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Masonic Song in Scotland: Folk Tunes and Community

From: Oral Tradition
Volume 27, Number 1, March 2012
10.1353/ort.2012.0007

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Masonic song tradition of Scotland gives an opportunity to explore the vital role of oral tradition, particularly as carried by communal performance. Issues surrounding folk tunes and community will be explored in turn in this article, first by looking at the songs of Freemasonry against the backdrop of folksong culture and then by viewing the songs as central to the Masonic community and also more broadly to the community at large. This study builds on the general theoretical points made by Anne Dhu McLucas in the American context in her book, The Musical Ear: Oral Tradition in the USA. McLucas highlights the many musical contexts in which oral tradition plays a vital role, with the proposition that these contexts do "not depend on the use of musical notation to make their power felt" (2010:1). Of course, this does not mean that musical notation is not present, and McLucas recognizes that while "the oral/aural is present everywhere," it "mixes freely with the written" (4).

One of the main differences between oral societies and literate ones is that the oral, by definition, involves a group activity; one can read a story in a book alone and in silence, but a performer-audience dynamic must always be present in the oral environment. The importance of this communal context is discussed by McLucas (2010:132-33), who notes that the act of singing together forms strong bonds with fellow performers and brings the group closer together. Her examples include patriotic or nationalistic song, and she makes the following observations about a contemporary Rotary club in Oregon in which the singing is an adjunct to the overall activities of the group (129):

A group of middle-aged members of the Eugene Downtown chapter of Rotary International, male and female, gather every week for lunch at a local hotel. Part of the opening ceremony for this weekly luncheon is the singing of a national song—either the official anthem, which, though notoriously hard to sing, still comes up occasionally, or "America" or "God Bless America," the perennially favourite substitutes. With the help of a piano, they make a lusty sound, with harmonies—both accidental and intentional—occasionally appearing. Because it is part of their ritual, and because the group is meant to be participatory and collegial, all seem to take part.

The ritual nature of the event and the elements of participation and collegiality are also key to Masonic gatherings. This group context has more in common with the Masonic environment than McLucas's following example: that of song circles who meet with the express purpose of singing, where solo performance is heard in the main and where those assembled are expected to join in on the chorus. But all such groups involving singers have the face-to-face quality that gives scope for that difficult-to-define lift that has been called "presence." James Porter (2009:7-8) discusses this quality in the context of Scottish ballads, noting that the shared experience of a performance in a live situation is totally different from listening to a ballad though a mass-mediated channel (such as television, radio, or the Internet).

The community elements of folk music are much stronger than in the art music tradition. Take, for example, the classic definition of folk music, given by the International Folk Music Council in 1954 (Bohlman 1988:xiii):

Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: 1) continuity which links the present with the past; 2) variation which springs from the creative individual or the group; and 3) selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives.

The term can be applied to music that has been evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular and art music, and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten living tradition of a community.

The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is...


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