Traditional Music and Instruments

This isn't really about music. It's a pet rant about the common use of the word "traditional", which is almost meaningless. Unscrupulous advertisers use it a lot, because it evokes nostalgia, and nostalgia sells. Next time you buy a jar of "traditional marmalade", ask yourself what you're actually buying. It's still made in a huge factory, it still contains emulsifiers and gelling agents, and it's a pale imitation of the delicious stuff your granny used to make. All they've done is tweak the flavouring additives and set the chopping machine to cut the peel a bit bigger. So, the "traditional" label is a con, right? Yes, it is. But so is the idea that your granny's marmalde was the real "traditional" recipe. Maybe she used genuine Seville oranges, maybe she didn't. Suppose she'd boiled it down and reduced it until it was really thick and sticky, then poured it out into a wooden tray to cool, and chopped up the result into a sort of soft fruit toffee. That's the Elizabethan method, and it's a lot older than your granny. So is it more traditional? No, it's just peculiar, and very bad for your teeth.

Another example. I don't use Dreamweaver, Frontpage or any of the new automated tools to create this website. I write HTML the traditional way, by hand. TRADITIONAL? I'm talking about sticking to a working method which is still widely used, and is itself all of 10 years old. And yet that sentence makes sense. If I wrote it without drawing attention to it, few people would query it.

That's the point. Whatever the dictionary definition says, "traditional" in common usage just means "the previous method", or worse, "old" in the very vaguest sense. Objects and practices don't have to be any particular age to be "traditional". They just need to have gone out of use, or been replaced by an alternative. They certainly don't have to be better. Traditional woodscrews, for example, though still available, are in every way inferior to the modern deep double-helix type. They're not even cheaper. If you really want a "traditional" method of joining bits of wood or fixing hinges, use hand-made nails.

It's the same with music. You'll often find a tune labelled "traditional". This means that the publisher hasn't the resources to research its origins, and isn't going to risk an approximate date based on a stylistic appraisal. So it could be anything from 14th century to Victorian. A "traditional" song is a bit more meaningful. At least there's an implication that it's been handed down and sung by the common populace for - well, just how many generations before it becomes "traditional"? One of the best loved traditional Yarmouth fishermen's songs is the lovely "Following the shoals of herring". You'll hear it in all the coastal folk clubs. Written by Ewan MacColl in 1959.

Here's a thought. Name some "Traditional British Chistmas Music". Right, here goes - "I wish it could be Christmas" by Wizzard. "Stop the Cavalry" by Jona Lewie. "Merry Christmas Everybody" by Slade. "Mistletoe and Wine" by Cliff Richard. These are the songs that the general populace hear in supermarkets and malls everywhere. The performers are no longer current (sorry, Cliff), and a generation of youngsters has grown up, unfamiliar with the rest of their output. It is these songs that they associate with Christmas and its other "traditions". Carols, whether medieval or Edwardian, are no longer "traditional", despite the best efforts of the Church. Like strip farming and flint knapping, they are too old to be "traditional", except among a churchgoing minority.

Apply "traditional" to musical instruments (so many people do), and you get into an even bigger quagmire. Instruments have changed radically about every century or so. So which are the "traditional" ones? 19th century? 18th century? 17th? 16th? 15th? The ones with the longest continuous history are the organ and violin, but they don't often get described as "traditional", because they're still going strong. I'm delighted to see that some Morris men have gone back to the 16th and early 17th century practice of dancing to a pipe and tabor instead of the now almost ubiquitous melodeon. And yet, the melodeon has a long-standing, if comparatively recent, association with the Morris. If the pipe-and-tabor trend continues, I can see the melodeon being ultimately revived as a "traditional" Morris instrument.

The other term often applied to instruments is "old". This word is fine, as long as you realise it's relative. An "old" person is - well, anything above sixty nowadays, I suppose, unless you're a teenager, in which case it's anything above thirty. The adjective works, because average human lifespan is roughly constant. But an "old" rock is meaningless. There's an upper limit of about four and a half billion years, but within that, it all depends on context. I was once asked to look at a "very old" musical instrument. The description was rather vague. The much hoped for neolithic bone flute, circa 12000 BC, turned out to be an Indian ceremonial miltary bugle, circa 1850.

So, next time you find yourself about to apply the lazy "traditional" or "old" tags to some quaintly obsolete object or activity (yes, I do it as well), just have a quick think about what you really mean, or whether, indeed, you mean anything much. Sometimes, as with marmalade, it doesn't matter, but if you intend to convey any worthwhile information, it's wise to use something a little more precise.