The Songs We Sing
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The Songs We Sing
or, how we understand traditional music’s importance.
We usually sing old songs, the ones with such deep history that no-one remembers who made them up. Throughout many eras of life on these islands, such songs have just tagged along, a mysterious but comforting part of existence. The sun came up, and the songs were there. No barcode proclaimed their origins. They belonged to no-one, or to everyone, to families, and tribes, as well as individual singers. Like the cliffs, valleys, birds and rivers, like the days of the week and the buildings all around, they were undeniable monuments of the landscape.
Till song collectors wrote them down, early archivists like Cecil Sharp and Baring Gould, these old songs were just a background hum to the rhythms of everyday life, so obvious they were almost unnoticeable. Like the English Elm, they drew attention only when they started to disappear.
It’s these ‘traditional’ songs that we love to sing. We sing them unaccompanied, without electric amplification, in two-part harmonies. That’s just me and Ed, on some drizzly back-street, with our bags stashed in a doorway, crooning a plough-song when everyone’s gone home.
Instruments and amps are hard to walk with, and pure voice is the oldest way to make music, with the least possible boundaries between the performer and the listener. Before the industrial age, instruments were specialized tools, crafted at great expense, unavailable to most folks. Of course, it’s a great aspect of modern life, worth celebrating, that strange instruments can be ordered with a few clicks.
But singing songs will always be free for everyone, the common pursuit, and as such, these traditional songs have been the soundtrack for real life all over Britain, for countless generations.
It can be dangerous to call the songs ‘folk’. This little word brings unwanted knee-jerk associations – stale ale, a muddy finger in one ear, and the twang of ancient rebellion seething beneath unruly forests of beard. This is misleading, because slightly true. What is certain, is that good songs are good songs, and if they have survived for hundreds of years, well they’re even better. They are not just silly, or funny, nor are they all ‘ral-dee-fiddle-o’. They address key issues, whose relevance doesn’t fade: love and social taboo, murder, the abuse of power and the perils of ignorance, the rich/poor divide, social injustice, and all possible complications of sex, death and farming.
The word ‘traditional’ is also unsatisfying. Let us be clear, this word does not mean a thing dead and gone. It signifies something that’s been around for a long time, and still continues. Traditions link the past and the future, they live in the present (or else they’re called antiquities), and they bring meaning to our continued existence on these Islands of Britain.
Songs, like fruit, are delicious, enjoyable and sweet in the flesh of them, healthsome for performer and listener alike. But fruit are not just made for the pleasure of their flesh; they have an agenda all of their own. For fruit contain seeds, from which all future fruit shall spring. It is the seeds, not the fruit, that make new life, ensuring growth.
Just so with singing: each time you take in a song, not just to consume it, but to receive in your fertile depths, you’ll be ensuring the seed of song may adapt and survive. You will be hosting it in new soils and conditions, to guarantee its journey onwards.
By re-interpreting, invigorating, and sharing song-traditions, in the only available context (the here and now), songs are refreshed, and reborn as a modern configuration of meaningful associations. Songs are repositories of complex DNA. They replicate and evolve with each new-grown expression, while simultaneously retaining their core identity as a storage point of culture, information, history and knowledge.
Each new engendering of a song is a natural and unintentional hybridization of the originally learned version. Depending on the soil in which it is grown (the singer’s proclivities, voice, and influences), a new (but fundamentally similar) variant of ‘the song’ is created, which (if successful) becomes ‘the song’ itself.
We can carry the comparison further (which doesn’t mean we should, but we shall), in saying that recorded songs are like chilled, frozen or juiced fruit, a once-living thing that has undergone a process of stabilizing, preserving or homogenizing. Transported far from their home soils, there is necessarily a slow steady loss of original flavour, character, and fertility.
For recorded music always involves money. Expensive studio processes, skilled people, marketing and packaging, need cash repayments. But money introduced to musical transmission brings a new focus, and creates a less naive, more complex societal procedure. In this light, songs and music profit from their unavailability, keeping them in controlled channels.
We are trying to say that a recorded musical event is very different, in many ways, to a live spontaneous song sung in a village pub, or at home, by a mother to her child. Technically, it is the same song, thus the same thing. But the motivations, processes and the actual results are all very different. It’s a bit like walking and driving a car – you could say they are both varieties of travel, only at different speeds. But they too are vastly different events, like a tree and a table.
The Orchard at Large
The basic premise we’re peddling is that humans are gardeners, custodians of land and culture. That’s what our species is here to do – take care of other things, and create beauty. We are all part of the cultural landscape, and if we wish for our song-gardens to grow, we need to care for the songs that choose us as hosts, by singing them as often, as well, and to as many people as possible.
The best way to make a song grow is to lovingly introduce it into your musical garden. Overheard on some wind, the seed is taken, planted, propagated, protected, and enjoyed. Then we, and our children, can enjoy the fruit onwards. So, we’re saying, if you want more good fruit bushes to grow, you must reward a really wonderful berry by pooing it outside somewhere, in good soil, and fair light. Don’t just wash its seeds away in Thos. Crapper’s flushing devices.
If this sounds strange, well it is only recently anything but utterly normal, right across the metaphor. For most of human time, on hearing a brilliant song, we’d have gone off singing it to friends and family. But today, the ‘normal’ behaviour is to take music inwards, to consume more and more of it on headphones, on mp3 and radio, and very rarely to spread it by raw analogue song output. We instead replicate perfect digital simulacrum of the same song, in the same way, by the same artists, passing recordings about, each in separate silent spaces, each imagining we are really there and the song is sung for us.
This is disempowering, and boring. It makes us punters, the entertained, rather than creators of culture. People (folk) make music. It is not an elite game, but is common as brambles and free as breath. But in our culture of industrial music consumption, output is most usually a perfect replica of the original, copied on disks for listening, but not singing. Like a banana plantation, every tree is a clone of the next.
Of course, it’s still great to get bananas in England, even though they must be paid for, and cannot be found wild or grown. But there is a quality in native wild things, in songs that have been sung through human throats for generations, over those downloaded onto mp3 players. Wild food is undoubtedly stronger and more potent than its deviant cousins, the domesticated foodstuffs of mass monoculture.
Supermarket food is enslaved food, which grows solely by the will and technology of human owners. Wild food grows by its own self-motivation, by its ancestral expertise, by the same means as the first of its kind. Against all odds, in spite of all difficulty, it lives and thrives.
Just so, the value of wild-song, those old songs sung by people around you, right in front of you, is much greater than hearing something recorded on the radio, all complicated and polished, solid in its form, and seedless. Wild Song is the fundamental and original magical technology of music, available for anyone to use and enjoy, when and where they like.
As such, songs become valuable and exciting things. Holding and singing them makes you the direct carrier of a core tradition, and puts the song’s future in your own hands. Anyone can take part – and everyone does. Just by learning and singing an old song, you join the huge number of people who previously sung and changed and upheld the song. It is like suddenly being part of a new hereditary clan, and being given a whole new set of ancestors, who stretch into the past and future.
The Long Journey Somewhere
Who knows why songs, fruit, traditions and people take such long paths, through so many constantly adapting forms? Who knows why some songs become lodged inside certain skulls, while others bounce off unwanted? They fall on ears, to settle, grow, and form new adaptations, to encode and cause further generative releases. In other places, they leave only an indent, the memory of a feeling, and nothing more.
Who knows where the song goes? Who knows what motivates a tree to make fruit? Is it a blind robotic impulse to survive, or is there some destination waiting ahead, a strange attractor set in an irresistible future? To create such delicious fruit, such unique and refreshing flavours, seems to indicate a tree’s passion and intelligence. And the same is true of songs. They seem to have an internal intelligence, a clever survival method and a destiny being pursued. The life of a song is very long, an unknowable journey of cultural osmosis. Who knows what paths a song has taken, before it reaches you? And yet – it has arrived here, in your head this morning, on your tongue this afternoon, obeying an internal impulse all of its own.
Songs move in mysterious ways. A big showy performance might bounce right off, while a passer-by’s hummed melody can haunt for years. Songs operate on levels we do not fully understand. How many times have you been thinking of a lyric, only to hear someone else start to sing it? Being born into an unknowable past, by mysterious people whose stories we cannot know, traditional songs have followed the most miraculous of paths to reach us today.
We are just their stepping stones, evolutionary moments in their greater development and life-cycle. We are their vehicles, and they use to continue and spread themselves. And every song is travelling on its own journey, toward the right time and place, when the right person will sing them, to achieve exactly the right thing.
How this may happen, the awaited destiny of the songs we sing, is of course entirely conjectural. History doesn’t write such things down. But the cumulative steps of destiny, the entire series of happenings that have caused the song to get where it is today, defy chance and coincidence. Despite such long odds, every song has passed such a process, step-by-step, right through hundreds of lives throughout every living moment of history.
And perhaps it will be you, holding the song at its great moment of release. That little number you’ve sung while washing up with for the last 10 years, is maybe just waiting for you to sing it out, give it breath, release it, and let it do its work. It may then effect another’s mind, with its deep soul magic, to change the world we live in. This is not mystic cherry-chat, but a solid nod to the mechanistic ‘cause and effect’ of cultural influence. A lament about fishermen, sung in the ears of a future executive planning-officer, could make a serious difference to the reality of life for coastal communities. A song can definitely change the world.
Please, then, take seriously the eating of fruit, and the receiving of traditions, and songs. Take them in well. Share them. Do not just consume one and demand another. Ensure they are growing well in the wild, and in your garden, till such boundaries are overrun. Be grateful for the joys that the old songs will provide throughout your life, so freely and so merrily.
And do not forget, that you yourself are the expression of deeds done before, like the apples, like the songs. You are the outcome so far, of every season’s growth and death, every pain, hope, passion and disaster that has occurred before you. You are the purpose, the result, of everything that has come before. We all are. All of us, alive, the freshest fruit of evolution, and each of us singing in the good old future.
We look forward, and hope to see you there.