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Thursday, 28 April 2011

Folk festivals, the church and the practice of tradition

I spent a good deal of the Easter holiday weekend at the National Folk Festival here in Canberra. The experience got me thinking about the importance of tradition for both folk music and the church. I thought that there was something in the handling and sustaining of tradition as manifested in the festival that might be worth unpacking that might be helpful for the church in thinking about its engagement with the tradition. so let's see where this line of thinking might go.

The National Folk Festival (NFF) offers a huge range of music under the label of "folk" and provides an opportunity to display at a moment in time where the traditions of music are being taken by their current practitioners. Individual strands of musical tradition display a huge range of difference in performance - some seeking to represent a particular tradition in what is viewed as its authentic form, while others work on adapting it to say things in a different cultural context or because they have access to a differing range of musical skills. At the NFF this year, 2011, this difference could be seen in the contrast for example between The Peter Rowan Band and The Baylor Brothers. Another example would be in Celtic music where you had the expression of traditional Irish instrumental music by The Kellys, focused on tunes from a particular region, County Clare, contrasting with Australian performance of the tradition more broadly by Sunas or by a slightly more upbeat interpretation by younger performers in The George Jackson Band.

The various sub-traditions within the broader, or "great" tradition of folk music have in common an emphasis on the quality of their perfomance, sustained by the practices and disciplines of learning from and showing respect for those who are regarded as exemplary performers of the tradition by way of their musical and performance skills, and their willingness to pass on those skills to those who wish to be discipled in the tradition.

The sub-traditions are sustained by people living in an ongoing engagement, both informally and formally in gathering to share what they have learned and to learn from one another. There is a remembering of the past, a re-expressing in the present and the hope that the tradition will be picked up and continued in the future.

All of this seems highly relevant for thinking about the place of the church in a time in which the institutional and cultural supports for the church as an integral part of society are fading and its future will be to return to the past as a counter-cultural community.  Those who want to be part of the community of followers of Jesus share with the folk music community that they both inherit traditions that are in tension with a broader culture that focuses on consumption, not participation, on the individual rather than the community and both will require intentional discipling in the skills and practices that are integral to their respective traditions if they are to survive and thrive.

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