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Saturday morning quotes 4.48: Class resumes

April 10, 2015

Today’s post is intended to draw deserved attention to an article that raises several questions about the nature and origins of “traditional” music, in particular Irish traditional music.  The article discusses some important aspects of licensing for public performance and copyright, a vexing problem for those restricted from participation in sharing what amounts to a cultural heritage.  We don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the public performance licensing question in Ireland and the UK, but find ourselves in sympathy with the idea of a common ownership of music in the public domain.

The article is “Playing, paying and preying: cultural clash and paradox in the traditional music commonage,” by Fintan Vallely, published in Community Development Journal,  (2014) 49 (suppl 1): 153 – 167.

Vallely defines and describes traditional music and states his purpose:

“This essay uses aspects of the music’s practices to show that traditional music is by evolution an artistic and cultural commons, a factor which has driven the impetus of its 1950s-on revival and (ultimately) has underpinned State recognition in both the arts and education. The idea of such a ‘ commons’ has, however, been challenged in the later twentieth century by the pressure to have all forms of music licensed for performance in public spaces as well as for public broadcast. The morality—if not the legality—of such with regard to the traditional is questioned, not just because it has been enforced via State support, but because it amounts to an annexation of sites of performance of traditional music by the commerce of copyright.”

Just as we have discovered researching the origins of many American “traditional” songs and tunes, Vallely points out that a significant amount of the music entered the tradition long ago through antique published versions, were memorized from sheet music and passed on by ear:

“Some of the music classified as ‘traditional’ can actually be found in print not only in older Irish collections of tunes with no composer noted, but also in tune-books accredited to particular Scottish composers such as Neil Gow. Indeed it is clear from Irish collections that a significant amount of music that had been ‘collected’ in the field passed back into oral/aural tradition and transmission and was then re-collected by subsequent collectors.”

Amusingly related, the idea of Morris dancing and English “country dancing” in general was cultivated and perpetuated by a wealthy class of urbanites, as pointed out in one our previous posts quoting from articles by John Ward.

“Aside from the traditional morris tune, the “Bacca Pipes,” and “The Buffoon,” the rest of the morris repertoire dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most if not all of it taken from the popular music of the city, especially the country dance, which, despite its name, was an urban product.”

– From “The Morris Tune” John M. Ward, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), p. 320

Vallely finds that much of the same class-crossover is true of traditional Irish music.

“The true commonage of old Irish music seems more likely to have always been the intellectual property of a range of classes. Evidence from the eighteenth through to the twenty-first centuries shows that the music was created, cared for and contributed to by those who had need or occasion to perform it and/or to participate in it…and/or had the necessary interest or passion, leisure time and intellectual training to productively pursue it.”

“Each social group’s music-savvy people had access to, and occasions to hear at least the spill-over of the music of the other. Based on the orally passed-on dance music – the popular music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the more common music had many characteristics of, and contained melodies or themes found also in, the more ‘court’ or ‘art’ music…”

Vallely goes on to address the opportunistic copyrighting of traditional tunes for the sake of royalties and licensing fees for broadcast or public performance.  Again, we are removed from these issues but are a bit sensitive to the pillaging of the common property of traditional music and the restrictions placed on public performance, particularly by musicians who are accustomed to freely sharing a tune and a pint in a public house.  And raspberries to the class of people today who would encourage the State to hold out their grasping hand and engage in such shenanigans.

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  1. Christopher Barker permalink

    “L’Etat,…” Ever since Louis XIV, and perhaps way before, the State (L’Etat) has tried to have its greedy hands into everything around.

  2. I think composers, if alive, should be paid for the use of their music if money is being made off of it.

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