Friday, October 28, 2011

Folk Music and Folk Tales

I  have an increasing interest in folk music and folk tales.  My intent is to take this developing interest and produce musical and written content that resembles folk music and folk tales.

Folk Music
I will create folk music by playing and recording music based on styles including, but not limited to, Irish/Scottish Celtic traditional music, American and Canadian fiddle tunes and folk-lyric songs, and Jamaican mento music.  The common thread among these styles is my chosen musical instrument – the 4-string tenor banjo – which has roots in each of these traditions.

In Irish trad it is very common to hear GDAE tuned tenor banjo playing single-note melodies (jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, mazurkas).  In American culture, the tenor banjo is associated with New Orleans jazz, but its history also dates back to Southern string bands.  Four-string banjo is also a primary instrument in mento – a Jamaican folk music similar to calypso that predates reggae and ska.
Mento Quintet by Richard Blackford
Never heard of mento?  You’re not alone.  I only discovered it recently because of its association with 4-string banjo. Mento is a blend of Caribbean and Latin rhythms; a people’s music historically played on the street on acoustic instruments.  Lyrics are often bawdy, filled with double entendres.  Mento almost died out over the last few decades in the wake of more contemporary Jamaican music, but a few old-timers are keeping it alive by playing for tourists in various incarnations at resort hotels in Jamaica.  Most mento bands feature a banjo player - always with 4-strings -  either on tenor banjo or on a 5-string banjo minus the 5th string.  Awareness of mento has risen a little bit lately thanks to the re-discovery of the band The Jolly Boys (Jamaica's version of the Buena Vista Social Club), who in 2011 released a new album featuring twelve covers of contemporary pop songs done in a modern Mento style, including Amy Winehouse's Rehab.

So...can a person mix Irish, old-time and mento into some kind of roots music gumbo?  I think so, as long as one is not too concerned with authenticity or tradition.  Each of us have an individual speaking voice, even if our accent ties us to a particular place.  So if we all played music, presumably we'd all have our own distinct style.  I intend to find my style via these traditional forms.

Folk Tales
Unlike music, which I only just began learning in my early 30's with no prior experience, I have been reading and writing since kindergarten, like everyone else.  I haven't necessarily been writing stories, but I do write fairly often, sometimes creatively, so the transition to writing folk tales should not be that difficult.  In addition, instead of creating fiction from scratch, I aim to simply collect folk tales and then "cover" or re-purpose them, similar to the way you cover or interpret folk songs in the public domain.  The catch is that I intend to gather folk tales from a variety of regions and cultures but put my own spin on them by having them take place on a fictionalized island of my creation.  
A favorite book of folktales
I'm still developing the idea for this project.  I've assembled books of folk tales from places I've visited in the last few years, including Ireland, Orkney, Iceland and Newfoundland. I also hope to adapt tales from other regions of the world, such as South America, Africa, the Caribbean, New Zealand and other islands.  There are commonalities to all these tales, as well as differences, so my goal is to create a world where my adaptations of these stories can be played out.

Why folk tales?  They are not the work of a single author.  They were the traditional beliefs and legends of many cumulative authors passed on by word of mouth - open to each storyteller's variations and interpretations, additions or subtractions.  Even when written down, it sounds like spoken word.  Characters are not complex - just good or evil. Many don't even have names. Folktales are not connected to a specific time or place.  All of this contributes to making them easy to re-tell without many qualifications besides the motivation to do so.

To help me re-tell these folk tales, I have also gathered books like Manguel and Guadalupi's Dictionary of Imaginary Places, An Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, Carol Rose's Encyclopedias of Folklore, Legend and Myth, as well as numerous unusual dictionaries containing words from other languages or words that have passed from common usage.  These reference books are just as interesting to me as the tales themselves!

Admittedly I haven't even really begun this work...nor have I read much classic sci fi or fantasy.  Maybe I'm naive but I don't think that will be as much of a hindrance as it might seem.  If successful, the merger of folk tales from around the world assembled in a fictionalized location should be no different than the merger of folk music from different cultures.  Which kinda ties the two divergent projects together.  Since I realized what it is that I'm working on, my everyday experience has taken on the tone of a practice or rehearsal.  Every piece of music I hear - no matter what style - has the potential to be an influence.  In the same way, every story I hear or text I read - from a columnist's article to a bestselling author - is fertile ground toward progressing as a story (re)teller.  

Thanks for reading. Now I need to get to work!


  1. Very interesting article,thanks for sharing.keep it up and have a good one!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. cool Im using the photos for a home work