restricted access Reclaiming the Commons, One Tune at a Time
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New Hibernia Review 10.4 (2006) 9-20

Reclaiming the Commons, One Tune at a Time
Christopher Smith
Texas Tech University

As a longtime practitioner of Irish traditional music, chiefly on the bouzouki and the button accordion, I teach to a wide range of student skills, aptitudes, and experience, and in a variety of contexts. In such teaching sessions, I focus upon repertoire, performance practice, and lore of the music; but over the years, I have also come to see my teaching as a form of community activism—a way to address passivity, spiritual alienation, and materialism. My teaching procedures arise from within the folk music tradition. Philosophically, I am influenced by concepts developed by theorists and practitioners of social and cultural anthropology and public-sector folklore.

No one can work in this field, as I have, without coming to understand that there has long been conflict between commodification and community in the practice and the handing on of traditional music. My personal observations and experiences, the responses to questionnaires I have circulated among students, and other commentary from participants, as well as a diverse scholarly literature, suggest that this tension between the music and the marketplace continues to be felt today. Yet, I believe strongly that it remains possible both to create human value and to combat social problems—as well as to teach people how to play—by developing strategies that return the inspiration, tools, and practices of making art to individuals in local settings. I further argue that the repertoire, aesthetics, and contextual procedures indigenous to the tradition can serve to elicit and model such strategies. In academic settings, neither the efficacy of indigenous pedagogical techniques nor the quest for abstract philosophical goals is often addressed—but that does not lessen their real and demonstrable significance in pedagogical situations.

I arrived at my teaching method through practical experience in several different communities. Only later did I uncover a theoretical, and explicitly philosophical, basis for the way I teach in studies of economics, property rights, anthropology, and in the essays of the poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder. He explicitly connects the survival of vernacular crafts traditions with that of social cultures: [End Page 9]

There is no choice but to call for the "recovery of the commons"—and this in a modern world that doesn't quite realize what it has lost. . . . If we do not recover the commons—regain personal, local, community, and peoples' direct involvement in sharing (in being) the web of the wild world—that world will keep slipping away. . . . And, it is clear, the loss of a local commons heralds the end of self-sufficiency and signals the doom of the vernacular culture of the region.1

The "commons" to which Snyder refers is a body of shared resources: agrarian, intellectual, and vernacular. The historic fact of the "enclosure" of the commons—the claim, contestation, and assignment of personal ownership to resources formerly held in common by a local community—marked a profound shift in Western economic and political culture.2

This period of enclosure, which in Europe was roughly 1500 to 1848 and in America was virtually synonymous with the perpetual Western expansion 1607 to 1890, was marked by, and in part provided the impetus for, significant social, cultural, and economic transformations.3 The European and North American propertied classes, recognizing the value of consolidated ownership, acted to claim previously public-held land. Such commons usually comprised lands whose usefulness as a source of grazing, hunting, and raw materials depended upon shared access. The commons had been administered by loose but effective community standards of usage and conduct. During the period, enclosure was accurately understood by many as an assault on such standards. Popular resistance movements—including the Diggers and Levellers of the seventeenth century, the Luddites and Redressers of the eighteenth, the Chartists of the nineteenth, in addition to the Enlightenment revolutions of 1776, 1792, and 1798—sought in part to defy the specific legal strategies or the longterm social ramifications of enclosure.4 [End...