Musical links between
USA & UK
- by Jerry Epstien
This guest editorial is an extract from a much longer piece sent over by Jerry in which he explores the musical links between the British Isles and America. It adds a valuable perspective to the current funding debates and poses some interesting questions. Which only leaves us space to wish all our readers a contented 1998 and to welcome you to this our 25th - Silver Jubilee - issue!
The editorial in the November-December issue of The Living Tradition raises a great many issues regarding the continuance of traditional song, and the role of government funds (and funding in general) in that tradition, so that I felt some comment from across the water might be of interest. While the scene in America has some notable differences from Britain (most notably size), there are many issues that the real devotees of traditional music and song face in common. Many of these have been under discussion here in a wide variety of environments, and by as many as four generations of people now, for as long as I have been in contact with this music 'about 35 years' and probably longer.
While I am in no way against concert presentations of quality folk music (I do it often enough!), there is an aspect of a community sharing the music and the tradition in a way which includes much more than the most professional artists that seems to me central to what it is really all about. It seems to me central to what distinguishes the traditional forms from the entertainment business. It is this distinction that is crucial for discussion of the issues raised in the editorial. Any time we discuss funding, grants, government sponsorship, and the like, we must be really clear on what is the furthering of the tradition and what is the entertainment business. And, lest I be misunderstood, I don't think there is anything sinful in traditional music being in the entertainment business.
I think there is a hidden but crucial question implicit in the editorial that should be opened up: If all funding sources were to disappear, even if most folk club concerts were to disappear, would the tradition itself be seriously threatened?
My answer in America is I think not, in Britain I'm not so sure. I am admittedly an outsider, but I have been into the British scene for a long time and know a great many people with whom I have had discussion on such topics more times than I can count.
In 1995 I did an interview for BBC Scotland in which I argued against the commonly heard notion that the tradition is dying. I said that in my opinion the tradition has never been healthier because there have never ever been so many highly skilled musicians playing and singing the old songs in the old way. I believe that the way the music is sung and played is as important as the tunes and the lyrics. Many of the people who are keeping the tradition alive in the best way have never appeared on a stage (or perhaps just in a small local presentation) and have no desire to go on the road.
At old-time music festivals in the U.S. some of the best music is in the parking lot! I go annually to a gathering of singers and players where nearly everyone there is of the highest calibre, where one could easily provide guests for about 10 simultaneous festivals from the attendees. Everyone pays their way, no one gets paid. There are no guests performing for the audience. It is a quite remarkable gathering, and the propagation of tradition to its core. Is there a similar event in Britain?
I feel confident in saying that there must be at least 10,000 musicians and singers in the U.S. doing traditional music of very high quality, with deep roots in the old traditions, and with a commitment to spread this music to all who are receptive to it. Only a tiny fraction of these make some sort of a living from this music, and most of those do so by working in schools and similar projects. There are now a large number of residential weeks and weekends where devotees of old songs, in small numbers, go and become a village for a while to share and exchange traditions. At a few of these, one will find the respected source singers physically present, at others they are present only in spirit as many younger singers have absorbed their traditions, often to a remarkable degree.
The economics of the business - and yes, traditional music can be a business - are such a double edged sword. There was a brief debate in the magazine Come For To Sing over here a few years back between a professional singer advocating that folk clubs and societies had an obligation to the tradition to charge adequate prices at the door, so that musicians could make a living, and a couple of others taking quite a different point of view. I agreed with those who stated that once you go on the road and ask people to pay money to hear you sing, you cross an invisible chasm. You are then in the entertainment business, much as we may dislike that term. You can no longer claim that duty to the tradition requires that you be enabled to make a living from this. Any promoter has the right to offer you what he or she thinks you are worth, and you have the right to decline. But the presentation of traditional music in performance, even in informal performance, is not itself the tradition. It can be very supportive of the continuance of tradition, but it is not the tradition.
I feel very much the same about government funding. If the continuance of tradition has become dependent on increases in government funding, that is the problem, not the lack of funding!
I share with the editor the clearly expressed concern about the ability of government bureaucrats and advisors to those bureaucrats to make judgements about what is worthy of support. It is always true that most government funding is dominated by people who come from the high arts. The people the higher-ups choose to advise on traditional arts sometimes are good (in my arrogant judgement) but often much too close the commercial side of the business. I think that the North American Folk Alliance, founded a few years ago, is a classic example of this. Again, I have no quarrel with government funding of the more commercial side of things - our society in New York has had such funding - but it is a peripheral issue for me.
The editorial advocates a clear statement of intent towards funding the traditional arts. And, at the end ... make a clear policy statement in respect to the traditional arts. It is time for a change.
I confess, again, admittedly as an outsider, that I don't understand what is actually being advocated here. I think that all concerned might ask themselves (and I have no answers): Suppose Tony Blair were to announce tomorrow that an extra one million pounds would be given to fund the traditional arts. What then?
What structures would evaluate what to do with this money? Who would decide? Who would choose the deciders?
What are the odds that the structure that will actually emerge to judge worthiness will correspond to your view of what would help support the tradition?
What in fact would really strengthen the tradition? That is, what are the real things that engage ordinary people in the songs, music and dances of the culture as a part of their everyday lives?
Are those real core things that matter likely to be strengthened by additional funding? If so, funding of what? Festivals? Folk clubs? Educational events? Arts council folk programs? Not easy questions. But surely worthy of more discussion.
Jerry Epstein, Jackson Heights, New York
Jerry Epstein is a board member and former President, of the Folk Music Society of New York. He served on the Board of Directors of the Country Dance & Song Society of America for 9 years and directed Folk Music Week at the legendary Pinewoods Camp in Massachusetts for 4 years, bringing over to Pinewoods many traditional artists from England, Scotland and Ireland. He is known as a singer with real mastery of the old style of traditional song of North America and as a first rank concertina player. Next June he makes his eighth tour of Britain, bringing with him Sheila Kay Adams, certainly among America's finest banjo players and source singers in the English language, with a 200 plus year history of song in her family.