Friday, November 30, 2012

Folk songs

I've sung the song "Good Morning Mister Railroad Man" (also called "Danville Girl") practically every night for ten years. I learned it from a recording of Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie's sometime companion, that I listened to a lot as a child (here's a recording of the two of them singing a different version of the song together in 1944). I learned it word for word and inflection for inflection from that one recording.

Is it a folk song? Well, it was cobbled together by hobos from bits and pieces, and adapted by Houston and Guthrie. Who knows where those the pieces came from, who they went through. According to Michael Cooney, this process through an oral tradition, like a game of telephone, is what makes a folk song a folk song.

But I think there's something deeper. It's important, for example, for many of my folk friends, to get the words right. Make sure you respect the tradition by getting it right. And there are a lot of good resources out there: collections of texts and field recordings and scholarly editions... for folkies there's always the wonderful Mudcat Cafe, where you can find many many variants of this song.

And so, though there is no "right" version of this song, you can pick out any of the selection on view, most transcribed from recordings, and you can learn to reproduce that version.

In an oral tradition, without recording technology or writing, such reproduction is meaningless. Performances vary, the exact word order varies in places, verses get transposed... The fixing of a song in place is in itself meaningless. Songs in this world are inherently fluid.

So why do I feel a little guilty when I want to mess with what someone else has written? We have copyright laws, which depend on reproduction—hence the "copy" in "copyright." The also serve to fix a form in time: a work "published" on such and such a date becomes a definitive version. I respect copyright (I spent summers as a teen working on copyright filing issues). I come to think of this fixed, published form as privileged over the fluid forms that, I've come to realize, are a more natural shape for ideas to move amongst us.

I write songs very very slowly—I probably have eight decent ones to show for almost thirty years of trying. Part of my problem is that I don't actually write songs very well—they need to develop pretty much complete in my head, and if I push too hard, and especially if I go writing things down too soon, it kind of spoils the soup. Good thing I have a day job.

I think my song composing process is a little like the fluidity of the folk process; I need to forget a song almost, then think of it again, only maybe get it a little bit "righter." Over and over—I finally "got right" a song a couple years ago I'd mostly written in college, first as a lullaby for Joseph (why do all the Christmas songs focus on Jesus and Mary? Yes, I know the reason, but it hardly seems fair to patient, kind old Joseph.), then as an imagined fisherman's lullaby. Finally, twenty years on, I came back to it and was able to make it sound right—just a couple tweaks to the first verse was all it needed, but it needed them.

And now, I think of it as fixed, and I think of that fixity as proper—for me. It's the same for jokes—there are jokes I love that I say the same way every time. They are fixed for me, because they fit me. If someone else learned them from me, and it wasn't written or recorded, I expect they'd learn them differently. On the other hand, especially in our well-recorded world, there are performances one learns verbatim. Hang around with my old Morris team and you'll be able to reproduce Monty Python and the Holy Grail almost word for word, and inflection for inflection. These have left the folk process, and in their brilliant final-cut versions, are not so much jokes as routines.

And the great rich songs of the living folk tradition have bits that last like hardened gems, never changing—not always the punch line, but particular memorable turns of phrase, perfect rhymes, or the repeated formula that holds a song together.

Here's the paradox at the heart of my ramblings here: we want to remember, but if we remember too well, we remove the water the memory is swimming in. Our care, our collecting and sorting and knowing of songs is great, but it also means the songs themselves—not new, original songs, but living, changing existing songs—stop moving and growing. We need to be able to forget them enough to have to struggle to remember, and so let them grow and change to fit us.

A song that's gone through the mill, and come out weathered and smooth, that's a traditional song or a folk song. But even more, a song still floating in that tide, still bouncing around between people, changing and adapting—that's a living folk song. Most of what we sing as folk songs are taxidermy.

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