Today I walked a lovely wooded path by a stream and saw wildflowers. I noticed a clump of daisies to my right with perfect white petals. Just a few paces later I saw another clump of daisies to my left, but these were just a bit smaller and were just barely blushing. Similarly, in my own back yard I see dandelions in two sizes, one much smaller than the other, both blooming in the same season. The spring beauties I find beneath my favorite oak tree are different than the spring beauties my mother finds beneath her maple tree - we live in the same part of the same state.
Wildflowers thrive in variability and grow according to their unique surroundings. This adaptable spirit can't be quantified, bought, or sold. It confounds our desire for uniformity and perfection. It's a visual lesson in tenacity and survival. We purchase hothouse flowers at the market. We cannot purchase the many long years it takes for each lovely variation on the first daisy to develop in the wild.
Students of the Kodály philosophy learn to carefully analyze folk tunes in terms of melodic profile. This is a great departure from traditional theoretical training in our schools of music because we leave the idea of vertical analysis behind and pay close attention to all that is horizontal. I recall this being one of the more difficult aspects of my Kodály training. It was so foreign to me. I'd never been taught to pay attention to subtle variation in melodies apart from great works for choir, orchestra, piano, etc. But if a person is going to understand a folk song or a folk based music tradition, the starting place has to be the melody, and there can be no declaration of "the perfect" or "the right" variant. All variants are to be respected according to their unique sources. Each unique pathway can be traced to a person who learned what they learned from another person. Each variant tells a story and connects to a naturally unfolding human conversation. Folk tunes thrive in variability and are sung to fit their unique surroundings.
Almost all our efforts in formal education become tied up in monetization one way or another. Text book companies seek to earn money on their materials. It behooves them to become the only right way to teach something. Companies that make tests seek to earn money on their materials. It is in their best financial interest to become the only perfect measure of any given subject. Human beings have done their best to put a price tag on so many things . . . but some things defy commoditization. We cannot purchase the many long years it takes for each lovely variant on the first iteration of a folk tune to develop among people. We cannot purchase the relationship between a parent and a child or a teacher and a group of students. Folk songs are many things, the chiefest being human. We cannot buy and sell humanity, although human beings often try to buy and sell each other (in many ways).
When I was a little girl my mother would sing The Water is Wide. She sang it to me with its first words and also with the words from the United Methodist Hymnal (The Gift of Love). I've heard countless arrangements of each text, always with the same beloved tune, but none of them compare to my first hearing. She had no accompaniment. It was evening in our quiet house. I was little. She was my mother. She opened her mouth and sang to me. Then she told me how old the song was and talked about what the poetry might mean. A story unfolded in my mind. I recognized the tune in the hymnal sometime later and told her about it. She talked to me about the borrowing of tunes. It was the first hymn tune I ever chose to memorize on my own. I sang it for a children's choir audition when I was 8 or 9. I treasured it because it was given to me by a human being I loved.
Recently I sat in on a lecture by two professors from Holy Names University. They were sharing a collection of little known folk tunes and variants of better known folk tunes. They shared a variant of Shenandoah I'd never heard before. I loved it. They passed it on to their audience by way of a story about its human source. I recalled the first time I'd played the better known variant in high school band and how touching I'd found it. Then, just a few short weeks after the folk song lecture, I was in an airplane during a rainy landing, seated next to a very dear friend. Knowing about my nervousness, my friend sought to distract me and began singing old songs. Shenandoah was one of them. It wrapped my mind in the same sense of treasured longing it always has, along with memories of all of my human connections to it. Folk tunes thrive in variability and are sung to fit their unique surroundings.
We live in a world that cannot be bought or sold. Our society seeks to buy and sell almost everything. When we pay attention to the original creative material in a folk song and seek to honor it (along with its human origin) we are practicing a sort of defiant mindfulness. We are valuing the relationship between humanity and creativity. We can find many ways to value the relationship between humanity and creativity if we really want to. We can start by paying attention.