Friday, August 16, 2013

Oral Tradition in Appalachian Old-Time Instrumental Music

I found the following text on an Appalachian State University page for Special Collections at Belk Library:
Before the advent of electrical recording mediums, instrumental music in Appalachia was transmitted directly from person to person. Most musicians were also unable to read or write notated music, and therefore relied on personal instruction and memory to acquire new tunes. Due to the reliance on memory, variations were unavoidable (similar to the children's game "telephone"). This process, known formally as "oral transmission" or "oral tradition," and informally as the "folk process," is responsible for the dissemination and preservation of the large body of music now referred to as "old-time." Although this process continues today, the majority of modern old-time musicians depend on recordings for the acquisition of new repertoire.

I find the sentence about modern old-time musicians' dependence on recordings to be particularly interesting.  A lot of hardcore old-time musicians love to reference the one and only source for certain tunes, regarding anything else as an inferior derivation.
I agree that one should at least seek out the earliest recorded and/or most prominent source for a tune, especially since these recordings are usually findable through online digital archives, but part of me wonders if strict emulation to the source recording is contrary to the tradition as it existed before recordings were available?

It almost seems more organic to get your tunes locally from the people you play with, regardless of where that person might have gotten their version from, and then take it from there based on personal taste, abilities, influences, et cetera.  There's more than one way to skin a cat, or play a tune.  So long as you balance personal expression with a respect for the purity of the music, I don't see any harm in doing it whichever way you see fit.

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