“Authentic” vs “organic” music

January 1, 2009

This excellent discussion over at banjomeetsworld brought up several points for me:

* I’m stunned that people paying for musical training would not be taught chords. It’s about as a basic as you get. Music is both linear (melodic) and horizontal (chordal). How in the world are you supposed to be able to speak its language if you only have knowledge in one area? You can certainly stumble onto things on your own, but if you’re paying for instruction, I think it’s imperative that you receive the same music fundamentals that every other musician gets. Sheesh!

* This whole issue of “ownership” and “authenticity” is evident everywhere, not just in Banjoland. For instance, I was recently scolded for crooning (gasp) a shape note tune instead of screeching it at the top of my lungs. “Traditional” shape note is not “supposed to be” shaped for performance. What, it’s off-limits, then? Of course traditional shape note wouldn’t be made for performance, because traditionally it was sung by a bunch of illiterate farm families who came from miles around and sang all day in a church as a function of spiritual worship. Even today’s “traditional” singers aren’t keeping up with some of those aspects. They can’t seem to recognize that music is constantly shifting and changing based on people’s circumstances.

* Addendum to item above: outside the music world entirely, I was once told that my religion wasn’t “legitimate” because I had come to it when I was 23. I was “supposed to” have been taught at my mother’s knee. Didn’t matter that my mother’s knee was Roman Catholic. All this to point out that “authenticity” and “ownership” are almost always about ego and fear and control.

* Related to above point: I do think there is some music that we should be mindful about “appropriating.” Certain First Nations songs come to mind. I generally think music belongs to the world, but when my ancestors have a history of stripping First Nations folk of everything else, I have an obligation to at least ask myself about the appropriateness of trying to make money off music from a particular tradition, especially if I know nothing about that tradition. Note how I said “ask myself” and “make money off of,” not “disallow myself from ever touching this music ever ever.” There may also be music from other sacred traditions that simply aren’t appropriate to take out and mash up with a beat box or sing in a jazz style. We’re influenced by the music we hear and that shapes what we invent and what we perform, but we should be mindful of the balance between influence and appropriation.

* I simply don’t understand people who think music is frozen in time — that there’s One Right True Way to play or sing it. It’s especially bizarre in the Old Time community, since we know that many OT tunes were “discovered” when some enterprising “song collector” went spelunking for tunes that were similar from one side of the Atlantic to the other. “Lady Margaret” is the most famous one, of course.

* I think there are “definitive” versions of some songs (Billie Holiday’s “Solitude,” Cab Calloway’s “St James Infirmary Blues,” Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble Of The World,” etc) but what’s “definitive” is just my personal preference. The rest of the world is listening to those definitive versions and coming up with their own, which may then surpass previous definitive versions, yadda yadda. As we watch that process over time, we see music shift and change, adding beats or dropping them, changing notes or modes, and generally doing what it’s always done as it travels through cultures. Music is a living tradition. It’s organic. It’s only frozen by technology and people’s (faulty) minds.

* And another thing! The earliest written music we can find in any quantity is Gregorian chant. The notation had no key or rhythm indicated. I think we can safely assume that a cloister in Paris would sing the chant differently from a cloister in Navarre. And somehow people survived such madness! People who want to lock everything down seem afraid they will be left behind, or perhaps (to be kinder) that their preferred style will get trumped. Their comfort zone gets challenged and perhaps some of them rightly fear losing their way. Of course, that still doesn’t make them right. 🙂 It certainly would be easier in a jam session for jam leaders to say upfront, “This is how we do things in this jam. It may not be for everyone, but if you think you’ll like it, you’re welcome to stick around and have fun.” To pretend that there aren’t unwritten rules is silly.

* The whole question of a successful jam comes down to finding people who are at a similar level of expertise and who want the same things you do. Sounds simple, but it’s not. And it sucks to have to organize your own jams but if it gets you what you want, you know you’ll do it. I got very tired of waiting for someone to invite me into the B’ton music scene (& I got tired of (sometimes rudely) banging my head against the wall of The Establishment), so I ended up starting my own groups. Lo and behold, I found the local scene opening up to me as certain gracious, highly talented performers started inviting me in. It’s meant a lot more schedule-juggling but that’s definitely worth it.

* I had some other thoughts about “Style is about limitations” but I think it’s high time I shut up. 🙂 Thanks for a great post and discussion, Cathy!