Forgive me if you've heard this before, I'm new to the debate:
Re- singing, the revival and authenticity.
It seems to me that the revival as we know it lasted a comparatively short
time. Sure there were authentic singers around, Joe Heaney, Paddy Tunney,
Sam Larner, the Stewarts of Blair and so on, but a style arose and with it
a younger generation who adopted some of the phrasing,style and repertoire
for sure, some of course took it further and changed it into commercial
Now I am not anti-commercial when it comes to traditional singing, if for
example you look at the Musical Traditions web site and see the article of
the Bonny Light Horseman, you’ll see what a commercial little song this was
for a number of printers from about 1800 onwards. And for the most part
that is how songs came into the public circulation.
The 19th century was one in which there was a general rise in literacy and
songs were a legitimate commodity to be sold by the garland.
The folk revival of the 1950’s was the culmination of that tradition of
media disseminated repertoire, of course it used the new and democratic
medium of radio and the vox-pop show to give it a certain air of
authenticity, but behind it must have lain some decisions about what was in
and what was out and consequently what was heard became a template to be
accepted or rejected.
If McColl hadn’t had the media attention would his Critics Group have
lasted? Certainly in the UK, in urban areas, and in the substantively new
conurbations in the post-war period, some of the factors of continuity
that are associated with traditional singing were under pressure, and in
this context folk song was seen both as something new, exciting and as a
link with an imagined past .
There was also the cultural force of the 1947 education act which gave
young working class adults a taste for training and further study, which of
course has sustained summer schools and workshops for nigh on 50 years. (On
a more serious level it's counterpart in Northen Ireland has been stated as
one of the key drivers in the rise of peaceful Civil Rights actions prior
to the Troubles…)
So today three generations on, how can we talk of authentic singers? What
criteria do we use to say something is traditional not just in content and
performance but in process too?
And there remains the key question of what are the factors involved when a
singer decides to learn a new song? Do we learn songs because we like them,
because they give us something at an emotional or intellectual level, do
they offer us a world view we are comfortable with? Do we learn them to be
part of a performance? And if the latter how varied do we allow our
repertoire to be, do we choose it on it’s own merits or are there subtexts
and narratives that we want to explore, explain and communicate when we
choose the songs we build into our own opus? And of course for some singers
they sing what the audience wants to hear….
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