MT logo Letters - Nov 2000

Who Owns the Game? ... Who Plays the Tune?

A reply to Mike Yates' Who Owns the Game? ...  A Question of Cultural Patrimony, Enthusiasms No 22 (August 2000)

Referring to the release of Topic's recent Walter Pardon CD, Mike Yates raises the important, fascinating and complex topic of who owns what: "In the Pardon household singers had their own songs and it was considered improper for other members of the family to publicly sing another's songs."  Thinking about this question from a cross-cultural angle may shed some interesting perspective on the issues.

One point suggested by writing on folk music outside England is that it can help to distinguish between a song and a performance.  At one end of the extreme, members of some cultures don't seem to recognise the first concept at all - there are, of course, sets of more-or-less fixed words and tunes combined in more-or-less regularly patterned ways.  Singing exists, but 'songs', as entities in themselves, do not.  It is all verb and no noun, or rather insiders do not see each one-off act of singing (however determined it is by existing cultural materials) as a 'song', a product separable from other acts of singing.  There are many places where such singing is not owned by anyone - song performance is just an integral part of some other activity, perhaps work, courtship or ritual, not a separate thing in and of itself.

The lack of a product (or really, an internally recognised product, in that we can still come along and record that element thus making it into a product) does not in itself prevent ownership, whether by an individual, family, profession or community, however.  A step away from the (widespread) extreme above, we find societies where what is owned is not the song itself (it would be as absurd as owning two minutes of last Friday) but the right (duty, privilege, obligation) to sing in certain ways on certain occasions.

Taking a few steps further, there are, or were, North American Indians who acquired songs in dreams.  (Those whose knowledge of music is largely derived through listening and performing, rather than reading scores [or indeed those who play computer games so much that they then dream about them] will know this is not a far-fetched notion, as will, I assume, those who have experienced the irregular diets of hunting peoples.)  Each such song was individually dreamed, and individually owned.  Of course, these songs typically resemble existing songs in the repertory, even in some cases being nearly identical.  Nonetheless, assuming that the dream experience is believed to be a real one, the dreamer owns the new song.

Moving on again, and in a slightly different direction, there are improvisatory traditions in which musicians learn ways of working with techniques and materials such that each and every one performance is fresh and new (at least in theory).  Again, ownership may occur - the lack of fixidity of the music on a note-for-note basis (which may be a foreign concept anyhow) does not preclude the recognition of certain ideas as belonging to particular musicians.  Schools of performance often exist together with these traditions, the dutiful apprentice gradually acquiring the right to perform his master's materials.  In many cases, membership of a school is not simply a case of acquiring musical familiarisation but one of entering into social and interpersonal obligations.  Chinese opera singers near Shanghai early last century in a style named variously tanhuang or huaguxi, for instance, served a formal three-year apprenticeship.  Typically, the teacher provided contacts, (possibly but not necessarily) some direct tuition, and all living costs, while keeping all the pupil's income (generally as a minor onstage role) for the first year, and then splitting it down the middle thereafter.  Once the apprenticeship was complete (and there was an expected but unofficial fourth year, in which the pupil still handed over money and bought food and drink for the teacher), the obligations continued to function in both directions.  The master would look for work for his pupils while pupils continued to support the master with gifts.

Of these possibilities, and there are others more akin to those familiar to us in Western music history (for instance, ownership of music by patrons, religious, political and commercial), the closest analogy to the Pardon family - where, I assume, distinct concepts of song and performance might have been held - may be the case where in theory anyone can know a song (and, maybe, in certain instances, anyone can freely repeat it) but only certain people are recognised as authorised to perform it at the primary social event itself.  Not copyright, exactly, but performance right.  Historical research might help us get a better concept of what a 'song' actually was, and where our predecessors saw themselves on the spectrum running from verb to noun.  What was it, exactly, that someone might own?  Likewise, research among performers today might also help us get a better understanding of what it means (to them) to sing now.  (I apologise to those who may have published lots and lots on this already, and would be happy to receive reading lists - but my admittedly novice acquaintance with the literature so far doesn't give me much direct sense of how English musicians of, say, fifty or one-hundred years ago conceptualised their singing.  One rather has to extrapolate from the things that people individually write about or get angry about, which is difficult unless one has a strong background in the bigger picture.)

A second point, from the cross-cultural angle again, is the obvious one that all the above systems work more-or-less well until the advent of recording and reproduction (in any form, including writing).  It is here that industry gets involved in the ownership and selling of singing / songs as products (rather than just in providing instruments, say).  Many of us are implicated in this process as people who record and document sounds.

In ethnomusicology it is becoming imperative for every student of Master's level and above to understand something of the legal and moral complexities of these situations.  They can be much as Mike Yates' article illustrates, but are often worse, in that you might be recording in the jurisdiction of one legal system, say China, for potential publication many years later in quite another, and might be dealing with people whose expectations of research and of written documentation are not close to our own - even setting aside issues of literacy and translation, in some places, production of a contract is akin to saying that you do not trust the other party to keep their spoken word, which is hardly a good start to any relationship.

If I remember correctly, Jan Fairley wrote a paper about a Peruvian ensemble that she guided around Britain.  Pieces that began as 'folk music' at the start of the tour ended up as named individuals' original compositions in radio programmes, concerts and published discs at the end, not only because that was what allowed the performers the best chance to benefit from marketing of their own performances but also because they gradually realised that they were now in a place that seemed to value individual composition, and treated composers as rather more special than performers - mere musical executants.  Jan reflects on the moral issues this raises, for and among the musicians, for the home community and for herself as principal mediator between the group and their audiences.

In short, the current view from studies of other musical traditions - and I think this is a closer analogy than that of archaeology, which Mike provides, although the upshot is partly similar - is that it is unethical for the collector only to benefit from the publication of field recordings.  The collector has a moral responsibility (and often a legal one) to provide fees, royalties, copies of recordings and / or other appropriate reparation to those whose work contributed directly to the original recorded objects.  There may also be a responsibility to clear use of materials when they are subsequently used for a purpose other than that for which recording permission was granted or are employed in a format that would dismay the original contributors.  This can be difficult, and numerous complex cases have ensued.

Nonetheless, the ethnomusicologist today is increasingly trained to accept that he or she has a moral and professional responsibility to understand these issues.  As people who gather music from elsewhere, we need to have thought about how reparation can best be handled in light of the cultural sensitivities and economic needs of those involved, assuming that they aren't able to be present to negotiate for themselves.  Two strategies may help us manage this: 1) we need to know the people whose music we have recorded well enough to understand what they want, i.e., we need to study them, not just their music; 2) we need to keep in contact with them thereafter, insofar as we can, for instance by sending copies of all publications and unpublished materials.  The relationship, once established, should continue.

Does this mean that I would put it all into the public domain?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, I might buy into the idea that much of the world's music should not be owned by individual persons; no, in that in many places, England included, these individuals nonetheless deserve due compensation for what is often 'our' publication of 'their' artistry.  We perhaps need legislation that better recognises singing, not songs.

Jonathan Stock - 30.11.00

Re: The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin review (1)

I feel that I (or someone) should add a postscript to my friend Fred McComick's review, of another friend, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's presentation of his grandmother's songs, in The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin: Irish Traditional Singer.  It is, briefly, this; that in Ireland, among people who are passionately concerned about the continuance of the singing tradition and who care about its accurate representation, there has been universal welcome and, in general, approval for this work.  Approval 'in general' I said because no-one denies that the book has deficiencies.  I, personally, would like to know why Dáibhí ignored or selected, some information and advice I offered him and whose inclusion would (I think) have made a better balanced and more accurate book.  And there are numerous unexplained editorial inconsistencies - one of them very serious.  Nevertheless, the book has received welcome and approval because it is recognised that it is a considerable contribution to the literature of the Irish singing tradition.

I attended the book's launch in Dublin.  After Cathal Goan (Head of RTÉ Television and a scholar of Gaelic song) had completed the formalities, we talked - and we sang: Dáibhí sang, I sang, Phil Callery sang, Antaine Ó Faracháin sang, other members of the Ó Cróinín family, uncles, aunts, cousins, sang; Nicholas Carolan (unprecedentedly in my experience) sang.  In Ireland, the publication of a book of (or about) songs, is about singing.  Dáibhí was there among his family.  The book was launched among a community of singers and within a family gathering.  There were therefore, things the book did not have to say: the context of the songs, the nature of the area, the personality of the singer were too well known to need more than a sketch.  Fred seems to have had expectations which were not in the minds of the communities which this book was intended to serve.

He also fails to acknowledge the length of time, the effort and the achievement which it represents.  Most importantly, this is the first time - ever - that the full known repertory of any singer from any area of Ireland has been presented.  That this singer sang songs of great quality, in versions of great beauty, in a style which is delicate and understated, in both Irish and English; that she also sang songs of English music hall and vaudeville origin, dandling songs, children's songs, local songs and silly songs, allows us to construct a new and more open paradigm of the scope of the Irish singing tradition - and from the position of an unimpeachable empirical.  That is no small matter, but instead of acknowledging it, Fred quibbles and takes the editor to task, partly for things which did not matter in the book's context, but only to outsiders and for things which the editor, despite his academic background, (he is Professor of early Irish History at NUI Galway) was not capable of appreciating and might not have thought important if he had.

A few examples of both: nobody in Ireland needs to be told about the Wren Boys - Fred thinks there should have been a note explaining a photograph of Mrs Cronin 'making decorations for the wren-bush'.  He deprecates the absence of any analysis of Mrs Cronin's singing style but, apart from the fact that the CDs obviate the immediate need, it's worth pointing out that such a task needs skill and sympathy - in my experience there is hardly a person in the British Isles with enough of both to do a decent job.  However, these are only two of Fred's quibbles - some of which seem almost spiteful.  He quotes a reference in the introduction to 'the turn of the century' and adds - 'he means of course the twentieth century' - I'm sorry to have to inform you, Fred, (contrary to global hysteria) that it's obvious Dáibhí means the 20th century, a century does not end until the end of its last year - this year is the last of the 20th Century.  (20 X 100 = 2000).  Several other times Fred questions Dáibhí's use of English where I can see no real problem - for example, in connection with Seán Ó Cúill's collection where 'The adjudicators ...  remarked that there were a lot of fine songs in his collection, but because the author was unwilling to cede copyright in their publication it never appeared in print'.  I agree that the adjudicators did not say all the words in that sentence, but only pedantry would draw attention to it; the ordinary reader has no problem.  And, later, Fred makes a point about the Irish Folklore Commission having been recording folklore for eleven years before 1946, the date at which Dáibhí says that Séamus Ó Duilearga, 'conceived a plan to send collectors ...  to record ...  samples of the story telling and folklore ...'  A kinder reader might have worked out that it was the sending of collectors which was the innovation.  Previously recording had been done by correspondents, who lived locally and were either part-timers or had been appointed full-time having distinguished themselves in a part-time capacity.  Lastly, though there is more, Fred's crack about '... a gentleman identified only as Dr Lynch.  If he ever had a first name, it is not recorded here'.  I think it should be gently pointed out that in the Ballyvourney community of around 1900, there were two people (apart from the local landlord, if there was one) who had no 'first' name: the Priest and the Doctor.  In his lack of sympathy for the editor, Fred has failed to recognise that both Dáibhí and his father were members of that community and the use of a deferential title rather than a Christian name, would have seemed natural to them.

Fred's first big gripe is the lack of prominence given to the recordings.  Firstly, this is not unexpected given that Four Courts Press is a book publisher, not a record company.  However, there is a practical reason; let me spell it out - VAT.  A book which 'Includes 2 CDs' does not incur VAT but a set of CDs supported by a book is wholly taxable.  Would you like to pay more, Fred?  Actually, I'd question his argument anyway - the CDs support the book because the book tells more of the story - even if not completely.  Again, the choice of publisher is not accidental - Four Courts is one of the major publishers of academic history in Ireland - Dáibhí's reputation as a historian persuaded them to publish a work in a genre they would not otherwise have accepted.  And this is another reason why Fred's review should have been less stingingly critical.  Although a professional historian, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín is very much an amateur in the area of traditional song.  He has been working on the book since 1990, taking it over following work by his late father, as an exercise in the filio-pious, as a tribute to one special member of his family, but also to others.  He was never the person to conduct ethnographical inquiry; too close to the subject and too far from the discipline.

The second of Fred's big objections (at least, he spends a lot of space on it) concerns the ways in which the texts noted from Mrs Cronin have been supplemented.  First, by listing other versions; I agree with Fred that these are incomplete and inconsistent but if he's ever tried to do such a thing he would find that any other result is very difficult to attain.  Second, by sometimes giving some verses for comparison with what was sung - Fred thinks it's a waste of time - and I agree - but that's all it is.  He reserves his most thorough condemnation for a third decision: that where there is a song-title but no recording was made nor any text exists, a set of words, thought likely to have been analogous with the song Bess meant by that title, has been appended.  Fred rejects this because it cannot have been exactly what Mrs Cronin sang and because the words are sometimes drawn from disparate sources - I think he is again unfair.  The general reader - and there are many of those - the book was being reprinted within a week of its first issue - will find this helpful and no-one, not even the most 'general' reader will make the mistake of concluding that the text given in such cases was that sung by Mrs Cronin.  Come off your academic high horse, Fred.

Fred is at his most severe when it comes to the transcriptions of texts.  He carefully compares them with the CDs and finds glaring inconsistencies - which there are, but a little close reading, before rushing into HTML, would have shown where the inconsistency lies.  Take the first item on the CDs, Níl mo shláinte ar fónamh, We are told that the text is 'From BBC 11988; there is another in DOC's notes.  A third text is in CBÉ 737, 80-82.  There is a copy also in Séamus Ennis's CBÉ copybooks (Sept 1946).  The BBC 1947 version is fuller with VV.2,3 and an introduction in English; cf CBÉ 1595, 71-72 (Cork, 1961).'  (Incidentally Fred says he can't find any reference to the spoken introduction, which he hears on the cd, in the book - sorry, I've just quoted it - but that's not really important).  Has the answer dawned?  It lies in the punctuation - the semi-colons - the transcribed text is not necessarily that of the first item mentioned in the notes.  It may be one of the others - or (shades of Stephen Sedley - already invoked by Fred) it could be a collation.  In order to be sure which, I contacted Dáibhí.  I wonder why Fred did not do so.  He would have been told that there were no collations.  He would have heard that the Editor began working from tapes which had been made for his father and whose quality did not permit absolutely clear audition - hence some gaps in the transcriptions where the CDs are perfectly clear.  He would have been told that the text reproduced was not necessarily that of the first item referred to in the list of available texts but instead that of the fullest single text.  Here, while I think it is useful for us to be provided with more than one of the alternative texts, I would also be highly critical - we should be told clearly which version has been selected.  However, my point is that Fred completely mistook the nature of the offence.  Admittedly he was led into it by Dáibhí's own statement, on page 33, 'In the case of the songs for which there are sound-recorded versions, the printed text given here is that of the recording used for the CDs.'  But the alarm bells should have been set ringing by another (ambiguous) statement - on page 29, '...  the unique collection of manuscript materials assembled by my father ... has also enabled me to offer the definitive text of all Bess's songs, not just the recorded ones.'  It is clear that this book would have benefitted from careful editing - a further six months from Dáibhí, or a really good proof reader.  However, my criticism of Fred stands equally: a critic cannot afford such careless reading, especially one who warns against 'Failure to read the entire introduction carefully...'

In this same context, I have been puzzled by Fred's references to the collector, 'Alexander' Freeman - there are articles on song collecting in west Cork in the Journal of the Folk Song Society by an 'A.  Martin Freeman' and a member of the Editorial Board of the Irish Folk Song Society styled in exactly the same way - whose mistake is this?  And in any case, since there is an inconsistency, would it not have merited Fred's using a footnote - as he would suggest for Dáibhí?  And how about the several places in the review where George Pickow's name has been misspelled, 'Picow'?  Finally in this brief bit of separating pots from kettles, there is the matter of The Little Pack of Tailors.  Fred mentions that I pointed Dáibhí in the direction of several odd references and purports not to understand either their relevance or their inclusion.  I suggest he reads the entire song-text and the note which follows it.  The latter gives a text taken from Bess's handwriting which includes the well known lines Johnny will you marry me?  Johnny will you take me?  Johnny will you marry me - or what the devil ails you?  These do not occur in any the recordings of The Little Pack of Tailors within my experience and it is for this verse that I referred to Jeannie Robertson's Bonnie lass come o'er the burn and that the tune for this fragment is sometimes known as Some say the devil's dead.  Elizabeth Cronin muddled the text, Dáibhí made a hames of the referencing and Fred couldn't tell the difference.

I don't intend to quibble further - though there is much more in this review with which to take issue - like its lack of comment on the musical notation and failure even to mention the fact, that where more than one recording exists, we are not told which one has been notated.

It is my view, that, like traditional singing, scholarship is a concerted exercise, a thinking in common.  One person initiates, others correct and augment.  This book is a start.  It has many imperfections and errors but it is far from worthless and it has such references as will allow us to undo some of the mistakes.  (Though it would have been nice to be saved the trouble.)

And to be positive, despite Fred's hostility and errors, his review clarifies much which is unclear in the book and sets an agenda for further endeavour.  It would have been a worthy contribution had it been composed with greater generosity, giving credit where due, correction where justified and setting out suggestions for further work.  (Incidentally, I thought it was clear that there are plans to publish stories and spoken items of Elizabeth Cronin - and I expect that some points Fred desires will be included there.  Perhaps also, the editor and publishers will consider a second edition.)  However, as it stands, the review, which one of my colleagues described as 'vitriolic', causes the friends of the author of this book to wonder whether it will not cause him such pain that it would be better not drawn to his attention.  Which leaves me questioning the worth of the review and the sense of publishing it. *

I value Musical Traditions.  It has stood like a beacon for the principle that the performance of traditional music and song matters far more than its study.  Its editors have fully understood that no amount of study; no amount of careful documentation of what happens, or how things are done in a tradition, will allow anyone to reproduce the spirit of that tradition.  Performance is learned through performance and informed by study.  It is much more important that the Irish singing tradition should be informed (however inconsistently) by a book which has the positive qualities demonstrated by this one, than that I or Fred or anybody else should have to swallow its academic shortcomings.  Has Musical Traditions lost the plot?

John Moulden - 24.11.00

* [An MT review has two purposes: it should alert the potential puchaser to both positive and negative aspects of the publication which might not be immediately apparent upon cursory inspection; it should also raise related issues which are likely to be of interest to readers.  Whatever the merits or failings of Fried's review, I would suggest that it did both these things ... thus there was both worth and sense in publishing it.  The possible reaction of an author to criticism ought not effect the content or the publication of a review ... to extend the logic of John's question, one might even argue that, if a notional author is truly as sensitive as is being suggested here, s/he shouldn't risk publication in the first place - Ed.]

A Clarification

(In my recent review of the latest Tenores de Oniferi CD, I said that I no longer recommended their previous record, on the Music of the World label, since I had been told by Oniferi's distributor that the band had not even known that the record had been released.  This was true - but it now turns out that things were even worse than that ... they had never received any royalty payments either.  However, none of this was the fault of Music of the World Records.  They had sent copies of the CD and the royalty money to the band's 'representative' in Sardinia - who had promptly absconded with it all!  Happily, all is now sorted out, and Bob Haddad of Music of the World has concluded a new deal to the band. Their producer writes to explain. - Ed)

Being the producer of Su Banzigu, the most recent Tenores de Oniferi recording, I feel the urgency of making clear a couple of things.  I spoke many times with Bob Haddad of the Music of the World company which released a CD of these performers two years ago.  The group, as Rod Stradling pointed in his review, knew nothing about the CD after it had been released, but I'm glad to say that Mr Haddad's behaviour has been absolutely loyal and correct.  It's a shame, but the people who made the deal disappeared ... and still Tenores de Oniferi didn't see a copy of the record ... not to mention any money ... (but that's the less important thing).

I thank Rod Stradling for helping us making this clear and my friend Gypsy Flores from KUSP Radio (California) for putting me in touch with Mr Haddad, whose bona fides we never doubted.

Gianluca Dessì manager of KUNTZERTU - 18.11.00

Re: Sam Larner review:

I would like to make some observations on Roger Digby's review of the album, Now is the Time for Fishing and your comments on adding extra material.  The original LP was conceived as an attempt to present Sam Larner, not just as a repository for songs, but as an all round human being, giving a picture of him as a fisherman and of the community he came from.  As such, it was extremely successful and many of us still regard it as possibly the finest presentation of a traditional singer ever produced.  That success came from the skilful balance of song and speech which was achieved by many hours of careful listening and editing.  If additional material were available, it would seem preferable to re-issue Topic's A Garland For Sam, and use it on that. 

Incidentally, Fishing was just one of a number of albums planned using the same techniques; The Elliots of Birtley / A Musical Portrait of a Durham Mining Family (Folkways Records FG 3565) was issued the following year and one on The Stewarts of Blair was prepared, and edited around the same time but for some reason was never released.

Digby's inclusion of Reg Hall's story of Eric Farr's comment (these things get very convoluted, don't they?) on hearing The Shoals of Herring sung in Winterton during the war was one we intended to reply to at the time of the re-issuing of Now Is The Time For Fishing on cassette but never got around to it.

Apart from the fact that it was totally irrelevant to a review of the Larner album, there is a certain lack of logic to the whole, somewhat vague story.  Shoals of Herring can in no way be described as a traditional song.  Rather, it is typical of many of MacColl's compositions The Rambler from Clare and Dublin Jack of All Trades (both for TV documentary The Irishmen), The Big Hewer, and later Shellback and Kilroy Was Here, all follow the same format of the archetypical working man, miner, fisherman, navvy, whatever, making his way through the world.

A closer look at Shoals of Herring makes it fairly obvious how the song was conceived.  The tune certainly never came from Winterton, but was adapted from the air of a ballad that was in MacColl's repertoire at the time; Sweet William (Child 106).  His version was taken directly from Greig and Keith's Last Leaves of Aberdeen Ballads and Ballad Airs (pp 85, 86).  The ideas for the verses were taken from the speech actuality that was recorded for Singing the Fishing examples of which are to be found in abundance in the Radio Ballad, in the MacColl / Seeger collection at The National Sound Archive and in The Charles Parker Archive at Birmingham Central Library.

I understand the song Freeborn Man has undergone the same treatment and has been described as having been "stolen" from a Scots traveller, (the same vagueness and lack of evidence accompanies this story).  I look forward to learning that Manchester Rambler was acquired from Beckett Whitehead and perhaps that First Time Ever was really a Michael Jackson composition, but I realise that I will have to wait until the next Silly Season comes along.

It would be interesting to learn the source of the story that Sam Larner was not happy with the material used for the album.  I await this information with anticipation but I won't hold my breath.

Jim Carroll - 16.11.00


Rod Stradling - e-mail:  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos  GL5 2HP, UK

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