Analyzing Folk Music

In medicine, diagnosis is essential. Doctors missed my mother’s heart disease because they were treating her as a female man. They looked at her symptoms in the 90’s, and saw anemia. So she was medicated for anemia and it caused serious side-effects. Her worsening heart failure was overlooked, until it became gravely serious. She had open-heart surgery two days before my wedding.

In other things in life, you have to get the problem right before you can hope to have a solution. Don’t get me wrong: medicine to support iron levels in the blood is a very good thing. But it’s not the answer for someone with a different malady. It’s not a question of bad pharmacology. It’s in the diagnostics.

Kathy Pluth at the Café linked this interview of Dr. Joseph P. Swain, whose book Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music (Liturgical Press, 2012), is discussed.

Dr Swain notes the confluence of the folk revival and the conciliar reforms. And he’s absolutely right. If liturgical reform had taken place in any other decade, there’s no way that guitar-based music would have gained a foothold in classrooms and later in churches. There would have been no cultural context for it.

The rage for so-called folk music in the late 1960s and 1970s was caused by a coincidence.  The pop style known as the “folk music revival” of Bob Dylan and his disciples, taken to be an anti-commercial, anti-status quo, purely felt kind of music, was at the peak of its popularity.  At the same time, liturgical reformers who, for various reasons, wished to ignore the Council’s directive to promote Gregorian chant looked for an alternative.  The folk-revival style seemed made to order.

The guitar is a portable instrument, eminently suitable for classroom work with children and in supporting the singing of women (due to it being pitched an octave below those voices). Instruments like it have been used by solo singers and in ensembles for centuries. It has been used in sacred music as well.

I’m not sure what Dr Swain is getting at in suggesting the folk revival was “purely felt kind of music.” Certainly many musicians, accomplished and otherwise, “feel” their music. Good musicians should have connection to the music they play. Such emotional connections are expressed more or less appropriately in the right context. I feel sacred music. But I don’t need to perform, even if it were my style.

Liturgical music was less a disobedience of the Council’s directive than an infusion of folk-revival styles from the classroom into the four-hymn low Mass. Ray Repp has said that he wrote music for catechesis. Others suggested to him that his music was fitting for school Masses, and later parish liturgy.

The music was indeed “made to order.” It was in the vernacular. It didn’t replace the organist and choir at the parish’s high Mass. It was an addition to one of the low Masses. In some places it was a popular alternative for a subset of a parish. In other places, perhaps less popular. In some places, the level of musicianship was very high, so the appeal of quality and beauty was evident.

For those interested in serving the Church, the liturgy, the folk group was perhaps the only alternative to a choir that might have been closed in membership to teens and young adults.

And in places where folk groups replaced organists (which I think were very few) why wouldn’t the narrative be a pragmatic economics? A pastor might ask why he should pay an organist $15 if Sister and the youth would do it for free.

Dr Swain goes off the rails with his assessment of folk revival:

Why folk revival music and its later derivatives can never work as true congregational music is a good example of how the hard facts of music matter.  The hard fact is that the folk revival is a style that takes the solo singer as its premise and cannot do well in any other arrangement.  The technical reasons for this truth are explained in Sacred Treasure.  Trying to transfer such a style to a large group (e.g. congregation) is like trying to fly a car simply by driving faster.  There is an intrinsic technical barrier to both.  The results of trying to do the impossible are clearly seen in the constantly changing song repertories in parishes of the last five decades.  One fad succeeds another, nothing is retained.  There is no tradition, just a revolving door, like the Top 40.

No, on most all these points.

Secular folk music is well accommodated to large group singing: campfires, classrooms, and churches. People sing it. I attended a Pete Seeger/Arlo Guthrie concert in the 80’s. The amount of “congregational singing” there rivaled any liturgy. And while the folk revivalists certainly wrote their own tunes, there was also a deep respect for tradition. Not just Woody Guthrie and work songs, but also into the European roots of acoustic music. There is a respect at least as deep as what one finds in classical music.

And as for the “changing song repertories in parishes of the last five decades,” Dr Swain hasn’t been paying attention. The repertoire has stabilized greatly since the late 80’s. And where new songs have come to the fore, they have generally been improvements in both texts and music. We will see the same developments in Mass settings over the next generation, assuming that MR3 is here to stay.

Even classical composers cannot produce a body of work to replace everything in a half-century that went before. With the near-universal endorsement of the vernacular, that is exactly the situation the Church found itself.

The state of church music is far from a revolving door of top-40. And such an assessment doesn’t even hold true in many American popular music forms today, nor with the better artists. Bruce Springsteen has drawn on musical inspiration dating back to the 1920’s for his concert material. Any number of pop singers from the 60’s on to the present draw from jazz standards and other material going back a century. If one looks at the latest FM-radio trend of a play-it-all rock station, I can find one spot on the dial that plays everything from the late-50’s through to the turn of the century. If this sort of nostalgia wasn’t popular, corporations couldn’t sell product on those airwaves. It is an illusion that popular music is a revolving door of new things.

If anything that is what the promoters of the sung propers are suggesting: two or three new pieces every week. Good music, to be sure. But not good for active participation of the assembly as they are used to having with hymns and songs.

Even looking to acoustic music as it is today, bluegrass and Gospel reach back to the later years of the 19th century, Irish and other ethnic musicians to centuries before that.

Even liturgical musicians like the much-reviled Marty Haugen have as much of a sense of tradition in sacred music as anyone else writing books and wringing hands about the Sad State of Affairs.

No one person has all the answers. I applaud Dr Swain for digging in. But if you’re reading his book, don’t take his assumptions for granted. And be cautious in thinking his remedies will actually address the problems (yes, there are problems) in Catholic sacred and liturgical music today. You have to get the diagnosis right. And if you don’t the solution may be more or less good on its own merits, but don’t expect it to solve the real problem.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Analyzing Folk Music

  1. Jim McCrea says:

    Did he say anything about Midwestern Polka mass music? If he is agin it, he’s treading on verrrrrrrry shaky grounds!

  2. As a convert-musician who predates you by a hair, Todd, and who started and served at the veritable bastion of progressive liturgy at Oakland’s cathedral, I commend your astute conclusion that most parish practical liturgical change was idiomatic to their particular circumstances, not the least of which was based upon economic criteria. Indeed, where there was liturgical impoverishment musically, many pastors relented and rationally allowed vacuums to be filled by anyone with six chords, a guitar and a willingness to “serve.”
    This reality was merely a continuation of the paucity of “endorsed” or native forms later to be codified as chant and polyphony in the same unendowed parishes. Parishioners over generations who remained unawares of the “sacred treasury” or at best heard paltry substitutes at Midnight Masses or school choir funeral Requiems for propers such as Msgr. Rossini’s would hardly be disposed to challenge their pastors with a “Why?”
    Yet another reality seems to escape the interview’s scope, the practical issue of repertoire volatitility existed as much in the 19th century into the 20th and which persists to this day, namely commercial and parochial interests of musician/publishers such as Rossini, Montani and a host of local source books such as the Mount St. Mary and other such hymnals. Montani actively engaged in blacklisting his own forebearers in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, ostensibly for aesthetic failure which is difficult to believe as his work was and is highly suspect. I don’t think his own compositions or editions would have passed Pio X’s muster.
    Lastly, as you pointed out, to not credit the Anglophile folk song collectors’ pivotal role towards appropriating authentic aires and odes into symphonic works, which like those of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and many others were condensed into strophic hymnody, is to miss their pedigree as true “Volksmusick.” These melodies along with those of the sanctioned hymns of the LOH and the “SingMesse” were already in place for the 1960’s inheritors.

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