Musical Traditions
Introductory Column

by Stewart Hendrickson

As a performer at Victory Music open mics I once began by saying “and now for a break in tradition I will sing something traditional.” Most performers at open mics are singer-songwriters playing guitars. There is nothing wrong with this - some of our local singer-songwriters are very good. I used to feel out-of-place doing traditional music at these venues, but I now enjoy it since most of my traditional songs are new and novel to the audience, and I consider this a sort of musical education.

In this new column I would like to expand on this educational endeavor by introducing traditional music, particularly as it applies to the local scene. I propose to discuss different genres of traditional music that are performed locally and contribute to the development of contemporary folk music. I would like to ask local performers of traditional music to contribute columns - for example, we have local musicians doing Greek, Klezmer, Scandinavian, Turkish, Balkan, and other genres of music that don’t get much wide-spread exposure. I would also like to tell about the beginnings of the folk music scene in Seattle from the early ‘50s revival through the use of guest contributors who were active participants.

First, just what is traditional music? Some might say that it is just old music, but I would say it is just good music that happens to be old and has survived the test of time. While traditional music is conservative in nature, it is not necessarily static, but continues to evolve. Being oral in transmission, it is more fluid than note-based music. Performers are free to change and adapt it to new situations and different musical instruments. It also represents the roots of much contemporary folk and popular (even some classical) music. In its broadest definition it also could describe contemporary music written in traditional style (to sound “traditional”). Some folklorists have even been accused of passing off their own forgeries as traditional.

How old does traditional music have to be? Certainly there are examples that go back many centuries. At the other end of the spectrum, a younger musician once suggested to me that the Grateful Dead might be considered “traditional”; I would be inclined to give that another 30 or more years to see if it survives the test of time. But I would also be inclined to include some “composed” music of the late 19th and early 20th century as traditional. Also, in a broad definition I would include early country music, such as that of the Carter Family, early Cajun and Blues music, and early “folk music” such as that of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, and perhaps even Malvina Reynolds, to mention just a few more-recent sources.

Traditional music is currently receiving more exposure. I am listening now to the public radio program “Roots and Branches” on KBCS. Then there was the recent Woody Guthrie exhibit at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.  And many of you have seen the recent 4-part PBS series “American Roots Music.” The Internet is also a tremendous source of information - try typing the keywords “traditional music” into the google search engine and you will get an amazingly good set of web sites on this subject.

In some future columns I would like to explore the following topics:

• How has traditional music contributed to contemporary folk music? Bob Dylan had a good knowledge of traditional music that he used to “borrow” tunes and modify old lyrics to contemporary themes. He modeled his early musical career after that of Woody Guthrie, who borrowed most of his music from earlier sources. I could give many examples of contemporary songs that have their origins in traditional music.

• What traditional music is performed locally and by whom? I would encourage local musicians to contribute columns as much as possible since I am certainly not expert in many of these areas. They could tell you more about their music, how it evolved, how it is constructed, etc.

• What was the “folk music” scene like here in Seattle in the early 1950s revival? This was centered mainly around the University District. The term “hootenanny” to describe a folk-singing get-together originated here in Seattle. Originally it referred to something you couldn’t find the right word for, such as thingamabob or gizmo, or the old Spike Jones gag, "What do you get if you cross an owl with a nanny goat? A hootenanny!! Ha ha!” Pete Seeger picked up the term here and brought it back to the east coast and then around the country. A friend of mine could tell you some interesting stories about these hoots and a colorful early local folksinger by the name of Walt Robertson.

• I could alert you to upcoming performances of traditional music in the Puget Sound area, and give reviews of some of these concerts.

• What are some sources of information on traditional music? With the advent of modern recording techniques, and now the Internet, traditional music is no longer restricted to an oral tradition of transmission and dusty libraries. You can now read original broadside ballad manuscripts from the Bodleian Library of  Broadside Ballads in England without even leaving your home - it’s now on the Internet! You can listen to old recordings, including field recordings, also on the Internet. There are Internet sites with hundreds (even thousands) of lyrics, many with accompanying midi files of tunes. This is the best of times to do research on traditional music.

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus  University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; Reprinted from The Victory Review, February, 2002.