"Folk music", folk music, trad jazz, and the trad left

Further to the "folk music" issue from last week (here - read the comments too), Jogo sends a link to this nice article at MRZine by Sophie Guthrie. Extract:
Woody (who didn't listen much to his own records) played the song totally differently, adding new chords, changing beats, and even improvising a few new verses. Unlike highly disciplined and organized dancers, folksingers are known to veer. Woody would simply state, "If you're the same, the weather's different, and if the weather is the same, and even you're the same, you breathe different, and if you breathe the same, you rest or pause different." Later he would explain, "if I want to take a breath between verses, I play a few extra chords. And if I forget the lines and want to remember them, I play a few extra chords. And if I want to get up and leave town, I get up and leave town."
I was working on a second installment of my "Lexicon for our times", which would have had an entry for "Trad Left", but I'm going to bring it forward as it relates directly to this quote from Woody.

The phrase "Trad Left" comes to me from the 60s/70s libertarian communist group Solidarity, for example in this article "Third Worldism or Socialism" (the funkily hirsute guy in the photo is Sri Lankan "anti-imperialist" Rohana Wijeweera, not a Solidarity member!). For me, the phrase works by analogy with "Trad jazz", meaning traditional (as opposed to modern) jazz: the British movement of the 50s+.

Pre-modern jazz was full of innovation and change and creativity and genius (see, for example, Willie The Lion Smith, Sidney Bechet, Wild Bill Davison). But when modern jazz came along, playing the old style became formulaic and repetitive. Fun for a Sunday drinking real ale in a pub, but you wouldn't want to buy the records.

That's kind of what folk music became once it was codified and frozen and ripped out of its folk context, i.e. when it started getting called "folk music", and started having folk music fans ("folkies").

Now, there's nothing really wrong with music being formulaic and repetitive. Capitalism likes innovation, but that doesn't mean innovation in art is necessarily good. Playing far-out jazz like Gilad Atzmon or Don Byron is not intrinsically better than reworking old New Orleans style riffs or Appalachian songs.

But in political analysis you need to constantly change - because the world constantly changes. To use the word "imperialism" as if it is still 1916, for example, doesn't work in today's world.

So, getting back to Trad Left. Like pre-modern jazz, the Old Left was full of innovation and change and creativity and genius - Paul Mattick, Henryk Grossman, Karl Korsch, Anton Pannekoek, Rosa Luxembourg, Alexandra Kollontai, Sylvia Pankhurst, etc. But to use the analysis these people developed, without taking acount of the way the world has since changed, is not OK. Sometimes you need to play a few extra chords. And sometimes you need to get up and leave town.


Jogo also sent me the above image of Woody, saying:

It would be fun to photoshop Woody's guitar so it said "this machine kills Fascists but not Stalinists." Boy, would that piss off the old Commies.

And isn't he setting a bad example for kids? (cigarette in mouth)

Previous Woody Guthrie: Funky Woody Guthrie (This Land Is Your Land); Woody Guthrie's Hanukah songs.


Roland Dodds said…
Sometimes you have to play a few extra chords….well said.

I am interested in seeing your next Lexicon of the ages; Trad-Left would work nicely I think. It isn’t positive or negative, and that is a rare in this day and age.

And that picture of Woody will always rule, even if he was a Stalinist.... and a smoker as well!
Incognito said…
Ha.... and here I thought music was just music.. to be enjoyed or not.. ;-)
Jim Denham said…
Sidney Bechet, Wild Bill, and The Lion... anyone who singles those guys has got to have taste and knowledge... they epitomise the so-called "trad" players who took their music to the extremes: Bechet, in paricular, was simply a force of nature. It pisses me off, that these guys are now all but forgotten, whilst the likes of Gilad Atzmon, playing his good, but not particularly exciting post-bop, is hailed as some sort of genius. he isn't; he's a competent sax player - that's all.
I've worked with a *great* jazz player (Wild Bill Davison), and I know greatness when I see and hear it.
bob said…
Jim, I thought you'd be offended about what I said about trad jazz!
Jim Denham said…
Not at all Bob: just good to see my heroes given a name-check. My only dispute would be with the term "trad": to my ears guys like Bechet, Wild Bill and The Lion are forever modern, regardless of the vaguaries of fashion. Charlie Parker rated Bechet.

for a much more learned piece on the relationship between jazz and the left, I recommend my comrade Bruce Robinson's piece 'The Freedom Principle' on the Workers Liberty website at:
bob said…
I know this is three months old, but it's been bugging me. I'm not sure I made myself clear in this piece. When Sidney Bechet was first recording in 1923, he was not playing "traditional" jazz; he was right at the cutting edge, as they'd say today. (And he was still at the cutting edge when he recorded Shiekh of Araby in 1941.)

Likewise, when Paul Mattick, say, was writing in the 1930s, he was not of the trad left; he was cutting edge.

When bebop came along, repeating the chops Bechet played in the 1920s became increasingly un-cutting edge. When modern jazz comes along, jazz played as if time had stopped before the war was called "trad" jazz. Similarly, people who regurgitate today what Mattick wrote in the 1930s are rightly called the "trad" left.

Now, there's nothing wrong with playing music Bechet-style in 2008. But there is something wrong with thinking Mattick-style in 2008, because the world has changed so much.

So, sometimes you have to play a few extra chords. Sometimes you have to get up and leave the room.

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