Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Folk music, story telling and postmodernism

What Manx tales is Uncle John telling with those pipes?

Still brimming with short stories after a wonderful Arvon course that I wrote about a couple of posts ago, I went to see Alasdair Roberts and Richard Dawson play at the Vortex in Dalston. They are folk musicians with completely different styles but both influenced by traditional folk songs; Alasdair Roberts sings in a recognisable, delicate trad style that reminded me of Nic Jones (a big compliment), whereas Richard Dawson’s delivery combines the kind of ear-shattering bawl that would have driven workers in the pre-industrial fields with a surprising, nuanced vocal range and banter to rival a seasoned stand-up comedian.

It would hardly be a new observation to say that many folk songs tell stories, or that ballads often do so explicitly, from start to finish. But what struck me was that, with crystal clear delivery making every word, and therefore every plot twist and turn, discernible, it is much more like listening to a storyteller spinning a novel story than the familiar tales we hear in genres such as pop and rock music. What’s more, these songs have a whole extra register not available to the oral storyteller – that of the music in which they are embedded. I have listened to stories told over an accompanying musician and it is not the same thing at all. When the same person is producing both the music and the words, by singing and sometimes playing an instrument too, there is a further layer of clues available as to interpretation.

Literary subversions of folk tales are nothing new either, though there is a slew of this kind of writing at the moment, some of it brilliant, taking fairy or folk tales and contorting their yarns. When we know the original stories, much of the joy in reading the new versions is in seeing the manipulations. With a folk song, though, the music can do some of the twisting and distorting instead. Many of Alasdair Roberts’ songs started out sounding about as trad as you can get, but about halfway in subtle musical subversions would appear – chords structured in non-folky ways, picking styles that rang other bells, progressions that stepped outside the traditional boundaries. These changes provide clues that he might not be singing a straight story either.

It was in the midst of one of these quiet displays of musical cunning that I thought of that irritating phrase, ‘a writers’ writer.’ This is a description that manages to combine compliment with curse, implying great cleverness whilst putting off the entire non-critical audience. I wondered whether Alasdair Roberts was a folk musicians’ folk musician, choosing a system of signals in his music that could only be detected by those who know the paths from which he slyly deviates. Perhaps this is a form of postmodernism in folk music – an extension of a genre that has to be enjoyed ‘knowingly.'

Richard Dawson’s music at first appeared more straightforward, but then I wondered about his use of storytelling too. Before playing one particular instrumental song on his diminutive guitar he told us it was about the Bamber Beast, a monster that lurked in the field beyond his uncle’s caravan that he described as a ‘land-based squid.’ The music itself would not have conjured this image, but having it planted beforehand rendered the tune so funny that I laughed all the way through. It reminded me of the power of a title in determining our reading of a short story.

I will be wondering, then, about the devices a writer can use to give cues and clues to the reader outside the structure of the story, as if there is music playing, but in a way that does not necessarily rely on literary knowledge – how to be a readers’ writer, but in the cleverest way.

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