Sunday, June 19, 2005

The "Trad Police"

Jumping off from a discussion over on

There are disputes within the world of traditional music and tradition-related instruments between adherents to various definitions of same. Most typically, the dispute takes the form of one person wanting to borrow an instrument, style, or approach and subsume it under the "traditional" heading. Those wary of such borrowings tend to be concerned that the borrower may simply be creating a not-very-effective goulash of the two.

There are people who play traditional music very well, and another music (or non-traditional instrument) very well, and thus are able to synthesize both in a very effective fashion. But that's hard work, takes decades to accomplish, and those people are in the minority. More often, people who want to create a "synthesis" don't play traditional music very well--or not as well as they could--yet they want to change the music while still claiming the fashionable label.

A few observations:

  1. What makes a music (or any other art form) "traditional" is not so much its repertoire, its sources, or even its proximity to its original context--though all of these contribute. A music is traditional if it is learned, taught, and/or passed on using traditional processes (demonstration, imitation, correction, apprenticeship, immersion, etc). This is why "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," for example, can be part of the corpus of "traditional" songs if it has been learned, taught, or passed on using these processes--even if it began on Tin Pan Alley.

  2. There are a lot of people playing Irish traditional music who have spent their whole lives working hard at that. One of the things that happens when you spend decades studying one particular music is that you begin to see subtleties, distinctions, and points of great artistry that may not be apparent to a more casual observer or student. Traditional music is thus "limited" only if the observer or would-be student has spent too little time and effort learning it; it's "limited" only if the player him/herself is. Son House played Mississippi Delta blues and sanctified songs for 60 years--and he obviously didn't feel he'd "exhausted their possibilities."

  3. The tradition is always evolving: it is always developing new tunes, new techniques, and/or incorporating new instruments. To accuse traditional music of conservatism is to betray a fundamental lack of understanding of what it is and does. The converse of "traditional" is not "contemporary"; the corrollary of "traditional" is not "conservative." Traditional processes occur slowly--much more slowly than our "grab-n-go" culture has patience for.

    Such traditions, with long lineages and relatively slow processes of assimilation, have thus had the opportunity to winnow out much of the crap. There's a lot of insight, and relatively little crap, in the core teaching of many different vernacular and wisdom traditions, simply because, down through the generations, the tradition itself has had the opportunity to retain what works and to discard what is ephemeral.

  4. Any musician should be allowed to play the music she/he wishes.

  5. However, there are some people who want the cachet, the fashionability, or the "coolness" of the "traditional" label and want to be able to appropriate that label for their own music, without having done the homework to even know how traditional music actually works. The result is that these persons not only want to "be allowed to play the music" they want to play, but also want to be able to claim their synthesis is "traditional." This is a misapplication of the term, as described above, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the traditional process.

  6. Some people--loving the cachet or coolness of traditional music, and/or or reluctant to undertake or unable to comprehend how much work it takes to play it right--expect to be allowed to label their music "traditional," even if it is not. If you want to make a music that synthesizes influences in a "grab-n-go" way, be my guest: but call the style "Fred" or "Wilma" or "my own deepest most soulful expression of my unique individual creative insights as An Artist"--but don't call it "traditional music."

  7. These people, feeling a lack of response from those who trust, respect, and have invested decades in traditional music, sometimes refer to more dedicated, more heavily-immersed, or more "hard-core" people as "the trad police." This is a bullshit accusation, and tends to emanate from those who have insufficient insight into how traditional processes work, to the fact that traditional music does evolve, and to the fact that it can take decades even to learn how to hear, much less play, it right.

  8. To accuse someone of being a member of the "trad police" is analogous to the bullshit accusation that someone is displaying "political correctness." And, similarly, the accusation tends only to come when the accuser has been told that what she/he is doing doesn't work because of insufficient sensitivity or insight.

  9. I don't hear too many knowledgeable and/or expert traditional musicians referring to themselves as "trad police." There are those who know a bunch, realize what they still don't know, and thus respect the tradition, and then there are those who don't know very much, don't realize how much they don't know, and treat the tradition disrespectfully as a result.

In all the time I have played traditional music, I have only ever heard the term "trad police" (or, even more obnoxiously, "trad Nazis") applied by more rudimentary/less-knowledgeable players to more advanced/more-knowledgeable players. As a result, it tends to come across, even in the text-based medium of the Internet, with a marked and childish petulance.

When I hear people make such an accusation, two things tend to happen:
  1. I tend to want to hear them play traditional music well, in person, before I decide whether to pay attention to the opinion;
  2. I presume I'll take them more seriously when I think they've put in the time to hear and play the music right.

1 comment:

Song Carrier said...

It's a great pleasure to read a succinct description of Traditional Music. Possibly the only thing missing is the idea of an Oral or Aural transmission.Even though it is more of a conscious rather than unconscious one today, all the basics still apply.
As Con O'Driscoll says in his song "The Spoons Murder" "There is a cultural desert between the ears"
which applies to several contributors on
All the best