Folk Music in The United States


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6                   An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

to the original composition. Individual pieces of music in written tradition do not change appreciably in their performance over the years; but pieces of folk music do, owing to the phenomenon of communal re-creation. This term, invented by Phillips Barry/ was coined to counteract the idea of communal creation, which assumes that an entire people create folklore, but is also supposed to indicate that many anonymous persons share in molding most items of folklore into the shape they have today. Supposing you look for a song like "Lord Randall" in a large printed collection; you are likely to find a number of different versions, all moderately similar, rather than one standard form. None of these versions, or variants, is the original. But all of them are descended from one or a few original versions which have been changed by all the persons who learned them or passed them on to others. Such changes come about for various reasons, including failure of memory and the desire to make changes and improvements. We have, then, a continuous line of changes and additions which sometimes alter the original beyond recognition. Although only one person created the first product, all of the people who have learned and retaught it have shared in re-creating it in its present form. Communal re-creation, the making of variants, is perhaps the greatest distinguishing featmre in folk music as opposed to cultivated music. Oral tradition itself would not be particularly relevant or interesting if it did not result in this essential quality.

Singers tend to change songs for three reasons. One is forget-fulness. Another is individual creativity, the desire to improve a song, to change it according to one's own personal taste. A third is the tendency for a song to change in order for it to conform to the style of other songs in its environment. This is especially important when a song is passed from one country, culture, or ethnic group to another. We find that many tunes have variants in numerous European countries. But in each place the tune has taken on some traits of the local folk music style. If a Czech song is learned by Germans, it will in time begin to sound like a German song. All of this applies separately to melody and words; the two components may stay together or act independently.

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