Last week I wrote about the right to be creative within your own folk tradition. Morgan Daimler flagged up to me that I need to tackle the other side, too – what happens when we mess about with other people’s traditions. Taking other people’s traditions, writing into them, or over them and presenting that as genuine material can have the effect of wiping out the tradition, not keeping it alive. How do you tell the difference?
Your relationship with the tradition is key here. If we’re talking about your culture, your family background, or the place you’ve lived your whole life as a participant not a coloniser, then you are someone who is inside the traditions around you. They are your traditions.
There are plenty of non-white British people engaging with British folk traditions, and that’s also fine. It’s important not to let this idea of who owns the tradition exclude people who want to be involved. Time spent working in the tradition, learning it, knowing it – that’s the key thing here. If you’ve put in the years, then you can enter a tradition that belongs to the place you live, or to people you are interested in, without that being a problem. The key thing is that what you’re doing is entering the tradition and participating in it. If people are willing to teach you and share their traditional things with you, then you can enter into it without issue.
The problems arise when people have brief and superficial contact with a tradition and then think they can own it. Going to one folk festival doesn’t qualify you to write folk songs. In the context of British folk, if you go to one festival, and write some songs that are wide of the mark, the odds are you won’t go far, and it won’t matter – there’s enough people who have been doing this over a long enough time to just shake off the pretenders with no impact.
If you have some superficial contact with someone else’s traditions where there are fewer people involved, and/or it’s not part of the dominant culture, and then start making your own in what you think is in the same style, there are massive problems. You may be presenting material to people who don’t know that you’re misrepresenting a culture. If you have more power – if you are a white western person messing about with the traditions of an indigenous culture, for example – you may have more scope to present the tradition to others than the people living in it do. You may have the power to inform and define a tradition that you know little or nothing about, with no one to rein you in.
This is also true if you are someone studying or recording a culture – as a folklorist or academic. Trying to pin a tradition down can be a process of limiting and damaging what you study, and shaping how it will be seen by others. Colonial misrepresentation of other people’s cultures is a longstanding problem. The determination of westerners to present non-western tradition as primitive, superstitious and irrational is a longstanding problem.
If you’re working from inside a tradition, steeped in it and invested in it, then the ways you want to keep it alive and updated are likely to serve the tradition, not harm it. But, why would you want to appropriate a tradition you know nothing about in order to play with it? What does that achieve? You aren’t keeping a tradition alive by doing this, unless what you’re working with is a people who have disappeared. Then you’re guessing and reviving, and there’s a case to make for that if it’s done honestly.
Wanting to learn from someone else’s tradition also makes a lot of sense – there’s a lot of wisdom and inspiration out there, it is reasonable to find that attractive. But surely, if you’re interested in another culture, what you want is immersion and absorption, and to get to a place of having internalised it. Running in to make up our own things in the same style is a sure fire way of learning very little. It’s a deeply questionable activity on so many levels.
There are no short-cuts to being part of a tradition. You can’t pick it up over a weekend course or by reading a book. If you aren’t prepared to invest years in building a relationship with a tradition, you aren’t interested in tradition and should probably leave it alone.