Somewhere around the time my mom and dad started dating – March of 1982, I think – my dad taught my mom some Passover songs on their subway ride back to Manhattan from my grandparents’ house in Bensonhurst. He was about to lead a Seder with friends – they had just left the Seder in Brooklyn, which my grandpa led. I know his versions, too; they’re a little less sprightly than my dad’s, and they’re all in minor keys. There’s no definitive melody for these songs, so the ones my dad taught my mom were his versions, ones that he learned from his parents, which they learned from their parents, which they had taken with them from Europe.
It goes without saying that people have kept musical traditions alive by oral transmission since there was music to keep alive. Written music came into the picture early enough, but not everyone can read music. Not everyone wants to, either. So in certain circles and certain folk music, oral traditions have always reigned. Even though oral transmission is a foregone conclusion in the music world, it’s become something of an anomaly when it’s the dominant preservative. NPR’s The Record just posted a terrific story by Laurin Penland about “The Evolution of Oral Tradition in Mountain Ballads.” It’s worth a read, and if you listen to the story you get to hear snippets of the ballads Penland mentions. As the title suggests, Penland is less interested in they way traditional mountain ballads have been preserved than she is in the way they’ve changed over the years. Her nephew Ezra learns “Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Mourn?” as “Don’t you hear Jerusalem more?” (as in “Thank God there’s a song singing in my soul / Don’t you hear Jerusalem more?” which actually works).
The small change Ezra makes to the lyrics is a good example of how songs morph as they’re passed down through the oral tradition. The ballads survived 300 years of being passed down solely through the oral tradition. The fact that my 5-year-old nephew is singing a ballad at all is nothing short of a miracle.
Eventually, these songs made their way onto recordings. Alan Lomax played a large hand in committing these songs to disc, but so did singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The folk music revival was in full swing, and the nascent record industry saw a gold mine. Folk music would be preserved, but that preservation came with a price. “The folk revivalists may have saved the oral tradition from oblivion,” Penland writes, “but by recording everything they also changed the way songs were passed down.” It’s a losing battle to argue that records ruined music, but the record industry did some collateral damage to oral traditions.
At first glance it shouldn’t matter. Recordings are a much more efficient means of preservation than what, in essence, winds up as a glorified game of telephone. But recordings also freeze the music in its tracks. Save the detritus that an actual recording accumulates, the sound itself doesn’t change. There’s nothing stopping you from learning something from the source. It can be a useful tool, like it was when I was 12 and learned the bass part to “The Real Me” from Quadrophenia. It’s a double-edged sword that with the rise and commercialization of records came the knowledge of how a song was supposed to sound: on the one hand, the knowledge can be helpful if you’re trying to do a true mock-up of the record. On the other, the records can inspire a kind of orthodoxy. Learning music from records is still an oral tradition, but it’s much more finite: there’s a record, and there’s the listener.* Here’s where the trouble lies: if people know what the source is, they generally don’t want to go too far afield. And that kind of inhibition doesn’t bode well.
“‘I will always say that in order for anything to survive it must evolve,’ [Ezra’s mother] says. ‘And in order for the ballads to have survived, they had to evolve in that way so that they could be taken to the greater population and still be getting interest, still be growing […]’”
Most musicians and most music have to wrestle with the anxiety of influence. Some are more successful than others. Penland’s mountain ballads continue to evolve. So does orchestral music, jazz, etc. It’s an encouragingly long list. But there’s a sense of parochialism that underscores a lot of today’s pop and rock music, made possible by the technological climate (Simon Reynolds’ Retromania mostly deals with this line of thought).
As a musician, you could do a lot worse than to ape the sounds of the past. Some of today’s best bands sound like throwbacks. They have an aesthetic, and they wear it well. I’m not here to argue the merits of vanguard pop music or to lambast reactionaries. But when musicians steep themselves in the music of the past, they lose out on a chance at pushing the sound forward, into the 2010s. Wonder why songs themselves don’t have the same presence in #Occupy as they did, say, in the ’60s? That’s why. #Occupy is a movement for our times, an expression of this historic moment. Why soundtrack it with something that’s willfully anachronistic? People were singing songs of yesteryear during the tumult of the ’60s, sure, but the singers retooled them to fit into their time. Take the Talking Blues, a stock folk song form that first appeared on record in 1927. Dylan wrote talking blues in the ’60s – by which point it was more or less arcane – including “Talking John Birch Society Blues.” It was a little too wordy to catch on, but that kind of freewheeling (sorry) quality and the ability to take the past and make it new (sorry again) is the sort of thing that stuck. Since people are more inclined to wear their influences on their sleeves and since everyone with Internet access can hear where a band is coming from musically, it’s tougher for that sort of thing to happen now.
Ideally, for Penland, the records don’t supplant the oral “knee-to-knee” tradition: they supplement it. You can’t replace the intimacy of learning a song from another person. If you learn it from someone else, you learn it as they know it. And someone else learns it as you know it. The music has a chance to evolve organically. If music is to continue to evolve in this way in the face of recorded music, musicians would do well to let it, instead of trying to recreate the sounds of yesteryear.
* With recordings and Jazz in particular, it’s worth noting that oral transmission is much more horizontal than vertical. Instead of learning a song from someone who learned it from someone else, etc., a musician might listen to a few different recordings of a song from the same time period and cobble together a version that combines elements of each. That, of course, is a luxury that mechanical reproduction affords, and is one that’s mistakenly met with scorn by some who are a different kind of orthodox.
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