The Folk Tradition

Down at my parents’ home south of Austin for a few weeks. In the evening as we’ve always done, my father and I play guitar. He sings and plays rhythm on the vintage Kay archtop while I play lead on the Gibson ES-125 semi-acoustic, which has an appealingly junky sound when you bash away at the bass strings. Our repertoire consists of the songs he first taught me–Willie Nelson, standards, old rock and roll, a smattering of Beatles. We are solid on “On the Road Again” and “City of New Orleans”. “That’s Alright, Mama” invites all manner of fun, noisy Chuck Berry-style riffs. “Folsom Prison Blues” gives my father an opportunity to break out his Johnny Cash impersonation. Our version of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”, I’m proud to say, brought my wife to tears.

The other night family friends were over. They made requests to which we would reply “Sure we can play that” even when this was not entirely true. You find your way. My father knows “Georgia on my Mind” in C, while I know it in F, so we ended up doing one verse of experimental 12-tone Hoagy Carmichael before I figured out what was happening and adjusted accordingly. I throw in a iii-VI-ii-V turnaround at the end of the verse in “Night Life” while my father just hangs out on the F7th. Jazz versus country. “Do you know any Everly Brothers?” one of the family friends asked, and we launched into “All I Have to Do is Dream” without hesitation because the verse is a basic I-vi-IV-V (what my father calls the “Poor Little Fool” progression) which for a guitarist is something akin to breathing. We knew the bridge does something tricky with a D-minor, but you can’t let uncertainty of how part of a song should be played in two minutes stop you from starting to play it now.

When talk turns to music many people envision a printed score. They believe that to know a song involves memorizing a sequence of notes and then playing them back in the correct order. Very broadly speaking, this is true. For a classical musician this is narrowly true as well. To someone from that tradition what my father and I do would seem like either hopeless amateurism or sophisticated jazz improvisation. In fact it is neither. Nor is it some anomaly. We do what players throughout history have done: we fake it. I call our tradition the folk tradition, but that is decidedly for lack of a better word because the term “folk music” connotes something specific: acoustic guitars, sentimental pastoralism, Peter, Paul, and Mary. By folk tradition I mean an approach to playing rather than a specific genre. A bluegrass banjo picker, campfire guitar strummer, lounge pianist, and heavy metal bass player may all reside within the folk tradition, as long as a significant portion of their learning occurred outside an institution, and they regard playing the correct notes as a means rather than an end.

Communication is approximation–you and I may speak the same words even though we have different voices. Likewise we may play the same songs, though our definition of song may vary. For those of us in the folk tradition, once we have convinced a listener that we have played a particular song then that’s it, regardless of what sound actually occurred, the song has been played.

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