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Some Thoughts About Folk Songs

As a life-long amateur and professional folk musician, and as a musician who writes songs and instrumental music as well as makes my own arrangements of traditional and contemporary songs, I want to say some things about the process.

One of the great joys of playing traditional music is that there is no "right" way to do it, and if it feels right to you then it is right. You don't have the same freedom when playing or singing Bach or James Taylor songs, because people expect to hear them a certain way. Usually what happens is that I see a song in the books, and I hear some versions of it, and nothing happens until I hear a particular version or get a sudden idea of how to approach the song when some of the words and melody are rattling around in my head. Then suddenly the song becomes urgent to me and I start playing it. Usually this is permanent, and once I have found the way I like to do an old song, I stick to it, and I even have trouble adapting when I play along with other people who do it differently. This is how the folk process works and has always worked, and as artists we certainly feel that it is our right and duty to make the songs exciting to us. There is an endless debate in the folklore community about the purity of the folk process, and many scholars have complained openly about the professional musicians who meddle in the so-called "folk process," and presumably many of them would demand to know which variants of the old songs we are basing our versions on. If I were a folklorist, I would confess to being reluctant to add verses or combine versions (though many have done it, including Alan Lomax himself), but as a musician, I dive right in and do it. I have heard many of these songs done all sorts of ways all my life.

We encourage you to explore the other ways of approaching these songs, and to listen to as many of them as you can. Unfortunately, since virtually everything that has ever been recorded is still under copyright, due to 11 interventions by the US Congress to extend copyright coverage, it is not possible to make sampler CD's or even publish the different words people use for the same old song, since they too are sometimes copyrighted.



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