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Defining pop culture

This entry is part of 6 in the series

"Vaughan Williams on Culture"

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Unfortunately, according to Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams, folk music as an art is largely dead, and this provides the first evidence of a distinction between folk and pop music in their thought. With a chain of events including the Industrial Revolution and the creation of mass media came the emergence of a new form of culture that found its home in commercialism — pop culture. Pop culture by its very nature destroyed folk culture since mass media soon found its way into every corner of modernized society and influenced the before-uninfluenced. Sharp marks the end of folk art around 1840.1 This is not to say that folk music itself is dead. Rather, according to Vaughan Williams it is the “art of the folk-singer” that no longer exists, and “we cannot, and would not if we could, sing folk-songs in the same way and in the same circumstances in which they used to be sung.”2 Vaughan Williams clearly bemoans this fact in his praise of this music “which is unpremeditated and therefore of necessity sincere, music which has stood the test of time, music which must be representative of our race as no other music can.”3

Sharp recognizes the confusion between the use of the terms “folk” and “popular” in the English language as one of semantics:

The word itself [“folk song”] is a German compound, which of recent years has found a home in this country. Unhappily it is used in two senses. Scientific writers restrict its meaning to the song created by the unlettered classes. Others, however, use it to denote not only the peasant songs, but all popular songs as well, irrespective of origin, i.e., in the wider and looser sense in which it is sometimes used in Germany. This is to destroy the value of a very useful expression, and to rob scientists of a word of great value. The expansion was, moreover, unnecessary. For the English language already possessed in the phrase “popular song,” a description which covered the wider field. There was, therefore, no need to do violence to the restricted and strictly scientific meaning of “folk song” by stretching it beyond its natural signification. On the other hand there was a very good reason for coining a new term, or for importing a foreign one, to signify a peasant-made song, because our language contained no word with that precise meaning.

Those, therefore, who claim the right to use the term folk song in the loose sense of popular song, are placing upon it a meaning never given to it by the scientific writers of Germany, the country of its origin.4

There is no doubt that Sharp, and by extension Vaughan Williams, saw a definite difference between folk music and pop music and that they found folk music to be superior to pop. It seems that the confusion between the terms lies primarily in the word “popular.” Neither folk nor pop music are by necessity popular — it is not the defining characteristic of either — yet both often are popular. Additionally, not only is the popularity of a tune not an indication of its positive value, but also, according to Sharp, is it not an indication of its negative value: “The important thing to remember . . . is that bad tunes are popular, not because of their badness, but because of their attractiveness. The classes who sing bad tunes sing them simply because they never hear good ones that appeal to them with equal force.”5 Sharp and Vaughan Williams found in folk music, as I will show shortly, tunes that were both good and popular.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Sharp, English Folk-Song, 151. []
  2. Vaughan Williams, National Music, 38. []
  3. Ibid., 40. []
  4. Sharp, English Folk-Song, 2B3. []
  5. Ibid., 174. []

2 Responses to Defining pop culture

  1. It is one thing for us to recognize the fact of the far-reaching influences of mass media and what they have cost us, it is another to embrace a remedy. This is a revolution that, in one sense at least, cannot be undone. We are all people of our time. Despite our attempts to pursue the best expression of ordinate affections, everything we have read, watched, listened to, and etc, has impacted each of our frame of references. It leaves one wondering if a culture, even a church community, free of those things is somewhere we can ge to from here.

    Put another way, we may know we have an awful lot of imaginations to cast down, but do we know how to recognize them all?

  2. Excellent, excellent point, which is why I insist that the church needs to continue to cultivate worship forms from within the historic Judeo-Christian tradition. It is the best way to ensure that our worship forms are expressions of ordinate affection since we ourselves cannot free ourselves from the influence of culture around us.

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