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Authenticity in the Folk Music Tradition

What is this? Do we recognise it? I’ve heard rumours of musicians having been thrown out of sessions in Irish pubs because what they played wasn’t Irish enough. And that the display of a characteristic singing accent when rendering some northern English 19th century mining song is a badge of honour and evidence of authenticity of performance. Everything old-timey in the US is treated with nostalgic awe and reverence and with the utter conviction that the way things were played in the old days was the proper way – or, in any event, better. In all of this I smell a conservative tribalism and other instincts that make me queasy. It’s not a big step from sentimentalising the folk culture of a nation – or part of – and imagining a superiority in its “authentic” expression, to comparing others unfavourably to it.

But it might be that it is the taking a folk culture and corrupting it and making it “impure” by creating further Art from it that bestows upon it a lasting value.

When I’m too long in the company of “authentic” folk musicians I feel badly in need of fresh air!

One thought on “Authenticity in the Folk Music Tradition

  1. America has its’ share of folk purists. That is to say, folks who think they have special insights into an era that ended long before they were born.

    I have, more than once, been eviscerated and mocked by some of those folks for playing my “plastic” guitar (Ovation roundback). For them, old-time music can only be authentically performed on pre-war Gibsons, Martins and similar expensive, rare, and occasional esoteric instruments.

    I still play my plastic guitars, in spite of revisionist musicologists.

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