Every culture has its own musical tradition deeply rooted in the ways of the people. The tradition includes distinctive musical instruments, some of which are peculiar to it and found nowhere else. For example, the balalaika originated in Russia and continues to be associated with that country, while the guitar, with its Spanish roots, has spread throughout the world. Furthermore, whereas some instruments, such as the harpsichord and lute, are associated with a particular period in the musical repertoire, the piano and violin have had remarkable staying power, appearing in a variety of musical literatures across the centuries.
Then there’s the human voice. Singing is a ubiquitous feature of all musical traditions everywhere. Unlike instrumental music, singing enables one to combine a musical setting with a poetic text. People have been singing since the beginning of time. If an unscientific observation of child development—in my own daughter—is an accurate indication, then singing and language would appear to be closely related. Indeed, singing might be seen as a particular form of communication similar to poetry itself. Much as a poem plays with an idea rather than stating it directly and unequivocally, a song communicates its message through the movement of tonal pitches through time. The message of music is evocative rather than straightforward.
There is a subdiscipline within music known as ethnomusicology, which is the study of music found in different cultures around the world. I myself have long been an aficionado of folk music of all kinds. Since I have paternal roots in the Greek Orthodox community in Cyprus, Greek folk music, with its distinctive rhythms and tonality, has always been a part of my life. While others might find its asymmetrical time signatures, such as 5/4 and 7/8, a bit difficult to make sense of, I feel these in my bones. They are part of me.
Folk music is notable for lacking attributable authorship. To be sure, some anonymous person had to have sung a folk song for the first time, but subsequent generations of singers have further developed it in such ways that geographically separated communities may sing somewhat different versions of the same song. This corresponds to the tendency of dispersed speakers of the same language to develop different dialects.
The folk song belongs precisely to the community. It may take the form of a lullaby sung to children at bedtime. It might be a work song to be sung in the course of manual labour. It could be a drinking song worthy of the local pub. Or it might be a dirge intoned mournfully at funerals. Whatever its form, it is known by virtually everyone, and all sing it on these occasions, whether or not they have pleasing voices.
Then there’s that phenomenon known as popular music. Although folk and popular music would appear to have the same meaning, albeit with different etymological origins, they are in reality quite different. If folk music belongs to an entire community and to no one in particular, popular music has come to be synonymous with music performed professionally for profit. Whereas folk music tends to correspond to certain cultural patterns existing over long periods of time—sometimes centuries—popular music is ephemeral, reaching heights of temporary acclaim for a few weeks, only to decline and be replaced by a new entry in the market.
Furthermore, over time, the style of music changes with the fashions. One generation’s popular music is unlike the previous generation’s, thereby accentuating the cultural gap between them. With the dawn of jazz, shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century, this creative new form, blending European and African musical traditions, underwent successive phases. Ragtime was followed by Dixieland, then swing, and then bebop, before being largely supplanted by rock and roll. Even rock and roll, at the cutting edge of popular music half a century ago, has mutated every generation or so.
In the film My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), there is a wonderful scene that elicits laughter from the audience. A table full of people, both young and old, suddenly and surprisingly burst into song. All present seem to know from memory Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1967 hit, “I Say a Little Prayer,” and they sing it lustily. Even the young teens, who could hardly have been born when this song was climbing the charts, have no difficulty singing it.
Because I was brought up in a musical household where we sang at the drop of a hat, I was initially puzzled why everyone found this scene so humorous. Then it dawned on me: people simply do not sing communally anymore. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be singing “I Say a Little Prayer.” There is an evident allusion here to an older folk tradition which sees people singing together at weddings, but it quickly turns to farce as a commercially-produced song from three decades earlier flows from their lips. Everyone knows, of course, that it’s Dionne Warwick who should be singing this song, and not those attending a wedding rehearsal dinner. Popular music is, in short, a spectator sport. A few people do the singing, while the rest of us simply listen.
The subject matter of the lyrics also distinguishes folk from popular music. Folk music touches the broad sweep of human experience from birth to death and everything in-between. A folk song may be about a birch tree, a drunken sailor, a kerchief adorning one’s neck, St. George and the dragon, a Byzantine hero fending off Saracen invaders, an American frontiersman homesick for a river back in Virginia, a canal in upstate New York, or, of course, the love between a man and a woman.
By contrast, popular music overwhelmingly concerns romantic sexual love as its theme, though there are exceptions. Love songs have been with us always, of course, and one of the oldest, the Song of Songs, is found in the Bible itself. But romantic love is not the whole of life, which you would never guess if you took your cues only from popular music.
Now I am the last person to disparage popular music in general. I have a special affinity for the tune smiths of the interwar era, including George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Hoagie Carmichael, and so forth. This period corresponds to the early decades of the recording industry, which enabled ordinary people for the first time ever to enjoy professional-quality music in the comfort of their own homes. What was once available only to the well off in the salons and concert halls was now to be had by the masses through the new medium of the phonograph. Though not everything written in this era was of good quality, many of its songs have deservedly joined the classics, where they have attained something of the status of art songs. Indeed, a number of these are lovingly crafted, with clever lyrics adeptly matched to memorable melodies.
At the same time, I cannot help wondering whether the ubiquitous presence of commercial popular music over the past century has not in some fashion suppressed the older folk traditions of a peculiarly local character. Last month in this space, I wrote of George Grant and his fears of technology’s homogenization of local cultures. While these fears may be in some measure overstated, I think one can safely say that the creation of a mass, continental culture all of whose members—especially its younger ones—are listening and dancing to the same songs is a manifestation of a distorted, consumerist society.
For North Americans, music is no longer something that springs from the heart of a community’s lived experience. For those making the music, it is often seen as little more than an expression of the individual’s ego-driven in large measure, of course, by the profit motive. Aesthetic criteria, if there are any, would seem to be beside the point. For the rest of us, music has become a commodity, available, like everything else, for purchase on the open market.
Many years ago, someone once observed to me that Christians are among the very few people in our society to sing communally. This is true especially in those churches with strong traditions of congregational singing. Yet even in this case, formal worship services may be the only opportunity members will have to sing in the course of a week.
What then if we were to go about intentionally creating occasions for communal singing on the other six days? What if we were to sing together in the factory and the fire hall, the park and the picnic ground, the bus and the boiler room? How would our attitude toward life change? Would we live it differently? It might be worth finding out.