I am writing this to invite people who love folk music to come together and talk about how we can make more folk music happen in Ottawa.
I know that there are many small groups in Ottawa making and listening to folk and folk-inspired music in various ways. There are songcircles, tune jams and performing groups, open mics and other grassroots music events. However, we do not have an organization to promote the singing and playing of folk music. Much as I dislike spending time talking when I could be singing, I believe the time has come for people who love folk music to organize in order to keep the old songs alive and in circulation.
There are several different ways we can work at the same time, supporting each other’s efforts and interacting in different ways. Some might want to explore peformance-oriented formats to expose ourselves to more folk music: concert series, coffeehouse folk nights, etc.
Others might want to join me in the promotion of recreational singing and playing of folk music—people making music together for that moment, not for any audience but only for themselves and each other. This is the folk process, the DIY, open source culture of folk music. I want to help make more space for this kind of music making in Ottawa: not classes, not performances, but simply social singing and playing.
I have some ideas but I need to gather some human energy around me to proceed with this project. This goes way beyond my professional interest in leading singing. I want to be part of a larger project around the promotion of the singing and playing of folk music by ordinary people in their daily lives. I would like to network with others who meet in songcircles in this city (I know of at least three that meet here and there are probably more) to perhaps join in mass group singing events from time to time or to visit other circles. Also, I would like to see people connecting through some sort of organization for the purpose of creating new social singing and playing opportunities for themselves, much as people have come together to do group hikes and canoe trips. There are many possibilities for action to promote social music making with a focus on folk music. These are just a few. Let’s meet to talk about it.
Just to be clear, by folk music I mean songs and tunes that have been sung and played by many non-professionals in nonperformance settings, usually changing over time, with simple, predictable musical structures and direct, clearly understood lyrics. The music is simple and accessible, telling stories that everyone can understand in language that is easy to learn. Changes are allowed, even inevitable, as songs and tunes make their way through generations of people singing and playing them.
There are a few other characteristics described by folklorists to distinguish fok music from other forms, but that is the gist of it. What has come to be called folk by the music industry is a much broader category that has more to do with sound (voice and guitar) than content, musical structure or social process.
There are quite a few songs by people of my generation that have now passed into oral tradition, and they have changed; they have sometimes had the harder bridges abandoned and the tricky bits rubbed off like old stones. Then there are some songs by newer singer-songwriters that are very singable and direct and may even become folk songs some day (time will tell). However, most songs found in the folk section of the record store are poetically obscure and complex in musical form. They do not invite participation and are too difficult to sing along with unless you have memorized the recording. Many are very good art songs or very good pop songs but they are not folk songs.
When folklorists began collecting folk songs they all thought this musical practice among the ordinary people was dying out and the songs needed to be preserved. They were right to a degree. Although some communities continued to pass on their songs and singing styles despite outside influences, and these collectors made sure that songs were available to successive generations, nothing could stop the combined consequences of technological and sociological change that have taken singing out of the home and into performance venues. At least we still have the old songs, and some of us are grateful for that.
Many so-called “folk,” “traditional” or “Celtic” music scenes are oriented around either professional or semi-professional performance to a consuming audience or gatherings of sophisticated and often formally-trained musicians for virtuoso jams, with little room for those who aren’t close to their level. In the past, people of different ages and abilities came together in homes across Canada to make music, both as solos and in groups, with skilled musicians both modelling for and encouraging others. These gatherings weren’t necessarily serious affairs, but involved conversation, humour, food, and friendship, and often songs, recitations, or stories as well as instrumental music. The Gaelic word ceilidh, which we associate with musical venues, simply means “visit,” and, in many countries, house visits on winter evenings were settings in which people shared varied traditional skills and arts. While these types of house sessions continue, they must be nurtured if we are to own our music and not hand it over to either professionals or a musical elite, especially if we want to pass our music to our children.
I was inspired to write this by the shift in the focus of the Ottawa Folk Festival, not because I want to request that the OFF be different from the way it has chosen to be, but because I believe there is now, more than ever, room for more folk music in this city.
Please contact me if you are interested in hearing and singing more folk music in Ottawa. We will establish a meeting if there is enough interest.