Is folk music dying? In my new book I suggest that it is, at least in Europe and North America, thanks to the globalisation, urbanisation, and industrialisation which is now eroding the world’s musical diversity. Entitled Musics Lost and Found: Song Collectors and the Life and Death of Folk Tradition, the book will be published on October 15 by the Boydell Press.
Its original purpose was to celebrate the work of song collectors, whom I regard as music’s unsung heroes, and who have never before been written about as a group. The obvious suspects are there – Cecil Sharp, Percy Grainger, John and Alan Lomax, Bela Bartok – but so are many others who are less well known. These include Komitas, who gave his life for Armenian music in the face of the Turkish genocide of the Armenian people in 1915; Colin McPhee, who helped save Balinese gamelan forms from dying; and Theodor Strehlow, whose life-work was the support and chronicling of ‘secret’ Aboriginal musical forms in Australia.
But in the course of writing this book, I found myself stressing a fear which all these people shared: that time was running out for traditional music everywhere, and that it should be documented before it goes. When a village dies – when its population departs to the cities – its music dies too; folk music does not thrive in cities, because city conditions are not right for it. It’s not a performance art: it’s an art in which everyone participates, and it can only be sustained if it remains a communal activity. Just as the world’s spoken languages are disappearing, so are its musical languages. This is the musical equivalent of a climate change.
Traditionally, every society has its work songs and its calendar songs, its healing and mourning songs, and its songs to mark births, marriages, and deaths. Take away the work – automate it, industrialise it – and you take away the point of the work songs; reduce the members of your community to faceless numbers in a computerised state, and you remove their ability to make their own music about their own lives. There’s a Japanese saying which neatly summarises this truth: ‘Folk music is the heart’s home town.’ It’s the heartbeat of every true community.
But we shouldn’t concede defeat: in this book I look for hopeful signs in the situation, and at what is being done to arrest this process, primarily by the song collectors who are heroically striving to preserve today’s endangered musics. Like Veronica Doubleday and her husband John Baily, who have been chronicling Afghan traditional music in the face of Islamist oppression; like Steve Jones who is chronicling the wind band and ritual music of Chinese villages; like the British and French musicologists trying to save the astonishingly sophisticated music of the Central African Pygmies from extinction due to war, the coronavirus, and forced urbanisation. Their music belongs to the rainforest, and their instruments are made from material cut from trees.
Finally I look at institutional attempts to halt the destruction: by enlightened governments, by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Central Asia, and by UNESCO’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’ scheme. I conclude with an inventory of the many musics now under threat, and of the ones which are already lost for ever.
Coincidentally with this book, Topic Records are re-releasing in digital form my own field recordings of folk music in strife-torn Chechnya. Songs of Defiance: Music of Chechnya and the North Caucasus was originally released in 2007.
This music too is under threat.