by Jon Boden, singer, musician and composer.
Recently I’ve been thinking a bit about the significance of memory in folk music and how that relates to other sorts of music.
I remember distinctly going to my first folk session aged 16 and being amazed at the idea of a room full of people being able to join in with so many tunes. I remember thinking there must be some sort of trick or knack to it - surely people didn’t just sit down and memorise all this stuff?
But that is precisely what people do, in fact it is a defining feature of folk music (contemporary and historical) that a musician or singer is rated as much by the size of their repertoire as by their artistry in performing it.
All musics value technical ability and artistry, but there is generally a third prong to the trident and that varies from music to music. For classical musicians it is the ability to read highly complex scores accurately and fluently, for jazz and blues musicians it is the ability to improvise engaging solos. In folk music it is the ability to access a large reservoir of memorised songs and tunes.
There is no doubt that this can lead to sessions being intimidating, bewildering experiences for newcomers to the folk scene. It is possible to have folk sessions where sheet-music is present, so is it wrong that the folk scene is so militantly anti ‘dots’ in sessions, and so dismissive of people who read song words in singing sessions or folk clubs?
It is a question I have struggled with for many years. When Fay Hield and I set up a local singers’ club we decided to introduce a fixed, small repertoire of “House Songs” and “House Tunes” and provide word sheets and sheet music. Our feeling was that in doing so we would increase the chances of locals, who might have no background in the folk scene, feeling included in the event rather than excluded. This has certainly worked with the songs, and to some extent with the tunes.
Seeing it from the other side I recently attended a local gypsy jazz session. Although the key players had memorised the chord progressions, the rest of us were mostly squinting at a variety of iPads and smart phones with the appropriate gypsy jazz “Real Book” app open to show us the "changes". Without this I would have struggled to contribute at all to the evening. As a result of this technological aide and the session’s tolerance of its usage, I am much more likely to attend again.
With smart phones the lyrics to any folk song are at the fingertips of anyone who finds themselves at a social singing event. This facility means many are able to contribute and it is becoming increasingly common practice to sing using a phone as a prompt, even amongst folk singers of long standing.
So is it time to give up on the memorised tradition?
I don’t think so. For all that it’s a barrier to inclusion, the memorisation of material is also a prerequisite for accessing the deeper magic of folk music and of genuinely social music making.
Music played and songs sung from memory come from a different place than music that is translated from a visual stimulus. There is a reason that, despite the lack of value placed on memorisation in the classical education system, the top concerto and solo performers always play from memory. The music comes from a deeper, more profound place when it has been internalised - it becomes a part of you, and playing or singing it therefore becomes an expressive action rather than an interpretive one. Arguably.
This applies to performance in traditional music spheres just as much as in classical music, but its significance goes beyond that in our case because the folk scene is above all about the communal experience of music-making. Although superficial communality is more easily achieved by providing word sheets or ‘dots’, that same communality is also limited by their use.
Consider that epitome of social singing, the football ground: thousands of people who don’t know each other personally, singing together at the tops of their voices. Now imagine that same scene with them all reading the words of the chants from a piece of paper...
The memorised tradition is fundamental to the social strength of folk music. Without it folk music is merely a collection of dots and lyrics dormantly awaiting the attentions of a musical elite to breath life in to it. But whilst the folk music and song of these islands are carried around in the brains and hearts of thousands of enthusiasts, the music remains a living breathing entity. And once you memorise a song or tune it wants to be played and to be sung - it urges you to get out there and give it oxygen.
To be clear there is, in my view, no conflict between the use of dots or lyrics and the memorised tradition - the literate tradition is a potent tool for encouraging the memorised. Twas ever thus - the idea that folk song was mostly composed through the aural tradition is now generally discredited - most folk songs have had a written source at some point. But it was not until those songs were memorised by a singer and then passed from memory to memory through aural transmission that the songs were able to live, breath and evolve.
In the present day the use of printed material and tablets / smart phones is a useful tool in the campaign to keep social music alive, making it easier for newcomers to engage with unfamiliar material. But we should never confuse the means for the ends. The practice of memorising songs and music is at the very heart of the folk movement and we should keep the aspiration for a collectivist memorised tradition at the forefront of our minds as performers, teachers and advocates of traditional song and music.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.