Music and Old Friends
This week started out in the best way possible -- I got to spend the weekend with lovely friends doing things I enjoy, and then I came home and got to see a long time friend and we just spent the day catching up, talking about All The Things as if we'd never been apart a day, and (watching M2) pulling owl pellets apart, because that's who we are as people.
It makes me realize what a treasure are people who know and accept me all the way through for exactly who and what I am in my entirety. If you have people in your life like this, you must be good to them, they're hard to come by!
And on to music - another good friend (HI FRIEND!) asked my my opinion on some musical matters that we share a history with going way back. A little of that history is perhaps in order to make sense of the rest of the story.
E and I met when we were 16 at camp (e doesn't use gendered terms, so instead of he/she, etc, e uses e/em/eir or the singular they). We were then staff together and have remained good friends since. Part of our bonding was trying to figure out the rubric of what made for an acceptable camp song after singing some songs that are well known folk songs that were really no different in content than songs we already were singing... except they were new and apparently therefore "inappropriate". Our crowning moment of glory pointing this out was to create an amalgam song of all the accepted songs and veer off into another song right as we got to a part that would have gotten us in hot water had the song not already been institutional canon. Eventually e became one in an illustrious string of camp music directors and is also on the board.
Fast forward *cough*cough*a*lot*of*years*cough*, and e is taking part of a review of the camp repertoire of songs for 'cultural competency.' Which, given our difficulties navigating the rubric by which things were deemed acceptable and unacceptable, is fascinating to me. So a whole bunch of this is stolen from and maybe modified a bit from the email I sent em earlier this evening. Because it's a topic I can happily ramble on for a long time. :D
Music is historical and political (hence the sticker on Woodie Guthrie's guitar that said "this machine kills fascists" and the writing on Pete Seeger's banjo that said, "this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." In the uproar around Ice-T's Cop Killer, I was very much into Dick Gaughan and the opening track on what is still my favorite album by him is Erin-Go-Bragh. You're all clever enough to catch the gist of what's going on here through the Scots - http://www.dickgaughan.co.uk/songs/texts/eringobr.html. Or you can just play the song in the background because it's really a good song! Spoiler alert, totally traditional song, and a highlands Scots fellow is mistaken for Irish while in 'Auld Reekie' - or Edinburgh - by the police, words are said, things escalate and he kills the officer, 'paid stock and interest for Erin-Go-Bragh' and that basically leave the Irish alone, it's none of your business why they might be in Edinburgh. That both songs were in my awareness that same summer drew some alignment of music as carrying our histories, and Ice-T was singing an age old song with new melody and words, but a very old story.
One of the songs I sang that was frowned upon was a variant on the Whistling Gypsy of sorts. I have a bit of a pet peeve around Whistling Gypsy vs. Maddie Groves. Not to mention that gypsy is a slur on par with... Well, all the other slurs... (and to be honest, I'm sort of uncomfortable even using it here and in context). But the reaction to what I thought was merely a variant on a song we knew and sang all the time, was also the pivotal learning point for me that blind tradition carries a lot of weight with it. I was never entirely sure how another friend's version of the Handsome Cabin Boy (who ends up pregnant to the immense surprise of various people) was so adored when she sang it. I mean... I guess no one *died*, but.... ??? It's a difficult rubric to work with, especially if you don't quite fit in! I always assumed that she got away with it because she was likable and normal and pretty and appropriate in a bunch of ways I was not, even when I tried. Like... there are clearly rules about things I didn't get and still don't, like a regular conversation I have with people is to check *again* that there isn't some owner's manual for being human and another for having feelings that maybe I just didn't get. If anyone reading has that manual/s, please send along to me forthwith! Although I may be too old to change my ways now, lol!
The question I turned over as I read and pondered eir email was whether they all were looking at the repertoire with an eye toward cultural competency... was the end goal to remove and/or Bowdlerize or add in additional layers of songs from affected cultures? I like the latter idea a lot because more folk songs is always my favorite answer! I'm not really a fan of Bowdlerizing, because I think we should not whitewash history and make it appear "clean" to sooth our discomfort with our own history. I believe we need to feel and own that discomfort and the wrongness of some of the events that happened, even when it makes for great music. I DO think contextualization is critical. One of eir pointed exercises was to follow the thread of British Colonialism through the camp songbook and point out all of the different areas on a map where colonialism stretched to, called "The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire" exercise. I really love this kind of education through music, tongue-in-cheek though it may have been, as the kind of contextualization and music education that we *should* be providing when we teach kids (and adults!) folk music. It doesn't have to be serious and academic, especially at camp, but providing some context in a memorable way is important. If it's such a good song that Bowdlerizing is what people want to do, I feel like that brings up the question for me of masking the more obvious racism/sexism without actually addressing it, and functionally creating "dog whistles" where we have "cleaned it up" but pretty much everyone still gets what the song is about... Or doesn't and then you can send two different messages to two different audiences. One knows and gets the reference, while the other doesn't which is pretty terrible ethically.
I think one time I saw the camp handle music education well that really stood out for me, and done in a good way on kind of a serious matter was that as kids will, we started getting kind of goofy with Dona (a song from the 40s and Jewish/Yiddish theatre, here's Joan Baez's version, called Donna Donna), and in particular adding a HAHAHA! after 'oh the winds are laughing' and the music director at the time was like hey, that's not really appropriate with this song, here's the deal, it came out of a culture where literally the people were being led to slaughter and this song is about human rights. There was some grumbling of course because teenagers having fun, but having that added context provided *way* more meaning in return, at least for me, and I think others as well than 'this is just a song that's fun to sing.'
And then on the other side of the equation, fitting the song to the audience is a thing that definitely happens in folk music and folk tales alike. I tend to think that 'cleaning up' music is different than sharing what the audience is developmentally able to process. And then to add another layer, there's also the time honored artist's interpretation. So many different angles to parse all this from.
When my folks were at camp (and I know because guess who has their song books!) there were a number of civil rights songs that faded out in the 70's, replaced by some singer-song writer folk-ish stuff (thanks to one of my cousins for always asking me if we sang that song or that song), which in turn were phased out as different people brought in their own interest in music (o hai Camp Deadwester when we had music staff that was super into the Grateful Dead).
I had an Irish boss a few years back and I was telling him of my horror of being at an early Black 47 concert while all the Northern Ireland stuff was continuing to go on, and the lead singer just being so passionate about James Connelly (Irish hero from 1916, just... here's another song to listen to) and... the dumb frat boys who were mixing orange and green and didn't really know either side of the history and were being really disrespectful while thinking they were celebrating Irishness... He told me about himself at about the same time and age growing up in Dublin and the border being only about an hour away and he and his buddies thought they'd go to N. Ireland on a lark and they got to the border and it was literally a militarized war zone, and they came away feeling very very somber and a little shaken, realizing for the first time that history was still in progress.
Relaxing and singing together is such a powerfully bonding experience... And it provides such an amazing vocabulary of expression of the human experience. We sang/sing at lunch and dinner, then around the campfire... And as morale boosters/just for fun hiking, sea shanties trying to get back from this small island or that, against the tide or in a storm, or... Square dancing with and without music in the lodge, waiting at ferry docks... Spontaneously on an alpine hike because it's fun...
And too, music carries the full weight of the memories of our human shared history - good and not so good. I can't listen to the PJ Harvey album about WWI except rarely because it makes me cry (time for another song?).
Another thing that comes to mind around the inclusion of colonialized and other cultures and music is the question of appropriation. This is a constant struggle for me and I feel like sometimes we walk right up to the edge of it at camp for various reasons, but this is also tricky layer of the rubric to navigate. When is something culturally Not Yours to use and share? Recently this came up when we had some questions around using a song Harry Belafonte popularized... and what resolved it for us was that we had all learned the song from him appearing on the Muppets, which made it feel ok as it was pretty widely recognized as popular culture and shareable. I think generally the folks doing this have some pretty solid expertise in knowing which side of the line to stay on... And I guess that's why we're doing this with adult hindsight and a whole lot of care and different perspectives...
And just because music: a totally appropriate song about working in industrialized conditions and weaving - Poverty Knock.
In the end, there is so much amazing music to pick from. Really it comes down to - why are we doing this? What do we want to get out of the experience? And what is it that we're trying to pass on? And I'm sure I'll come back to this time and time again, further refining my thoughts on it all. Because I am now totally down the rabbit hole into youtubing old songs and listening to them and I've rambled on long enough for tonight. In lieu of an endless Virginia Reel, here's Pata Pata & the Milk Bucket Boogie. Neither of which are traditional, but we took the dance associated with Pata Pata and sped it up for the Milk Bucket Boogie. And some of us tripped over our feet a lot more than some others...
In musical curiosity,
And a bonus track from the rabbit hole, Diamonds & Rust...