Art and ambiguity

By Bau Graves
This discussion about the relative utility or futility of our nomenclature feels awfully familiar.  As Director of the Old Town School of Folk Music, I devote a substantial chunk of my workweek to contending with widespread public misapprehension of the f-word in our name.  Mention "folk music" to most people and they think you're talking about a skinny white guy with a guitar -- Bob Dylan circa 1964.  Many professional folklorists would insist that Dylan and the generations of singer/songwriters that followed him are not "folk" at all, but pop stars who happened to appropriate a few countrified tropes from the real folk who carry on their traditions within some community of origin.  Meanwhile those actual practitioners of traditional culture -- African American gospel choirs or Polish American polka accordionists, for example -- almost never refer to themselves as folk musicians; they are musicians plain and simple.  Old Town School embraces and teaches all of the above, and plenty more.

In Bill's theoretical division of the Expressive Life into Heritage and Voice, my hazy realm of folk music would seem to fall squarely on the Heritage side of the line.  But along with clawhammer banjo and country blues harmonica, we fill hundreds of classes with students hungry for hip-hop, bhangra, punk-rock and alt-country, blurry-edged genres that are all reflections of some extended community's contemporary aesthetic -- legitimate fodder for an institution concerned with traditional culture, but hardly preservationist in intent.  Heritage in practice includes an awful lot of Voice. 

Over the decades there've been occasional suggestions to change our folk name.  But to what?  Old Town School of "American" Music?     What message would that send to our students of Mexican son Jarocho, Brazilian samba, Hawaiian hula, Spanish flamenco and Finnish polskas?  Maybe just Old Town School of "Music?"  God forbid, somebody would mistake us for one of those stuffy conservatories where they toss around terms like "art" and "culture."  Old Town School of "Expressive" Music... Hmmm.  After repetitive reflection, we've come to embrace the Folk in our name.  It is such a malleable term that we can use it to signify the totality of what we do.  Our job consists, in part, in revealing the full glory of the word to our public, again and again.

Our folk music world is the smallest and least prestigious corner of the public arts domain, but I wonder if concerns over the ambiguous nature of "art" and "culture" are extensions of our modest struggles with self definition.  Ultimately, can the slippery nature of our definitional terminology be transformed into a positive, forcing us to articulate a cohesive vision of whatever we're doing?  
January 25, 2010 3:34 PM | |


This Conversation Are the terms "Art" and "Culture" tough enough to frame a public policy carve-out for the 21st century? Are the old familiar words, weighted with multiple meanings and unhelpful preconceptions, simply no longer useful in analysis or advocacy? In his book, Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey advances "Expressive Life" as a new, expanded policy arena - a frame sufficiently robust to stand proudly beside "Work Life," "Family Life," "Education," and "The Environment." Is Ivey on the right track, or more

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