Folk Music is No Shortcut to Culture

Nota Bene: Not designed by the “slime” of society.

Laura Wood of the ThinkingHouseWife blog posted this from a folk song book compilation. In it, the author asserts many things, but the point I want to address goes something like this: folk music is superior to today’s popular, commercial music, because yesterday’s music was made to be sung, whereas today’s music is merely made to be listened to.

Setting aside the devices, programs, and social settings in which hosts of people gather together to sing karaoke every week throughout this country and even upon the waves at sea—as I know first hand that even karaoke is performed on aircraft carriers underway—the thesis the author puts forth and which Wood supports is quaint at best and utterly devoid of intellectual merit at worst.

What follows is my first reply to the post, which you can read on Wood’s website, and then a followup which I have published here instead of emailing Wood. She may decide to post my second reply I make here over there if she chooses. Needless to say, the discussion on folk music gets at who we are as a people and touches the fundamentals of life and culture. It is an important discussion, which is why I have taken the time to address it.

Here begins my first reply.

I have read and listened to your recent post regarding folk songs with considerable delight. I am not entirely familiar with this genre of music beyond that instruction on its form and content I received in kindergarten, singing and dancing around chairs.

But thinking on your post a little more, I wonder what you would say about the utter dearth of contemporary folk songs—or is it that folk songs as such is a misnomer, since a melody and lyric do not spring up out of a people as such at all but must come into existence by a single creative mind?

What I am getting at is what “folk songs” are today, taken out of their historic context which gave them birth, are really just the popular songs of today sans record labels. That’s the only difference.

Tell me, what is the lyrical and melodic difference between “Home on the Range” and “A Horse with No Name”? I can’t figure one. Both are melodically simple and undemanding such that anyone could sing along. Both deal with general outdoorsy topics on the surface and existential issues beneath. Both are folksy, earthy, and simple songs that are sung by a popular majority and not a highly cultivated class. The only difference is the latter was created in our lifetime and has a copyright, whereas the former wasn’t and doesn’t.

I just think that the difference between folk songs and popular songs of today is not as clear cut as is supposed by the author, and that there are a lot of questions regarding the origins of folk songs if they are not simply copyrighted original creations by historical individuals time has forgotten the names of.

Here begins my second reply.

I think the points of doubt I raise still stand. Further research on the subject just substantiates what I said, viz., that so called folk songs originate—like “Home on the Range,” for instance, from individual artists and are subsumed into the public domain simply because they are not copyrighted. There is no difference musically and lyrically between a folk song and a popular country song of today. And what differences there may be are necessitated by the fact that art imitates nature, and our present day natures and society are just different—think of Jim Croce’s “Operator” song, incorporating the tragic loss of love with technology of the telephone. I suppose if he had written it by candlelight and spoke of his love through a postman it would be considered folk enough.

But I would like to ask if you yourself agree with your commenter’s following remark: “True democracy is CULTURE! From the slime, the lowest people, comes the brilliance of culture, the dress, the music, the architecture, the food.”

Your author and commenter seem to be under the impression that culture is the product of the lower and uneducated and, in a word, uncultured class. That is oxymoronic and false. Culture, in the sense of fine food, dress, music, art, and architecture, has always come by way of leisure. Now, how can the working poor classes afford leisure enough to be poets and gourmets, Amadeus Mozarts and Thomas Coles? And as for Catholic architecture, what kind of man does Mr. S think designed the architectural plans for the great cathedrals of Europe, the local brewer and potato merchant? 

What lurks behind the discussion of folk music is the idea that democracy in general and Catholic culture in particular is a product of the least common denominator. That is flatly false and disturbs the very order, which is hierarchical, of nature and reality and Catholic culture. If you want culture, if you want Catholic culture, you have to have three things at least: 1. Faith, 2. Education, and 3. Leisure. Those are the basic sine qua non ingredients of Catholic culture. Is it any wonder then there is so little Catholic culture today? 

But I deny that there isn’t culture. There is a lot of culture out there, perhaps so much so that we cannot discern it for what it is, because there is so much of it. Think of all the books, songs, paintings, food, dress, and any number of human creations being produced today, some things of exquisite make. Some are Catholic, but the sum of them are not to be equated with culture; but there are good things being made, things of beauty and goodness and truth if not of the Faith. But not one of them, I solemnly insist and assert, is being made by individuals without education (either formal or autodidactic) or without leisure. And that excludes about 99.9 percent of the population.

Folk music is just popular music. There is nothing special about it, nor anything of essential difference between it and popular music. Any assertion to the contrary is founded upon non-sequiturs. But neither was folk music produced by the ignorant masses but was created, as it is even today, by a set of highly skilled artisans of melody and word.

Obviously there is high culture and low culture, and I have talked about both in this post, because the cause of both is the same, leisure and eduction. If you want Catholic culture, you need to add the Faith. But whether we are talking about folk music, which is low culture, or opera, which is high culture, there remains the necessity of talking about musical theory, harmony, prosody, instrumentation, vocal technique, thespianism, and any number of other technical arts that are required to really pull off a good show. The majority of mankind can sing along to a song but cannot make a song.

Music is something very near and dear to me. I grew up with music in the air all evening long, where my father would blast the popular songs of the day from his little studio and bar room in the basement. So many popular artists and their songs became the soundtrack of my life, such that I did not want for any “folk songs” to sing along to, because I sang along to all the popular songs I heard–just as I am sure many of you reading did the same.

Since then, I have taught myself classical guitar for several years, and have learned to play a handful of concert-level pieces. Unfortunately, I can no longer play because my fistula makes my fretting hand stiff and unable to play longer than a few bars without burning. Since I can no longer play classical guitar, I have started to learn how to sing classically, which is to say in the style and technique of Bel Canto, which the folk music author no doubt would disparage as pretentious, insincere, and sophisticated. Then, again, I suppose a banjo player would think a classical guitarist pretentious, insincere, and sophisticated. But the point I would like to make is that beautiful music takes a lot of work–a lot of work. Truly great singing–like this–takes work, years of practice and mastering a technique.

Folk music of old is not a shortcut to culture. There is no shortcut to culture. It takes work, dedication and sacrifice to learn, develop and cultivate a culture. It doesn’t come naturally, and it doesn’t come from simply swinging your arms to and fro and shouting into the streets and stomping your feet to some merry old tune sailors sang drunk epochs ago. It comes from spending time with a technical body of knowledge, of an art and craft, and study and practice, and not a little inspiration, and sometimes a lifetime of service to its cause. All the great artists of old knew that. We don’t. That is why they were great and we are small.

On the Pros and Cons of the Accessibility of Art

The Pros

For less than a hundred dollars, one can have a framed print of William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s masterpiece, Song of Angels. The obvious advantage of such a cost-affordable gem of Western and Catholic art is the price tag. For the cost of a good steak dinner for two, one can have in a room in the house nearly the same aesthetic pleasure as an aristocrat from the 1800s who would have had to pay tens of thousands.

Now, I know there are those who dispute the aesthetic advantage of prints over originals, since the differences of surfaces are different. But these differences are, well, superficial. To the artist–I humbly submit to you that I know a thing or two about art, being an amateur artist myself–these differences are more pronounced, but to the casual art appreciator, they are imperceptible.

Art has become, through commercialization and technological innovation, ever more accessible to the common man without a Rolls-Royce in the drive, and I think this is a very good thing. The only difficulty is that it is hardly appreciated and taken advantage of. Let me explain.

When one goes into a Hobby Lobby, for instance, there he is met with décor art, with seaweed mermaids and seashells and lifeless beach scenes. These are not made my man but machine and motor. They smack of a vague and lifeless landscape, devoid of personality, movement, or vibrant life-giving pigment. They are, in short, not art, but décor.

Such decorations are welcome, and I have a piece or two in my own home, purchased before I learned or was interested in art. But now, that I am no longer a child but a man, I have left off the things of children. There are those who have not, and I do not blame them. For the same forces, the mechanical and commercial, which have made art ever more accessible have also made reproductions of true art inert and irrelevant. There are whole warehouses filled with gilded framed prints of masterpieces just waiting to be purchased, but contemporary markets do not have the appetite for steak, but only hamburger, or rather tofu-burger.

But the accessibility of reproductions of fine art is a very good thing, whether it is appreciated and taken advantage of or not. Often times when I am praying the Rosary, I will look up at the Song of Angels, and my devotion is touched by filial affection, moved to feel what I express with my heart and lips. That is the power of devotional art: it incarnates the spiritual. And, for just a Franklin or two, one can have a fine gilt framed piece of religious art.

The Cons

Having offered a word or two as the advantages of having fine art works available to the masses, it remains to be said why this may prove disadvantageous, which may be stated in many reasons, but I shall confine myself to three: with respect to the art, with respect to the viewer, and with respect to art in general.

To the first, the artwork as such, the piece hanging in a museum for instance, is a work of human hands, a sub-created entity with a material reality which is quite lost upon the reproduction, which a machine produces. The oil surface, for instance, is something that very few people have ever even seen, let alone appreciated, yet this is one quality that many artists prize as the work of an authentic piece of art, the jewel-like surface, the way light penetrates the glazed surfaces (with oil paintings, there are multiple layers or surfaces which reflect back light), and glows from within. These beauties are wholly lost in a reproduction, and people are not even aware that such qualities exist, unless they have studied art and visited museums. True, like I said above, these qualities of surface are imperceptible to the casual art appreciator, but casual appreciation is not an ideal. The ideal is rather, if not expert, at least a studied appreciation of art. Reproductions make this imperfect, because they leave the living materiality of the work of art aside, and only capture its form.

Next, there is the viewer, which I have slightly touched upon. With reproductions, the viewer takes for granted the thing in itself, since it is not really the thing in itself at all, but a replica. It is the difference between meeting an actor playing Lincoln and meeting the man himself. In the first instance, one admires the words and gestures of the actor portraying Lincoln, such as in Daniel-Day Lewis’s moving performance in Lincoln. But that is only the superficial form of Lincoln. The smell of his aftershave (if he ever shaved) is not there, nor is the very being and soul of the man Lincoln, who many believe to be the savior of America. He was a walking piece of art, and all we have are replicas, either in film or photography and paintings. We do not have the art itself. We have a piece of art of art.

Finally, art for art’s sake, as it were. Art suffers from reproduction, because the whole point and pleasure of art is the uniqueness of every piece. Reproductions try to get around this pride of art by limiting prints, but that is next to impossible with the advent of ever more accessible digital prints. Art becomes just another commodity to be produced and sold, which is a kind of profanation of art. Art is the person and the world mediated through matter. Take away the matter, and the person and the world are left hollow, a mere seashell without the music inside.

Overcoming the Difficulty

As Catholics we have the richest and most fecund tradition of art of any culture or people in the history of the world. The artworks of Catholic culture are incomprehensible, and I am not one to say one should only go to museums to appreciate and cultivate an artistic sentiment. There is such a thing as a via media, which would allow for both the reproduction of the artwork while at the same time not being completely satisfied with it. If taken meditatively, one may see an allegory in the reproduction of art. All art, even original works in oil on canvas, are reproductions of earthly and heavenly realities. They are not the things themselves, the living and breathing and moving dramatis personae, but only stick figures composed in a still life for all eternity. Yet they are something still, which have the power to move us emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, even being lifeless pigments and oil–and so too reprints. Though not the thing itself, the artwork, reproductions of fine art capture the form if not the matter of the thing and communicate that to our souls. You can cultivate an appreciation of the matter by going to the museum. But that doesn’t mean you cannot derive good in such formal beauty of the reprints.

So, if you find that you have a few bucks lying about, and want to enrich your walls and your soul with some timeless Catholic artwork, do so, and leave off the things of a child and be a man.