Traditional Folk Singers and Folk Song Interpreters

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Some thoughts about “traditional singers” and “folk song interpreters.”

Since I brought up the term “folk song interpreter” in class this week, I realize that the term is not well-defined and understood. What follows are my own definitions and interpretations of what these terms mean. I’m not sure this matters to anyone but me, but I’ve thought about this a lot, and so offer them as food for thought. All of it is my opinion, not to be considered “authoritative.” (I’m not sure anyone else would agree with me.)

A purely “traditional folk singer” is someone who learns a song primarily through the oral tradition—that is they learn it from another singer in their family or community. Roscoe Holcombe and Dillard Chandler are pretty clearly in this camp – although they are clearly aware of and listen to radio, juke boxes etc. and they may include some material from those sources in their personal repertoires. A traditional folk singer may or may not be illiterate, and if literate they may use written texts to help them remember or pass on songs.

Community does not have to be a geographical community. For example, people from all over Canada and the US came to logging camps in Maine and Canada looking for winter work. Many of these men had other work in the summer. In the logging camps, singing and playing fiddle were common forms of entertainment, and the repertoire, in addition to “logging songs” included songs from all over Canada, the US and Great Britain and Ireland. Simon George MacLellan from whom I recorded more than 50 songs in Meat Cove, Cape Breton, in the late 1960s, fished in Cape Breton every summer of his working life, and went to find work in Ontario logging camps many winters. He grew up speaking Scots Gaelic, and knew many songs in that language, that came from his community of origin. He also had a parallel repertoire of American-Anglo-Irish songs from logging camps.

Simon George attempted to learn (or tried to remember) songs exactly as he had heard them. For example, a ballad from the US Civil War, usually called “The Dying Soldier,” he called, “the Banks of the Potomayic” [originally Potomac?? I believe]. The song also included the line, “Way back in old West Constant, that beautiful pine tree state …” [originally Wisconsin??? I believe]

There are many other examples in the songs I recorded in Nova Scotia, of words that had become garbled and were repeated exactly as the singer recalled hearing them. This is a fascinating aspect of oral tradition for me, so I always write down such words phonetically, rather than revising them to “make sense” —although I do look in books for other sources to see what the words might have originally been.

Clarence Ashley, in the first line of his “House Carpenter” sings what I can best transliterate as “Well met, well met said a norse lil love,” or, “Well met, well met said an orse lil love.” The usual first line found in many, many versions is “Well met, well met my own true love,” or sometimes, “We’ve met, we’ve met my own true love.” So I conclude that when he sings “House Carpenter” Ashley is behaving as a traditional folk singer, singing the song exactly as he remembers hearing it.

The fact that someone earns money by performing folk songs or playing for dances, does not make them any the less a traditional folk singer, as long as their repertoire is drawn from oral tradition. Of course as a traveling musician, Ashley undoubtedly was exposed to many more songs and styles than those he learned growing up. In my opinion, the question of whether he is primarily an “interpreter” of folk songs or a “traditional singer” depends in part on how he thinks about his material and his audience.

A pure “folk song interpreter,” is someone who may or may not have grown up in a traditional culture of some sort, but who sings songs they did not learn strictly from oral tradition, and sings songs derived from various cultures. Joan Baez, singing House Carpenter” is a great example of a folk song interpreter. She puts together a version that makes dramatic sense to her, possibly including verses from several different traditional versions, and maybe even consciously borrows a verse from another song (“three times around went our gallant ship”). The work of consciously arranging and modifying a song for performance, adding accompaniments to enhance the music or the drama, are the hallmarks of a folk song interpreter—according to my definition.

There may not be any “pure” “traditional folk singers” any more – however, in his collection, “The Art of Field Recording” Art Rosenbaum said it was his intention to include ONLY songs that the singers (and musicians) had learned via oral tradition—so if he succeeded, there may still be a few such people left.

There are a number of performers who are both “traditional folk singers” and “folk song interpreters”. Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson come to mind as prime examples. Jean Ritchie, learned songs from her immediate and extended family and neighbors; she also listened to records and learned songs from texts. When she came to New York, she became a conscious performer, perfected a singing style, sang with guitar and banjo accompanists. She may have—but I don’t know—combined texts from more than one version of a song. In more recent years she began to perform and record songs that she learned from recordings of “country singers” like the Carter Family. She also became an excellent song writer, and began to include more creative accompaniments, especially as her sons, who grew up in New York City, began to play instruments and accompany her.

It’s interesting to listen to Jean’s older sister Edna Ritchie, who recorded an album with Folk Legacy Records, and who sings many of the same “Ritchie family songs” as Jean. I believe that Edna’s singing is much closer to what you might have heard in the Ritchie Living Room, while Jean’s singing of the same song has been honed and adapted for the concert stage. I would class both of them as traditional singers—but Jean is also an interpreter.

Today when we listen to folk songs we may hear a straightforward interpreter like Joan Baez, or a traditional singer who has become an interpreter like Jean Ritchie. Most often if we go to hear someone billed as a “folk singer” we will hear a singer-songwriter-guitar player, whose material may have relatively little to do with traditional music and more to do with self-expression or political expression or both.

I want to be clear that I am not judging any of these. A traditional singer is not “better” than an interpreter, nor vice-versa. I love listening to both—and for different reasons. I enjoy a wide range of “folk” performers and many more musical genres. I just find it interesting to think about these things and offer my ideas for what they are worth.

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3 Responses to “Traditional Folk Singers and Folk Song Interpreters”

  1. Trish Hogan Says:

    Great explanations Dan. I truly see what you mean for I’ve listen and heard similar talk about Irish Ballads and Songs. Thanks! Trish

  2. Judy Uhl Says:

    I thought I would offer this piece of information to the group. It seemed timely. It comes from This week in Peace History. http://www.peacebuttons.info/E-News/thisweek.htm

    “October 20, 1962
    A folk music album, “Peter, Paul and Mary,” hit No. 1 on U.S. record sales charts. The group’s music addressed real issues – war, civil rights, poverty – and became popular across the United States. The trio’s version of “If I Had A Hammer” was not only a popular single, but was also embraced as an anthem by the civil rights movement.”

  3. Jennifer MacLellan Says:

    I have been trying to peice together my family history and came across your website. I noticed you said you recorded more then 50 songs from Simon George MacLellan of Meat Cove in the 1960’s. Simon George would have been my great great grandfather, whom I have obviously never met. I would be absolutely thrilled to hear these songs and was wondering if they are available for purchase, or if they could be made available?

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