Folk Music in The United States

General Characteristics of Folk and Primitive Music

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General Characteristics of Folk and Primitive Music               13

The compositions of folk and primitive music tend to be short, simple, and ofter very concise and concentrated. Length is usually achieved by verbatim repetition, and a great many of the compositions are strophic, that is, they are fairly short but are intended to be repeated a number of times. Often different words are sung with each repetition of the music. Generally speaking, everything in the music is equally important and basic. In most Western cultivated compositions we can distinguish themes, which are more important than the rest of the music because of their unique character and because other parts of the composition may be based on them. But in folk and primitive music, as well as many short forms in cultivated music, we cannot distinguish between themes and non-themes; for all of the material is equally thematic and primary. But of course this does not mean that the traditional music does not contain basic, germinal motifs which supply a sense of organization; these are certainly present. Indeed, compact and rigorous organization is a special feature of music in oral tradition.

Unity is created in ways also common in cultivated music; there is usually one main unifying element, an example of which is an isorhythmic pattern, a rhythmic formula which is repeated a number of times, each time with a different melody. Isorhythmic construction, which is found in many parts of the world, often breaks down near the end of a piece and is replaced by another common phenomenon, the tendency of units to lengthen and become drawn-out. (Example 28)

The melodic counterpart of isorhythmic patterning is the use of the same melodic phrase or line, each time at a different pitch level. This is called a melodic sequence, and it brings to a song a very strong kind of cohesion without resulting in monotony.' Example 26 is made up entirely of a melodic sequence.

Simplicity itself may bring about unity. Thus, if a song is very complex and diversified melodically, a simple metric pattern may counteract the effect. A complex melody tends to be accompanied by a single, unchanging meter, and it may be a simple type such as 4/4, 3/4, or 6/8. (Example 1) on the other hand, a complex metric construction such as that in Example 31, which uses three


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E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III