Process Theology and
Traditional Folk Music
Are you Going to Scarborough Fair?
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
-- William Wordsworth, The Solitary Reaper
Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, or as music with unknown composers. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles.
Scarborough Fair as a Place in the Heart
Magical Mystery Tour
A Walk Around Britain
Four Temptations of Folk Music
Four Temptations: The Cult of Authenticity, the Myth of the Perfect Past,
The Lure of Folk Nationalism, and Prejudice for "Peasants" over the Urban Poor
There is a tendency among traditional folk music enthusiasts to see folk music as 'more authentic' than music produced commercially or in classical styles. I will call it hyper-romanticism. The hyper-romantics valorize what they understand to be "roots" music at the expense of urban music: hip-hop, rock, and electronic, for example. Traditional folk music comes to represent an idealized past which never really existed except in their minds: not unlike the politics of nostalgia in contemporary societies. (For more on this see Giving Up on Johnny Cash.) The sociologist Christopher Partridge points out these problems in The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, the Sacred, and the Profane:
Despite differences of emphasis, central to an understanding of “folk culture” since the Romantics has been the notion of “authenticity.” Folk music, for example, is understood to be an authentic expression of a traditional, communal way of life, which may now be in the past or only accessible through the memories of a disappearing older generation. This type of thinking is conspicuous in the work of the principal collectors of folk music in the twentieth century, most notably Cecil Sharp... and the American folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. The latter, for example, argued that “the chief function of song is to express the shared feelings and mold joint activities of some human community.” 13 Developing what was, in many ways, a Durkheimian sociology of music, Lomax understood the folk song style to symbolically represent the core elements of a culture, including its sacred forms. This is important because, if correct, it means that music is not of peripheral significance to societies, but rather primary, in that it functions as a way in which communities share values, communicate the sacred, and evoke a sense of belonging. While we will be returning to this argument later in the book, at this point it is the connection with the core elements of a culture that needs to be noted, for it is here where authenticity is located. Folk music functions as a symbolic representation of the true culture of “the folk,” who, by the time of Lomax, had become identified with the lower classes, the country workers, the “peasantry.” This understanding of the culture of “the people,” ideologically informed by the Romantic notion of an authentic culture of the nation, became very influential. It was, for example, notoriously persuasive in Germany during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, informing a popular nationalism, a sacred system which eventually shaped an emerging Nazi ideology. As the late Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke discussed, the word “Volk” signified “much more than its straightforward translation ‘people’ to contemporary Germans; it denoted rather the national collectivity inspired by a common creative energy.… These metaphysical qualities were supposed to define the unique cultural essence of the German people.”
Partridge, Christopher (2013-10-21). The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, the Sacred, and the Profane (p. 17). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
Enjoy the music, but avoid the cult of authenticity, the illusion of the idealized past, and the prejudice for "peasants" over the urban poor. Keep in mind that "folk music" is, among other things, a construction in the mind which be healthy or unhealthy, truth-giving or truth-masking, depending on the context and the listener. And remember to enter into the arts of generous listening, where you listen to music you don't like, precisely in order to understand the world around you. Don't make a fetish of traditional folk music. Open yourself to the wider world -- the larger wheel of life -- beyond the comfort of the familiar.