On Folk Music in Church

Vatican II allowed the presence of “the music of the people” at Mass.

Folk music, the music that is indigenous to each of the various nations of the world and to the ethnic cultures found within those nations, is of immense value to the world of music. The great composers have always taken inspiration from the best of it. It is a nearly inexhaustible font of musical freshness, energy and ingenuity.

However, that there may be good and bad folk music, just as in any other type of music, seems to have become a point lost from view. One nation’s folk music may not be as interesting, accomplished, virtuosic or original as that of another. One nation’s music may be a watered-down copy of another’s. Another nation’s music may have a longer tradition of development and be more complex, displaying a variety of forms, while another’s tradition may be lacking in variety and monotonous.

How may a critic — or a person of musical taste — judge folk music? There are many criteria — too many to expound upon in a short piece of writing. But one may start with this as a bottom line: We may require that the music be interesting, and not a watered-down and corrupted version of the music found in the original folk music source.

It frequently happens that, as a people may leave their homeland, their folk music tradition may become denuded of its more complex and accomplished features. This is not always the case — the European gypsies are a case in point — but it is often so. At other times a pure folk music tradition may combine with the music it finds in a new land. Sometimes this results in a new and interesting genre — and at other times it results in a further corrupted folk music with less musical value.

In the case of pop culture and pop music — extreme commercialism pushes music even farther from pure national and ethnic sources. A scandalous case in point is the way in which the folk music of all nations is being arranged to the rock beat — even if it sounds ridiculous or awkward — and the driving force is blatant commercialism, not the genuine “folk impulse” of the people.

American musical practice today is overloaded with watered down, commercialized and corrupted folk music. The result is weak when compared with a vibrant folk music tradition of another nation. One example demonstrating a baneful effect on the Catholic Church in America is the journey that Irish folk music has made from its homeland, through America and then through decades of popular influences met with here. In this long journey, what was once interesting Celtic and Irish music is now devoid of genuine musical interest and variety. There are now composers of “folk music” in the Catholic Church who may not even know that they are influenced by a devolution from Irish music.

When real Irish music reaches us — in the form of the Chieftains or the Three Irish Tenors or even Riverdance in its non-New York version, we are electrified by the vitality, variety, freshness and ingenuity of the folk music and its performers.

Even the hymn “Amazing Grace” — which is an American lyric set to an Irish tune — is watered down by comparison. But “Amazing Grace” is better than many of the further corrupted “folk music” hymns coming from Catholic musicians of today. Many of these hymns are written — consciously or unconsciously — have only a hint of the true folk music source from which they flow.

Almost all “folk music” accompanied by guitar at Mass receives a mild rock beat to serve as its rhythmic accompaniment — and this alone is a corruption of its folk purity. The folk music of the nations originally had many different musical forms and none of them ever had the soft rock beat. A musical definition for the layman of the soft rock beat would be too lengthy for a short article. (It is a 1-2-3-4 count with an accent only on the 3, repeated over and over by a guitar, the song.) It has little to do with real folk music and everything to do with American pop music commercialism. Sacred music publishers could help by finding a way to indicate to musicians better accompaniments for songs — including a bass line and rhythm other than the soft rock beat.

It is the responsibility of those writing, publishing or performing “folk music” — and those trying to assess that music — to know more about folk music and the attributes that make it worthy of being performed.

Webster Young is a

classical music composer.