Sunday, March 21, 2010

the Music Police

This is a difficult blog post for me to write. In fact, I have put it off ever since I began this blog over a year ago. It's a subject that people often feel strongly about, and unfortunately it tends to make people angry no matter what their views are.
All I can do is write about my own thoughts and feelings on it, and hope that whoever reads this will be able to read it with an open mind and heart, at least consider what they read for a moment or two before dismissing it.
This post is about the concept of the Music Police.

I first heard the term "Music Police" when I was just starting to play music in groups. I was an insecure beginner player, and I would bring my little 1910 Wurlitzer mandolin to a local folk jam. There were lots of very friendly welcoming people there, and many were singer-songwriter guitar players eager to sing well known folk songs or their own compositions enthusiastically. This was fine by me, since I could plink along in the background and make my numerous mistakes without attracting too much attention. It was a nurturing beginning for me, and everyone there was happy to help and encourage me. Sometimes one person or another would make a comment like "I don't think the Music Police would approve of this version, but I like to play it this way..." , or "The Music Police would have you arrested if they heard you play that chord.". Comments like this always made me wonder, but I figured the Answer would reveal itself to me one day when I was ready. I didn't want to appear stupid by asking about it.

I began to play clawhammer banjo and I did a lot of reading on Banjo-L where the old-time banjo players and the Bluegrass banjo players were regularly seeing things from two different vantage points. I noticed that the two terms 'Music police' AND 'the Banjo Police' got thrown about on occasion, when the two sides were not in agreement about...whatever. I also noticed that it was usually the folks who liked older styles of playing that got called 'the Music Police' when discussions got testy.

Later, I was drawn towards old-time music and old fiddle tunes, and I met my wonderful fiddler husband. My playing and my enthusiasm really took off and I just couldn't get enough of that old style music. I began going to old-time fiddle tune gatherings, where I heard more references to the elusive and ominous "Music Police", also sometimes called the "Tradition Police". I began to understand that the term referred to anyone who thought their way of playing a tune was the right way/traditional way, and anyone else's ways of playing it was the wrong way. The other seemingly essential part of the definition of Music Police was that usually this term was applied to someone who liked to play in a traditional style.

I heard stories about obnoxious 'music police' musicians who insisted that tunes should only be played a certain way (their way or the traditional way) and who went around telling others how WRONG they were, saying rude things like "THAT'S NOT HOW IT GOES!". Interestingly, the villains in these stories invariably had no name... they were always about 'some guy' (usually from parts unknown) who joined a session and was never seen again after that. It never seemed to be about someone who anyone actually knew by name. And it wasn't unique to dulcimer circles, it was the same among banjo circles, fiddlers, guitar players, you name it.
Mind you, it is usual in old-time fiddle gatherings for folks to discuss how the various versions of a tune differ or are the same, and where the tunes came from. It's not uncommon to hear some fiddler saying "Well Rayna got that tune from the old Salyer recording but Salyer didn't play that part like she does, he played the high part more like this..." followed by a demonstration. Now a statement such as this might be overheard by a novice musician and they might easily interpret and retell this incident as the fiddler having told someone they played something THE WRONG WAY. In reality, experienced musicians with a passion for their music usually enjoy discussing different versions and talking about the old sources of tunes and how they were played, how they changed as they got passed along from one person to the next. But that sort of material never makes for interesting stories.

I am not saying I have never heard anyone say anything actually rude or obnoxious to someone else about their version of playing something...I have! There are rude people in all types and genres and levels of music, young and old, both experienced and beginner alike. But the few instances of rudeness I have observed over the years had more to do with someone just being plain rude and ego-inflated overall than with any purist quest they might have been engaged in to 'preserve tradition'. The fact is that person would just as likely be rude when ordering coffee in a diner if they were having a bad hair day. They tend to think they are right about everything and that everyone else is misguided...but their superior notions apply to things far beyond just their music. I don't really think of them as the "Music anything", much less as the 'Music Police'. They are just impolite or thoughtless people. Well enough about rude people, this post is not about them.

There is another interesting factor at work here that I think reinforces the idea that the infamous Music Police mostly consist of traditional players.
Imagine two people who love to eat ice cream. They both eat ice cream with a passion. Margaret loves any and all flavors of ice cream. Jenny only likes chocolate ice cream. One week they go to the ice cream parlor and they both get the flavors they ask for and both go home happy. The next week the parlor is out of chocolate ice cream and Margaret thinks Jenny is a difficult snob because she doesn't want to eat some other flavor. When they leave, Margaret is happily full and Jenny is disappointed. The next week, the parlor only has chocolate ice cream. They both go home happy. The last week, the parlor is out of all ice cream, and they both go home unhappy.
Maybe this sounds silly, but I think that musicians who like to play a wide variety of music are often seen as being more reasonable, more good natured, more open minded, more accepting, and just generally 'nicer', while musicians who like to focus on and play one type of music are often automatically seen as being closed minded, snobby, anal, curmudgeonly, difficult, and egoistic. Jenny is perhaps labeled a difficult snob because she only likes chocolate ice cream, while Margaret is seen as more reasonable person because she likes any flavor of ice cream. Margaret proclaims that "It's all good!" and suspects that Jenny looks down her nose at her and feels superior. Meanwhile, Jenny agrees that 'it's all good'...but she doesn't actually want to have to eat it all. lol!

I think it's kind of natural human nature to see someone who likes many flavors as a positive person, and conversely it's human nature to see someone who only likes one or two flavors as a negative person. But I happen to believe that both people are perfectly justified in liking everything, nothing, or anything in between. Some people don't like ice cream at all! Human beings are all different, we all have different likes and preferences, and no one's preferences are better than someone else's. Neither Jenny nor Margaret are better. It takes Jennys and Magarets and Lucys and Emilys and everyone else to make this world a wonderful, diverse, and positive place.

Do people who behave like actual Music police even exist at all? I believe they do. But such people are so few and far between as to be insignificant. The problem is that the term is thrown about all too frequently to include just about anyone who talks about how they like a certain way of playing something. It's being applied to those who enjoy playing music in a traditional way, always accompanied by the implication that they think their way of playing is the only 'right' way and everyone else's ways of playing is the 'wrong' way. In reality, very few people ever declare themselves right and others wrong. Such people are as rare as hens' teeth. Yet the concept of Music Police lurking in every alleyway, bullying and pouncing self-righteously on other players persists.
Using the term 'music police' at someone is an easy and thoughtless way to dismiss and demean them in a musical discussion or disagreement. It's a cheap shot that almost never has any actual basis in fact. Yet it hurts people and does damage. For me at least, it's time to take a stand against characterizing people unfairly.

My own way of dealing with this unpleasant conversational cop-out is this: every time I or anyone else gets called the 'music police', 'tradition police', 'dulcimer police', or whatever... instead of feeling annoyed or frustrated and letting the term slip by without comment, I'm just going to ask the person who used it why they used it used in that instance? I'm going to ask for a clear explanation about why that person thinks this. I believe that being open and straightforward about this will go a long way to make everyone aware of their choices of words and it will foster better understanding in discussions between music-minded people. If we understand why we all feel as we do about such issues, it will serve to bring people together rather than pushing them further apart.

It's time to blow the whistle on the overused and hurtful term "music police".


  1. "Put the capo down and step away from the instrument. You're under arrest for violating the sanctity of that song!"

    There are always a few jerks around who think they know it all and have to demonstrate the depths of their ignorance publicly.

    Just because I'm Trad doesn't mean I'm Bad!

  2. Unfortunately you will find these police in many places - the stitching police for embroiderers, the bread baking police, the jam making police, etc. etc. You know what - SO WHAT. Life is short, time is limited for us, let's do what we do and enjoy it - never mind what others have to say if it doesn't serve some good purpose for you.
    Excellent post!

  3. Hi Witch of Stitch,
    I totally agree...negative people are everywhere where people get together to enjoy something together. I think it becomes unfair though when a name is applied to people just because we disagree with what they are saying. We all need to be more thoughtful and not label others unkindly. :)

  4. This is something I have not encountered except for a time or two. When I hear someone say, "That's not how it goes." They may get a little history lesson from me about how the music evolved through families and communities, all with unique versions and sometime even different melodies. It actually reveals a little bit of ignorance on their part because they either do not know the history or they just refuse to acknowledge it.
    Everyone should read Jean Richie's "Singing Family of the Cumberlands". It is a perfect example of how "tradition" varied from family to family and place to place.
    I came to dulcimer from a classical music background. If anyone could be one of those "police", I could. But I prefer it the old way, without the harnesses and bits that made it so difficult. Just my thoughts.

  5. Dave KirkpatrickApril 1, 2010 at 5:42 AM

    This brings to mind something that happened to me in a folk club. A friend and I were doing Midnight Special on guitars and I ended it with a 9th. Well! I got thoroughly berated for that. "You can't end on a 9th"..."yes I can"...there's room for all of it. I love the traditional dulcimer styles but just now I was thinking of bending strings and Scruggs tuners...what gets me is people are so damn precious about it. It's all music...accept it as such.

  6. And then there is me...don't know what a "9th" is and may never be able to figure it out, but keep strummin' anyway. Good post Lisa.

  7. Hey Vicki, I wouldn't know a 9th if it hit me in the face. lol! But I'd probably know if I liked how it sounded or not.

  8. Great post! I have classical training, but now like to play old-style music. Lord knows no music purist would probably think I'm any good, but we have the right to play. Thanks for saying this out loud--somebody needs to.

  9. I seen this "Music Police" type thing hurt a young girl once. You could see the hurt in her eyes. My wife and I were at a big craft festival here in WV. A young girl was playing a display of a well known dulcimer builder, which will be not be named. A lot would remember him. She played the Ash Grove. She was playing drone style. When she finished he started to play it on the dulcimer he had in front of him. He played all over the fret board. He then told the little girl when she learned to play she could play it the right way. The mother and little girl walked off.
    It hurt me because I had just been playing a few weeks at the time. I stood there thinking about what he told the little girl.
    I guess I was staring at the man. He says do you want to try and play one. I just looked him in the eyes and walked off shaking my head. The man may have been a good builder. He knew even less then I did about a dulcimer. If he had not said what he was playing, I would not have known what the song was. We caught up with the mother and little girl later and I told the little girl I wish I could play that Ash Grove like she could. I got a grin after I told her that.
    It has probably been 40 years ago. Shucks I still wish I could play The Ash Grove like that little girl could.

  10. Paul, that's a very touching story.
    I did the same thing a few years ago and the same situation with the young girl attempting to play the banjo. An experienced banjo player told her how 'complicated and difficult' it was to play the banjo properly. Ugh. I too followed after her to try to undo the the damage. She later got another teacher and became quite good at playing!

  11. As a choir director, I have encountered too many of the "Music Police" who are ready to criticize anyone who is not their own student. While I've also met many music teachers who are friendly and helpful (they tend to be grade school music teachers), one of the reasons I love going to dulcimer festivals is that most of the people I meet there are down to earth and more interested in sharing music than in judging the techniques of other musicians. Of course, there are always a few exceptions!

  12. Great post, Strumelia-- you'll find me in the "Amen corner" during this fine sermon. ;-) A little encouragement can go a long way and you've offered it generously to many in the mountain dulcimer community.

  13. I just wandered into this post from out of the blue. As a new dulcimer-player I encountered this problem in the first two weeks of playing! Your comments are exactly right, I feel. Especially when you say that 'traditional' or very experienced players enjoy discussing the provenance and permutations of a tune. I have always found that to be true. But two days after I got my dulcimer, a dulcimer afficionado/club member told me something was "just regional," and dismissed it. (Wildwood Flower -- which is a story in itself! right?) Whereas in this same gathering, 'I Can't Help Falling in Love with You' (yes, Elvis, we love you)was performed by 4 dulcimers, 3 hammered dulcimers, 2 autoharps, a guitar, a violin -- not a fiddle -- and an operatic soprano. LOVE THY NEIGHBOR, but DEFEND THE JOY OF DISCUSSING THE HISTORY OF THE TUNES!

  14. Great material to cogitate. I can put a name though on my Nazi. And so can everyone else in my region of the world. Sue

  15. I think the worst thing you can do is confront someone who thinks their way is the only or best way.By confronting someone we may think we're proving our point, or that the other person will see reason and change. But most people don't change, they often resent it when they're challenged or have things explained to them.

    I think the best approach is to simply ignore the music police. Why? Because it's no big deal.

  16. What a blessing you are, Stumelia! I haven't "known" you long, but I like you a lot already! I love your is a gracious heart.
    <3 The new girl on the block, Leslie

  17. FWIW, one thing I love about the dulcimer community is how little of the "music police" type attitude seems to exist among us compared to the music community as a whole.

  18. The friendliness, willingness to share and teach, and the wonderful, regional or even club-to-club differences in dulcimer music are what drew me to mountain dulcimer in the first place. The two MP's I have experienced were just ornery folks anyhow who were always their mind. On the other hand, there have been many other folks willing to teach a version of a tune that was much different than others, explain some of the history if they knew it, and wonderfully open to playing different versions or speeds along with The Right Way. They enabled me to learn, enjoy, and experiment. May there be more Enablers and fewer MPs.

  19. Strumellia, I just came upon this in early 2018 after finding a picture you posted here on someone else's Pinterest board. You're absolutely right. I learned to play banjo in the 1960s when there were about 30 "right ways" to play the thing. When I renewed my interest a few years back, I ran into frailers who told me I didn't frail right, pickers who told me I didn't pick right, and so on. I have a thick carapace from that sort of thing (I've been a musician and a writer for a VERY long time), but I have been saddened to see newbies who were doing the best they could JUST to get music out of the thing ridiculed on discussion forums, etc. Here's my take on the subject: