[NOTE: For those who are not folk music buffs, the title of this post is standard musical shorthand for “traditional; arranged by…”]
In the folk music world, there are traditionalists who prefer to play the music as “straight” as possible, as true to the traditional ways as can be done with current knowledge; and what they do is important, lest the tradition be lost sight of completely. There are also the popularizers, who try to bring the music into a more “up to date” style that renders it accessible to more people, some of whom may then go on to learn more about the traditional music and perhaps even learn to play it themselves. There are many of these. Some take deliberately provocative liberties with the music, extending it in some cases so far that it’s no longer fully recognizable, whether out of a desire to revive what they see as a moribund traditional scene or just for fun. And, of course, there are still the “folk” themselves, who just go about their lives singing and playing the music they learned from their parents and grandparents.
I was listening to the most recent Druidcast this morning, and as Dave’s guest* was discussing the practice and performance of folk music and how each generation of musicians adapts the music and makes it their own, it struck me that this is essentially the same process that we are going through in the various pre-Christian religious revival movements (Hellenismos, Asatru, Revival Druidry to an extent, and so on). The “tunes” are recognizable, but the instrumentation and arrangements are adapted to our own needs and understanding of our Gods and our relationships with Them; and that’s how it should be.
The hardcore Recons may scorn the popularizers, but not everyone comes to a relationship with the Gods through academic study and rigorous reconstruction – no more than every music lover or musician is interested in learning folk songs by listening to Alan Lomax’s archival recordings, much less going into the mountains themselves. But conversely, if nobody was doing the work of keeping alive the actual traditional tunes, the folk-rock people would have nothing to play. And as for the people who are bending the traditions (sometimes to the breaking point), sometimes genuine new insights can be gained by turning the tradition inside out and considering it from completely alien perspectives – as long as you can put it back together again with the new bits included! :)
All of these different strands twist the rope of the tradition, both in music and religion; without all their contributions – and the tension between them – the whole thing might just fall apart.
* Simon Emmerson, who works with Afro-Celt Sound System, Show of Hands – whose popular song Roots is one of my recent favorites – and now The Imagined Village, a band that was inspired by a 1993 academic study of the Victorian and Edwardian folk revival.