The Trouble with Trad

This month I thought I’d try to put down in words quite why making traditional music has been such a headache for me over the years.

In fact, it occurred to me today that I have written an extraordinarily small number of songs in the last 10 years, and a large part of that has been that so much of my songwriting energy has been taken up in trying to record and perform English traditional music in a way which, to me, doesn’t sound shit. It has taken up so much time in trial and error. Mainly error. And I feel I’m only really starting to make progress on this.

First, let’s just quickly get the whole folk vs traditional thing out of the way.

What’s the difference between ‘Folk’ Music and ‘Traditional’ Music?

I mean, I did this for nearly 40 minutes in this rather stilted video below. Which mainly demonstrates to me how much the standard of YouTube video essays has skyrocketed in recent years. (That said, it was H and my first, and thus far only, attempt to make a video essay, so maybe it wasn’t that bad? Her camerawork is probably the best part.)

If you have 40 minutes to watch an exposition on the difference between folk music and traditional music then I salute you. To be honest, I don’t (I’m not even watching it now to remind myself), so I’m going to summarise:

Folk music is music associated with a particular culture, usually national, that might be very old but also might be modern and written to sound old-timey.

Traditional music is music that is old enough to be out of copyright, and therefore be credited as ‘Traditional’ in the sleeve notes. (Or wherever the credits are.)

There is plenty of modern folk music that I love. (And a fair bit that I don’t, but generally speaking I think I’m more likely to like a modern folk track than not.) But what interests me is not writing modern music and making it sound old, but adapting old music and trying to make it sound… if not modern, then at least current. Relatable.

Why do you want to make ‘traditional’ music in the first place?

This is the question I occasionally get asked, and am often asking myself, because I keep forgetting. I come up with all sorts of different answers for. 

Maybe it started at university. I actually took a course studying popular music at Liverpool University in the 90s, before dropping out and becoming a part-time cartoon writer and assassin for the Vatican. And one of the little snippets of pop music history I learnt was that Paul MacCartney took a keen interest in the history of popular music before Rock & Roll, such as Variety, Music Hall and Tin Pan Alley.  But John Lennon maintained that “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Something about Lennon’s line really stuck with me, and part of the reason why I wanted to explore and understand traditional music was to understand whether he was right. I think I had this sense that not everybody would agree. For example, Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis, admitted (according to his secretary) that he was looking for a white artist who could sell black music a white American audience, so there was clearly a whole musical history that Elvis was tapping into.

Music, like any other artform, involves the musician expressing their philosophy in some way. Whether they’re aware of it or not, it illustrates how they makes sense of life. And one very important part of life, particularly as you get older, is how you relate to the society you grew up in and/or are a part of now. And I think there’s a kind of spectrum, with Anarchy and Punk and Antisocialism at one end, and Community at the other. People who are ideologically at the Community end of the spectrum, like me, tend to express it in their music. Be it Folk or Hip Hop, Reggae or Flamenco.

In the end, the really simple answer I keep finding to the question “Why do you make traditional music?” is… “Well, the same reason that everyone else does, I think.”

In essence, we are all saying Here is the music of the society that I belong to.

And yes, that can be problematic. We’re all wrestling to subtly frame what ‘the songs of my society’ really sound like. But we know that’s how the game works. When someone comes along who plays the songs from our specific community in a way that chimes with our own philosophy / ideology, we tend to celebrate them.

Anyway, that’s a whole other thing. So, why have I been having such a headache with it?

What’s wrong with English Trad?

There are plenty of great English Trad artists… why should I be having such a problem?

Well, I recently had a bit of an epiphany at a conference for trad English folk nerds. Specifically, it was all about Broadside ballads — the sheets of printed lyrics (often with tune suggestions) that made up the popular music industry from about 1550 to the late 1800s. Of the various forms of traditional music, it was Broadsides that interested me most. This was the mass entertainment that was right at the heart of the popular culture at the time. Songs could be nationwide (even continent-wide) hits. Songwriters could make tons of money. Performers could become famous. So I’ve read the academic works, and I’ve chatted to the experts in the coffee queue.

And I was sitting at this conference, listening to one of the speakers comparing different types of Broadsides, and a thought suddenly occurred to me.

What if… these Broadsides… are just… not very interesting?

Not just ‘what if the general standard of songwriting was fairly low?’ Because I knew that already. The same is true of all pulp culture that is made super-quick and super-cheap for a mass market. But on a more fundamental level than that… what if there is some deeper problem with my then-approach of ‘just trawling through fuck-tons of the bastards until you find a good one’?

What if there was something really important that was getting lost in translation?

For a start, modern folk songs are usually written to have that sort of timeless feel to it. Broadside ballads were not. They were mostly written quickly to cash in on some topical event. Someone falls off a ladder in town at 11 in the morning, and by 4 in the afternoon there’s a ballad-monger in the same spot flogging 12 hastily-composed ‘witty’ verses about it, to a very familiar tune. One person in 100 might buy it and add it to their own personal scrapbook of ballads (to be discovered by cultural historians many years later), but for everyone else who buys it, that broadside would probably, quite literally, end up as toilet paper. It was not meant to last.

Although that’s still not the whole problem. Broadsides weren’t written to last but, neither are modern dance hits. Most of the tracks that make it onto a Ministry of Sound compilation are all about being current, on the understanding that they’ll sound dated in 3 years, but even so some of us can still get wistfully nostalgic when they hear the refrain of, say, “What’s she going to look like with a chimney on her?” Because music can remind us of formative parts of our lives.

I think the main part of the epiphany was based on me coming to the conclusion that Time had just placed too many barriers between the original process of Broadside selling and the present day. At the time you would almost certainly get swept up in the emotion of those songs, because they were sold by experienced performers and made specific cultural references.

I’m focusing specifically on Broadsides here, but it applies more generally, I think. Basically, it comes down to the fact that metaphorically, and literally, the language has changed.

This may seem obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me, because in many ways the society wasn’t that different. It’s very rare that I read a Broadside and really have no idea what’s going on at all. Songs are clearly about love, or crime, or tragic death, or whatever.

As I looked at the Broadsides on the projector, it started to occur to me that, the further you turn the clock back, the more important context you’re missing. The more famous people, battles, books, ideas, incidents, you need to know to really understand what’s going on. If you have a good knowledge of English history then that makes it a lot easier. But I’ve been researching this stuff for… how long? 10 years-ish? And even I’m usually guessing where the emotion is in a song, because it’s no longer clear.

Specifically… you might be able to understand what the story is, but you don’t know why it mattered to people. In the same way as someone might stumble across the song Take Me To Church in a few hundred years, and understand it superficially, but not have the context to appreciate why it was such a big hit and meant so much to so many people.

And it made me question whether the heart of these Broadside ballads, the emotional part, the part that connected with people and made them care about the songs… might just be lost to Time. It might just be the case that the further back in history you go, the harder it is to see why these stories mattered. Why, for example, was it that Cold and Raw was such a big hit at the time? Why that particular song? What nerve did it tweak? Was it the tune? Was it the heartwarming tale of the sex-pest narrator coming on to a stranger only to be told “Listen, I know your wife…”? And is there any way we’ll ever know?

I really noticed this when adapting this month’s traditional track: The Sheep-Stealer. I mean… it is such a joy to deal with a song that was written in (or maybe very close to) the 20th Century. Because it’s so much easier to see the internal logic. It’s so much easier to make an informed guess as to why each line in each verse matters. Even through the late Victorian Dorset slang, I feel that it conveys a huge amount about a particular place at a particular time, as well as a particular mindset that’s timeless.

Trying to put the emotion and meaning back into it

And so the big challenge for me has been trying to find a way, or many ways, to put the emotion and the meaning back into these songs.

In fact, it occurred to me in that Broadsides conference that maybe the literal stories themselves were part of the problem. Maybe they were a distraction, and not the part that was interesting. Seeing as we’ll never know why that story merited a song that people paid money for, maybe there’s another way to still give you the sense of being in that time at that place, whilst allowing for the fact that a certain amount of it is mysterious.

But why bother?

So if it’s so difficult to take this old culture and make it clear, coherent, immediate and above all emotional, why bother even trying?

My answer?

Because Hollywood can do it, goddammit. However much people gripe shallow Hollywood and its ‘all about the money’ ethos, when Hollywood wants to tell a story about historical events it is capable of walking that line between sticking to the facts and offering insights into how those societies functioned. Just to throw this a little wider to include not just Hollywood but film and TV generally, some examples might be Gladiator, Seven SamuraiApocalypto and 12 Years A Slave. Or, specifically in the country and period I’m interested in: Shakespeare In Love, Pirates of the Caribbean, Wolf Hall and Taboo.

These stories tell us a huge amount about who were are as a society, and who we are as individuals. And the writers of these films all started with the same problem I have: a very specific time and place with a ton of context that needs to be communicated, as efficiently as possible, before a modern audience can relax and get into the story. And never mind whether you like the story, these films are packed with genuine historical detail. They’re also packed with historical inaccuracies, but in the really successful films those inaccuracies are nearly always carefully considered. And they are done with the aim of making the story clear, coherent, immediate and above all emotional. (Novels do this too of course but, unlike both film and music, they can take a lot longer to tell their stories and so perhaps don’t have to make so many compromises.)

What I’m working on right now

The big challenge for me at the moment is to try to take a leaf out of Hollywood’s book (or frame out of its film reel, or whatever) and find ways to communicate that sense of being there, in that place, at that time, without metaphorically handing everyone a ring-binder of exposition to read first.

Up to now I’ve been very purist, trying to treat traditional sources rather like Shakespeare texts, to be delivered in their entirety, often accompanied by a small book of explanatory notes. But that conference visit made me feel that perhaps this is not just a wasted effort but also bad art. The artist should really interpret the history and present it in an understandable way. (And then, it is the job of the historian to point out to anyone who’s interested quite how much the artist got it wrong.)

Here is an example of how I think it can be done in music.

A while back I recommended an American TV composer’s version of the traditional English tune The Parson’s Farewell that was made for the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean meets Game of Thrones’ TV series Black Sails.

The thing I love about this version is that it’s something that aficionados can appreciate, but it’s also probably something that a 7 year old child can hear and like. Because they feel they understand it. They might not get the historical context of it, but they get the emotion.

Actually, maybe that’s really what it’s all about: finally making traditional English music that people who give exactly zero shits about traditional English music can appreciate. Music where you don’t need to know any context, but yet if you do know the context it still works.

Anyway. I’m still not quite there yet. A bit more trial and error to come, I think.

But I’m hoping I’ll get there very soon. Because, above all else, I want to hear what it sounds like, dammit!

Photo by Brandon ong on Unsplash