New England folk group, The Horton River band, 1997. Dave Game, Mark Rummery, Chris Sullivan, Lionel O'Keefe. Photo: Bob Bolton
I did so with some caution. I am not especially musical, I am a very bad dancer and also knew enough to know that the area was something of a mine field. Still, I pushed ahead and now find that all my reservations had substance! Just understanding different forms of dance is itself itself a significant challenge.To help me, I decided to do a methodological note to supplement the columns.
The note itself is a work in progress, a placeholder for recording material, ideas and issues as I go along. So I will post some initial stuff now and then update it on a weekly basis as I go along. Later when I bring the necessarily short columns up on the blog, this post will provide supplementary information.
My columns have a special but not exclusive focus on the Northern Tableands. However, my broader focus remains on the broader New England, the tablelands and the surrounding river valleys.
At this point, I am focusing on the post European settlement period, The deep and extensive Aboriginal folk tradition is a different story, although there are later interlinks between the two.
As normally understood, the folk tradition is an oral and demonstration tradition, one in which knowledge and skills in things such as song, dance, music or children’s games pass directly from person to person. This simple definition includes a number of problems.
To begin with, who are the folk? Wikipedia, for example, defines a folk museum as "a museum that deals with folk culture and heritage. Such museums cover local life in rural communities. A folk museum typically displays historical objects that were used as part of the people's everyday lives." So rural and local, excluding urban communities. This narrow definition is reflected to some degree in the discussion on folk traditions where the folk are thought of in terms of working and especially rural people as compared to those in the middle and upper classes and especially those who live in metropolitan areas.
However, Wikipedia also defines folklore in a way that is much broader:
Folklore is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people; it encompasses the traditions common to that culture, subculture or group. These include oral traditions such as tales, proverbs and jokes. They include material culture, ranging from traditional building styles to handmade toys common to the group. Folklore also includes customary lore, the forms and rituals of celebrations such as Christmas and weddings, folk dances and initiation rites. Each one of these, either singly or in combination, is considered a folklore artifact. Just as essential as the form, folklore also encompasses the transmission of these artifacts from one region to another or from one generation to the next. Folklore is not something one can typically gain in a formal school curriculum or study in the fine arts. Instead, these traditions are passed along informally from one individual to another either through verbal instruction or demonstration.This broader group based definition includes urban as well as rural groups. It allows for transmission between groups and between generations. It tries to specify the scope of folklore. However, it retains a focus on oral instruction or demonstration, where traditions are passed along informally. Here we come to another set of problems.
Non-literate societies use both formal and informal learning to pass on lore, knowledge and various forms of expression. We can see this in traditional Aboriginal societies where certain lore was passed on in a highly structured way through formal learning, while other skills and knowledge were acquired less formally. In the Celtic bardic tradition, bards were trained in a variety of skills to entertain and pass lore on. So in both cases, we actually have a mix of formal and informal learning.
The emphasis on oral instruction or demonstration raises different issues. Does a tradition cease to be a folk tradition if is is written down and passed on partially in that form? Some folk song purists have seemed to argue something close to that. They have also argued that new songs composed and then spread are not folk songs.
Neither position strikes me as especially sensible. Not only do transmission mechanisms vary, but I find it hard to think of Mike McClellan's Saturday Dance, his There is a Place or Gary Shearston's Shopping On A Saturday as other than New England folk songs. To my mind, the critical issues are neither source nor transmission but tradition, the extent to which folk traditions broadly defined are carried down through the generations.
to be continued