2007 - 2021

Scottish folk music: The Music of Scottish Folk

As a bona-fide folk musician (so says Spotify), I enjoyed Bella Caledonia’s most recent playlist (Faerie Folk, Frolic and Fiddles).

Though I must say that the eclectic mix on offer, ranging from the ‘Lewis Carroll does rock’ of Jefferson Airplane to the traditional slip jig of The Dubliners, is fairly telling in that the range of styles, songs, lyrics, and instrumentation that tend to be lumped together into the moniker of ‘folk music’ make it a confusing genre to pin down.

Simon and Garfunkel are folk. The Pogues’ póg mo thóin attitude is folk. Jimmy Shand on the radio is folk. That one guy that gets kicked out a pub on a Saturday night for singing sectarian songs is folk. Even American imitating, Carey Mulligan-marrying Eton alumni are folk apparently.

As you can see, it’s pretty hard to define.

Anyway, under the playlist lay a solitary comment; a contesting viewpoint to the idea that so called ‘folkies’ reveled only in the medieval idyll, with added goblins and fairies if possible. Quite rightly, it hits the nail on the head in suggesting that folk music is what it is due to a narrative storytelling tradition that predates any of the current banes of recorded music and the fetid tendrils of its associated industry. Knowledge is power, and in few places has the concept of narrative folk music passed down from generation to generation stayed as strong as in Scotland.

In a world in which music consumption is quickly boiled down to buzzwords like ‘chill’ or ‘moody’ entered into a search engine, how can such a broad genre be assigned the all-encompassing hashtag #folk? What the folk labeling has become is something to define a style of music that perhaps doesn’t conform to any of the other rigid categories of musical demarcation.

Scotland is a country defined by its music, indeed Scottish music, whether you like it or not, plays arguably the most prominent part in Scottish identity.

Now take something cheesy or tartan-tinted like the Skye Boat Song. It would be challenge to find anyone from north to south, as well as across the Scottish diaspora, that didn’t know at least the chorus bit or the melody. The song itself is an absolute patchwork of influences; lyrically written as a bit of shortbread-tin Scotticism by a Victorian baronet, based on a traditional highland tune, and inspired by events that had nothing to do with the lyrics themselves. Even by the time of its writing, the tune had clearly gone through several incarnations. Then as it is passed down through history, through narrators as diverse as Robert Louis Stevenson, AC/DC, and even Noel Coward, it both loses bits, and gains bits: for better or for worse. Whatever you think of the song, you are left with a wholly interactive historical narrative that transcends generations and finds relevance with any given audience. It is this string of storytelling, one that people can both take from and give to, which is a hugely important part of Scottish culture.

The argument always comes up about how singing songs about maritime disasters, bonnie-but-ultimately-doomed maidens, and highlanders’ stolen land has any relevance to a modern audience, and I suppose that out of context it could seem hard to equate said themes to this day and age. However, the concepts of precarious employment, gender inequality, and the effect of privatisation and capitalism on our land and environment are as relevant now as they were hundreds of years ago. The themes don’t change, but the way they are told does.

You can follow these narratives all the way from Burns to Travis, James Hogg to Michael Marra, Hamish Imlach to Eddi Reader, Harry Lauder to KT Tunstall. For a nation that celebrates the life of an 18th century poet every year, the concept of narrative storytelling shouldn’t be lost on us; in fact the sheer fact that we dedicate so much to the preservation of Burns’ work is endemic of its relevance in the here and now. Aye, the themes of Tam o’ Shanter flow right through the ages to another, albeit more modern expression of distinctly Scottish narrative, Arab Strap’s First Big Weekend. I’m not saying that Moffat and Middleton are aficionados of Burns’ tome (maybe they are, who knows?), but fundamentally what was relevant in 18th century Ayrshire could also be found at the Barrowlands in 1996; drink, botched pick ups, fractured relationships etc. Sure, Burns’ eponymous hero watched a coven of witches for entertainment while the Arab Strap boys had The Simpsons, but there exists a level of continuity of narrative storytelling that is fairly unique to Scotland. It is no accident that the odd-couple of Aiden Moffat and traditional ballad singer Sheila Stewart were such a success in Paul Fegan’s fantastic documentary, Where You’re Meant to Be.

The question is where is the Scottish storytelling narrative now? This question seemed at the heart of the misunderstanding between the aforementioned playlist and its solitary commenter. If folk music isn’t goblins, lutes et al, but instead an intangible train of popular consciousness, then where is it in modern Scottish society? The answer, I think, is clear. It is in the nation’s hip-hop scene.

One of the big hang ups people seem to generally have towards Scottish hip hop is that it simply tries to emulate or ape American culture. However, this is the kind of superficial, aesthetically driven judgement of fashion and style within the hip-hop community that hints at trans-Atlantic imitation, and is thus missing the point completely. Scottish hip-hop, with its visceral, worldly, and above all relevant lyrics, its community expressions of dance and movement, its frankly pioneering use of a Scots language that academics have squabbled over for years, is at the absolute forefront of what many might have previously termed as ‘folk culture’. A multi-faceted, multi-cultural Scotland has its own story to add to our traditional narrative, and this story is told through Scottish hip-hop culture.

Now, it might seem a stretch to equate the Skye Boat Song, a 19th century ballad written by an aristocrat, with the cutting rhymes, beats, and physical expressions of artists and groups such as Loki, Stanley Odd, Becca Starr, Orry Caren, and Young Fathers, but I see a continuity as clear as day. Though Sir Harold Boulton, 2nd Baronet, no doubt penned his lyrics about marginalised communities in order to cash in on the Victorian thirst for all things Caledonian, modern Scottish hip-hop continues the narrative of the marginalised, but with the idea of highlighting the social issues that effect a modern, and increasingly urban Scotland.

The kind of Scotland featured ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ is the very Scotland that is over-represented in the public consciousness. What Scottish hip-hop does is to take that narrative and use it to both rail against the current status quo, and perhaps more importantly, hint towards a society that is both fairer and more progressive in ways that our friend the Baronet could never have imagined. The angles of approach are different, but the two worlds are inherently connected. If that isn’t the very crux of ‘folk’ music then I don’t know what is.

Next week, on the 31st of July sees the debut of the HANG conference, a premier event in Scotland dedicated to the empowerment and inspiration of Scotland’s hip-hop and grime scene. It provides what I hope to be a springboard for a new generation of Scottish storytellers. An event such as this makes it clear that the Scottish hip-hop carries the torch for the way we narrate our lives.

The idea that folk music, literally music of the people, is confined to some cosy, yet bygone time is far from reality. Narrative storytelling of Scotland’s past, especially through song and story, has never been more important to us. We are very lucky to be in a position in which we can have an interactive national narrative, a concept that is quickly giving way to the kinds of populist, blood and soil, flag-heavy ideals that are rapidly expanding across the globe. Our ability to draw from the past and adapt it to the present, helps us stay in touch with the mistakes and transgressions of our history, though more perhaps more tellingly, it gives us the opportunity to verbalise, and thus make relevant, what it is that we want in the future.

‘Onward the rappers cry’

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  1. Colin Robinson says:

    Folk music as a thing was invented in the mid-19th century. The concept was borrowed from the German proto-romantics, for whom it designated the music of the Volk rather than of the individual. The proto-romantics believed that each Volk or ‘nation’ had its own distinctive character or ‘genius’, and this genius was expressed in and by its Volksmusik.

    A key feature of Volksmusik is its anonymity. It emanates from the nation itself rather than from the individuality of any one author. It also evolves as it passes through the many hands that transmit it through the generations. No one ‘owns’ its artefacts; it belongs to the common ownership of the folk or nation.

    But at the heart of it lies this troublesome notion of ethnicity, the idea that the species can be divided up into ‘nations’ or ‘peoples’, each with its own particular ‘identity’ or ‘genius’; a notion that becomes particularly troublesome when its joined with nationalism, the idea that states and nations should coincide, under which others become aliens.

    I’m not a great fan of folk music. I’m more into world music, in which traditional and quasi-traditional identities are continually being deconstructed and remixed.

    1. Dougie says:

      What became known later as ‘world music’, began life in the 1960s because early enthusiasts of the ‘folk revival’ discovered to their joy the folk music of other nations. Including those which the UK had ‘colonised’. (It’s no accident that the Bhundu Boys, one of the earliest proponents of ‘world music’ from the early eighties, popularised by Peel and Kershaw on radio, were Zimbabwean. )

      In one of the earliest occasions in which ‘world’ music encountered Scots folk music, in the 1950s I think, the medieval Scots ballad ‘The twa corbies’ was set to a hauntingly appropriate Breton tune, to which it has ever since been sung – because it was one of the few ancient Scots ballads which had no known surviving Scots tune.

      English marxist folklorist and singer Bert Lloyd notably analysed the fact that many ballads are international, in that variants of the same tale exist across several national cultures, in his 1967 publication ‘Folksong in England.’ That they are international is hardly surprising; so is exploitation and its c19th development, capitalism. So it’s natural that many of the same issues have troubled working folk across national boundaries. And centuries.

    2. Dougie says:

      And Mr Robinson, folk music as a ‘thing’ was NOT ‘invented in C19’. It’s likely that is has existed for as long as human communities have.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        It was. It was first distinguished as a thing in 1852 by Carl Engel in his Introduction to the Study of National Music, where he writes:

        “The term National Music implies that music, which, appertaining to a nation or tribe, whose individual emotions and passions it expresses, exhibits certain peculiarities more or less characteristic, which distinguish it from the music of any other nation or tribe. The Germans call it Volksmusik, a designation which is very appropriate, and which I should have rendered folk-music, had this word been admissible.”

        Of course, the ideology of folk music has itself evolved over the past century-and-a-half since it was first coined. As world music, it’s become much less nationalistic and much more cosmopolitan. Thank goodness!

        1. Niemand says:

          Given that the article is about the problems of a term like folk music, ‘world music’ is about 10x more problematic! The reasons are self-evident I would have thought and consequently is rarely used today.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            Indeed! World music’s inclusive nature and elasticity as a musical category pose obstacles to a universal definition. This renders the term virtually meaningless and, more importantly, calls into question the whole taxonomic project of classifying music into genres (eg. folk music) and defining/setting limits on those genres (e.g. folk music is limited to x, y, z). World music is just all the music in the world, without discrimination.

          2. Niemand says:

            Except it isn’t. It is a term that refers to music outside of the Western rock/pop/classical canon (and their subforms around the world), by and large, none of which would be called world music. The term became popular in the late 70s/ early 80s due to its marketing by mostly well-meaning people at the time. So it is very much a discriminating term. And by lumping all the rest as ‘world music’ it suggest it can all be thought of in the same way, which is a complete fallacy and arguably somewhat insulting.

            What it really refers to is the music from different non-western countries (and also some more obscure European folk musics but not British folk music) that has a distinct flavour of those countries / cultures and tended to focus on those forms that we might call folk music, or obviously ethnic / folk music inspired forms, of those places. It did lead to quite a lot of crossover projects and in that sense was liberating to some extent.

            You may wish to rehabilitate the term to mean ‘just all the music in the world, without discrimination’ but I suspect you are on a hiding to nothing with that except in your own head.

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            Yes, I know that phrase was used by colonial taxonomists to ‘other’ (non-Western) music. That othering is what I’m (hopefully) helping to deconstruct by calling that taxonomy and its authority into question.

        2. Dougie says:

          Perhaps then you could explain to us, Mr Robinson, exactly what Walter Scott was collecting in his ‘Scots Border Minstrelsy many decades before the midC19? Or what a certain Robert Burns collected assiduously even earlier, and often used to polish into his own songs and poems?

          Maybe the WORDS ‘folk music’ were not widely used… but the songs and music certainly were!

          And the attributable AUTHORSHIP of a specific song or piece of music has long caused some less understanding folk to deem that something for whom an author could be identified, DEFINED it as something other than folk music.

          I suspect gey few in today’s Scotland would deny that the ‘Freedom come a ye’ is today a folksong. Despite the fact that its authorship lies clearly with Hamish Henderson, Scots c20 poet, warrior, and folklorist, whose living memorial it is, along with Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies.

          As to the heart of the article which has spawned these comments – I for one know too little of today’s popular music to comment on it. Except to say that in a world of commercialised and profit-generated music, it becomes more difficult to apply the term ‘folk-music’ rigorously.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            Under the inspiration of the German Völkischen, he (Scott) was collecting the ‘traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes’ (as he put it), which he took as expressing the Scottish Volksseele (national soul). This he used in the service of his Tory nationalism, by which he defined ‘Scotland’ as a nation or people (Volk).

  2. Peter Shepheard says:

    Well, I never thought hip hop would be considered as part of Scotland’s folk music culture. Music it no doubt is, an expression of the culture of the people who perform it and listen to it – it certainly must be. But this is surely true of any song, poetry, writings or music that are part of the culture of an era. But the term “folk music or folk song” has by this argument become meaningless. As you pointed out in your introduction: “the range of styles, songs, lyrics, and instrumentation that tend to be lumped together into the moniker of ‘folk music’ make it a confusing genre to pin down.” QED.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Maybe folk music has been surpassed and rendered obsolete as a distinguishable thing.

      1. Dougie says:

        Everyone interested in this subject should re-read the very public debate in the correspondence columns of ‘The Scotsman’ in the early 1960s, between Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid. Most of the issues being explored in this discussion have existed, and been the subject of heated argument, for a very long time!

        Those interested are referred to Vol 2 ‘Poetry becomes people’ of Timothy Neat’s 2009 biography of Henderson.

        1. Niemand says:

          Thanks for heads up Dougie. Was Ewan MacColl involved? He had a lot to say on the matter and had a very narrow view!

          1. Dougie says:

            MacColl wasnie involved to the best of my knowledge, Niemand. Though he certainly ensured his nose was firmly poked into many places! P 91 of ‘Class Act’, Ben Harker’s 2007 Pluto Press biography of MacColl suggests Hamish Henderson was Henderson’s ‘festival drinking buddy’, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time to read through the 19 references to MacColl in vol 2 of Neat’s Henderson’s biography, to confirm or deny this.

        2. Colin Robinson says:

          I think the discussion has moved on quite a ways in the years since the dialectical flytings between tradition and precedent in the Letters page of The Scotsman. It’s a very different world now, a very different ‘Scotland’; we’re a lot less völkisch in our outlook than we were back then.

    2. Niemand says:

      It is a very interesting article I have a lot of sympathy with but I tend to agree Peter. It reminds me of similar discussions that punk rock in its heyday was modern folk music.

      However I am not sure that defining folk music mainly around its basis in narrative storytelling (thus allowing the inclusion of hip hop, which I assume means rap music) really cuts it. The sound and instrumentation is crucial too – and cannot simply be jettisoned; as well as that notion of tradition (that is mentioned) i.e. a musical tradition that stretches back into the midst of time, and on that level rap (and punk for that matter) really do not qualify. Put simply, many of the markers of folk music are sonic and are still recognised as such.

      Good point here: ‘We are very lucky to be in a position in which we can have an interactive national narrative, a concept that is quickly giving way to the kinds of populist, blood and soil, flag-heavy ideals that are rapidly expanding across the globe’.

      Indeed. Going off topic a little, several prominent nationalist bloggers (not Campbell interestingly) have recently embraced the writings of Alf Baird as an intellectual rationale for restricting any new referendum franchise to ‘natives’ or longer term residents (and the definition of these has been going to extremes in some circles). I wonder what Bella’s view on this is? For Baird it all stems from his colonialist narrative which is a kind of sealed up argument that ultimately says, anyone who votes No to independence is either a) an English ‘settler’ colonialist or colonialist ‘collaborator’ Scot, or b) a ‘native’ whose mind has been corrupted, brainwashed by colonialist thinking (I may be being a bit unfair to Baird there but certainly some are extrapolating this line of thinking from him). This is what the idea that Scotland is a colony of England can ultimately lead to. I wonder if Scottish rap has anything directly to say about this too, a music that after all, has its roots in a different continent and culture entirely?

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        I don’t think that trying to define (fix or delimit the extension of) folk music AT ALL really cuts it. We tend to assume the definitions that confirm our prejudices, and the only way to subvert this tendency is to play the definitions that we variously assume off against one another. Hamish Henderson’s definition was based on his rather partial reading of Gramsci. From Gramsci, he took the idea that folk culture could serve as an alternative to the ‘official’ or ‘establishment’ culture of the ruling class. Folklore was to be understood as representing a conception of the world in opposition to ‘official’ conceptions of the world and the hegemony those conceptions exercise over the consciousness of the working class, preventing it from becoming revolutionary. Accordingly, Henderson saw folk music as an implicit challenge to the ruling ideology of his time, a manifestation of a kind of underground resistance to bourgeois culture, and defined it in those terms.

        What he failed to grapple with, however, was Gramsci’s view of folklore as ‘Janus-faced’. Gramsci spoke of various strata within folk culture. Alongside the creative and progressive state, he juxtaposed the ‘fossilised’ ones, which (like the bothy ballads, perhaps) reflect conditions of past life and are therefore conservative and reactionary. Where Henderson perhaps parted with Gramsci was when the latter claimed that folk culture had to be ‘overcome’ and that folklore can have no place in the development of the proletarian hegemony that would replace the bourgeois one and, therefore, no place in the revolutionary future as imagined by Marxists like MacDiarmid, who defined it accordingly in the service of their ideological needs.

        But these old 20th-century dialectical flytings have been superseded by fresh ones, which call into question the very identarian concept of ‘folk’ itself.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          That should read ‘Alongside the creative and progressive strata…’

          1. Dougie Harrison says:

            At least the publication here of Louis Rive’s piece has stirred a few cocks in the midden of some ignorance on the issue!

          2. Colin Robinson says:

            Indeed! The use of narrative and counter-narrative (storytelling) to illuminate and explore one’s own lived experience, to ‘name’ one’s own reality, and to share that experience and reality with others is a useful counter to the bourgeois hegemony of evidence and reason and its valorisation of objectivity and merit. If you want to define folk culture thus, rather than in the olde worlde language of ethnicity or national identity, then go ahead by all means. That would be progressive.

        2. Niemand says:

          Hm, but you ignore the question of musical style and genre. They exist whatever their provenance and you cannot wish them away. Artistic endeavour relies on them to some extent and though they can be difficult to pin down, and it is not a case of fixing them, to say nothing of the sort can be done AT ALL is simply flying in the face of reality. You can think of any genre you have any familiarity with and know what it sounds like and though one of the more resistant and fluid, this still applies to folk music. I won’t bore you with what that sound is because you know what it is. Political matters often get superseded by style, as in the case of modernism, and in fact, those political concerns are often superimposed later anyway and musicians are often resistant to such dogma.

          It is what humans do – to delimit things to try and make sense of the world, to order it. You may as well say we should do away with biological definitions. I have little time for ideology that denies reality, and as a musician myself I know that musicians will always work within such limits, and as long as it is done without too dogmatic an approach, it is artistically fruitful (even with dogma it can be!).

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            Well, no; I ‘dismissed’ styles and genres as taxonomies, which are social constructions rather than ‘natural’ phenomena. ‘Folk’ can be whatever we decide it to be.

            And, yes; we construct our realities by ordering our sentience taxonomically, through differentiation and definition. These realities are only given to us in the sense that we acquire the taxonomies we apply in making sense of our experiences from the language in which we’re encultured and through which the hegemony – the predominance and authority of one social group over others – operates.

            Gramsci (and Hamish Henderson) saw ‘folk’ as a counter-culture that could frustrate the hegemony bourgeois culture exercised over our consciousness and ‘blocked’ the development of a revolutionary consciousness. Unlike Henderson, however, Gramsci didn’t see folk culture as forming part of that revolutionary consciousness itself. For those Critical Theorists (and others) who followed Gramsci, revolutionary consciousness would be a consciousness that resisted domination and authority altogether to ‘name’ its own realities.

          2. Niemand says:

            Trouble is folk musicians couldn’t give a damn about any of this and that’s what matters cos they know what they understand as folk music and make it as they see fit. What social / political theorists say about the matter is at best secondary and at worst, completely irrelevant. Any discussion that dismisses that and fails to understand what motivates creative endeavour is on a hiding to nothing.

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            That’s true, Niemand; those musicians name their own realities. If a rap musician decides her music is ‘folk’ because it tells a story (or whatever), then it’s folk, whatever the taxonomists say. That’s where we’re at: God is dead; folk music can be whatever one wants it to be. And that goes for all identities.

          4. Niemand says:

            Yes I think that fair, though I would be surprised if a rap musician did think of their music as folk music, but I could be totally wrong there. Folk music as a concept is somewhat different though to its actual manifestation. In a way folk music is a tricky example due to the difficulty in pinning it down.

            Where your idea gets much more problematic is where the tropes of a genre are very much clearer: heavy metal music relies on loud distorted guitars in virtually every manifestation of it; it defines the term. There is nothing stopping someone who makes solo acoustic guitar ballads from saying their music is ‘heavy metal’ but no-one else would accept it because it omits the defining ‘heavy’ features that heavy metals musicians and fans revere. So though heavy metal can in theory ‘be whatever it wants to be’, in practice, it can’t, no more than a table can be a hair dryer.

          5. Colin Robinson says:

            I’d be surprised too, given the concurrence of signs and symptoms that loosely constitute the ‘folk’ syndrome? And politically, while folk music remains the music of ‘the people’, it doesn’t seem to embrace yet the music of the ghetto. Perhaps the folk syndrome is still too alien for rappers to ‘own’ it as an identity.

          6. Colin Robinson says:

            “There is nothing stopping someone who makes solo acoustic guitar ballads from saying their music is ‘heavy metal’ but no-one else would accept it because it omits the defining ‘heavy’ features that heavy metals musicians and fans revere.”

            This only supports my claim that things like folk music and heavy metal are social constructions – historical rather than natural phenomena – whose defining characteristics (or signs and symptoms) are themselves authoritatively defined by the acknowledged connoisseurs or ‘experts’ of a community in order to delimit its identity as a community and thereby distinguish it from others.

            Someone who makes solo acoustic guitar ballads and who names her own musical reality as ‘heavy metal’ would be excluded by that community on the basis that her musical practice doesn’t conform to the signs and symptoms by which that community’s canon is defined by its authorities.

          7. Colin Robinson says:

            Perhaps this is why the music of the ghetto is currently excluded from the canon of the Volk by those authorities who legislate the details, technique, or principles of the genre and act as its gatekeepers.

          8. Niemand says:

            Excluded is a loaded term. As I said, it means no more here than saying a table is ‘excluded’ from being a hair dryer since such words are also constructs. Heavy metal as a term is not at all arbitrarily constructed – ‘a man of heavy metal’ i.e. heavy metal as literally the big, powerful, very loud guns and thus a man of power and import, is the root of the term along with its beginnings in the working soundworld of the heavy metals industry in the Midlands, the actual world of those who first developed the music, so has direct physical relationship to its sound which is why the guitar balladeer does not fit, not because the social construction does not allow it but because the sound is totally wrong, the desired effect of exuding physical power is wrong, the whole sensibility of empowerment is wrong. So I cannot see how this is any more a social construct then the name we give to anything that defines what it is.

          9. Colin Robinson says:

            I didn’t say that things like heavy metal are arbitrarily constructed. They’re constructed by arbiters in accordance with definite criteria (the ‘signs and symptoms’ by which something is named). What those ‘signs and symptoms’ are is currently legislated by acknowledged connoisseurs or experts, who decide what ‘sound’ is right (and therefore admissible to the canon) and what ‘sound’ is wrong (and therefore to be excluded from the canon). They are therefore authoritatively constructed.

            The goal, going forward, is to have our social constructions democratically constructed; that is, to bring about relations of [music] production in which we can name our own realities. That’s how musicology fits nowadays into the bigger Marxian picture. The first step in the democratic construction of our realities is the deconstruction of all authoritative constructions of the same, whatever their political affiliations or associations.

          10. Niemand says:

            Heavy metal as a notion is democratically constructed and does not need further democratisation. Popular music is already defined in part as open to much hybridity and when you look at HM, it has myriad hybrid forms but they all share a root that makes them ‘metal’. Remove this root as I outlined above, and it ceases to be just as a basic root definition of a table would.

            Where I would agree is in the proliferation of sub and sub-sub genres within certain genres which serve little purpose but to exclude and the irony of that is the reason they proliferate is that they *are* named ‘by our own [individual] realities’ but realities hardly anyone else knows or understands. Your ideal is actually a recipe for exclusion not inclusion, unless you are arguing for the elimination of any musical categorisation at all, a recipe for a complete breakdown in meaningful musical communication and will never happen.

          11. Colin Robinson says:

            Yes, but a salient difference between the ‘root’ of metal and the ‘root’ of table is that tables are what they are in virtue of their functionality. A table is a table because it functions as a table.

            The same cannot be said of metal, which has no function. Metal is metal, rather, because it exhibits a syndrome; that is, a loose and indefinite concurrence of musical and sociological signs and symptoms that can be used to distinguish it formally or conventionally from other syndromes, like jazz or folk, for reasons of convenience like commodity branding, the forging of community identities within the music world, or scientific/quasi-scientific classification (‘For today we have the naming of parts.’).

            The definition of things like metal is a purely formal or conventional rather than a functional one, as in the case of things like tables and hairdryers. So, your analogy doesn’t hold.

            Nor, I can add, are things like metal materially defined (in terms of their content – which is just sound) or efficiently defined (in terms of their anterior causes – which, again, they just don’t have.

            Folk music is indefinable except by convention. There is no ‘thing-in-itself’, use, or cause that a ‘correct’ definition could describe. Therein lies the problem of definition.

          12. Niemand says:

            Metal music also has a function, and one that cannot be fulfilled by other genres. This is why it can be compared to the function of a table that cannot be fulfilled by the function of a hair dryer.

          13. Colin Robinson says:

            And what is the special function of metal music that distinguishes it from other genres?

          14. Niemand says:

            The function of giving pleasure, joy, edification, transcendence, a specific physical response, to those who like the specific musical nature of metal music. Perhaps the most clear distinctive function related to its notion of ‘power’, is its ability to create a real sense of mutual empowerment between performer and audience, which partly explains the music’s longevity despite much criticism down the years. Other musics can also do these things but in different ways, different combinations, different emphases, due to their different musical nature. The details matter. We respond to music differently depending on its musical / sonic make up and those who make the music know this and create the music accordingly.

            Function in music can be even more material: electronic dance music designed for a club to which no-one gets up to dance to has failed in its function. Some choral music must be written so it sounds especially good in a large reverberant space to induce a sense of wonder. A fanfare to open something great that is dreary, slow and dissonant would send the wrong message. And so on.

            The idea that music is functionally useless and somehow transcendent from material reality is a Romantic one, and though not without its place (it can try and eschew function to good creative ends), as a mantra, is patently false.

          15. Colin Robinson says:

            Or: what is the special function of metal that makes metal ‘metal’?

            To paraphrase Hilary Putnam in his essay on Irrealism and Deconstruction: While it’s true that we didn’t make metal as a carpenter makes a table, don’t we after all make it ‘metal’?

            (Irrealism is a rejection of the view that definitions or ‘essences’ exist, like Plato’s ‘forms’ or ‘ideas’, absolutely; that is, quite apart from and independent of our understanding of them. In the irrealist scheme of things, all ‘realities’ – such as folk music – are dependent for what they are on our understanding of them. Hegel and Marx called the process by which the world becomes alienated from our understanding ‘reification’.

            Deconstructionism is the view that our understanding and the ‘realities’ that depend on it are continually dissolving and reforming around their own internal contradictions, and that deconstruction is the praxis of life itself; a view or understanding that’s, itself, self-reflexively prone to deconstruction. Accordingly, Hegel and Marx called the process by which our ‘realities’ are thus continually remaking themselves through us ‘world-historical’. This world-historical process – the work of ongoing self-creation – is, for the children of Hegel, the only true ‘reality’ in the Platonic sense.)

          16. Colin Robinson says:

            ‘The function of giving pleasure, joy, edification, transcendence, a specific physical response, to those who like the specific musical nature of metal music.’

            But this is a function that metal shares with other genres; every genre functions to give pleasure, joy, etc. to those who like the specific musical nature of that genre.

            Your argument is circular. You began by saying that the specific musical nature of metal music (its definition) lies in its functionality. But you end up saying that its functionality depends on the appeal of its specific musical nature. This still leaves unresolved the problematic as to what the specific musical nature of metal is.

            My contention is that musical genres have no objective definitions; that we define them according to social convention rather than some ‘inherent’ nature.

          17. Niemand says:

            I get you argument but I believe it to be false. You actually need to understand how music works and in some detail to realise this – there is no problem at all in saying what the ‘specific musical nature of metal is’ (I can if you really want me to). The particular sense of empowerment that metal music can engender is a direct function of this material musical nature, its genre character, which cannot be replicated in the same way by other musical genres. So I would disagree the argument is circular or not precise enough. The other examples I gave are even more obviously directly functional and mutually exclusive in their functions.

            When you say musical genres have no objective definitions I am not sure what you are really saying. Yes they are created by humans but then so is a table. You can use a rock as a table so in that sense it can function objectively as a surface to put something on (a basic definition of a table) but then many natural sounds can also function as music (birdsong, whale song, the play of wind on an object etc). I am not saying there is no difference at all between these concepts since the musical sounds are not actually music, more musical, but they are much closer together than you assume (and some people argue birds and whales are making music) and making stark distinctions about objectivity and subjectivity is not very sound.

            But beyond this philosophy, the main issue here is about the value of genres. Deconstructing them makes them redundant essentially as you destroy them by doing so, like smashing the table to pieces (which is fine if that is what you want to do) but that does not mean the genre characteristics somehow disappear, however they have been arrived at. Play some death metal at a party where you have been asked to play a romantic slow number for bride and groom to dance to, and then try and bat of objections by saying you have deconstructed death metal so that it is a romantic dance number instead as there is no objective definition of either – ‘enjoy’, and see what happens.

          18. Colin Robinson says:

            I wouldn’t say that genres are destroyed in their deconstruction; rather, they are remade. Folk music was bowling along nicely; then Dylan came along with his electric guitars and called into question the conventional taxonomy that stipulated that folk is essentially acoustic. Or along comes Migos with their music of the ghetto, which the folk institution would, for reasons of taxonomic conservatism, exclude from the recognised canon of the music of the Volk.

            Deconstruction is a loosening of established musical realities that facilitates the creation or fusion of new realities. It’s the continual and ongoing deconstruction of such established realities within folk that have birthed things like filk, folktronica, nerd-folk, psychedelic folk, industrial folk, progressive folk, folk-jazz, folk-rock, etc., etc.

            Without deconstruction, folk music would like any social phenomenon atrophy and die. Like socialism, folk music needs not [just] traditions, but precedents; meaningful innovation that challenges/calls into question the institution itself; perpetual self-creation and reinvention.

          19. Niemand says:

            I would not call what you describe, ‘deconstruction’. Musical genres have never been fixed and they always evolve and combine anyway, quite naturally (and increasingly so as original genre formation gets less likely). Above you talked about not believing in the idea of an essence and I think this is wrong in the case of genres and what I was referring to when I said deconstruction will destroy them if that is what it involves. Folk music is a hard example since it is one of the most slippery and is arguably not even a genre, just a broad category so the argument that rap is folk music has credence since one can argue folk music has nothing to do with the actual musical content (whereas the acoustic romantic ballad as metal does not have credence since there is a music essence of metal music that an acoustic balled cannot fulfil). After all, consider the old joke that all songs are folk songs – I’ve never heard a horse sing ’em.

          20. Colin Robinson says:

            It’s what I take Derrida to mean by ‘deconstruction’ – the immanent remixing of meanings and other identities, consequent on their inherent instability – and he coined the term; the very process of ‘evolution’ to which you allude in relation to musical genres. To go back to Heraclitus, of whose narrative Derridean deconstruction is a late 20th-century continuation: nothing has a fixed essence; everything is on the road to becoming something else. As a cultural phenomenon, ‘folk’ grew out of the Sturm und Drang of the Counter-Enlightenment as a counterpoint to the classicism of German literature and music in the later 18th century. No doubt it will continue to mutate in ways that we can hardly imagine and, certainly, can’t be predicted.

          21. Niemand says:

            My final word on the matter is regardless of what any philosopher or theorist says, musical genres do have core elements that must remain for the genre labels to have any meaning or use. To deny such a thing shows only an ignorance of the concept of music genres and their practical purpose. Derrida is not the Word of God. He is just some bloke who had some ideas and if your interpretation of them in terms of musical genres is correct, then they are false.

          22. Colin Robinson says:

            And my final word is that we do define musical genres in terms of core elements and admit/exclude particular works to/from their canons according to whether they exhibit those core elements or not, but that it’s a matter of convention what those core elements are. If we define folk music, as Louis and others choose to do, in terms of narrative storytelling, then it’s difficult to see how rap could coherently be excluded from its canon.

  3. Derek says:

    Before there was folk music, there was… music. If there was a split, it would probably have been between religious and not.

    Incidentally, I’d link AC/DC with Loch Lomond rather than the Skye Boat Song. There’s video footage from the Apollo in 1978…

    (Fling Thing)

  4. Simon McKerrell says:

    Great article thank you.

    I asked a lot of people what they thought Scottish traditional music was and they largely defined that term based upon oral transmission combined with the musical material itself sounding traditional. This is a major shift in defining the genre–previously as comments here and other have suggested, most definitions of ‘folk music’ or ‘traditional music’ have almost always relied upon ethnicity, nationalism, geography, race, class or function (see my blog post on definitions here: https://simonmckerrell.com/2014/06/02/98/).

    It’s really interesting however that today–most people tend to now feel that the musical materials themselves alongside it’s method of transmission have really moved into centre stage for defining the genre. Presumably a result of the prevalence of recorded sound and commodification etc. I tend to regard folk music as something quite different from traditional music–the former is now a commercial genre label I see as a sub-category of popular music, and to me, ‘traditional music’ is a much narrower term referring to music that functions as a marker of identity for a particular cultural group and that has grown out of their oral tradition or that has been composed using musical characteristics derived from oral tradition.

    Long may the debate continue…

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Indeed, the ‘volkisch’/’call-of-the-blood’ stipulation seems to have been weakening for quite some time now among those who authorise the canon. Folk music has, as a consequence, expanded exponentially since the traditional (‘roots’) and non-traditional (‘contemporary’) folk revivals of the 20th century to conclude such hitherto unthinkable phenomena as folk-rock and folk-metal and world music. In fact, one recent definition I saw (sorry, I can’t remember where – auld age daesna come itsel!) contrasted folk music as ANY genre founded neither upon any theoretical canon (classical music) nor upon any mass commercial medium (popular music), which usefully takes ethnicity right out of the picture.

  5. Mouse says:

    Wait ’till you get on to ‘jazz’ music – a word that has even worse connotations than ‘punk’.

    Good to remember the mighty Jimmy Shand. Playing Polkas. Presumably it’s Polish music or something. Popular in Kemnay town hall though. Ceilidh bands don’t seen to have much traction south of Forfar, where it seems to turn into ‘folk’ music for people who don’t dance.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      I think the polka was originally a Czech ballroom dance, invented in the early 19th century. It entered the folk canon when Polish refugees from the Second World War adopted it as a cultural dance.

  6. Mouse says:

    I think it’s funny that Joni Mitchel gets defined a folk singer when she made her best recordings with a hard-core Jazz band.

    1. Colin Robinson says:


      1. Mouse says:

        Not even vaguely. She was playing with Jaco Pistorius who wrote the horn stabs on an album devoted to Charlie Mingus with a serious jazz band. It’s a remarkable piece of work. Hay willy walachy nickety nackety didn’t enter into it the noo.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          Okay, so Joni is a [contemporary] folk singer who’s also sung jazz/a jazz singer who’s also sung [contemporary] folk. She’s also sung pop, rock, and classical music.

          Surely, the important thing is how she names her own musical reality. How does Joni self-identify as a musician?

  7. Mouse says:

    At the end of the day, when you get a piece of music poked in front of you, the feeling is never written as ‘folk’. ‘Ballad’, ‘jig’, ‘reel’, yes but there’s no such thing as ‘folk’. I do have a Frank Zappa script were the feeling is written as ‘moronic’ 🙂

    ‘In the dangerous kitchen – if it ain’t one thing it’s another’…..

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Of course, all such discriminations as ‘folk’, ‘jazz’, etc. are pure artifice. They bespeak a will to power; an authoritarian desire to classify, regulate, control, and ultimately brand and market our realities.

      1. Mouse says:

        ‘Ballad’, ‘swing’, ‘fuga’, ‘saraband’ and all that are for real. Or even ‘polka’. Haven’t seen any music that tells you to play in a folky fashion. Whatever.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          I’m not a musician. But have you ever seen music that tells you to place in a rocky, poppy, funky, punky, or jazzy fashion? Why is jazz a musical genre while folk is not?

          1. Niemand says:

            Yes, quite a lot, but folky or folksy, much less so probably because it is too vague – the words have to have an obvious meaning to the player unless you wanted to be deliberately obtuse / vague. But terms such as ‘funky’ and the like would not be used for actual funk music as it would be a given.

          2. Derek says:

            Folk and jazz are both musical genres. There will be crossovers, in the best tradition of Venn diagrams, but there will be artists that fit in one but not the other.

            I’d suggest (as a starter) Herbie Hancock and Fairport Convention as examples of the latter.

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            I’ve no doubt this is true, Derek. The problem lies in defining those genres, so that we can rule which artists may be included in and which are to be excluded from any given genre. For example, so that we can rule on whether rap – the music of the ghetto – may be included in or is to be excluded from the folk canon.

  8. Aelita says:

    This is brilliant, thank you

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