The Digital Folk project is pleased to welcome Dr Lucy Wright in her new role as Research Associate. Lucy completed her PhD in 2014, exploring contemporary folk performance and place-making in...
In the previous post, I suggested that the folk arts were unusual among amateur creative practices because the way in which knowledge (including repertoire, style, etc.) is passed between people is to some extent definitive of the activities. To study a change in the transmission of folk (i.e. through the use of digital media/technology) is to study a fundamental change in the way people envisage the activities themselves.
In this post, I want to explore a further peculiarity of folk participants (who I will, for the sake of ease and reflection of the vernacular, herein refer to as ‘folkies’!). Folkies are very aware of community as a concept. They are (I would dare to argue) more aware of the social element in the activities they participate in than the members of many other types of creative community. It’s a key, explicit, rationale for the things that they do, and it’s built into the common understanding of the activity itself. If you talk to people about their definitions of (e.g.) “folk music”, terms like community (albeit normally in the local sense) have normally appeared by the end of the second sentence…
Once again, the reasons for this foregrounding of community among folk participants are to some extent historical. When many English folk revivalists worked to define, collect, and document examples of folk music and dance during the late 19th-early 20th century, their motivations hinged on the belief that the material found could be put to social purpose. Rather than ossification, a number of the key figures (including Sharp) advocated the teaching of the collected material to England’s school children, in order to encourage a reunion of the English people with their national songs and dances — and therefore, by extension, their national identity and pride. Thus, the “imagined community” of the nation has played a crucial role in the formulation of the folk concept.
In the mid-20th century, this romantic nationalist version of community was superseded by a post-war socialist narrative in which folk arts were reframed as the artistic expressions of the working class. Interestingly, however, the importance of locality (in a general sense) has remained a crucial thread through these differing accounts, and continues today. People will often feel compelled to sing songs, dance dances or tell stories that are thought to originate from a geographical area with which they have some kind of personal connection. The practical (and digital) illustration of that is the popular integration of maps as a way of discovering material in folk archives (such as in the case of the map function to the right of the search bar on the EFDSS’ The Full English site). And there is a general agreement among scholars, internationally, that “folk” or “traditional” arts tend to have an underlying connection with place (real or imagined) for those who participate in them).
All of this has practical implications for someone studying digital culture: the folk case study may be an interesting foil to other types of creative pursuits, in that the communal element of folkies’ activities is the element that they tend to think/talk about quite a lot, and it’s the other, activity-specific implications of new media (i.e. the impact of digital media/technology on the actual music/dance/stories/performances) that they are less instinctively conditioned to consider. That said, the extent to which folkies are conscious of the development of meaningful online communities has yet to be seen, and I know that’s something that my collaborator, David Gauntlett, will be keen to discover.
Beyond that, and in similar ways to the transmission issue, the digitisation of folk activities represents a dislocation and decontextualisation of practices for which the concepts of locality and physical context have been integral, even definitive. Herein lies another contradiction, the assimilation of which will be interesting to observe and understand through the Digital Folk project.