This thesis discusses the universal lack of consensus among academics and practitioners regarding definitions of folklore and folksong, and why this situation exists. This thesis also examines the essential characteristics present in folksongs and the importance of the existence of folksong.
Graham H. Dodsworth.
I wish to express my most sincere thanks to my supervisor, Professor Peter Spearritt, and also to Dr Gwenda Beed Davey for their support and guidance in the preparation of this thesis. I would also like to thank staff from the National Centre for Australian Studies for their helpful assistance.
‘Folksongs’ exist within a people’s shared acknowledgement of issues, and as such are invariably a reflection of human circumstance. A folksong is a song where multiple versions exist, each as a voluntary performance. The variations which indicate and qualify a new version
, when not due to a characteristic of memory function, are brought about by personal choice influenced by the various cultures and sub-cultures existent in each era or region. Deliberate variations signify that the essence of the sentiments and general meaning of the remainder of the song have been embraced. The volume of versions in evidence establish and increase the ‘folk status’ of the song, particularly where a song becomes emblematic of a region. The volume of regions where versions are found also increase ‘folk status’, as does the spanning of eras which is one criterion that can further qualify a song as a ‘traditional’ folk song.
When one studies collections of folk songs from various cultures it rapidly becomes obvious that collectors vary in the emphasis they put on oral transmission when deciding the content of their collection. This issue is of particular relevance to the collection of folk song in Australia. This thesis therefore deals heavily with the issue of what an Australian folk song is to Australian folklorists, briefly on how this relates to interpretations elsewhere, and then examines issues of origin and transmission including the percentage of a song which is altered as it becomes subject to time, distance and other cultural influences.
Schools of Thought:
In Australia folklorists have had a vastly different field to harvest than their colleagues in other countries, richer had more been done to preserve the culture of indigenous Australians but also distinctly lacking in volume where colonial examples are concerned, particularly for collectors around the turn of the nineteenth-century where barely enough time had elapsed in which a rich oral tradition could have been generated. It is perhaps because of this alone that Australian folklorists put far less emphasis on the necessity of an oral tradition when determining the qualification of a song for inclusion in a collection of folk songs
, but also of relevance is an understanding that Australia’s colonial existence was chronologically second to that of mass culture where, as is noted later in this thesis, a printing press was among the cargo of the first fleet during colonisation of Australia by the western world.
Albert L. Lloyd in Folk Song In England
explains that the leading English folk song collector, Cecil J. Sharp believed:
folk song could only exist among the common unlettered people whose faculties had undergone no formal training and had not come into close enough contact with educated people to be influenced by them.
(Lloyd, 1967, 13)
‘Unlettered’ classes, at a time before broadcasts and sound recordings, would have relied entirely on an oral process to acquire their material and so Lloyd accurately portrays Sharp’s opinion as advocating the necessity of folk songs to exist entirely and exclusively within an oral process but Lloyd then clearly explains that such an environment, ‘shut away from the educated élite’ is unlikely to have existed since the middle ages suggesting newspapers
, railways, pillar-boxes and being in the employment of ‘lettered’ people as among some of the ‘factors that might break down old “primitive” ideas’ (Lloyd, 1967, 14) and therefore one would have difficulty classifying any song collected in England as a true folk song. If this is true of England then it is equally true of most of Europe and the Americas as well as Australia.
Although some Australian folk song collectors have suffered criticism for omitting to collect songs written by their subjects in the 1950s, folklorists at that time generally considered such songs well outside the scope of such a collection because they had not withstood the test of oral transmission.
Cecil Sharp explains in English Folk Songs
that he ‘upholds the communal theory of origin’, that ‘the typical qualities of the folk song have been laboriously acquired during its journey down the ages in the course of which its individual angles and irregularities have been rubbed and smoothed away’ (Sharp, 1920, ix).
In 1954 The International Folk Music Council adopted the following as the initial part of their definition at a conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil: ‘Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission’ (Karpeles, 1965, xvi). The 1964 edition of Funk & Wagnells Standard Desk Dictionary: Volume I
defines folk song as: ‘a song usually of unknown authorship, originating among the common people and handed down orally’ (Funk & Wagnalls, 1964, 248).
The Little Oxford Dictionary
of 1962 designates an oral requirement for ‘traditional’ examples only and defines folklore and folksong as including traditional examples. Traditional examples therefore, are a subset of examples included under the heading of ‘folk’:
folk n. (pl. same or -s)
(treated as pl.) people in general or of a specified class (few folk about; townsfolk).
(in pl.) (usu. folks) one's parents or relatives.
(treated as sing.) a people or nation.
(in full folk-music) (treated as sing.) colloq. traditional music or modern music in this style.
(attrib.) of popular origin (folk art). [Old English]
folk-dance n. dance of popular origin.
folklore n. traditional beliefs and stories of a people; the study of these.
folk-singer n. singer of folk-songs.
folk-song n. song of popular or traditional origin or style.
oral transmission of knowledge or belief from one generation to another; tale or belief or custom so transmitted.
(Little Oxford Dictionary, 1962).
Alan Lomax in The Folk Songs of North America
is happy to include both written and oral transmission in his understanding of folk song:
In the folk song of the West, for instance, there has been a continual interplay between the written and the oral streams of culture — the former fixed eternally in print, the latter living mainly in the bodies of a community of carriers and subject to slips of memory and to group emotion.
(Lomax, 1960, xxv)
By 1997 The Concise Oxford Dictionary
lightens the emphasis of an oral requirement in its definition of ‘tradition’ while also shortening the time-span requirement from ‘one generation to another’, to ‘an established practice or custom’:
a custom, opinion, or belief handed down to posterity especially orally or by practice
this process of handing down
especially an established practice or custom (it’s a tradition to complain about the weather)
(Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1997)
In 1985 after 12 years of international deliberation the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) agreed by majority vote that:
Folklore (in a broader sense, traditional and popular folk culture) is a group-oriented and tradition-based creation of groups or individuals reflecting the expectations of the community as an adequate expression of its cultural and social identity; its standards and values are transmitted orally, by imitation or by other means. Its forms include, among others, language, literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, customs, handicrafts, architecture and other arts.
(Folklife: Our Living Heritage, 1987, 13-14)
I find this definition highly disappointing, considering the extremely lengthy process of contrivance involving seventy-one countries and meetings attended by representatives from forty-six member states (Folklife: Our Living Heritage, 1987, 13). At the outset the wording is curious, possibly subject to some anomalies of translation in an attempt to cater to the many languages of the participating countries. In English, the definition has vagaries such as ‘group-oriented . . creation of groups or individuals
’. The words ‘reflecting’ and ‘expression’ would have been better transposed to read ‘ . . expressing
the expectations of the community as an adequate reflection
of its cultural and social identity;’ otherwise it implies examples should directly address ‘cultural and social identity’ rather than have a purpose of its own and perhaps therefore more honestly reflect these qualities through inadvertent detail. This section of the definition may have been clearer had it read: ‘which adequately reflects its cultural and social identity in accordance with the expectations of the community’. The definition does not imply that transmission must be exclusively via oral means. Note also that UNESCO include both traditional
folk culture under the heading of ‘folklore’.
The Australian Perspective:
Upon release of the UNESCO definition, in May 1985, an Australian government steering group established by the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment decided to amend the definition deleting the requirement that ‘folklore be tradition-based’, and stipulated that it should ‘reflect a community’s historical and contemporary experiences’ (Folklife: Our Living Heritage, 1987, 14). The alteration highlights the difference between an Australian perspective and perspectives gained elsewhere in the world. The Australian perspective can be attributed to the perceived youth of the nation, taking into account that Australia’s indigenous history is unfortunately often not considered as a relevant factor in these matters.
Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary excludes any mention of the word ‘oral’ in its definitions relating to folk, although rather jarring in its description of folk song as ‘simple’ and ‘artless’:
People in general, especially common people
people of a specified class or group: poor folk
(plural) Colloquial the persons of one’s own family; one’s relatives
Archaic a people or tribe. adjective
originating among the common people
of or relating to a folk song or folk singer.
the lore of the common people; the traditional beliefs, legends, customs, etc., of a people.
the study of such lore, folklorist, folkloristic
music, usually of simple character, originating and handed down among the common people.
music originating in the urban American beat generation of the 1940s and 1950s which concentrates on lyrics of social comment.
a song, usually of simple or artless character, originating and handed down among the common people
a song in imitation of this type.
The definition adopted by The International Folk Music Council conference in Sao Paulo Brazil, referred to earlier, which Karpeles describes in her preface to English Folk Song: Some Conclusions
as coinciding with the views held by Cecil Sharp
, also explains that continuity between present and past, natural variation and selection by the community are important factors and allows examples to have originated with popular individual composers if the example has ‘been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community’ (Karpeles, 1965, xvi - xvii). Such a definition validates many of the examples published in collections of Australian Folk Song including some of the examples actually composed by A. B. Paterson and therefore also any songs included in either Paterson’s or the collections of others where authorial identity and acknowledgement is uncertain.
Despite Karpeles’ alignment of Sharp with the International Folk Music Council’s definition, Sharp himself however explained that the expression ‘folk song’ is a German compound where it has a ‘wider and looser sense’ than he believed necessary and he preferred to support the viewpoint of ‘scientific writers’ which restrict its meaning as ‘songs created by the unlettered classes’ (Sharp, 1907, 2). Lloyd in Folk Song in England
finds Sharp’s definition too restrictive but then describes the following as a ‘boundless panorama going beyond all reasonable definition’:
. . . . any piece that has passed widely into public circulation is identified as ‘folk’, especially if one can pretend it somehow expresses part of the essential character of the nation.
(Lloyd, 1967, 12)
In respect to definition, where folk song is concerned, there are a number of distinctions that continually seem to be overlooked and which constantly cause mischief with the understanding of the nature of folk song. I refer here to a propensity for the words ‘song’ and ‘ballad’ to be interchanged too freely and the continual lack of distinction between ‘folk song’ and ‘traditional folk song’. Where a ballad might be expected to tell a story, folk songs have no such requirement and where a traditional folk song might be expected to have some oral transmission in its past, a folk song which is not ‘traditional’, has no such requirement. This latter issue, dealt with in further detail in subsequent chapters of this thesis, is not so clearly defined in regions where the study of folk song spans many centuries, such as Europe, America and the United Kingdom where there has been sufficient time for an oral tradition to develop. Folklorists in regions where larger volumes of orally transmitted folk songs are available have the luxury of concentrating their studies on songs which they assume have this quality and where a distinction would seldom be necessary; this alone goes some of the distance toward explaining the lack of distinction between ‘folk song’ and ‘traditional folk song’ made in these regions, and consequently the confusion with which we now deal.
Although one can understand how strong assumptions can be made in regard to the oral transmission of a song, how does one actually prove beyond all doubt that a song has been orally transmitted?
The importance of providing a clear understanding of the nature of folk song is supported by arguments included in Folklife: Our Living Heritage, the ‘Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Folklife in Australia’, presented to the Honourable Graham Richardson, Minister for the Environment and the Arts by Hugh Anderson, Gwenda Beed Davey and Keith McKenry in August 1987. Under the heading ‘A Need for Definitions’ they explained that they were consistently asked to define ‘folklife’, ‘folk arts’ and the difference between ‘folk culture’ and ‘popular culture’ and referring to this phenomenon further wrote:
that this betokened a clear absence in Australia of agreement on basic concepts and terminology, and this in turn presents a major stumbling block to discussion . . . . The difficulties arise on two levels: firstly, in everyday usage, terms such as ‘folklore’ and ‘folk music’ are employed loosely, giving rise to ambiguities and confusion; secondly, in formal usage, these terms suffer from a want of definition and understanding.
(Folklife: Our Living Heritage, 1987, 11)
Graham Seal in The Hidden Culture: Folklore in Australian Society
also expresses concern regarding the issue of definition with the following:
What then is folklore? Many attempts have been made to define folklore though none are wholly satisfactory explanations or descriptions of this vast field of human expression and activity.
(Seal, 1989, 5)
These issues are demonstrated during the initial chapters of this thesis in order to serve as a reference for the main purpose thereof which is to provide an understanding of the nature of folk song in Australia, including origin and transmission.
The Modern Perspective:
A case study of ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ in my fourth chapter provides data on transmission both in Australia and internationally and gives a practical demonstration as well as some insight into the way songs proliferate. Scholars will note that although recordings and internet copies of songs are available to performers they have a tendency to solicit song words directly from other performers, particularly the author if at all possible, yet have no compunction to performing or recording the song in which ever form they can acquire it.
My fifth chapter includes examples of transmission during the formative stages of colonial Australia examining the myth that Australia’s folk song has been composed by a myriad of wild and uneducated ‘bushmen’, and discusses how a deliberate desire to establish a strong identification with our hardworking pioneering, pastoral population as well as our brave returned soldiers
, influenced both the composing and collecting of folk song up to and during the Australian leg of the world’s mid-twentieth-century ‘folk revival’.
Australia, still struggling today with issues of establishing a unique identity is now, for the first time, willingly rubbing shoulders with nearly every other culture in the world as we become absorbed into a cyber nationality where, adding to the culture sharing of international television documentaries and situation comedies, universal expressions and etiquettes are rapidly developing on the internet. Folk song enthusiasts world-wide, including Australians, are contributing to this development and therefore lyrical variations of folk songs are taking place in this domain which will directly affect future versions of songs to be found in Australia.
At the dawn of an era which may well be described in future centuries as ‘The Digital Age’, I have invoked the services of ‘The World Wide Web’ of the internet, including e-mail
, electronic bulletin boards and folk fraternity mailing lists to track down versions of songs as they tour the world. Such a method used warily now at the birth of this new mode of communication and publication will rapidly be of no use for such a purpose in the future due to the ease with which information can travel via this means. Songs uploaded today to an Australian Folk Song site from a Canadian web-site might just as easily have been lifted from a Welsh web-site the day before. Many such collections of folk songs are being generated world wide. Songs which were once collected orally or penned by candle-light in a small village somewhere in Somerset England for instance, can now be drawn from the truly global village of the internet by flexing a few forefinger muscles in one’s own lounge room.