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At the heart of English folk
Jon Boden performing with Holler at the Bob Copper Centenary Celebration

The Memorised Tradition

by Jon Boden, singer, musician and composer.

Natalie Bevan

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.


#16 old Muzza 2018-07-28 10:46
There is one heck of a difference in being word perfect in your own front room and getting up in front of an audience…….and loss of memory leads to increasing panic…which makes matters worse!
I have ‘dried’ on a couple of occasions but usually manage to bluster my way through…..but the audience is embarrassed for you.
I know around a hundred songs and it's quite a task to remind yourself of the words of each on a regular basis if you are only called upon to sing them occasionally.
Another phenomenon is 'Over familiarity' with a song....where you jump verses.
Now that I am of a certain age….even a prompt for the first line of each verse,is a wise precaution. (and Matron is always at hand to remind me of my name!(
#15 Paul Davenport 2016-08-14 23:26
The current trend of defining one's native tradition according to one's predilections is all very well but ... As Terry Pratchet famously remarked, and here I must paraphrase, "The dead have a vote too.. And theirs is the important one ... It's called 'tradition' . " What this means seems to me to be that the past defines what is tradition, rather than the present. So Jon's point regarding memory is paramount in understanding what we have inherited. The possession of an extensive repertoire stood, in many poor communities, as 'wealth'. Status was conferred by a community on those possessing a large body of material. In this the skill of memory was fundamental. So, those who wish to redefine traditional musical practice to suit their own ends may do so but, in doing so may also b responsible for the demise of that which they seek to preserve. For my own part I would rather follow the criteria with which I was nurtured in a singing family, 'It is not yours until it is in your head!'
#14 Alan Matthews 2016-08-10 12:42
I think there has to be tolerance, accepting a balance. In the continuing of tradition, we would not have the repertoire available today if someone had not written it down. I would rather see someone singing or playing from a sheet than a phone or tablet, at least that shows preparation and commitment.
I agree that removing the prop makes a better communicated performance. Having seen The Aurora Orchestra perform classics without score, the hall was buzzing with an excitement and connection that I had not felt before.
However watching Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party last Saturday I am sure the drummer was playing from music and it didn't spoil the performance a jot.
Perhaps it is rehearsal that is the requirement, the performer/leader needs to know the words, notes and timing, but even with the words for the audience or community, the performance cannot be guaranteed. Think about the other community performance, how many times have you attended a wedding, funeral or Christening, the organist has the music, but the performance stutters, stumbles, has no semblance of tune or ensemble.
Having been away from the folk arena for many years I can recall the days of derided performance "the finger in the ear'ole mob", the discussion at the bar about a well known performer including music hall songs in their set "lowering the tone". Surely, if performance has moved on, using amplification, electric instruments, a drum kit, then tradition has changed, there is no need to be rigid and the ultimate aim must be to enjoy, and spread the enjoyment of music?
#13 Trevor John Wilkinso 2016-08-06 12:10
The answer for me is that the folk movement, if it wants to move forward must welcome both dots and playing by ear in all situations.

I have the possibility to play 510,000 folk tunes on my ipad (that I can transpose in 10 seconds) instantly in a session, many of them long forgotten. Can playing by ear replicate this - no.

There should be lots of room for both :0)

#12 Trevor John Wilkinso 2016-08-06 12:09
I was hoping that the new National Youth Folk Band would help the transition but I understand that there are next to no transposing instrument applications. We must ask ourselves why ? I would suggest that maybe people's impressions of what folk music is and the previuosly stated difficulties of the transition from only playing with dots to generally only playing without them is frightening to non folkies.

If we want to get really deep there could be a case that some peoples brain's work well with dot's and some people' s by ear and the transition take's a great deal of time. Folk Music needs to make it as easy as possible for both types to meet and make good interesting music together.

The professional folk bands are littered with transposing instruments but there is next to no tuition for amatuers (with exceptions in mixed instrument groups sometimes).

Please see the previous piece by Jo Freya which covers this very well.
#11 Trevor John Wilkinso 2016-08-06 12:06
This is a very interesting subject for me.
I am one of an extremely few non- professional transposing instrument players playing folk music in the UK.
I play an Eb Tenor Horn and from a brass band background and I have found the transition from only playing by dots to being expected (in most cases) to playing by ear extremely difficult. I can well imagine the reason there are so few transposing instruments in amatuer folk music is because of this. I have had to resort to digital means to help the transition (I have just done an interview with Sheffield University Digital Folk research project to highlight the difficulties).
I personally think that folk music is much the worse for the lack of the 50 or so transposing instruments that could add beautiful colour, interest and depth too the mix.
#10 Greg Smith 2016-08-02 10:08
Anyone go to one of Nic Jones' concerts when he started performing again?
#9 Tom Heyes 2016-08-01 22:58
I agree, and would add that in my experience there is a huge difference between performing a piece from memory compared to when supported by written material. One seems to communicate with the listener much more, I suppose because the performer's attention is on them.
#8 Alan Short 2016-08-01 18:09
Rigidity is the problem here. If you've been singing a song all your life, it's likely you'll know the words. But if you are not a kid, and the song hasn't been engraved in your mind for the past few decades, you might have tremendous trouble learning it. Having stumbled myself on several occasions, i have taken to putting up a low music stand that isnt right in front of me that has frequently saved me, when a glace over prompts the first line of a verse.
I know this behavior is not 'purist' but it's better than missing verses, or even worse, having to abandon a song, that i've seen happen with even the best as we age.
An aquaintance of mine, well known and respected, writes the first lines of verses of ballads on a piece of paper which she sticks to her water bottle.

Allow folk musicians to remember when they can, and use unobtrusive cheat sheets when they need to.
#7 Alvar Smith 2016-08-01 18:03
Personally I cannot take seriously any one who is staring at a sheet of paper, I feel entertaining an audience can only be achieved if one looks them in the eye , after all you are telling them a story and quite a few would find it much easier to memorise song lyrics if they would only try. At 73 years I also find it difficult but do it, it might take you a while but you won't regret it.
National Youth Folk Ensemble

National Youth Folk Ensemble


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