Finding A Voice

& WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS Playlist for June 26, 2016

Oscar Issac & Justin Timberlake "Inside Llweyn Davis"

Oscar Issac & Justin Timberlake
“Inside Llweyn Davis”

Justin Timberlake, who earned dubious street cred in the folk community for his role as a folksinger in the Coen Brothers film Inside Llweyn Davis, found himself in deeper hot water last weekend at the BET Awards. It started with Timberlake tweeting a message to Jesse Williams after the actor gave a moving speech about the Black Lives Matter movement. Timberlake simply tweeted “Inspired” to Williams, which set off a number of tweets accusing Timberlake of “cultural appropriation” by positioning himself as a white R&B artist. Timberlake responded by tweeting ”the more you realize we are the same, the more we can have a conversation.” This resulted in scores of additional tweets from others accusing Timberlake of being racially insensitive.

Whether artists like Timberlake are exhibiting appropriation or assimilation is the subject of much debate. Appropriation, or more accurately misappropriation, signifies one culture using elements of another culture (without an invitation to do so) and stripping it of the original cultural context. This differs from assimilation, which is what Timberlake seems to be alluding to. Assimilation is usually a gradual change that involve “new” cultures taking on the customs and mannerisms of the predominant culture – a process that was seen by many immigrant communities who came to our country. Assimilation can also work the other way – think of items such as food, art and even language that come from various cultures and blend into everyday usage.

Both appropriation and assimilation present dangers of losing sight of the purpose of the original traditions and the communities from which they arose. The folk revival can trace its roots back to the early 1900s when people started to worry about traditional culture here in North America being lost to changing technologies. A push to preserve folk traditions led to the treasures that were collected by people like Cecil Sharp, John Lomax, Helen Hartness Flanders, George Kittredge and hundreds of other academics and folklorists. We are still bearing fruit from their labors.

Ramblin' Jack Elliot

Ramblin’ Jack Elliot

The idea of cultural appropriation is not a new one. Since the early days of the folk revival, people have been accused of appropriating dialects and mannerisms in the performance of traditional folk songs. Singers from urban communities such as Boston took on the singing styles of rural southern old-timey musicians. Folk enthusiasts from landlocked middle America were singing whaling songs and sea chanties. White college students began singing the blues. Even Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a “cowboy” born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, received some criticism early in his career for allegedly “appropriating” the singing style and mannerisms of Woody Guthrie. As Ramblin’ Jack would prove, it doesn’t matter where you are born, it is the integrity that comes from within that allows the performer to find their true voice.

Conversely, there have always been complaints when songs were NOT sung in the style in which they were originally collected.

There was a famous controversy involving Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and a policy created at the Ballads and Blues Club in London back in 1960. One night, Peggy burst into laughter when a young man with a thick Cockney accent sang Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line.” She found the insertion of Cockney vowels in a southern USA prison song to be unlike the delivery of the song she knew so well. The members of the Ballads and Blues Club (later to be known as the Singers Club) made a decision that singers on their stage would only sing in a language that they could speak and understand. Peggy would later explain that their intention was to “keep the folksongs folksongs, not turn them into classical pieces or anything-goes songs.” The idea being, when traditional folk songs are given performances in settings that differ from their origins, it cannot be claimed to be a “folk song.”

In 2016, the definition of “folk song” has become more clouded and obscured. What often passes for “folk music” these days is merely a song played acoustically, and even that per-requisite is often challenged. I strongly feel that traditional music needs to be both preserved and shared – we grow starting at the roots. The songs, field recordings, collections and stories of the people who fit musicologists definition of “folk music” offer many lessons and guideposts.

At the same time, I recognize that folk music IS a living tradition, and most songs that I play on the radio are created and performed by a contemporary community. Modern times = modern modes of transmissions. It also creates new “voices.”

Shawna Caspi

Shawna Caspi

A number of years ago, I interviewed Eric Andersen who explained that artists like himself wrote new songs because the old folk songs did not express the issues and feelings of his generation. More recently, I had Canadian performing songwriter Shawna Caspi on my show where she discussed the process of “finding her own true voice” after years of classical training and exposure to other artists. Artists like Eric and Shawna sing with honesty and show a connection to the community that they are part of. The integrity of their songs as well as their ability to reflect shared experiences fit MY definition of contemporary folk music.

Songs are not museum pieces, they live and speak in the voice of the singer. How well the singer understands the context of the song and the audience they are singing to will determine how successful the performance can be. As I look at my playlists, I am encouraged by the number of young artists who are reaching back to the traditional folk collections and singing these great songs once again. More importantly, they are singing these songs in their own voice.

In 2013, Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer released a brilliant recording of Child Ballad songs that was well received by audiences across the country, and I suspect pointed fans to the Child collection to discover more. When I watch young people dancing to the group Spuyten Duyvil as they rip through a raucous mash-up of “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” and “Preaching on the Old Camp Ground” at a club like Rockwoods in NYC, I recognize that we are involved with a growing and changing tradition. Spuyten Duvyil honors the past, but they also honor their own roots and exposure to music in New York’s Westchester County.

Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton photo credit: Bill Steber

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton
photo credit: Bill Steber

I also love artists like Elizabeth LaPrelle, who grew up surrounded by the traditional music styles of Appalachia and now sings with a voice that stretches back centuries. She honors the traditions and also sings with her own voice, not a mimicry of style. Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is another who sings in a traditional style, a young artist who grew up in Los Angeles after moving from Louisiana with his grandparents who shared and instilled the love and respect for traditional blues music culture. While their styles differ; Anais Mitchell, Jefferson Hammer, Spuyten Duyvil, Elizabeth LaPrelle and Jerron Paxton are singing with their own voices and each represent diverse traditions.

Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl

Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl

I certainly respect and understand Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s reaction to someone singing an out of place rendition of a folk song, it loses all meaning and offers nothing new. However, I also like to consider that the young cockney singer who created that laughable rendition decades ago, probably discovered the song through the recordings of Lead Belly and other “source” singers. It is always my hope that people will trace the roots of songs and artists they hear, just like hearing Bob Dylan led me to discover Woody Guthrie and Woody led me to the Carter Family and the Carters led me to the source singers and collections of long ago. In the 1950s, the folk revival blossomed when young people began searching for music that spoke to post WWII societal changes. Traditional music was their answer and by the 1960s they were creating new songs in earnest. In modern times, I feel that traditional music can once again serve a similar purpose by reaching through the dizzying array of technologies and musical offerings to provide new directions.

I want to encourage young artists and audiences to continue to take the journey to source. We must also recognize that there are real dangers of losing context and meaning through appropriation, but we should not shy away from learning about the traditions and creating new ones. They should exist side by side. It is important that artists find their own true voice. Whether the songs are hundreds of years old or were written yesterday, they are influenced by a similar folk process and can only successfully serve a community if sung with an honest voice. That is truly the way to honor and respect different cultures and traditions.

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