In Music Rules are for Fools

This past spring I was asked by a regional festival to send in an application to perform at the 2015 festival. Generally speaking when an artist is told something like this the booking is a bit like shooting fishing in a barrel. Not guaranteed, but highly likely. Why ask if you don’t like what the artist does?

So today I got notice that they’re very excited that I sent in my application and look forward to my performance, with this one codicil; “because we want to keep the traditional music feel to (unnamed Festival), we insist that at least 50% of the material presented be traditional rather than just recently composed material. I assume that won’t be a problem for you.”  They assumed wrong. I was incredibly offended by this. Either you like what I do or you don’t and you can book me or not. But to tell me what I can and can’t play. Well, go fuck yourself.  As far as I’m concerned that’s bullshit, and totally un-American. And it’s also short-sighted.

I know another festival that hosts a guitar competition every year, but all the songs have to pre-date 1930 or something ridiculous. What the fuck are organizations like this thinking? The quickest way to kill an art form is to put rules on it that restricts what can and can’t be performed or written. And let’s remember, all these traditional songs were new and original once upon a time, and the only reason they’ve stuck around is that they’ve struck a common chord with a whole bunch of folks, NOT because new material wasn’t written in the genre. Don’t these organizations know that they’re killing the thing they’re trying so desperately to protect. Those songs and music don’t need protecting, they need to be challenged by new and potentially better material. If they continue to survive it’s because they’re relevant and still effective in moving people emotionally. Not because people are forced to play it or forced NOT to play what they’ve written within a tradition.

A few posts back I wrote about what a slippery slope it is when trying to name the type of music I compose and perform.  And to a certain extent this is an extension of that. I have always thought of myself as a folkie, and I always will. I KNOW where my music comes from, and it comes from the traditional world of folk, blues, and celtic. I don’t care that I don’t sing, I don’t care that I compose, what I play is folk music. Period.

Here’s what I grabbed from Wikipedia: “…despite the assembly of an enormous body of work over some two centuries, there is still no certain definition of what folk music is.[4] Folk music may tend to have certain characteristics[2] but it cannot clearly be differentiated in purely musical terms. One meaning often given is that of “old songs, with no known composers”,[5] another is that of music that has been submitted to an evolutionary “process of oral transmission…. the fashioning and re-fashioning of the music by the community that give it its folk character.”[6]

To me the heart of folk music is in that final sentence “…the fashioning and re-fashioning of the music by the community that give it its folk character.”  This is what Webster’s has to say about fashioning: “the production and marketing of new styles.” Did you catch that use of the word NEW? The folk music we write and play and arrange today looks and sounds NOTHING like it did a century ago.  And it shouldn’t. It wouldn’t be relevant. I don’t care what genre of music you like, but protecting it by restricting it WON’T work.  Allowing a genre to bend, twist and weave its way is part of the journey. Jazz today doesn’t sound like it did 40 years ago, and neither does rock and roll, blues, or anything else. Music is a very human thing and it’s just as natural for music to evolve as it is for humans to evolve. In fact, it can’t be stopped, nor should it.

Listen to the video posted at the top of this blog and tell me that’s NOT folk music. I dare you. I double dare you.  It might be sophisticated folk, it might not have words, but I’ll guaran-goddam-tee you, it’s authentic folk music. It’s as folk as you can get. You can like it or dislike it, but it’s nothing but folk music.

Rules fill a societal need to create boundaries and to protect you from me and vice versa. But in the world of art and music, rules serve no such purpose, they protect nothing. Rules destroy what might be, they don’t create anything, and creating is what art and music are all about. I’ll say it again, in music, rules are for fools.

Have a great day, kb

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