Folk music revivals – what’s behind them?

In ethnomusicology, “folk music revivals” have been an established subject of research since the 1990s. It examines how folk music traditions that were thought to be lost or disappearing are revived under certain circumstances by 1) excavation, 2) examination, 3) normalization/standardization and 4) distribution. As Tamara Livingston (1999, p. 69) notes in her well-known article “Music Revival: Towards a General Theory”[1], certain basic components can be identified in almost all music revivals:

  1. Folk music revivals are usually initiated by a small group of enthusiasts and folk music lovers (“core revivalists”), often as a kind of counter-movement to the modernization, urbanization, mainstream, technologization and capitalism of a society
  2. Historical sources (instruments, music books, descriptions, recordings) are being researched and experts practicing these traditions are being interviewed in order to revive a folk music tradition that is disappearing or was thought to be lost.
  3. Research into these primary sources often takes place against the background of a certain ideology, be it nationalism, the strengthening of an ethnic minority, anti-mainstream, etc.
  4. A group of fans (“followers”) then begins to practice the musical tradition that is to be revived. A revival community is forming
  5. This revival community organizes various activities: concerts, lectures, workshops, festivals, events, competitions and publishes music books, DVDs, literature, etc.
  6. A non-profit or commercial market is emerging that promotes revitalized music and allows it to develop further

Once the revived tradition is established, new movements can emerge within this tradition that expand the revived tradition through innovation and sometimes also criticize and break it up. Ethnomusicologist Denise Milstein (2014)[2] speaks here of so-called revival currents.

The alphorn has also experienced such a revival, a history that ethnomusicologist Max-Peter Baumann examined in detail even before Tamara Livingston’s essay in his article “Folk Music Revival: Concepts Between Regression and Emancipation” (1996)[3]:

The musical behavior of folklore groups towards their environment is marked by conflicting models. On the one hand such groups tend in a historicizing way to try to revive the past using the most “authentic” forms possible (concept of cultivating the original “old”). At the same time, involvement with the modern is a transcendence of old concepts in that the local is syncretically blended together with new ideas (concept of fusing the “old” and “new”). The dynamic of tradition lies precisely in the musical relationship between local and global perspectives, regression and emancipation, and between retrospection and future outlooks.” (p. 71).

The negotiation process described by Baumann between “old” and “new”, “local” and “global”, “conservative” and “innovative” underlies all folk music revivals and in the vast majority of cases is conducted very fiercely and emotionally. Traditionalists and innovative musicians rarely find a consensus, as both sides claim to play the folk music tradition authentically. What is forgotten here is the fact that “authenticity” is often interpreted controversially by traditional and innovative musicians. The representatives of the traditional view refer to a “historical authenticity” (and often forget that the revived tradition often adheres to rules that only emerged during the standardization of the revival). The representatives of the innovative perspective often come from artistic practice themselves: they do not want to play a tradition that is seen as “dusty”, but want to convey their artistic expression authentically through tradition. Hagmann and Morrissey (2018)[4] have examined these contrasting views of authenticity in folk music revivals in detail using English folk songs, an analysis that can also be applied to the history of the alphorn and its revival movements.

BOX: Feature film «Beyond Tradition: Kraft der Naturstimmen» (the power of nature’s voices)

The ethnomusicological documentary “Beyond Tradition” also deals with the questions of music revivals, authenticity, tradition and innovation in wordless songs from Switzerland, Norway and Georgia. Here, Appenzell yodeler Meinrad Koch oscillates between the traditional conventions of his homeland and contemporary questions about gender and musical fusions that he would like to see for Appenzell natural yodeling. He questions the rigid rules laid down by the Appenzeller Innerrhoden costume association, for example, in a rap where a traditional Ruggusseli meets Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, and poses the question:

What is tradition? Stuff from yesterday, today or tomorrow?
The rule is only 80 years old
Is this the only truth?

In his search for answers about tradition and innovation in other musical cultures, Koch meets the joik singer Marja Mortensson in Norway, who is reviving the traditional Sami song, the joik, to give her cultural minority a voice. Here too is a classic example of a revival: the yoik of the Southern Sami has been extinct for two generations. But Mortensson researches old recordings in archives, asks her grandmother and other older people about their memories of the joik and thus begins to revive it. Musically, however, she also goes one step further: she mixes the Joik with jazz and a string quartet with tuba and thus brings it to the stage in a new guise and back into people’s consciousness.

In Georgia, the third musical station in “Beyond Tradition”, Georgian singing seems to be omnipresent in everyday life: a group of young people on a bus sing one folk song after another, full of joy and enthusiasm. But these chants were also canonized and standardized a good 100 years ago. Georgian ethnomusicologists keep a watchful eye and ear on the correct interpretation of these songs, including the Georgian yodel Krimanchuli. And so the Georgian youth choir Tutarchela, with its interest in folk songs from other cultures and urban music styles, does not always fall on receptive ears: Despite their incredibly high standard and touching musical expression. Her credo: music means freedom. It is not about rigid rules, but about expressing oneself in song and forming a musical community.

Info about the movie: , Wikipedia (DE)

[1] Livingston, Tamara. (1999). “Music Revivals: Towards a General Theory”. In: Ethnomusicology, Vol. 43, No. 1, 66-85

[2] Milstein, Denise. (2014). “Revival Currents and Innovation on the Path from Protest Bossa to Tropicália”. In: Caroline Bithell and Juniper Hill. Oxford Handbook of Music Revival. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 418-441.

[3] Baumann, Max-Peter. (1996). “Folk Music Revival: Concepts between Regression and Emancipation”. In: The World of Music, Vol. 38, No. 3, 71-86.

[4] Hagmann, Lea and Franz Andres-Morrissey. (2018). “Multiple Authenticities of Folk Songs”. In: Thomas Claviez, Kornelia Imesch and Britta Sweers (eds.). Critique of Authenticity. Wilmington: Vernon Press, 183-206.

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