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Thread: What makes a song traditional?

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    I was wondering, what makes a song traditional? Is it the style? Everyone writes traditional songs and they aren't old(the songs I mean). Thanks!

    -Josh
    Josh Palmer

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    I guess, broadly speaking, traditional would mean in the tradition. An old timey or celtic or contra dance tune that had the "look and feel" of the tradition that inspired it, would, in a broad sense, be a traditional tune.

    I don't think the age of the tune is as important as the style.

    It is a shame they don't write any old tunes any more.
    Indulge responsibly!

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    "I was wondering, what makes a song traditional?"

    No royalties?

    Curt

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    Someone other than you plays it for decades
    John McGann, Associate Professor, Berklee College of Music
    johnmcgann.com
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    Your Grandfather learned it from his grandmother.

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    Registered User Andrew Lewis's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by (JeffD @ Oct. 21 2007, 15:31)
    It is a shame they don't write any old tunes any more. #
    LOL! Well done.

    I think this can make for an interesting discussion.
    As with everything else, it really boils down to the function of the word within the context its used at a given time, so a more specific question may be "How is the word 'traditional' most commoly used and interpreted in out modern society." I think JeffD hit the nail on the head. To take it a step further, I think "traditional" indicates a lack of modern influence. If you sit down to write a "traditional" song, you have to consciously eschew styles that have been created in recent history and specifically try to emulate a style that was created some time in the past.
    But as I said at the beginning, that's just one person's (mine) usage of the word.
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    Registered User Mike Buesseler's Avatar
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    Seriously, though, it must have something to do with either not knowing who the author is, or that the copyright has lapsed, doesn't it? "Traditional" does mean that no one gets royalties, I thought. And, aren't some Stephen Foster (for example) tunes often listed as "traditional"? I might have this wrong, but the OP question seems very reasonable and interesting to me.

  8. #8
    Registered User Mike Buesseler's Avatar
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    Here's what Wikipedia says...

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    As long as the "definition" is at the mercy of peoples opinions, it may as well be meaningless.

    Curt

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    To start with, not under copyright.
    Some people think that if the composer is known, the song/tune isn't really "traditional." This definition includes most old fiddle tunes, oral-tradition ballads, etc., but excludes Foster, O'Carolan, A.P. Carter, John Newton (he wrote Amazing Grace), etc. Most bluegrass and jazz, and a lot of blues, are not considered "traditional" by this definition.
    Not satisfied by such a narrow definition, others attempt to define "traditional" stylistically. This creates enormous opportunities for dispute. There are contemporary composers (I cite Gillian Welch) who write songs indistinguishable from "traditional" material, in terms of style, subject matter, and manner of performance. There are a number of recently-composed songs that get a "traditional" arrangement or treatment by one or another performer. Songs like Long Black Veil, tunes like Foggy Mountain Breakdown, are around a half-century old, with known and (in the case of Earl Scruggs) still-living composers, and yet many would consider them "traditional."
    If people like Curt are looking for an objective definition, "composer unknown/public domain" is as close as I think you can get. Once the style criterion is used, it does become a matter of opinion. (Parenthetically, that's why I distrust any athletic competition in which the scoring is a matter of judges' opinon.)
    And, of course, just because we don't know who the composer is, doesn't mean that there wasn't a composer, whether back in the 15th Century or less than 100 years ago. Gus Cannon never copyrighted Walk Right In, but Erik Darling and Vanguard Records had the decency to pay him composer's royalties anyway. Someone wrote Soldier's Joy and Sir Patrick Spens, but I guess we'll never know who -- so they're "traditional."
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    Registered User Nick Royal's Avatar
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    Another aspect of a traditional song relates to it passing into tradition, sung by lots of people even if they don't know who wrote it. Red River Valley and Home on the Range might be examples because I think the authorship is known, but many people sing them as "folk songs;" songs they have learned from someone else/family members, etc. vs. a song book.

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    I am pretty unknown. If I write a tune does that make it traditional?
    Indulge responsibly!

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    "If people like Curt are looking for an objective definition, "composer unknown/public domain" is as close as I think you can get."

    That's as close to meaningful as I can imagine.
    Mr. Lewis' post contained the following hypothetical situation:"If you sit down to write a "traditional" song ..."
    Is this possible ... any more so than making an antique piece of furniture ?

    Curt (or "someone like" him)

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    Registered User Steve Cantrell's Avatar
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    Quote: "As long as the "definition" is at the mercy of peoples [missing apostrophe] opinions, it may as well be meaningless."

    So...I suppose definitions are handed down out of the sky on stone tablets, Curt? Maybe they're deduced from the patterns of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, or maybe even in chicken entrails. Oh...wait...maybe I've been paying tax money to fund "The Justice League of Definitions and Grammar Correction" and have since forgotten. Either way, the definition of a word is just that--someone's opinion. Just my two cents.



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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Hey, leave Curt alone, he's being nice...
    And, of course, there's no one like him, not really!
    Allen Hopkins
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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by (Steve in SC @ Oct. 21 2007, 20:39)
    the definition of a word is just that--someone's opinion. Just my two cents.
    It has to be a kind of consensus opinion I would think. Otherwise communications would be impossible.

    Although sometimes communications does seem impossible.

    Indulge responsibly!

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    Thanks!
    Josh Palmer

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    So...I suppose definitions are handed down out of the sky on stone tablets, Curt? Maybe they're deduced from the patterns of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, or maybe even in chicken entrails. Oh...wait...maybe I've been paying tax money to fund "The Justice League of Definitions and Grammar Correction" and have since forgotten. Either way, the definition of a word is just that--someone's opinion. Just my two cents.


    If your arguement relies on manufacturing an extreme hypothesis as the sole source of justification, then you don't have a leg to stand on.
    But I can understand your point of view. It's quite fashionable these days to believe that all opinions are of equal value and that the arguement that carries the most weight is the one
    put forth by someone claiming to be an "injured party". Sorry Steve, but if the meaning of anything is nothing more than what you or I CHOOSE it to mean, then doesn't meaning become
    ... well, meaningless? If I've informed you against your will ... my apologies.

    P.S. I've always had trouble with those pesky apostrophies, but at least I'm willing to admit that their proper use doesn't depend on my opinion.

    Curt

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    What makes a song traditional? Tradition, of course.

    What makes a song "traditional"? Greed.

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    jbmando RIP HK Jim Broyles's Avatar
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    The trouble with Wikipedia is that it is all opinion. Anyone can get an account and edit an article. I have done it. As far as can one write a traditional song, I'd say sure. You can't write an old song, but you can write a song which adheres to traditional values and expectations. Here is Roget's version of the word 'traditional':
    Quote Originally Posted by
    Roget's New Millennium™ Thesaurus - Cite This Source - Share This
    Main Entry: traditional
    Part of Speech: adjective
    Definition: usual
    Synonyms: acceptable, accustomed, acknowledged, ancestral, classic, classical, common, conventional, customary, doctrinal, established, fixed, folk, habitual, historic, immemorial, long-established, old, oral, popular, prescribed, regular, rooted, sanctioned, time-honored, transmitted, universal, unwritten, widely used, widespread
    Antonyms: fresh, new, unusual
    Source: Roget's New Millennium™ Thesaurus, First Edition (v 1.3.1)
    Copyright © 2007 by Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
    Going by the definitions of many of those synonyms, one can certainly write a new traditional song.
    "I thought I knew a lot about music. Then you start digging and the deeper you go, the more there is."~John Mellencamp

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    Registered User Andrew Lewis's Avatar
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    Just to clarify my original post in the interest of this discussion, please note that I did not use the word "opinion" nor was that my intended meaning. I was simply alluding to the ways words (and symbols, too) become used differently over time and depending on the groups that use them. I'm talking connotation and usage here, not definitions. Words do evolve over time just as symbols become interpreted differently as events change them. As an English teacher, I often discuss this with my classes as we see the English language evolve when surveying British literature.
    Anyway, I felt it was a relevant point to bring up when trying to understand what we mean when we say "traditional."
    But I do agree, though, that if we want to pin down the definition of the word in the context of music, it's probably easier to just stick with the concept of a song or tune that has had a reasonable life span and whose author can no longer be noted or remembered.
    Andrew Lewis
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    Some of Norman Blake's finest recordings are divided fairly evenly into traditional and original pieces. They all have a traditional feel, usually with a few of Blake's "twists" artfully inserted into the original instrumental pieces. I love to play his magnificent "Thebes" and have recorded it, but I find that most people generally lack the attention span to even listen to the entire number, much less be interested in it. It is one of his tunes honoring "Little Egypt", an area of the Southland particularly dear to him and a place where Abraham Lincoln once studied law. "Grey Coat Soldiers", "When the Field's are White with Daisies" and "Lincoln's Funeral Train" are a few of his original songs that sound ancient. His "Back In Yonder's World" tells you alot about him. He is an American treasure.
    But Amsterdam was always good for grieving
    And London never fails to leave me blue
    And Paris never was my kinda town
    So I walked around with the Ft. Worth Blues

  23. #23

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    I don't think copyright has much to do with it because the early player copywrited many traditional songs of standardized their arrangments and now recieve royalties(or at least their record labels do). It is actually very hard to find traditionals that are safe to record because the vast majority have some copyright on them. I would be interested to know how far off a specific arrangement you have to be to not infringe.

    I like how Monroe would just slightly rewrite tunes like Molly and Tenebrooks to copy write it. I think it is a term, legal that has very little meaning.
    -1

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    "I would be interested to know how far off a specific arrangement you have to be to not infringe."

    If the "music industry" has their way, no music will exist in the public domain .

  25. #25

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    If they had their way we'd all be listening to Big and Rich and we'd pay $0.99 everytime we hum a tune.
    -1

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