logo Enthusiasms No 30
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Matters of Texture, Function and Context
a discussion and some responses ...

Matters of Texture, Function and Context

We've all heard records of traditional singers which are just wonderful, and bear repeated listening.  This despite perhaps poor initial recording quality, background noise, coughs and splutters, missed-out verses, and all the numerous failings of 1960s' field recordings.  Am I wrong in thinking that a CD by a revival singer exhibiting just one of these blemishes might soon disappear into the depths of your record collection, seldom to be heard of again?  All right, I know that we can accept that such problems are largely insurmountable with a one-off 50-year-old field recording and, on the other hand, completely unacceptable on a newly recorded studio CD ... but is that all there is to it?  Put very simply, isn't it a fact that the traditional singer is often just so much more interesting to listen to - that the distractions of sound quality and so on don't usually prevent us enjoying the songs?

This thought was borne out of my attempting to review a pair of CDs recently from two very good singers - both of whom have listened to a lot of traditional singers.  Indeed, one of them learned most of his repertoire directly from one of the greatest singers these islands have produced.  But I'm wondering why two extremely good singers, singing a collection of generally splendid songs, have - so far - failed to move me in the way that the recordings I've heard of their own sources have.

For me, at least, the problem seems to be two-fold.  Firstly there's the matter of 'texture'.  I heard Norman Mailer on TV recently, going on as he so often does; this time he was saying how everything is plastic these days.  He went on to explain that he meant that too much of modern life was bright and attractive-looking, clean and easy to use, but that upon continued exposure to it and closer inspection, it lacked the detail, the grain, the depth - the texture - needed to make it properly worthwhile.  It was one of the few things I've ever heard him say with which I agreed, and it struck a chord.  Music which has any claim to be taken seriously needs this sort of texture - and folk music demands to be taken seriously!

The second problem is probably a personal one.  I don't consider myself one quarter the singer that most people who make records are, but I still find myself thinking, from time to time, "Why's he doing that?" or "I wouldn't sing it like that" or, most often, "That doesn't sound convincing."  Nor is it some sort of unthinking distrust, on my part, of revival singers - I have such thoughts about some traditional performances, too - only not very often!

Surprisingly few good revival singers who make records slavishly copy the singers from whom they originally learned their songs - indeed, in some cases they collate versions from several sources, change things that don't feel right, even write the odd verse to complete or clarify the story.  Traditional singers have done the same - certainly, where we have the recordings to hear, none of them seem to have slavishly copied their sources.  Yet, once we have learned to listen to them properly, the old people are almost always the more interesting.  So why is this?

I have to admit that I'm somewhat at a loss for a truly satisfactory answer.  Many revivalists are really very good singers with some fine and interesting songs - and I'll readily accept that not all traditional singers can be so described.  I'm wondering if that old chestnut, the 'art-as-object vs art-as-process' argument, might be involved here.  What happens after they've learned the song?  Might this perceived lack of texture be a result of the situations and the contexts in which revivalists habitually sing, as compared with those in which traditional singers used to?

Closely connected with that concept is the matter of the reason for singing at all; the function that singing fulfills, both for the singer and for the listeners.  Again, this is surely very different for traditional and revival singers - at least, for those who make records.

It would have been extremely unusual for a traditional singer to approach a record company and suggest that they should make a record of them.  For the most part, the process was the other way about.  The purpose and function of traditional activities has been much discussed by ethnomusicologists, among others, and some clear objectives can be seen as being pretty constant in all small communities throughout the world.  Of all such activities, singing and music are the most widely practised, and have several interconnected functions.  Broadly, these can be summed up as 'establishing and reaffirming group identity'.  The songs and ballads serve to tell us who we are, what we believe in, and the compass of our community.  Such things are vital to any group of communal animals, and this is as true today as it was in the past.  Just look at the time and money spent by almost all large commercial companies on building and reinforcing corporate identity and loyalty amongst their employees ...

In the past when small rural communities were fairly isolated, group identity and loyalties were of paramount importance - co-operation could mean the difference between a community's flourishing or its decline.  In a world without a free health service, pensions or social care, co-operation between individuals, families and other sub-groupings could often, truly, be a matter of life or death.  Music, dancing and singing are the most common of the mechanisms for building and reinforcing group identity - probably because they are able to be participated in by everyone at some level or other.  You often hear old people say "We made our own entertainment in those days".  I find this very interesting because the word entertainment now has quite different connotations from those the speakers are using.  In fact, "We made our own entertainment" is self-contradictory today, when entertainment implies that someone else is doing it to you.  Interestingly, the earlier usage of 'entertain' meant 'to keep up; to maintain'.

I don't wish to labour the point or to make any false claims - but I do believe that when you share music and, particularly, songs with a group of people regularly and over a prolonged period, you do get to know them a good deal better (or perhaps just differently) than you would under 'normal' circumstances.  Emotional and cathartic as so many songs are, you see far deeper into people - into what affects them - than is usually possible in today's world of largely private and individualised lives.

On the other hand, I'm sure that much, if not most, revivalist singing is to gig audiences which are largely different each time.  Having got the song as the singer wants it, there's no particular incentive to continue to change and develop it further.  Compare this with a traditional (southern English, at least) singer's performance situation: for the most part there was none of today's separation between singer and listeners - no 'audience' in the modern sense, just other singers and interested family, or community, members; everyone had a share in the ownership of the songs even when protocols meant that they couldn't sing them - "that's one of our songs, though it's not one of mine"; the group make-up was almost wholly static.  Clearly, this was a markedly different context to that experienced by most revival singers today.  Most, but not all ...  Some of us find ourselves in singing contexts which are - if you make allowances for today's different social organisation and transport options - not too dissimilar to those found in the 'singing pubs' of half a century ago.

I know what it's like to have a smallish repertoire, and to be in the same singing company regularly, and to sing two or three songs most weeks for a number of years.  The room is full of your peers, and all are singers; you have every incentive to try and prevent your songs becoming boring to the rest of the company, not to mention yourself; to develop them, to improve your performance of them.  You also, inevitably, pick up some of the stylistic traits of the group as a whole, which changes the way you sing.  This, I think, was what may have happened in places like Blaxhall, Snape, Eastbridge, Catfield - and on the trawlers? and in the bothies?  This may have been how traditional performances developed texture - and why they bear so much closer inspection.

There is another factor to bear in mind as well.  So many studio recordings seem too 'careful' or 'rehearsed' - more concerned with getting it right for the CD than with getting it right!  Clearly, having to take particular care over a performance is likely to rule out the sort of inventiveness that a relaxed social situation would normally allow; even encourage.  And as to rehearsal ... well, that just makes you sound rehearsed!

A singer in the traditional situation didn't have these concerns - s/he could say, with justification, "Well, you've heard me sing that better, and you've heard me sing it worse, too.  And I'm pretty sure you'll hear me sing it even better still - maybe next time!"  And you would know that this was as true for them as it was for you.

Of course, this is all conjecture - but it's an interesting topic.  If any of you have ideas about it, please contact me ... and it doesn't need to be in the form of a 'letter for publication' - I'd just like to know what you think.

Rod Stradling - 12.2.02

Re: Texture, Function and Context

In his Enthusiasms piece, 'Matters of Texture, Function and Context' (below), Rod Stradling calls for a debate on what he perceives to be a problem; namely what is it that makes him prefer to listen to traditional singers, rather than to revival singers who sing traditional songs.  Quoting that great folklorist Norman Mailer, he extracts Mailer's word texture, which Mailer says is lacking in our present day society.  (According to Mailer, there is too much plastic in the world today.  What the world lacks is...texture).  Rod then states that the function of folksongs has changed over the years, probably as a result of a change in the context of the performances.

Well, Rod.  The answer, in a nutshell, is that you appear to be under the impression (delusion?) that you are listening to a single tradition, whereas, in fact, you are listening to two discreet traditions.

Thirty-five years ago Bert Lloyd wrote that, 'the folk traditions have never been the fixed monolithic structures that some purists would have us believe.  On the contrary, styles of folk music have constantly changed, down the ages, according to changes in the fate of the labouring people who carried that music.  Folk-Art traditions do not stand still any more than fine-art traditions do, which is one reason why the romantic chasers of the "authentic" in folk song so often find themselves pursuing a will-o'-the- wisp.'

Perhaps, as one ancient Chinese philosopher once said, we ought to begin this debate by defining our terms.  In 1954 the International Folk Music Council came up with the following definition for the term 'folk music':

'Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission.  The factors that shape the tradition are: (i) continuity which links the present with the past; (ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and (iii) selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives.

The term can be applied to music that has been evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular and art music and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community.

The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the re-fashioning the re-creation of the music by the community that gives it its folk-character.'

This definition is based on a similar one developed in 1907 by Cecil Sharp and printed in his English Folk Song: Some Conclusions.  This should come as no surprise, because Maud Karpeles, Sharp's former assistant and close confidant, was extremely active in running the International Folk Music Council when their definition was made.  I find it interesting to note that there are three aspects to this definition, continuity, variation and selection.  Can there, I wonder, be any connection here with Rod's three terms, texture, function and context?

The term 'plastic world', one that is, 'bright and attractive-looking, clean and easy to use', is very much a definition of our present-day disposable society.  We lack, 'the detail, the grain, the depth'.  In other words, we live in a world that cares little for the past.  Or, to use the IFMC term, we lack the continuity with the past.  Similarly, how can there be selection in our music, when the community itself no longer, 'determines the form or forms in which the music survives'?  Our music is already chosen for us.  The context and function have changed.  If you don't believe me, consider a recent TV show, where would-be pop singers were subjected to the humiliating insults of a panel of 'experts' from the pop-industry.  Music today is big money and this is what motivates the 'industry'.  And what of variation, springing as it does from, 'the creative impulse of the individual or group'?  When was the last time that you saw individual creativity on Top of the Pops?  Think, instead, of all the recent groups that appear to have been created by a computer programme, groups designed to cover every aspect and angle that the audience is perceived to require.

Having said this, is it any wonder that todays revival singers are different from singers like Harry Cox, Sam Larner or Walter Pardon.  Their backgrounds are totally different.  For a start, they no longer sing within the same type of community.  Their world-views are different.  (One English gypsy singer that I knew once told me, in all honestly, I think, that he would not travel beyond a few miles to the west of his campsite in case he fell of the edge of the world.  He could have been having me on, but, somehow, I don't think that he was.) And then, of course, there is all the hype.  By all means have the annual folk equivalent of the Brit Awards.  But, in doing so, be aware that the stakes have changed.  Managers, publicists, recording studios, record labels, concert promoters etc.  etc.  all have something to gain from 'their' performers doing well at such events.  What performer today is going to venture into a recording studio without first thinking about a possible award?  Hence the quest for the 'perfect' CD - no fluffs, no bum notes and certainly no chance of any unrehearsed spontaneity or improvisation.  And how many performers are satisfied any more in just giving of their best in a club or a concert, rather than trying to woo an audience that could possibly vote for them sometime in the future?  (Am I, by the way, the only person to spot that the publicity for this year's event seems to inevitably feature a photograph of an attractive female performer?  Whoever thought that one up should have no place in the folkworld.  But then, hey get with it Yates, this is the twenty-first century after all!).  Harry Cox, Sam Larner or Walter Pardon never had these problems.  At most they had to satisfy a taproom of their peers (and that could be quite a daunting task) and so they only sang when they were ready, and, importantly, when their audience judged them to be ready.  (Having said the above, I do happily note that one recent CD by one of the top revival performer comprises quite a number of 'home-made' tracks, ones literally recorded at home by the performer herself, and I hope that I am not alone in finding this such a refreshingly fine album.)

Today, anybody can sing a folksong.  You can call yourself a folksinger until you go blue in the face, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you are a folksinger!  If you sing in clubs and at folk festivals, if you record CDs of folk-material, all of which will be heard by a 'folk' audience; then, yes, you do belong to a tradition.  But this is a different tradition from the one that was known to all the singers who gave songs to Cecil Sharp and the other collectors.  Bert Lloyd again, 'And as the life of the common people is changed, however slowly, through the movement of society, so their folk music alters too'.  When the continuity/context is changed, so too is the tradition changed.  The 'labouring people', the 'common people' who 'carried that music', are nothing like as numerous as they once were.  During the last century we have witnessed a tradition vanish - in England, at any rate - and, simultaneously, we have seen a new tradition rise, phoenix-like, out of the ashes.  In many ways these disparate traditions may seem to be very similar.  In other ways they are poles apart.  And it is, I think, important to recognize, and understand, the differences.  Otherwise we fall into the trap of trying to compare different folkmusic elements as though they were part and parcel of the same thing.

Mike Yates - 25.2.02

Rod Stradling replies:

I agree with more or less everything you say, Mike - having said much the same, many times, myself.

However, I think you've rather missed the point I was making here - or trying to!  I believe that it is possible for revivalists to evolve genuine singing communities, in which much the same conditions apply as did in places like Blaxhall, Eastbridge, etc.  In which singing which does have texture can develop ... has developed, in some cases.

I don't think I'm 'trying to compare different folkmusic elements as though they were part and parcel of the same thing' - rather I'm wondering whether (suggesting, even), that if function and context are similar to those pertaining in the old singing pubs, texture may naturally develop.  So that singing by the likes of us might actually become 'part and parcel of the same thing' that Harry Cox, Sam Larner, Walter Pardon, et al, enjoyed.

Texture, Function and Context : Some random thoughts

Before trying to argue a case, I'll start with an instance.  Long ago, on some forgotten radio show (it might even have been Desert Island Discs) I heard a recording of a familiar hymn:
"Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm doth bind the restless wave ...
Oh hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea!"
Like most people of my generation, I knew it as one more scrap of aural wallpaper remembered from a distant childhood.  But this particular version had been recorded live in the Navy Chapel in Portsmouth dockyard, by a congregation of sailors and their families.  I have been haunted ever since by the emotional force those singers put into lines like:
"From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them Lord, where're they go ..."
For an outsider, empathizing with those singers at a distance was a cathartic experience.  For those directly involved it was, I would guess, positively transcendental.  As you rightly say, Rod, context is always vital in conditioning our response to a song.  But here it was ... everything!  And thus my tale unfolds...

Most of the music we categorize as 'traditional' came from people who lived their lives close to the edge of disaster.  Hunger, ill-health, war and persecution were ever-present threats, even during the brief moments when there was enough food, enough liquor, and enough good company to sustain the illusion that all was well with the world.  And so it happens that the songs these people sang - including many which, on paper, may seem sentimental, silly, offensive, or just downright trivial - have a dignity in performance which singers who live safer and more comfortable lives cannot hope to recapture.

Even now, several decades down the line, I can recall the initial impact of the LP Murderer's Home.  Those wailing work-chants, recorded in the field, as the chained convicts toiled under the pitiless Texas sun, had a awesome power.  In a miss-spent musical youth, I did many foolish things.  But I was never quite foolish enough to try performing songs from Murderer's Home in front of an audience (though I sometimes keened them to myself in moments of solitary desperation).  Eventually, I came to think that singing them - and all other songs which grew from similar roots - was not just a lapse of taste - it was an insult to the people whose suffering produced them.  Without context, no authenticity.  Without authenticity, no validity.

Perhaps that's too extreme.  Maybe a good song is a good song, in or out of context.  And maybe it deserves to be cherished, and passed on, by anyone who has the wit to appreciate its qualities.  Or maybe not.  When I'm sober, the jury is still out on this case.  When I've had a few beers, it depends on the mood I'm in and the company I'm keeping.  "Bless me Huddie, for I have sinned ..." but I digress ... back to the plot.

Where, then, can we find our authenticity - we, the educated, the affluent, the comfortably situated lovers of songs from a harsher bygone age? For a lot of young musicians, it seems the answer is "forget the words, just play the tunes".  I am continually astonished by the virtuosity and enthusiasm of so many of the young instrumentalists I hear in pub sessions and at festivals.  I sometimes regret that so few of them show any interest in the old songs, but perhaps they are on the right path after all.  Maybe we should all leave the old songs in the musical museum, while the tunes live on outside? Or maybe, if the spirit moves us, we should write new words, that grow out of our own lived experience?

I remember the autumn of 1962 - the Cuban missile crisis - the terrifying realization that this time, yes this time, it might really, really, be the beginning of the end of the world.  If you don't remember it, listen to Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, composed (to a traditional tune) by a twenty-year old poet who believed it might be the last song he would ever write.  Forty years on, it still conveys just about as much of the passion and desperation of that moment in history as I can cope with.  And if it's not authentic, I don't know what is.

Time to start winding down towards a conclusion.  A fairly banal one, I'm afraid, but the best I can do for the moment.  Returning to your original point, Rod - although revival singers can learn the old songs from source singers, they cannot re-live the lives that made those old singers sing the way they did.  But just as a good actor doesn't have to be a drunk to play a drunk, good revival singers can empathize with traditional songs, and convey something of their essence to audiences who might be put off by the rough edges of the originals.  They may even add something valid to their performance of a traditional song, something which does grow out of their own experience.  And for those who are not convinced by modern re-workings of traditional songs, the original recordings are still available.  You pays your money, and you takes your choice.


Mike Sutton - 23.2.02
School of Humanities, University of Northumbria

Rod Stradling replies:

I think you're slightly missing my point, Mike.  I'm talking about the context in which songs are performed rather than the contexts of the songs themselves.  I agree entirely that if I wasn't there, I won't have the same emotional involvement as someone who was ... but if I sing a sea song, it won't be because of my limited sailing experience but because that particular sea song resonates with something in me with which I do have a real, fist-hand knowledge: love; loss; adversity; betrayal; heroism; whatever.  I'll sing it because I need to - in order to express something within me which is important and in need of an airing.  In today's world of the isolated individual - where families rarely live together for very long; where touching and caressing are viewed with suspicion; where large emotions are considered best contained - such things become vital!  So - in this context - my singing the song is as "authentic and valid" as it would be for a sailor.

Your introduction of Dylan's A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall into the debate is interesting - but, perhaps, for slightly different reasons.  What I remember about it was that, within weeks of its release, hundreds - thousands - of people our age had dug their Skiffle guitars out of the attic and learned the chords and words.  Why?  Not to get paid gigs; not to impress the girls (or boys) - just to sing the song which gave voice to so much they had churning around inside them.  And what did they do then?  They went off to the back rooms of pubs and sang it to each other; it and lots of other songs which gave them the same sort of cathartic release.  Hard Rain became a folk song in the real sense; the folks took it and made it theirs - because they needed to.

And before too long they found that this singing about things that were important to them with other people to whom they were also important was, in itself, quite as important as the songs themselves.  Some of them began to find other sorts of songs which had the same effect, and they began to see that some sorts of songs did the job better, for them, than others.  So the back rooms, the clubs, began to change - the original diversity of material performed began to become more constrained and specialised.  Individuals began to congregate in the clubs which most mirrored their own tastes and needs ... began to build little communities, with group identities expressed in song, just like the ones in the villages had been a generation before - and for much the same reasons.

Hard Rain became a folksong because it expressed what we needed to say at that time; because it told us who 'we' were and, equally importantly, who 'they' were.  Folks have always needed such songs, and always will, for the same reasons.  But circumstances change, and so do the folksongs ... and as a wise person once said to Ronald Blythe "Never mind the song; it was the singing that counted!"  And he meant that it was the situation in which the singing was done, the twenty men and boys scything the field, as well as the singing itself as an activity - the context, which counted.

Rod Stradling - 23.2.02

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