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This is part of an authorized online posting of Harvey Reid's important book, "The Troubadour Chronicles," published in May 2020. It is available in paperback from this web site or from Amazon.com.

troubadour book cover

“I like songs, by george, that’s sung by folks that ain’t musicians, that ain’t able to read music, don’t know one note from another’n...” [Woody Guthrie]

Chapter 3: The Importance and Value of Troubadours

We love to celebrate musical geniuses, and to deify those iconic and special artists that really stand out. If you asked random people on the street to name some really special musicians, that list would likely include artists whose names you had heard all your life. Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, John Coltrane, Bach, Beethoven, The Beatles, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, and maybe Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday or more recent pop stars like Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Otis Redding or Drake would show up on your list. It’s very unlikely that anyone would include in that list one of the handful of musicians whose art form consisted of just a single person playing an instrument and singing a song, though a few highly-respected mega-stars know how to do it quite well but rarely do. Recording artists are called “solo performers” even if they have a band and never record or perform by themselves, and a “soloist” is assumed to have a band or orchestra behind them. Before we investigate the nature and the history of the troubadour arts, let’s make sure we have a clearer understanding of what this art form is, how it has been perceived, and why it should be valued.

Why the Fuss?
We’ve all heard people play songs; many of you know how to do it yourselves, or you have friends or relatives who do it. Modern solo troubadours are everywhere, but they still are not commonly featured on television or heard on popular recordings without being dwarfed by a band or a big drum sound. With the exception of a tiny handful of high-profile performers who commonly perform alone, and an exciting and noticeable recent influx of instrument-playing singers into talent competitions like American Idol and The Voice, our art form remains veiled in what is indistinguishable from an eternal, awkward secrecy. The television program Austin City Limits has been the most popular place where singer-songwriters are showcased nationally, but throughout its 43 years and the 572 concerts they have broadcast to date, only 7 of those performances presented a solo artist without a backup band: Two by Ed Sheeran and one each from Ryan Adams, Randy Newman, Ruthie Foster, Steve Earle, and one from Kris Kristofferson that didn’t seem to be his best work. Though he is a thoroughly capable solo performer, Ed Sheeran often uses a foot-operated computerized looping device to accompany himself, which might possibly earn him an asterisk in the troubadour history books, and his widely-distributed hit songs are not the few on his early albums that he recorded alone.

Not unlike other types of folk art, troubadour music is an elusive substance that is hard to systematize, capture in a bottle or reproduce like DNA. If different school bands play a published arrangement of a piece of music, they will sound similar. But a group of troubadours who each worked up their version of a song would exhibit very wide diversity, and they would not all use the same key, rhythm, chords, accompaniment or even guitar tuning. The craft of playing and singing at the same time has essentially never been taught in schools, yet people have done it since we lived in caves. It is a vital and basic expression of our humanity that began when people began; and it remains vital no matter how much we pretend it isn’t. It can’t be done by machines or mass-produced, and its quirky individuality might be poised to take on important new significance in contemporary society as we careen into the increasingly technological future. As more and more people create music by assembling components in a computer, and generate rhythms merely by placing digital sounds onto a grid, increased meaning and value may ultimately reside in the totally-human and personal music that troubadours have been making since antiquity.
Individual music is not just something to do when you can’t assemble a band, and it is not automatically less compelling or less communicative than group music. Solo music might actually be the deepest part of the musical ocean; it has a unique power to grab the listener in a very special way, yet in music literature and commentary you won’t encounter that viewpoint being expressed. When White Bone and Iron Bird explained in 1905 in South Dakota where Indian songs came from, they made it clear that “the spirits come to man in solitude,” and not to groups of people. Collector John Tefteller paid $37,100 for a super-rare 78rpm record from 1930 of Tommy Johnson playing guitar and singing a song; one side was “Alcohol and Jake Blues” and the flip side was “Ridin’ Horse.” It says simply on the record’s paper label, “Vocal Guitar Acc.” (Actually, to be totally accurate, there is a faint second guitar played by Charlie McCoy, but you can only hear him with careful listening.) Currently the most sought-after old records are also solo performances.
Something happens when each of the elements of music and the musician’s skills and consciousness lock into place into a structural framework. When words and melody come from memory, the way they are placed doesn’t always put them directly on the beats like they would if a robot were reading and playing the music. The phrasing and articulation of good singing pushes and pulls, drags and anticipates the underlying beat. Listen to how Celine Dion, Willie Nelson or Frank Sinatra sing across the bar lines of a song, though they are not generating the rhythm also. The timing of good strumming, fingerpicked guitar or clawhammer banjo is very subtle, and the placement and punctuation of the rhythmic bass notes and the ways that the melody or supporting chords or off-beat chord punctuations are woven into the music space take immense amounts of time and effort to master. And we all do it a little differently. When Frank Proffitt, Blind Blake, Ani DiFranco, Bob Dylan, Dick Gaughan, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie or other solo performers deliver a song alone, they each occupy a framework of melody, rhythm, phrasing, dynamics and tonal spaces, while inhabiting each moment in a distinctive and personal way. The way a good celtic rhythm guitarist puts accented notes and chords behind a fiddler, the way the bluegrass guitar “G-run” surrounds the end of a phrase, the push of Elmore James’ slashing bottleneck lick, or the way Albert King or Carlos Santana anticipate the entrance of their electric blues guitar fills are all common examples of non-linear timing that masters of those styles of music build into their music. When musicians play multiple notes in a guitar chord, those notes are often slurred and staggered in time, or arpeggiated across part of the rhythm space, and their duration, tone and color are being shaped and modified individually by the fingers of both hands. One of the first things you learn in classical guitar is that even though the sheet music shows a bass note played at the same moment as a melody note plucked by a finger, it sounds better if the bass note is played a little bit sooner. I will confess that it bothers me to be thought of as playing ‘lesser’ music by fans or practitioners of more complex, organized or more highly socialized music, and it is unfortunate that individual music has always been overwhelmed by music that is larger, louder or more popular. It is also unfortunate when musicians who have the magic of individual music in them may be unaware of its immense power, or seem to be reluctant to offer its charms to others.
Troubadours and Fingerboards
Stringed instruments with fingerboards are the most personal of all. We can sing and speak with our voices while playing a guitar, and the skin and muscles of both our hands are touching and controlling the vibrating strings that create the sounds we hear. None of the other common instruments are as intimate, where we are actually shaping the sound directly with our bodies while we are singing. When we play piano, for example, or hit a drum with a drumstick, our bodies never touch the things that are actually vibrating. Hand drums fit into the category of intimacy, but they do not generate musical notes or chords, and they have never been commonly used in American musical culture. During the time of slavery, hand drums were largely outlawed, and after the Emancipation it is not surprising that neither black or white musicians were drawn to them. Wind instruments are also very personal, because the air from our lungs passes through them, but they don’t allow us to sing or to play more than one note at a time, though harmonica players have been ingenious at combining rhythms, notes, words and vocals. Harmonica Frank learned to sing and play at the same time, and he and other players even discovered how to play more than one harmonica at once. In Africa, skilled troubadours traditionally also played instruments in the xylophone, kalimba and marimba family, but stringed instruments with fingerboards possess something special and mysterious that allows them to be portable, musical, rhythmic and percussive. Many of us who play stringed instruments and sing have learned to pound out a downbeat with our feet as we perform, to set a pulse and lock in our counter-rhythms. In the hands of the right players nearly any stringed instrument becomes a drum, and musicians have learned to use those strings on the fingerboards to generate grooves and to go to rhythmic places where neither keyboards nor other plucked-string instruments like lyres, zithers or harps can follow.
It’s not an accident or a coincidence that so many singers, songwriters and bandleaders play stringed instruments with fingerboards, although no large cultural voices are telling them to, nor has any widely-respected music school in 1000 years aimed anyone in that direction. Much of this common and ordinary activity is hidden below the surface of troubadour music, like a huge iceberg, where onlookers only see the visible part, without realizing how many human and musical dimensions can be involved when a person sings a song with a guitar, piano or a banjo. We’ve all experienced this kind of music countless times, though most of us haven’t seen many real masters of the craft, who weave words, melodies, harmony and rhythms together into unique, personal, multi-dimensional musical tapestries.
The Long, Dusty Troubadour Trail
Musicians have popped up everywhere, in all eras of history and in all cultures, each working their own individual magic, but all fundamentally doing this same ancient human thing. It would be a thick picture book that just showed a picture and a paragraph about all the instruments that have been used over the last millennium to deliver “the people’s” troubadour music. Yet all those countless performances all through history, those legions of now-nameless performers delivering all manner of personal musical experiences to their listeners are gone forever. Whether they were amateur blunderings or timeless masterpieces, it is as though they were pictures drawn on a Magic Slate or an Etch-a-Sketch toy. I can only wonder if Robert de Visée and John Dowland in France and England in the 1500s, or the dazzling singers playing their pistachio-wood ouds in Cordoba, Spain in the year 850 had hypnotic grooves, exquisite syncopations or ornaments in their music that have been long since lost, or ironed flat by centuries of staffs, notes and bar lines. Robert de Visée is credited with being one of the greatest, most respected and most influential composers of his day who played the guitar, theorbo and lute. His accomplishments are only talked about in terms of how they apply to the development of classical guitar and “non-peasant” guitar playing, yet he had the job title in 1709 as “royal chamber singer” to the king of France, and clearly plucked his strings and sang at the same time. His Wikipedia page mentions his numerous instrumental contributions, and adds “as well as a singer.” We’ll need to investigate how the singer/guitarist/troubadour has weathered the changes in music education and in society.
Individual musicians, who in ancient times were the backbone of human music, have quietly endured centuries of change, amid every conceivable kind of social, political and cultural turmoil. They have resisted their assimilation into assorted ideas of “higher” music, and grown or shrunk like coyote populations as they navigated around innumerable governments, societies and conflicts. After centuries of alternating respect, tolerance, marginalizing and even outright punishment, they have somehow proliferated and evolved into a powerful 21st century musical species that is now threatening to become the alpha chimp of the music industry. We finally understand that “untutored” musicians can be as skilled as the ones with degrees from music schools. Classical guitar is now understood to be a style or an approach to guitar, and not necessarily a superior form to what Bryan Sutton, Eddie van Halen, John Jorgensen, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Bonamassa, Tony McManus, Johnny Winter or Lonnie Johnson have done with the same six strings. We get it that the first chair violinist in the symphony cannot by virtue of their “higher music” training play in a klezmer or Scottish folk band and know what to do. Songwriting is also very big business, and has been for quite a while. A teenager with a guitar and a smartphone can make a huge impact on culture, and a song they pull out of thin air can jump out of billions of headphones and speakers all over the world, generating huge amounts of money and connecting to vast numbers of people. The emergence of the music business in the 20th century caused an ever-changing monetizing and commodification of music. In turn guided by the evolution of the idea of intellectual property, this has put the singer-songwriter with their quirky creativity and homemade shamanism at the very center of a multi-billion dollar commercial industry.
What Exactly is a Troubadour Performance?
Just because someone performs alone does not mean that they are creating magic, but there is a special thing that only happens when they do. It’s impossible for me or anyone to rigidly define what is or isn’t a troubadour performance, and we could debate endlessly about whether certain people or types of musicians should be called troubadours or not. We could fruitlessly convene a musician’s convention to try to collectively hammer out some definitions. The flute player in an orchestra typically isn’t thought of as a troubadour, but they could possibly act like one by turning on their personal energy and entertaining people on their own. We’re basically talking about a person who can create a vital musical experience alone, usually involving their own personality in individualized ways. In modern parlance, “troubadour” refers to a type of solo musician, the kind who might enter into a group of people and deliver a song unassisted. Most modern troubadours play guitar and sing songs; indeed, that instrument has overwhelmed all the others in the last 75 years. Some of them play autoharp, harp, accordion, marimba, kalimba, banjo, keyboards and even multiple turntables and laptop computers. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton would sometimes sing while accompanying herself on the drums.
A troubadour performance is clearly not something a jukebox or machine can do, though it would be interesting to apply Alan Turing’s famous test in computer science– which was to determine whether participants could tell that they were dealing with a machine. Maybe there is a Japanese robot somewhere that can sing a song at the piano so well that most people would think they were hearing or seeing a real person, but I don’t think we are there yet or will be soon. They figured out a hundred years ago with the Duo-Art mechanical player piano how to get a machine to “perform” a near-perfect replica of a human performance, and it didn’t put all the pianists out of business. I will repeatedly make the point that an individual performance is not the same thing as or a diminished version of one done by a group. (There is something similarly intimate and powerful that can happen in a two-person duet performance when the two people are deeply in sync, but we have enough blurry lines, so I’m not going to pursue that further.) It is best to visualize a musician playing an instrument and singing, though a good solo fiddler who isn’t singing can seem to qualify as a troubadour, as can comedians, dancers, mimes and mimics. Musicians, poets, storytellers, comedians, acrobats, magicians might all be troubadours under ancient or modern definitions, though they are not musicians, which is precisely why I don’t want to pursue definitions. For the last several decades rap and hiphop artists have been combining their words with rhythms, building new forms of recorded and performance art, using turntables, special keyboards and laptop computers as tools of their music. One of the things that might have led to the outlawing of public music in the past was the hurdy-gurdy, which was a portable hand organ, that allowed anyone who could turn a crank, including a monkey, to fill a street with music. Were those organ grinders musicians? The organs could only play a single song unless the cylinder were swapped for another melody, so there was no musical improvising going on, but street performers apparently sang and spoke over the music, delivering all sorts of songs, parodies, news, sermons and other verbal content. There must have been good singers and good entertainers among them, and not-so-good ones, though I’m not sure who would want any of them outside their window cranking and singing day and night. It’s no wonder a big part of their lifestyle was to keep moving.
If we wanted to create some kind of a real definition of troubadour, we would also need to exclude politicians, salesmen and other people who want to engage with a crowd of people for less lofty purposes than demonstrating their art and sharing magic. Writers draw audiences for their talks and always have, and when they hold forth at the lectern they have something in common with troubadours. Politicians are also almost troubadours. With just their voices, facial expressions and personalities they can rally people to an idea or even to war, and their rhetoric can be as strong as any cultural force in the world. They are humans using ideas, emotion and language. So are preachers and priests and pastors and other religious leaders. Those types of performers also use the same skill sets as comedians and the writers and the other talkers, but it is important to stress that these other human-language magicians and performers are missing a huge part of what it means to be a musician, and doing something fundamentally different from what the troubadours do, since the presence of the music is not a small detail.
A troubadour performance is by nature small and somewhat fragile; it doesn’t scale upward very well. A person with a guitar in front of thousands of people isn’t able to create the same experience as when they perform for fifty or five. It’s so personal that you can’t really manufacture or distribute it on a large scale either. One of the most widely-circulating, near-solo troubadour performances (there was someone quietly playing brushes on a snare drum, but no other accompaniment) of my lifetime was Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 recording of “Alice’s Restaurant,” which for a number of reasons was not something anyone else could learn and perform. It was too long (18 minutes), too personal, too unorganized and spontaneous, and was rooted in a fingerpicking guitar part that isn’t playable or learnable from sheet music, and that takes years to master.
Another vital part of the troubadour art form is that it relies on internalized and memorized music. We accept that actors should memorize their lines in a play or movie, and no serious theater patron would want to pay to see actors reading their parts. Great emphasis is placed on reading music in classical training, yet featured soloists in a symphony or opera are almost never reading music. Since the early 1700s, when printed music took over as a key element in music instruction and performance, the idea that it has great value for the musicians to really know the music they are performing has become a contentious subject. I can’t tell you how much I still see performers in schools, churches and private-lesson student recitals with their eyes glued to the page, while not taking musical flight. In church, when our congregation gets a chance to sing a well-known hymn or Christmas carol that they know by heart, the musical and emotional quality is quantum levels better. In Chapter 6 we’ll take a closer look at the complex relationship between troubadour music and musical notation.
If there were an apocalyptic breakdown of society or a failure of the power grid, we troubadours might take on immense value very quickly, and could return to doing what we did 1000 years ago more easily than most 21st century professions. Strip away the music business, modern society and electronic media, and imagine ourselves transported back in time several hundred or several thousand years, and you can see a shape emerging from the fog. There are no bands, conductors, or music stands. The scene might be a campfire, a party, a family gathering, or a performance at the request of a rich or powerful person. Troubadours deliver their music through their bodies, their hearts, souls and personalities. We shape the music with our hands on our instruments, and we use our voices, but what we do is more personal and fundamental than someone just singing in a choir, or playing a classical recital. We aren’t reading anything. We might be playing from memory, or we might be making things up as we go, but above all we are humans making and delivering music in its most basic form, in the moment, while occupying a bridge-like space between performer and listener. We aren’t just hiding somewhere creating our music– the way we convey it to listeners is a key part of understanding the troubadour art form.
At one of those long-ago campfires, there may have been warriors or tribal chiefs making speeches, and there may have been shamans or religious people doing rituals. There might also have been comedians, storytellers, jugglers or musicians performing. A wandering warrior or religious person would likely have difficulty or even be forbidden from showing up and performing at someone else’s campfire. But all of us can picture the scene where the traveling musician or storyteller mesmerizes an audience and connects them, not with another God or political idea, but with something more universal, more abstract and possibly just as sacred. I’m not foolish enough to think that I can create a rigorous definition, but your homework assignment is to think about whether or not the connection that a troubadour musician has with an audience is in the service of something different or deeper than the craft of the politician, poet, preacher or salesman.
The Virtuoso Troubadour
The idea of the amateur modern folksinger/troubadour has certainly taken root in public consciousness, but there hasn’t been a comparable widespread understanding that there is a more highly-refined version that we could call the “virtuoso troubadour.” Since the beginning of history, there have been highly-skilled musicians and entertainers who play their instruments and sing at the same time, and whose musical and performing skills rival the best musicians or entertainers of any genre or style. Virtuoso troubadours are commonly tossed into the same category with guitar-strumming camp counselors, when they might instead be seen as the peers of other highly-respected musicians.
The public has had extremely little opportunity to witness or celebrate these high-skilled troubadours, and there are almost no examples of what I would call that kind of performance selling in large numbers. We know that Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix both played stellar guitar, and that they both sang, but we almost never saw them just doing that alone, nor was it understood that they should. Not to disparage those musicians who have sold many millions of recordings, but I would not put any of those tracks in my list of all-time best troubadour performances. Of the 1108 tracks on the 87 Diamond-selling albums, certified by the RIAA as having sold ten million copies or more, there is exactly one track of a solo highly-proficient guitarist/singer performing a song they wrote. That kind of troubadour notoriety was probably the farthest thing from his mind when 27-year-old Paul Simon fingerpicked and sang “Kathy’s Song” solo at a concert in Vermont in 1968, or possibly in St. Louis in 1969– album liner notes disagree. He could not have foreseen that his performance would be recorded, put onto the “Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits” compilation after the duo broke up in 1970 and released in 1972 by Columbia Records, likely without his consent, and then sell nearly 15 million copies. I doubt that any of those 15 million listeners or their friends knew it was anything more than a very thoughtful, slightly faster and slightly out-of-tune solo acoustic version of a nice song they might have heard Paul similarly sing and Travis-pick alone on the “Sounds of Silence” album in 1966. When I was a teenager learning that song in 1970, it was just one of the songs I liked most in our family’s tiny record collection. Legendary female troubadours Shawn Colvin (1956-) and Eva Cassidy (1963-1996), as well as much-younger Sarah Jarosz (1991-) and Laura Marling (1990-) latched onto that song and made their own similar solo cover versions. The flickering but important candle of that lonely song is still burning like a tiny Olympic flame amid the endless cacophony of non-solo, non-troubadour pop music.
If you like categories, there might need to be yet another refinement of the virtuoso troubadour, to describe the musician who is a highly-skilled player of their instrument, a performer and a singer, who is also a poet, employing the power of language as a critical part of their creative art. When a poet sings while skillfully operating a musical instrument, it generates a performance art form that is one of the deepest, most visceral and most communicative that humans have ever developed. This might mean that we should look forward to or seek out high-profile troubadours and poets playing their instruments at a higher level of skill, or it might mean that what the artists and the public are really drawn to are the places the musicians go internally when they perform. The emotional, spiritual or brain-wave state that a passionate, self-accompanied singer occupies might be fundamentally different than the one involved when a pianist or string quartet is playing Mozart or Beethoven, or any piece of music created by someone they never met. I play complex instrumental music, and I also sing songs, and I cannot describe a difference of how it feels to do one as compared to the other, nor do I have any idea how anyone could determine how to observe or compare those two processes. It is quite possible that non-virtuoso troubadours playing heart-felt, home-made music can inhabit a musical place that involves both the performer and the listener in a combination of expression and connection that is far less likely to happen when a music student at an academy is dutifully and properly “executing” a chosen piece of music.
If I began listing who in my opinion are the masters of the troubadour craft, or recordings that I think best showcase the art form, I suspect few of you will recognize many of the names, though I will make and post streaming music playlists that will be accessible on a public web page. Many of you could name more songs and more artists I haven’t heard of or overlooked in those lists. There is no shortage of superb troubadours working today, and I make no claims to know about all of them, though I do feel like I understand how to recognize and enjoy them. While researching this book, for example, I learned about English singer-songwriter-guitarist Roy Harper, who may have been a key influence on a number of very high-profile rock stars such as Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Jethro Tull, Pete Townshend and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd). I even sent away to England to buy a couple of his CDs from his web site, in hopes that he would make the money by sending me the music.
Thomas Percy’s Discovery
I cherish my 1858 edition of Thomas Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient Poetry,” beautifully typeset and printed in Edinburgh, that I found in an antiquarian bookstore in the 1980s. Percy was Lord Bishop of Dromore, an educated Irishman, who came into the possession of what he referred to as “an ancient folio,” dating to the mid 1600s, of nearly 200 hand-written “Poems, Songs and Metrical Romances.” (The original folio is now in the British Museum.) It sounds like the kind of lyric book a troubadour today would take to a tavern gig. Percy was quite taken by the contents, and did a great deal of research, organizing and footnoting, providing lyrics, historical context and commentary for 45 of its ballads and poems. He put them into a 3-volume compilation that was first published in 1765. It remained in print for a long time, and the 1876 printing of it mentions that it had already been through 30 editions by that time, and was reportedly a beloved and oft-read treasure of Sir Walter Scott himself.
Percy says in the preface that he also located and worked with some other old minstrel manuscripts in the Ashmole Library at Oxford, the Bodleian Library, the Antiquarian Society at London, and the British Museum. My favorite part by far is the 90-page “Essay on Ancient Minstrels” at the beginning of Volume I. The comments, observations and even the footnotes in this essay are actually far more interesting to me than the poetry in the book. I have long been transfixed by Percy’s collected anecdotes and descriptions of the lives of the old troubadours, and his observations and insights have withstood the tests of time far better than most attempts by the upper classes to chronicle or celebrate peasant music. He became curious about who created and performed this music, and dug up sources and information about traveling musicians and poets he variously called Bards, Scalds, Rimers, Jongleurs, Gleemen, Trouvères and Troubadours. Percy settled on the word “minstrel” as the generic term for what he defined at the beginning of his book as, “an order of men in the middle ages, who subsisted by the arts of poetry and music, and sang to the harp verses composed by themselves or others.”
Percy’s work steered me toward an understanding of my own roots that might even qualify as an epiphany. It is not uncommon for people to be fascinated and galvanized when they learn about their own genealogy, but the ancestral feeling I get when I learn about the lives of traveling musicians of the past isn’t something that I can connect with any of my direct ancestors or actual genetic lineage. My DNA might carry traces of Neanderthals or gypsies, but it can’t tell me yet if my 6th great-grandfather was a fiddler or what songs he knew and liked. Percy described Charlemagne listening to a minstrel in Lombardy in 774, and King Alfred pretending to be a musician to infiltrate the camp and defeat the invading Danes in the 9th century. In the 4th year of King Richard II, there was a Court of Minstrels, and an annual gathering held on the 16th of August. Edward IV granted to his chief minstrel, Walter Haliday, and seven others, a charter to create a Fraternity or Perpetual Gild of Minstrels, referred to as “the brothers and sisters of the Fraternity of Minstrels.” That’s impressive that over 600 years ago an arts community formally made a point of including men and women as equals. All my life as a modern troubadour I have felt marginalized by classical and “high-brow” music and steamrollered by giant multinational entertainment corporations, who have force-fed the public their commercialized, homogenized pop music. It has always amazed me that it has come to the point that in the farthest corners of society, most people expect a musician to parrot back to them their favorite pop songs, rather than to hear what we might be inclined to play for them, or perhaps something we have created. It was a revelation to me to find out that in the past “my people” were possibly honored, respected by government, and invited into the homes of the wealthy and powerful to play our music, and it is somehow comforting to hear that the struggle of the solo troubadour has remained surprisingly constant for a very long time.
Before the mid-1700s in England, traveling minstrels had for the most part disappeared, and the peasant music and poetry had already been banished from public life for nearly two centuries. So when Percy came upon this old folio of lyrics, it really was a lost treasure. He says in his essay [p. xli], “Towards the end of the sixteenth century… in the 39th year of Elizabeth, a statute was passed by which Minstrels, wandering abroad, were included among rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars, and were adjudged to be punished as such. This act seems to have put an end to the profession.” I had never before heard that traveling musicians were outlawed in many parts of Europe about a century before the settling of the American colonies. Percy wrote at length about how honored and respected musicians and poets were in the distant past, and conveys that he had not been conditioned to think that peasant music was to be taken seriously. Discovering something honorable, eloquent and ancient concealed in the culture of the peasantry was an idea he found fascinating, and the success and longevity of his book indicates that he found a receptive audience among the upper class and educated for his ideas and his ancient poetry. Bishop Percy confessed repeatedly to being worried that the poetry he stumbled on would be lost to the ages, and now 250 more years have passed since his time. (Interestingly, nearly all folksong collectors have felt that the music they were pursuing was about to be lost forever. Alan Dundes would eventually name this phenomenon the “devolutionary premise in folklore theory.”)
It now seems apparent that the reason that my lovely 1858 edition of “Reliques of Ancient Poetry” came to be printed was as a response to the publishing in 1857 of the first of Harvard professor Francis J. Child’s now-legendary collections of ballads. Child’s books launched the whole field of what we now call “folklore,” and made quite a splash when they came out. I guess somebody in Edinburgh wanted to show the upstart Americans that some British Isles people had been paying some attention to the old ballads for quite some time, and they put together a really nice new edition of Percy’s work. Child even led an effort in the 1860s to locate and re-publish the complete “folio” of ballads that Percy drew upon for his inspiration and material, indicating that Child was greatly influenced by the earlier book. Percy’s work quickly got a shot in the arm and some new academic legitimacy, though the focus of all this renewed interest seems to have been just the idea that the words to very old folk ballads were worthy of “scholarly attention.”
Troubadours and Folklore
Considerable energy was expended trying to show that British Isles ballads were better-preserved in rural American culture than they were closer to home, and it would be a number of decades before anyone began to look deeper in either country at other forms of peasant music. Neither Percy nor Child paid much attention to anything but the English language lyrics of the songs. In the 19th century it was a new idea in academia that folk music was the embodiment of some kind of “true voice of the people,” that was both preserved and modified as songs passed orally through the generations. Scholars eagerly tracked the plots, language and characters of the ballads through the centuries, busily collecting and comparing the versions collected in different times and locations. They developed theories of how this “people’s music” might have been created, or even how it perhaps degenerated from higher art as it was carried by the lower-class people. Early folklorist Gregory Smith referred to old ballads as, “merely a part of the literary debris of the middle ages” and an “atrophy of romantic tradition.” It seems that as folklorists did their comparing and speculating they were for the most part paying little attention to or even unaware of the living versions of that music that was around them. To my eyes they had a very limited perspective on what home-made music was and how people learned to play it from each other.
The word “folk” has been applied liberally to the act of individuals playing music, though its nagging and often dubious connection to the somewhat fanciful “folk process” of learning has been eternally problematic. You may have already noticed this is a pet peeve of mine. The concept persists that something commonly labeled “folk music” reflects or draws from the communal creativity or “soul” of “the people.” Discussions that should have been about people singing songs have instead turned into strange manifestos about the meaning and characteristics of collective art of the masses of uneducated or illiterate, as though an individual performing a song was an unconscious part of a termite nest mind that creates, modifies and preserves songs in the same manner as other illiterate or rural people from the same country, race or occupation. It has done troubadours little good to have been pulled into the “folk process” scenario and the debates it has spawned, simply because they don’t read music and their learning process is opaque and mysterious to those who do. Not once in all folklore literature have I found anyone even floating the idea that folk musicians might modify and “distort” older songs or tunes because they want to, and because they enjoy the freedom of being creative with music that has no fixed or “correct” form. It is always assumed that the illiterate musicians are undisciplined, incapable or ignorant, when the truth might be that we play music for enjoyment, and that we don’t enjoy trying to reproduce composed music according to various standards. It can be very fun and very meaningful to take an old song or tune and rework it the way you feel like doing it. The idea that there is no correct way to play an instrument or perform a song is itself somewhat radical– and music education has struggled with accepting that some students are comfortable imitating, while others prefer to explore and experiment. A Bach piece has a rather fixed form, while the song “St. James Infirmary” does not.
Scholarly attempts to define what exactly is meant by a “ballad” and who are the “folk” or “common people” seem startlingly myopic from a 21st century perspective. People always learn music any way they can, and lionizing just the old songs that people learned from their families and neighbors only tells part of the story. There is so much talk of the “folk process,” but I have never seen a rebuttal by “the folk” or by self-taught musicians about the concept of a “folkloric process” being attached to their music and culture. Folklore has typically involved collecting songs from a sampling of available rural or otherwise suitably “ignorant” people, located or selected by some method, who are persuaded to perform songs that are written down on paper and published in a copyrighted book or article. How does this allow anyone to draw sweeping conclusions about anything? The collectors and classifiers could not resist filtering their findings by the race, gender, location or other properties of the “informants” or of the songs they knew, attaching various proclamations and conclusions, concluding that Negroes did this or white churchgoers did that. If one or several black farmers in Alabama sang you a song, how did that impart knowledge of what black people, farmers or Alabamans in general knew or did, or how they learned or used their songs? Song collector Natalie Curtis (1875-1921) can scarcely be construed as racist or unsympathetic to African-American or Native American culture, yet she built whole books around studying a handful of songs by a handful of singers she encountered. She truly felt that she was understanding and sharing valuable insights into both Native American and “black music,” as if there were such generalized things, and not just the music of those few individuals. There is clearly something wrong with conclusions drawn from that approach, though her analysis and presentation of the lyrics, tunes and life stories involved in those individual situations and songs in the crucial years before 1920 are things we should all be glad we have. She apparently didn’t bump into Wendell Phillips Dabney, a black American who played impeccable classical guitar, and she and the other collectors could have spared us the flowery paragraphs about “the Negro” and sentences like, “the voices of the cotton-packers, embodying as a part of their song the creak of the derrick and the turn of the screw, molded the monotonous toil into a form of rhythmic life.” She was obviously moved emotionally by the music she heard, and tried to express those emotions in her writing, though it’s not sport to pick on her for being colonialist any more than it is right to accept her conclusions or generalizations. In 1943 when George Pullen Jackson published “White and Negro Spirituals” he went for a far larger sample, comparing 892 Negro tunes with 555 white spirituals, yet it is still debatable what that qualified him to conclude about differences between black and white music, if races even have different music. We all know that the black music he was encountering was for the most part different from what he was encountering white Americans doing, but it didn’t mean one group was incapable or genetically predisposed to do whatever they were doing. Maybe the mistake was to attempt to understand or explain, but that is human nature. We should perhaps take a hint and just observe and describe what the folklorists did, and not try to understand them or generalize, though their energetic romanticizing of aspects of the troubadour arts has made my life more difficult in many ways. Folk musicians are just people playing their music, though our musical world is arguably better now because other people were interested in “folk music,” tried to locate some of it, write it down and tell us about it, especially because many things that were common in the past have now vanished. Delicate stuff indeed. All the folk informants and sources were just individuals who knew some songs, though some insiders like John Greenway in 1953 tried to point out that college kids and educated and wealthy people knew and learned songs orally also, and might just as well be considered part of “the folk.” The myths, explanations and stories about folk music, rural musicians and oral traditions have spread widely, just like ballads. Many of us believe they have permanently etched themselves into far too much of our public understanding of “the people’s music.”
Now that we realize that this kind of thinking about ethnic music is often racist or classist, we have an inverse problem. Folklorists now don’t want to generalize, which leads to an avoidance of looking for patterns or comparisons between cultures, which obviously isn’t always the best approach either. It’s natural to want to compare what one culture, person, region or time period did with a particular song or a way of playing an instrument. Yet I am not convinced that the curators of our understanding of our folk music heritage have been fair and balanced in their understanding and presentation of the music and the issues. We probably need better tour guides to the treasures of the people’s music, though the community of troubadours is certainly not hiring any publicists or buying any advertisements to advance their cause or shape their public image. I can only hope that younger people don’t have to reject as much academic misdirection and indoctrination as my generation, and that they can simply discover, enjoy and learn from music they find around them as they see fit, and perhaps trust the music to speak for itself.

Songs as Gateways and Vehicles
Many of the most captivating, interesting, and emotionally moving musical performances I have ever experienced were presented by a single musician. Not to disrespect athletes, but much of what they do is run around and kick, throw or hit various objects to their teammates or into a goal. They’re not singing, dancing, or generating rhythms while they do it, or reciting or improvising lyrics and using evocative language while they manipulate the ball or the hockey puck. (In some sports they penalize athletes for talking.) On top of those considerations, only a tiny minority of athletes compete individually. David Foster Wallace’s legendary writings about tennis bring up the issue of how intensely personal their performances can be, but sports and music have fundamental differences. Troubadour musicians are singing and communicating with language and manipulating meter and rhythm in hypnotic ways at the same time they are sometimes doing very dexterous things with their voices, hands or feet. The number of motor skills that a skilled pianist or guitarist are managing can be pretty staggering in their complexity and elegance. Picture a tennis player or a golfer creating rhythm grooves, singing or improvising while they hit the ball, or professional athletes being allowed to speak or rhyme while competing. And that doesn’t even address the humanistic, spiritual and communication energies that troubadours typically mix into performances and communicate with onlookers, combined with sophisticated motor skills, music and words. In the case of troubadours who create their own music, they are demonstrating skills while sharing their creations in the context of a performance, though you could envision sports as a form of improvised performance. At the ballet, opera or the symphony, it is the very rare exception if any of those performers wrote or created the art they are presenting, or are modifying it or improvising as they go along.

I like music where I can watch it happen, as it emerges fresh and alive from the musician. A good musician is a miniature magic factory, and the processes can be seen as the reverse of eating or drinking. When you consume good food or drink, the art goes into your mouth and disappears into your senses and your body. When you make good music, it’s the other direction– the art comes out of you and joins the world. I will stress repeatedly that something ancient, magical, and important often happens when a single human delves simultaneously and deeply into poetry, music, melody, harmony, and rhythm. These elements form a musical framework that underlies a huge amount of what we might call “indigenous” music from around the world. There are also a set of spiritual and emotional issues that often enter into musical performances, and anyone who has ever attended a good concert knows that there can be extremely tangible connections and communications going on between performer and listeners that add yet another facet to the musical crystal structure.

Songs occupy a unique place as musical entities that originate at the intersection of language, rhythm, melody and harmony. Within a song, these elements balance and complement each other, like the primary colors of light that make up all the others. Instrumental music is missing the eternal magic of language, as well as the primal sound of the human voice. The ancient Greeks marveled at the place where words and music met, and wrote eloquently about the importance of rhythm and meter. Native Americans appear to have communed with their spirituality through songs immeasurably more than with instrumental music. Rap has rocketed language to the forefront of music. Poetry is everywhere respected and praised; it combines language and rhythm, but those elements don’t venture into the combined musical hyperspace of melody and harmony until the poem becomes a song. When a single person is the composer, the band, the choir and the conductor all-in-one, the musician’s place amid the framework of the music actually might allow them to reach further, to some kind of an apex of human musical experience, perhaps beyond the depth of musical activity that can be achieved in an ensemble or even a song written by multiple people.

My little songs or those of my troubadour colleagues, bound up in a folio, might as well be that almost-lost book from the 1600s of “the people’s music” that so fascinated Bishop Percy, for all the attention that “men of letters” or Grammy awards still give these days to troubadours. Yet when Bruce Springsteen enthralls an audience, all alone with his guitar and harmonica, or Lady Gaga sits at the piano and delivers a song by herself on the big stage, I realize how tantalizingly close we are to collectively being very aware on a wide scale of the special power of individual music, even as bigger and louder popular music seems eternally dominant.
As I learn more about the music of the past and how it connects to the present and pulling strongly forward, I have come to see fundamental patterns that unite troubadours of all eras. I have taken some pride most of my musical life by seeing myself as a modern embodiment of the old-fashioned troubadours and also the other self-employed and under-respected musicians of the not-so-distant past. By not being part of orchestras or choirs and not being aligned with churches, schools or corporations, my fellow modern troubadours and I have flourished in modern times and kept our musical fires burning, without being cogs in a big machine or pawns in a corporate game. I am drawn to try to see my place in history, in the chain of knowledge, and as a keeper of a flame of some part of the music of the people that isn’t bought, sold, created or controlled only by the rich and powerful.
We troubadours are the ones who visited your campfire long ago; perhaps we passed through your village in centuries past. We have entertained armies, kings and beggars since the beginnings of civilization, as we did before written history began. Instead of being just a relic of the past or a curiosity of the present, we are now poised to be at the forefront of music going into the future. We were making our music at the beginnings of humanity, and will likely be around until the end. Machines and software will continue to increase their domains and take more territory from humans– but we would be wise to never let our machines have our fun for us, and to never forget to honor those special things like music that make us feel the most alive.

Let’s talk some more about this troublesome “troubadour” word.

Read Chapter 2

Read Chapter 4

I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... I want people to find this in web searches and to read it.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,