‘I realised it was the same song’: Familiarisation, assimilation and making meaning with new folk music
In many settings, folk music continues to be a vibrant resource for contemporary audiences. Existing research in the folk music scene has largely been centred on participation, reflecting historical tensions surrounding the professionalisation of the genre. However, in this paper, we challenge the binary between participatory and presentational forms of music (Turino, 2008), positioning listening as a form of participation and highlighting the work done by audiences for presentational folk music. This paper presents the findings of a longitudinal, qualitative study of listening experience around the release of a new folk album by the first author: Fay Hield’s Old Adam (2016). Through a series of focus groups, eight participants gave increasingly personalised accounts of their relationship with the music, from first reactions to finding deep meaning in the songs. We draw on disparate strands of research including developments in music psychology and audience research, as well as theoretical literature on the value of storytelling, to consider how songs go from unknown entities to important emotional resource for listeners. We demonstrate that familiarisation with new music is impacted on by: live and recorded listening contexts, musical preference, existing knowledge of folk music repertory, and genre conventions. We show that while listeners may make their own meaning from music, they need to find resemblance between a song’s meaning and their own lived experience in order to connect with it deeply. While theoretical storytelling literature suggests narrative is important as a means of mentally rehearsing for future experiences, instead we found participants reject that notion, understanding rather that song stories act as a tool for reflection and in making meaning of previous experience. This depth of engagement shows that while these listeners may not be getting their fiddles out or leading a chorus song in a singaround, they are far from a passive audience.
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