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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Memo to folks on the Left: Folk Music belongs to all of us

Since we spend a billion or so on the CBC every year, I sometimes catch myself trying to get my tax dollars' worth by catching some CBC radio on my evening highway drives around Newfoundland and Labrador. In fairness, some of it is quite good. Still, some things never really change. As constant as a Yellowstone geyser, the CBC still seems to gush  out the left wing view of the world.

I've never said this was necessarily conscious on their part or that all hosts or journalists or contributors shared one view let alone ended up betraying their feelings and bias on a particular program.  I have friends who work at the CBC who are the unbiased exceptions who seem to prove the rule.  Also, not everything is about neutrality. A good feature program should be excused for including a dose of political perspective and bias where appropriate, even if production decisions leading to very frequent broadcast of a bunch on one end of the old spectrum should be met with suspicion.

This past Sunday, on a quiet evening drive from Buchans to Corner Brook, I gave my Clancy Brothers and Ted Russell CDs a rest and I tuned into CBC only to catch most of the first part of a series on Canadian Folk Music: The People's Music

I think it's a grand idea to do a sort of feature/doc series on folk music in this country. I really enjoyed hearing many of the clips as well as the explanations from some of the old pioneers in recorded folk music. The first  part of the series was, as you might expect, dedicated to defining folk music and determining its origins. If one were to go by the website description (something I had to locate after listening to this first episode), one would assume that Gary Cristall had taken the listener through several sources and origins and possible definitions. Obviously we're talking about a nebulous concept. Many people have many views on what Folk Music is all about. Gary's view wasn't hard to figure out. He spent the lion's share of the program focused (and some might say fixated) on developing the thesis that folk music was about politics and in particular about labour and left wing politics. 

For every brief mention of a song or artist with roots in Ukranian or Protestant faith, there were half a dozen clips or mentions of  a union song; for every small hat tip to  Irish rebel songs or Newfoundland Nationalism, there were many more mentions of the communist or socialist parties' conferences and statements on culture. Don't get me wrong, socialists and union chaps can share in the rich tapestry of folk music in this federation along with everyone else -  Just don't pretend you invented it. You didn't.

folk music
1.    music, usually of simple character and anonymous authorship, handed down among the common people by oral tradition.
2.    music by known composers that has become part of the folk tradition of a country or region.
[Origin: 1885–90]

Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.

In fairness, I don't envy Cristall in trying to complete the job he's set out for himself. A series on "Canadian" Folk Music is a bit like a series on languages of countries with names ending with "-a." There isn't necessarily any real connection between it all. This came through with the awkward way that, near the end, Gary tried to compliment yet graft-on Newfoundland culture by citing Pete Seeger's rather odd statement that he "didn't know what would have become of Canadian folk music had Newfoundland not 'joined . .'" Without opening the debate about whether the Canadian federation can ever be said to be a "nation," it's a struggle to try to tie together very different musical traditions.

I'm not sure Stan Rogers would take kindly to the idea that his Morris-Dance-tuned song "The Idiot," speaking about the importance of individual freedom and independence  is any less in the tradition of the people than some crackerjack B.C. union's re-writing of "The River Shannon Flows." I doubt  the Newfoundland Anti-Confederates of the 1860s or the 1940s would appreciate the implication that their spirited rallies to action to prevent Confederate taxation were secondary in significance to some official culture conference in Moscow in the 1930s. I can't imagine the Christian Gospel readers who settled large parts of this continent would see "Old Time Religion" and the like as a footnote or "also played" beside the marquis of Mother Jones. I know for a fact that the Irishmen who bellowed out rebel songs over the years never all believed in the need for the state to own all property in common and many would never join a union. These people all deserve a little more respect and acknowledgment. "Folk" come in all shapes, sizes and political ideologies.

Folk music is about all of us and our experiences. Perhaps the problem is that some people have already decided to have a very narrow definition of who should speak for "us" -- namely trade unions or party bosses or other such lefty heroes.  Then again, we see the left often trying to do this from within some of the institutions and movements I mention above. That's really too bad.  It's not even really the way of the more effective and fair union folks. In 1971 and 1973 my hometown of Buchans went through two long and very tough strikes by the United Steelworkers. A group known as the "Mummers' Troup" recorded an LP with songs from that era sung by people from the town -- some of the songs and recitations were quite firey with union zeal, but the album also included traditional Newfoundland songs, allowed at least one known Conservative member to contribute, and also included songs that spoke more to general town and miners' pride. As a result of those decisions, the album has remained popular and relevant beyond that conflict. I only mention it because it should remind people raised in the labour movement that one need not write certain cultural institutions or concepts out of history in order to help your cause.

I look forward to listening to the other parts of the series, but I do so while noting that the definition and explanation of the origins of Folk Music left a lot to be desired.

Posted by Liam O'Brien on July 9, 2008 | Permalink


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Hasn't the CBC ever heard of Bob Roberts?

Posted by: Steve | 2008-07-09 4:57:43 PM

Folk music is like nursery rhymes for immature adults.

It's music (more or less) for people who own guitars but never learned to play or sing, but dabbled in inane depressing poetry.

I hate folk music. I like country music better. Those guys learned to play their guitars.

Posted by: John V | 2008-07-09 11:58:17 PM

I'm not sure what your definition of folk music might be, but I've met many folk artists who can play a mean guitar. Don't think you're bein' fair there! Ah but to each his own I guess! ;-)

Posted by: Liam O'Brien | 2008-07-10 8:11:50 AM


One man's mean folk guitar player is another man's three chord strummer in D minor.

If you have ever heard a really good guitar player in a folk environment, you can bet he is a paid sideman who prefers to play real music.

That's my 'each own' take on it. I have been in the music business my entire life, well almost entire, I am still alive.

Posted by: John V | 2008-07-10 10:12:09 PM

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