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Folk Music vs. Classical

David Raleigh Arnold

I guess all tunes is folk tunes. I don’t hear no dogs singin’ ’em. —Hudie Ledbetter

The Rap

I recently heard some university professors blowing smoke about the “folk music”[1] vs. the “classical” traditions, with the usual cant about how each generation makes its contribution in the “folk” music tradition.

In the “classical” tradition folks don’t vary from the notes and are hidebound to whatever is on the parchment.

It’s all nonsense.

Folk Tradition

After a few generations, the “folk” tune, probably written in New York City, has usually degenerated by the massaging of fools and incompetents into swill barely recognizable as music. Unfortunately, the chain of illiterate “tradition” is only as strong as whatever moron is its weakest link.

This is without taking account of the reality that most “folk” music is not folk music at all by any sane definition, because it has yet to make it through even a second generation. Most of it won’t.


By the “classical” tradition is meant a tradition of musicianship. There is really nothing particularly classical about it. Knowledge does not inhibit improvisation, it enhances it. That’s why Bird and other pioneers (of bop) studied theory so seriously in university. It is true that improvisation is not encouraged in a symphony orchestra. So what? If you varied a little bit Bill Monroe would get on your case too.

The point is that music notation and literacy are not merely part of a particular tradition. They are the means by which traditions can be and are preserved. If it weren’t for notation and the ability to use it, folk music would be a million times worse than it is today, and hardly any of the usual familiar folk tunes would exist.


This rant was mainly intended to target stuff which is called “Folk Music” which really is nothing of the kind. Certainly there is, in some other countries, some traditional music which is many centuries old and which was not originally commercial music, but many things thought to be in this category are not, such as the familiar fiddle tunes. Those are the product of the notebooks of itinerant fiddlers. A perfect example of the real thing is the Pali chants. The melodies are so simple that they do not depend on the original creation over two thousand years ago, nor on notation, but they have been recreated spontaneously every day for millennia. I have had the experience of singing Pali chants in three parts, myself improvising a third part, with a monk and another lay person. It was not difficult and it was absolutely beautiful. To this day I do not completely understand how the monk could lead us, but somehow he could, and did.

End Notes:

§1 In Spanish “folk” is rendered as “popular”. Of course in English “popular” or “pop” means something entirely else.

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