are so inextricably intertwined.

However music and language came about, it is clear that they mirror one another. Both Spencer and Darwin based their theories on evidence of musical characteristics in expressive speech. Similarly, those who study global musics often find the syntactic and tonal patterns of regional dialects reflected in the phrasings, cadences, inflections, and intonations of regional songs. Indeed, distinct language forms help explain the variability of timbre, modal, and structural preferences from place to place. The folk melodies of Algeria and Zambia may not have much in common, but each is tied to speech patterns used in those countries.

A good illustration of the speech-song convergence is Steve Reich’s three-movement piece, Different Trains (1988). The melodic content of each movement derives from interviews recorded in the United States and Europe. Looped spoken phrases, drawn from recollections about the years leading up to, during, and immediately after the Second World War, are paralleled and developed by a string quartet—an effect that simultaneously highlights and enhances the musicality of the spoken words.

Yet, none of this tells us which came first in the history of our species. Music and language have existed side by side for eons. Musical norms have affected speech organization, just as speech organization has affected musical norms. In the end, the question of evolutionary sequence is less important than the very indispensability and interdependence of music and language.

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

Pop as Folk

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There is an old adage about folk music: “You know it when you hear it.” The saying refers in part to the ubiquity of folksongs in human cultures. Populations throughout the world lay collective claim to a subset of songs that have seemingly been around forever. The saying also hints at the difficulty of defining what is and what is not “music of the people.” Parameters used to separate folk from non-folk allow frequent exceptions: songs with identifiable authors, songs that are “impure” (mixed influences), songs that are not very old, etc. In the end, folk designation has less to do with authenticity (whatever that term means), than with identification. We know it when we hear it because it sounds like us.

A cursory review of folk music definitions highlights the ambiguity of the term. Possibilities include: music transmitted by mouth; music of indigenous peoples; music of the lower classes; music with unknown authorship; music written by a known person but passed on orally; songs interwoven with a national or ethnic group; music long associated with an event or holiday; music that identifies a people; and more.

As is evident from this sample list, no single folksong exhibits all of these elements. Moreover, some of the elements are contradictory (music by a known or unknown source), some are outdated or bigoted (music of indigenous or lower class peoples), and others could refer equally to popular music (holiday songs and songs of group-affiliation).

Let us turn to the latter point. Although it is not fashionable to admit, folk and pop music have much in common. In fact, one could argue that folk music is a type of pop music, and pop music is a type of folk music. In order to appreciate these affinities, we must set aside two classic signifiers of pop: commercialism and artist-centrism. Looking at the basic nature of the songs (melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic material) and their effect on those who cherish them, the distance between the presumably opposite poles of pop and folk is greatly reduced.

Part of what shapes the perception of folk music is a sense of stability and longevity. Folk songbooks and audio collections tend to be homogenous retrospectives: they gather well-known favorites that share certain linguistic, thematic, and stylistic characteristics. A quick listen to any Celtic or Russian folksong anthology makes this point obvious. Because the songs come from the same stock and (ostensibly) emerged from the same collective process, they are more or less interchangeable. The dance songs sound like other dance songs, the lullabies like other lullabies, the meditative songs like other meditative songs, and so on. Even when sonic identifiers are removed, such as regional instruments and performance techniques, strong melodic and structural resemblances remain.

This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated with partner songs: songs that are so melodically and harmonically similar that they can be performed simultaneously. In the library of English-language folksongs, this is accomplished, for example, with the simultaneous singing of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Three Blind Mice,” “London Bridge,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “The Farmer in the Dell,” and “Here We Go Looby Loo.” The same can be done in the world of pop. For instance, any song built on the common I-V-vi-IV progression can be sung together, including “No Woman, No Cry,” “With or Without You,” “Unconditionally,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Although they derive from different personages, serve different aims, and fit in different styles, they are as melodically and harmonically homogenous as partner songs from folk sources. All that is lacking is longevity, and the blurred distinctions that come with it.

Just as important is the degree to which pop songs encapsulate and perpetuate mass tastes. As much as individual performers and songwriters strive to give their music a unique stamp, it does not materialize from nothingness. Underlying these songs is a folk-like process, in which the sounds and sentiments of a particular group are harnessed and played back, thus generating a sense of collective ownership. This is not to ignore the creative process of popular artists, but rather to stress that such a process cannot be divorced from its cultural milieu. If we were able to scratch beneath the surface of songs that have come down to us as folk, we would likely discover individual musicians who offered melodies into a cultural pool, and whose individuality was obscured by the forces of time and transmission.

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

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer (Book Review)

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, edited by Yale Strom, Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2012. 153 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The past decade or so has witnessed a flourishing of books tackling various aspects of klezmer, a term referring both to a style of Eastern European-born Jewish folk music and the musicians who perform it. Growing interest in the centuries-old genre has spurred the printing of a variety of songbooks, fake books, instrument-specific collections, historical analyses and ethnographic studies. All of these areas find a home in Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, a slim yet information-rich volume edited by accomplished klezmer violinist and ethnographer Yale Strom. Filled with historical details, practical advice, technical instruction, musical examples and illustrative anecdotes, this all-in-one book gathers the wisdom of renowned klezmer performers, specifically Peter Stan (accordion), Jeff Pekarek (bass), Norbert Stachel (clarinet), David Licht (drums), Yale Strom (violin) and Elizabeth Schwartz (vocals).

The book begins with two chapters of condensed history from the Middles Ages to the present. These introductory surveys, written by Strom, ease through the somewhat disjointed development of the genre, from the dance halls of twelfth-century Germany, to the Hasidic ecstasy of seventeenth-century Poland, to the army bands of Czarist Russia, to the immigrant ensembles of the United States, to the Yiddish theater, to the modern revival and profusion of the art form.

In the limited space of roughly thirty pages, Strom manages to lay a solid historical foundation while sprinkling in several amusing vignettes. For instance, he includes a story of a man who grew up in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. During his childhood, a fiddler would come through his neighborhood around seven a.m., just after the men had gone to work. As he played a slow waltz, the wives would lean out of their apartment windows. When the music finished, the women clapped in appreciation and threw down money accompanied by rolled-up pieces of paper. The papers contained numbers corresponding to horseraces, which the fiddler brought to a bookie on the women’s behalf (p. 18).

The other chapters continue in this vein. The well-chosen authors elegantly combine the performance history of their instruments, profiles of legendary masters, insights about style and technique, stories from their own experiences, and a handful of musical illustrations. Though they are presented in unique authorial voices (Stan, Pekarek, Stachel, Licht, Strom and Schwartz) and profile unique instruments (accordion, bass, clarinet, drums, violin and vocals), they do address similar issues. It is therefore possible, if not entirely fair, to generalize their content using a few examples.

The topic of stylized embellishments appears throughout the book. This is to be expected, as the use of specific ornaments is largely what defines klezmer playing. Roughly half of Stan’s chapter on the accordion is devoted to this subject (pp. 35-39), and Strom describes the nine core embellishments, or dreydlekh, of the klezmer violin: glitshn (portamenti); mordent; krekhtsn (“moan”); kneytshn (“fold”); tshoks (“bend”); turn; harmonic; trill; and ponticello (pp. 100-101).

The authors also stress that klezmer is a lived heritage, and one rooted in a vibrant and still expanding continuum. As Stachel writes in his chapter on the clarinet: “folk music such as klezmer is a living testament to the history and collective emotional experiences of that culture and its people. It has been passed down from one generation to the next; and that transcends any professor’s attempt to mechanically and coldly ‘explain’ in a theoretical way the essence of Ashkenazi music” (p. 64).

Another theme is the influence of Eastern European cantorial music on klezmer playing and singing. Instrumentalists emulate cantorial adornments and phrasings, and vocalists cannot help but pay homage to chazzanut (cantorial art). As Schwartz puts it in her chapter on vocals: “To sing klezmer in the folk style, one must . . .  harken back to the vocal traditions of the synagogue—not because the songs are liturgical, but because these ornamentations have become an indelible part of the music’s performance” (p. 129).

Many more subjects are addressed in this useful and readable volume. Of course, as with any book, there is room for criticism. For instance, some familiar klezmer instruments were omitted—like the mandolin and members of the brass family—and some chapters offer more technical insights than others. But these objections are minor. Performers, scholars and fans of klezmer music will benefit from the book’s informative discussions, pedagogical elements, personal stories and enthusiastic tone.

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

Heart Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The heart and mind are in some ways theoretical constructs. Though both can be located within physical space—the chest and cranial cavities respectively—they have deeper significance in metaphysical discourse. The heart is not just a vital organ pumping blood around the body. In Western and some non-Western cultures, it is the seat of passion, empathy, love, conviction, intuition and emotional impulses. The mind is not just the locus of high-level cognitive activity—consciousness, perception, memory, etc. It is viewed as somehow separate from the brain (and physical existence in general). In popular usage, the mind represents self-awareness and intellect, which are considered distinct from the emotion-based attributes assigned to the heart.

Whether rational and emotional states can truly be separated is a subject of ongoing debate. Judgments, convictions, sensations and decision-making derive from a mixture of thoughts and sentiments. Feelings inform cognition; cognition informs feelings. Nevertheless, the heart and mind remain useful (and inescapable) metaphors for a complex entanglement of functions and traits.

A case in point comes from Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), an influential twentieth-century composer, ethnomusicologist and educator. Kodály spent his early career on the Hungarian countryside collecting phonograph cylinder recordings. From that experience, he concluded that human beings have two native tongues. One is the language spoken at home. The other is folk music. Verbal communication is the language of the mind: the principle medium of thought and sensory processing. Folk music is the vocabulary of the heart: a storehouse of emotions and longings.

Rather than getting bogged down in ambiguities surrounding what is and what is not folk music, we can broaden Kodály’s comment to include all music that is “indigenous” to an individual. Most of us possess an assortment of musical selections that are folk-like: they capture our spirit, embody our history and encapsulate our identities. Hearing or performing them helps ground us in our pasts, situate us in our surroundings and remind us of who we are. To use a symbolic term somewhat analogous to the heart, a personal soundtrack is the record of one’s soul. In a pre-rational yet undeniable way, it puts us in contact with our interior selves.

Of course, the impact of such music is not purely emotional or otherwise ineffable. It stirs memories, images and ideas—things usually ascribed to the mind. This demonstrates the difficulty of demarcating between feelings and thoughts (heart and mind). The notions, imagery and recollections aroused by our favorite music tend to be feeling-laden: they are attached to sentimental moments in our lives, and inspire emotionally infused concepts and mental pictures.

This brings us back to Kodály’s observation. Whatever standards are used to identify music as “folk,” the qualifying sounds typically evoke regional and/or ethnic pride, rich communal associations, and the shared sentiments and experiences of a specific population. All of this constitutes a multi-layered heart—one comprised of nuanced and particularistic feelings. It is not an unthinking seat of emotions; it has an identity. These aspects are easily adapted to individual playlists. Like the “people’s music” of a culture or subculture, personally meaningful pieces forge a connecting line to one’s inner life. They speak the language of the heart.

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