Monday, May 10, 2021

How to honour the source of a song (and why it’s important)

Many songs get handed down by ear and labelled ‘traditional’ without any clear understanding of where they come from.

It’s important to honour the source of all songs and the cultures they originate from. Here’s a guide to the things that you need to consider.

There are choirs which source all their music through written scores bought from official sheet music retailers. This series of posts is not really aimed at them (although some ‘official’ song information given out with scores is not always 100% accurate!).

There are other choirs – often community choirs – which learn traditional songs from their own country, songs from across the globe, and songs which are just “out there” (usually passed on by ear).

It is important to recognise that all songs were written by somebody within a particular context and culture. It may not be possible to identify this individual, but in some cases, songs labelled ‘traditional’ have a know creator.

It is incumbent upon us, as choir leaders and singers, to do everything we can to correctly identify and describe each song we sing. This is especially true when sharing songs that are not from our own culture and which often have lyrics in languages other than English.

In this series of posts I will be looking at how to find out all you can about a song, and what the most important factors are. This will enable you to honour the culture the song comes from, put it into a historical and cultural context, decide whether it’s appropriate for your choir to sing, and to recompense any relevant song writer or arranger.

There are many elements to consider when attempting to correctly attribute a song. Rather than make a long list, I have tried to simplify things by dividing these into five areas.

I will be writing in depth about each of these areas in future posts.

1. where does the song come from?

For example, it is not enough to say “This song is from Africa”.

Sometimes the same song can be claimed by several different countries.

Lyrics in English don’t necessarily mean the song originated in the UK.

A song might feel old, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s ‘traditional’.

2. what does the song mean?

Having identified the country of origin, what language is the song in? Is it a particular dialect? Are there different versions of the lyrics? If the lyrics are in script (e.g. Georgian, Greek, Russian, etc.), is the transliteration correct?

Can you find an accurate word-by-word translation into English? How can you be sure of its accuracy?

Sometimes an English translation is a ‘singable’ one rather than a word for word one. This is where misunderstandings of meaning can begin.

Translation of the words alone might not be enough to arrive at the overall meaning of the song (see cultural context below).

3. can you accurately teach or perform the song?

How are the words pronounced? This is especially relevant in songs that aren’t in English.

There are often different versions of the tune around, and different time signatures. If the song is ‘traditional’, then there is no ‘correct’ version. But it’s always good to note differences and to choose a version that is most commonly known in the culture the song comes from.

Has the song been harmonised? Is this an arrangement or would the song have been sung like that originally? Does it make sense (in the context of the cultural background of the song) to add harmonies? Are the harmonies an integral part of the song (particularly relevant in songs from Eastern Europe for example)?

4. what is the cultural/ historical context of the song?

Given the context, is it appropriate for this song to be sung today? Is it appropriate for a white choir to sing, for example?

Does the song have a specific cultural or religious context that would prevent it from being sung outside that context?

Just because it was OK to sing a song when it was first written doesn’t mean it’s OK now (e.g. songs from black-face minstrel shows).

5. who wrote or arranged the song?

Some songs appear to be just “out there” – everyone knows them so they’re fair game. But it’s often possible to find out who wrote the song, even so-called ‘traditional’ songs.

You may be singing an arrangement of a song without realising it. There are plenty of songs that are on sale as sheet music which have been plucked from other cultures and given a Western twist. The song then ‘belongs’ to the person who did the arrangement.

Sometimes the music is written by one person and the lyrics by another. Can you identify both parties? The copyright may be different for each.

If you can identify the song writer or arranger, you will need to ask permission to use the song unless it was written or arranged more than 80 years ago (that’s UK copyright law – your country may be different). This may involve payment.

have I missed anything important?

This is my list and is necessarily a simplification. I will be going into each item in more depth in future posts, but do you think I have missed anything important out that doesn’t fit into any of these areas?

next week

Next week I’ll begin to look at each of these areas in more detail and try to give specific details. I’ll begin with Where does the song come from?


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Chris Rowbury




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