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Kat Eggleston: Blog

The voice of the tradition, chapter one.

Posted on June 10, 2011 with 12 comments

A few days ago my father said, "history is written by the winners." 

I said, "dad, you should listen to more traditional music."

Well.  The understood context of this remark - whoever said it originally - is that the larger and more lasting voice belongs to those who hold money and power.  It opens up Pandora's box with the use of the word "winner," implying that the poor and powerless won't be heard and remembered.  Traditional music is my favorite example of why this idea is a clever sounding lie.

Many years ago I was lucky enough to find myself sitting across a kitchen table from the great Scottish singer Sheila Douglas, trading old songs and forgetting that we'd come to the kitchen an hour before with the intention of making tea.  The electric kettle kept boiling and shutting itself off, and we kept on singing the saddest songs we knew for each other.  There are lots of big, sad songs.  I think the tea was eventually accomplished, but I don’t remember that.  In my memory, I don’t even hear the beauty and strength of her voice, although I know it was there.   What sticks with me is really bigger than all of that, because her singing was full of the voices of working people from centuries past.  Those people were alive again for the duration of the song.  I knew a little more about their lives than I had before.  Tea be damned. 

This is the substance of my love for traditional music, the reason I love the big ballads and such.  Singers like Sheila Douglas have brought history to the kitchen table. 

History is written by everybody, really.  But it's also sung, and by voices that aren't asking the question of who wins or loses, but are only doing their level best to tell the story. 


jules eberhardt

June 18, 2011

Doing your level best to tell the story reminds me of the late Fred Holstein, who for decades around Chicago did the songs of people like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Utah Phillips – stories about all sorts of people and all kinds of life situations and circumstances. Requited and unrequited love, certainly, but much more. And he often had you sing along to help him to tell the story and express the poetry of the story. I don’t know if this is traditional music to everyone, but to me it is the essence of folk music.

Holly in Maine

June 13, 2011

Aye that. And the power of the sad songs, the songs of betrayal and pain and even terror, is that somebody not only survived all those things, but survived AND found the creative will to transform them and retell them with music. So much of the folk tradition rises up with this sort of Survivor's Pride... and it carries the promise that, like John Barleycorn, we all shall rise again!

Lawson Cannon

June 13, 2011

Kat, Your blog is creative and inciteful, I mean insightfull. It deserves to be in full sight of a world hungry for its value, so PLEASE keep blogging, for all of us!


June 12, 2011

And this is why I love you- among so many other reasons!- you bring me to tears (the good kind) so often and so easily with the clarity of your thought and the kind expression that follows. Thank you!

karin blaine

June 12, 2011

Love it, Kat. Keep writing. kb

Bruce Foster

June 12, 2011

First, I agree with the previous comment.
Second, while reading your initial thoughts two sensations of imagination occurred. It was easy to feel like I was there in your kitchen just listening. While listening I was recalling my first encounter with The Canterbury Tales. The power of those tales is exactly what you assert in listening to traditional songs written from the heart of someone whose life was much like our own great-great this or great-great that. It's a powerful way to appreciate how we got here.

Wally Bell

June 12, 2011

It's a very effective way of keeping the voice of the people heard, especially for later generations who would forget if it were not for this music. I am one generation away from the closing of the coal mines in the North East of England, and my life as a child is now displayed in museums. My son could tell you all about the miners' lives even though he has never experienced this directly. Through song, he continues the traditions.

misti bernard

June 12, 2011

lovely, kat. simply delicious. those moments are, as sean said, the deepest magic. i look forward to visiting here frequently.

Roger Carlson

June 12, 2011

Great lot of sense in that. Every song is a life in and of itself. The music and words both make time stand still and can bring that time to the present.

Carolyn C.

June 11, 2011

Excellent observation, Kat. Over the past few years, I have come to appreciate and love traditional/folk/roots music in a way that I never had before. And it is precisely because I began to listen beyond the simple melodies and musical structures to hear the humanity in the music. These songs give voice to the human experience and possess an authenticity that is felt as well as heard. And there is something wonderful about songs that are passed from generation to generation, for it connects us to the past. This is even more important these days, when our collective memory is so short. As Utah Philips once said, "The long memory is the most radical idea in America."

Aspen Swartz

June 11, 2011

A crying shame, a murder, a fine upstanding person denied justice, are terrible events but they make great songs. In fact, I think the triumph of evil often makes better songs (while it makes life worse) than when the winners are the ones with justice and mercy on their side.

Sean O'Daly

June 11, 2011

Beautiful post, Kat. That's one of those magic moments you wish everyone could have so they would know what traditional music is really like.