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Pamela R folk process: tune evolution? (169* d) RE: folk process: tune evolution? 05 Jan 16

(this forum moves faster than I can. this post is in response to Dr. Gibb Schreffler from Jan 2:)

Thank you for the references; I'd like to be better informed on the topic, which is why I am here seeking reference materials from ethnomusicologists. I've often heard that Darwinian theories were popular in ethnomusicology long ago, fell out of favor, and are not taken seriously now. But I was lacking a concise summary of why, and will be glad to consult references that a professional in the field considers reputable.

To clear up a few things:
Maybe I shouldn't have said "ethnomusicology class". My class does not claim to be an introduction to, or summary of, the field of ethnomusicology nor of its history; the word "ethnomusicology" does not appear in the course title or description. I only used the term here because I believe the topic I cover is considered a part of that field -- but only a very small part of that field.

This is a one unit (one class-hour per week), pass-fail seminar for Freshman titled "Folk Songs Change Through Oral Transmission". I had originally proposed to teach it in one of the non-academic series, but the Music department claimed it and reviewed and approved its curriculum. So that's how a Biology professor comes to be teaching a class in the Music department.

It's an extremely simple, basic class. Most of the time is spent listening to examples from which the students discover first-hand that when people collected folk songs in the English language from around the world, they found the same songs cropping up all over the place, but the versions varied quite a lot. For most students, this is the first time they encounter this observation, and like me, they think it's fascinating.

Regarding teaching I think we are on the same page. I would think the primary goal of any teacher in any discipline -- even the hard sciences -- is to engage student's critical thinking, rather than to pass down any dogmas.

In my first class I play them a lot of versions of "Barbara Allen" (as many field recordings as possible, as well as early revival recordings). I ask the students to listen and decide if they think these are unrelated independent songs that just coincidentally bear similarities, or if they derived from some common source. Generally they think the similarities are not coincidental so I ask them why. I hand out the transcribed texts of the ones they heard and several more collected versions. Then the students come back to the next class with their observations or evidence -- what names, plot events, etc seem to recur in nearly every version, which ones crop up in many yet are completely absent in many others; what seems completely unique to single versions and/or generic to any song.

Then I share the fact that this song has been around for hundreds of years and was largely transmitted orally over that time, and that it has been argued that oral transmission could explain the fluidity of folk songs: renditions purely from memory may change from telling to telling, from person to person and generation to generation, whether intentionally or accidentally (by analogy to a game of Telephone or Chinese Whispers). I go out on a limb and suggest that the presence of this song in remote rural Appalachia was probably due to its being passed down from immigrants from the British Isles (by which I mean England Ireland and/or Scotland). Is any of this so far inaccurate/controversial?   

We do the same thing for a new song every class, starting with ones that to me are more obviously related (Barbara Allen, Twa Sisters, Cruel Mother) to others I find much less obvious (Broomfield Wager/Maid on the Shore; Unfortunate Rake/Streets of Loredo/St James Infirmary). Along the way, things like commonplaces, cliches and floating verses are noticed and discussed; the question eventually arises whether there are universal themes (c.f. Jungian archetypes) that might make remarkably similar stories re-appear independently without being from any common descent; etc; and in light of these points we may revisit our evidence and conclusions about the earlier songs, and consider whether "same song" should even mean "of common origin" or just "common theme". It's pointed out that even oral traditions have been influenced/punctuated by written versions (broadsides) scholarly interpretations (classical composers) and later on, influential recordings; what impact might that have had? How could we look into that?

I don't think I'm making any assumption about folk songs evolving that I am bent on proving. I find that many of the phenomena that are observed and questions that arise in collected folk songs are analogous to phenomena and questions also studied in biological evolution (or really, population genetics). I'll stand by that statement, but that's clearly another long conversation in which I'm not sure you are interested. For now I'll just clarify that the theory of evolution (as used in biology today) does not make any assumptions about anything improving, approaching a goal, or becoming more complex with time.

By the way, the other main theoretical thread that I introduce throughout my class is one I take away from Walter J Ong's theory of Orality and its implications for culture. Most students have never considered the fact that things like writing, widespread literacy, recording, broadcasting, copyrighting, urbanization, rapid travel, and global communication are relatively new to the human race, and that these developments might have had a qualitative impact on the structure or content of songs, or culture in general. I personally found Ong's ideas quite interesting when I learned them; I would be grateful to know whether the ethnomusicology field is sympathetic to, divided on, or uniformly opposed to, Ong's theoretical constructs?

I've also considered reading or handing out excerpts of the writings of song collectors about their observations of the communities from which they collected and the role of singing in their community life (as well as critiques by some that the early collectors were motivated by nationalism and ideology and failed to show interest in or concern for the people from whom they collected). Is there a classic essay we could read about what are the responsibilities of a collector, or whether the act of observing (collecting, recording) changes that which is being observed? This might be beyond the scope of what I can get in to my class, but at least it could go on a list of 'further readings'.

I can well imagine it would be irritating if people from the hard sciences thought they could waltz in and solve your problems. That's not my intention. I come to this topic because I love and sing traditional folk ballads, and for that reason I have read, attended workshops, and spoken with music scholars to learn more about their origins. I know that I'm not an ethnomusicologist, nor do I think I can solve problems in ethnomusicology better than ethnomusicologists, nor that I can solve them at all. I am an outsider fascinated by what I have learned from ethnomusicologists so far and interested in learning more, as well as sharing what I have learned. I am naturally inclined to relate what I learn to my own fields of academic research, and I personally find the analogies rich and thought provoking, even if ethnomusicologists are not interested. Given that biology has seen many revolutions in the past hundred years, however, there exists a possibility that the discussion could be different now than it was previously.

My class is narrowly focused on one observation: that folk songs vary with location and change with time. The curriculum sticks largely to the primary data (collected songs). I bring to the discussion the two theoretical frameworks that I personally know best. I hope this class stimulates curiosity and invites students to ask more questions and to think for themselves rather than buying (or rejecting) any theory based on the current fashion of any academic field.


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