Folk Music in a Changing World

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This article reflects a panel that was part of a Symposium entitled
College Music Abroad, which took place at the December 29, 1961, session of the CMS annual conference, Salem College, Winston-Salem, N.C. The other panelists were Elliot Forbes, Iva Dee Hiatt, and Thomas A. Sokol. Their articles also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 2.

The accounts of my colleagues on this panel have surely brought home the fact that the world in which we live today is a vastly different one from that of a few generations ago. Time and space have been telescoped to a degree hardly imaginable prior to the Second World War. We are now in rapid communication with every part of the globe. American products and, more importantly, American concepts have spread throughout the world. Conversely, we have ourselves proven receptive, as never before, to ideas and impulses from abroad. The net result has been a tremendous acceleration of the process known to the anthropologist as acculturation, in which one culture takes on the patterns, habits, and customs of another. This has also been less sympathetically described as "intercultural contamination," a term which does seem singularly applicable in some instances.

A few examples may illustrate the extraordinary mingling of traits and influences to be found in our time. Several recent Hollywood films have devoted considerable footage in African movies to the Watusi tribesmen and their colorful dances. These very tall men, with their richly plumed costumes, are unusually photogenic and visitors to their region have been anxious to make their own pictures of the dances. They have found, to their dismay, that they are much more likely to encounter a young "warrior" dressed in football scrimmage togs than in his native dress. The dances are staged only at certain times when a paying tourist audience has been assembled.

Several years ago we had at Chapel Hill a world conference of scholars of comparative literature. Among others whom I enjoyed meeting and talking with was the delegate from Ceylon. I mentioned to him my interest in the folk music of his country, a curious and interesting blend of Hindu influences from India, the native Vedda music, and the vestiges remaining from the Portuguese immigrations. He agreed that there was much of interest to be found there but advised me to hurry if I had any plans for recording this material, since the radio station of Colombo was currently broadcasting some eight hours daily of rock-and-roll, and it was quite common to look about and see a mahout seated on his elephant with a transistor radio tuned in to Elvis Presley!

Recent recordings from near Johannesburg, purporting to show African folk music as it is today, do make use of some of the traditional instruments (much aided and abetted by American guitars) and, of course, use the local dialects, but the music is apparently what is currently to be heard in city cafés and night clubs—a curious mixture of Caribbean rhythms and sugary melodic lines, crooned in the manner of early Crosby or Como recordings.

A final example is the famous "Rockabilly Club" of Tokyo, in which Japanese entertainers wearing elaborate cowboy outfits sing and strum guitars in a near-flawless imitation of the inflections and twang of the Tennessee mountain style.

These citations show the startling effects of some of our exports in the field of folk and popular music. The singular fact is that this influence is infinitely stronger and more immediately productive of response than our more sophisticated artistic efforts. It is evident that the peoples of the world can easily establish direct and successful communication on the level of their common, instinctive folk expression.

Americans have been slow to realize this fact, in spite of the phenomenal effect of our popular music abroad. Our geographical isolation was for a long time accompanied by a spiritual isolation which tended to regard anything "foreign" with some mistrust. Now this has changed, and we are no longer indifferent to difference but have come to realize its value and charm.

This change has come about through several means. Not only has the average citizen widened his frame of reference to include the whole world and the space which surrounds it, but he has come to a more sensitive awareness of for whom the bell tolls. No longer does he feel that events on the far side of the world are of relative unimportance to him. They are, so to speak, in his own back yard.

Another conditioning factor may be found in our importations from abroad. These have ranged from compact cars to tours by the Kabuki theatre, and have helped sound the death-knell of the above-mentioned spiritual isolation as we have discovered merit, interest, and new intellectual dimensions.

The important contribution of the major recording companies must be mentioned here. On the whole they have responded admirably to the urgency felt and expressed by the ethnomusicologist who labors constantly under the strain of knowing how rapidly his material is changing shape and focus in today's world. Various private or governmental foundations have also rushed to performance of what amounts to a rescue mission, with the result that in the years following 1945 we have had a fantastic amount of material committed to tape and discs. Much of this material remains housed in collections but a sizable portion of it is available on commercial records and these have enjoyed an unparalleled circulation and popularity.

Our access of leisure in this country has provided us with time to become curious about many things. This is expressed not only in the wide popularity of hundreds of hobbies but also in an eagerness to learn about other ways of life. Quite often the realization of how other people think and feel about us, our customs, and our habits, comes as something of a refreshing shock to settled thinking. The young Indian writer Aubrey Menen, upon announcing his intention of going to England, was asked by his grandmother if he seriously intended to live among people who actually sat in their own bath water! A Malayan who had been advised on grounds of sanitation to use a fork and spoon replied courteously that he was quite sure his own fingers had never been in anyone else's mouth, which certainly could not be said for the utensils. Our minds receive a beneficial stretch as we realize that concepts which we have always accepted as fundamental truths may quite reasonably be questioned.

Our campuses present a changed appearance throughout the country. Instead of being the regional centers they once were they have become cosmopolitan societies with often large numbers of foreign students. International student clubs have been formed where ideas, recipes, and understanding are exchanged. These foreign students often bring trying administrative problems in their wake. As Director of the Institute of Folk Music at Chapel Hill I am always delighted to see a new student from abroad in our Music Department, but as the administrative officer who must evaluate his transcript I am often at a loss. How, in terms of an American curriculum, shall one assign equivalent value for 6 semester hours in "The Male and Female Principle" taken at a women's academy in Seoul, Korea? And what shall be said of a Dutch exchange student who presented "2 practical semesters" in Dutch seamanship? And yet these are but minor difficulties which pale into insignificance as compared with the contribution that these students can make. The young Korean woman came to one of my folk music classes and sang for us the sort of thing that we so often wish for and seldom find—a version of a song which she had learned from her grandmother; then the same song as it was sung by young folks of her own age today, and finally an art-song setting of the same melody made by an American composer who had collected the tune in Japan. And the Dutch student, who had lived a sizable portion of his life in Java, was able to make that region come alive for a class in Indonesian music through his description of the way in which native instruments were built and used, his own experiences with musicians, and his photographs, in many cases unique.

By a process of magnetic attraction which I cannot fully account for certain colleges and universities have tended to attract particular racial groups either by virtue of programs offered in various world literatures, or, as in Chapel Hill, through the appeal of the statistical program for East Indian students. Thus, scattered throughout the land we have both individual informants and representative groups from most of the cultures of the world. What they have to offer is of tremendous value in interpreting the rest of the world to them and to us.

As to where all these interactions and tendencies will ultimately lead, one cannot say with certainty. The whole field of ethnomusicology is the youngest of the branches of musicology and much of its method and procedure is developing as it grows. Many problems of transcription, analysis, and evaluation yet remain to be solved. As one deeply interested in the field, I feel that an expansive and dramatic development is imminent. We may look forward to bi-musical, or even tri-musical students of ethnomusic, as we today have bi-lingual and tri-lingual students of comparative literature. And with the understanding of different modes of expression will come a fuller and richer relationship in the world's large family of people.

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Last modified on Thursday, 15/11/2018

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