Why tinker with a song?

Every seasoned folksinger I’ve ever met tinkers with at least some of his/her repertoire. Some do it well, others abysmally. The issue is not whether to do it, but why. It’s all about motive. Does it respect the lineage or (where there is a specific author or creator) the original source? Is it aimed at completing a fragment or getting the story across? Adapting to your style or instrumentation? Reuniting a full text with a more interesting melody? Arranging an ensemble piece from a solo? Correcting an obvious degradation in the text? Or is it just because it’s only come to you via illiterate commercial ‘covers’ whose main motive is to maximise sales through systemic, sanitisation, blandness and not provoking strong feelings. At the end of the day every performer has to make the song his/her own or die. But authenticity should still be evident to the listener, preferably an informed one who understands the distinctions between folk and other forms of music.

Certain attributes can be regarded as indispensible here:

1. acoustic – amplification should be used only to reinforce the natural voice and instrument where the room is large.

2. range of material – remember that all traditional music served its working class creators in some way- to accompany (or complain about) work or play, lament a tragedy, court a sweetheart, recite an old legend, celebrate a victory, protest an injustice, fight an enemy, pose a moral, etc. Limiting the repertoire to navel gazing soap opera, drinking or ploughing edges towards rigour mortis.

3. Instrumentation – don’t add instruments or impose rhythms onto free arrhythmic ballads just for the sake of it. Massed accordions, pianos, electric guitars, drum kits and philharmonic orchestras have zero authenticity by definition. Traditional musicianship requires as much specialist expertise as any other form. Neither banging away with basic chords nor applying complex classical arpeggios in place of a good vernacular style will do.

4. Voice – barbershop harmony, operatic production, crooning and over dramatising are as alien to folksong as Woody Guthrie would be to a Schubert Lieder.

5. Sex – subtlety is everything. Wiggling, displays of flesh, Dolly Parton costumes etc, may turn guys on but have nothing to do with folk appeal.

6. Age and authorship – Old songs often lend themselves to some tinkering for the above good reasons, relatively recent songs by known authors should not be casually messed with.

7. Directness – real folksongs are not open to multiple interpretations of meaning. They state what they are about. If you write one, be direct and don’t be afraid to take sides. You may still need to explain the background, place names or vernacular words of a song to an audience.

8. Interpretation – trying to cross your own cultural heritage by mimicking a Delta Blues or Highland Scots singer seldom works, but neither does forcing everything into Oxford English. A good folk artist interprets without looking down on the source, drawing from many, sometimes involving reconciling ‘primitive’ back porch material with the expectations of a concert hall audience. But be careful of plundering from around the world just because it is so available today.

If from this you divine that I have a long term commitment to these values you’d be absolutely right. I try to represent them in my work- see e.g. www.jackwarshaw.com. As the great Lee Hays (Methodist preacher in early life and author of “If I Had A Hammer”) said, “Folksongs are dangerous.”

Disagree? Come on then, challenge me.

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