“I can see by the sadness in your eyes that you never quite learned the song”

I’ve been thinking more about my #openedspace post, and the can of worms I opened in acknowledging that many of my underlying ideas about the nature of the learning process came from folk music.  I’ve been wondering what folk musicians say about learning, and how widely applicable this is.


Richard Thompson is one of those rare guitar players who is always worth listening to, just because no-one (including him) is quite sure what he is going to do next. He doesn’t have a blog as such, but is endlessly quotable and keeps a record of these quotes on his website. I’ve always been attracted to this one:


“For me, the best feeling in music is when you’re truly improvising and don’t know where you’re going, but you know you’re going to arrive at an interesting place.”


This is a fine example of what I would call a benefit of higher education, the ability to follow any thread or collections of threads in the pursuit of knowledge. Improvised learning is that which is utterly learner-led and unbound by extrinsic motivation. A wonderful thing to aim for, but there is a lot of skill needed to get there. So does my underlying idea base itself on technical mastery of learning?


Dick Gaugan is a very interesting chap, with twin interests in protest songs and web accessibility. He’s maintained a proto-blog since the early days of the web and one of his sporadic posts concern the limits of technical mastery. The closing paragraphs are worth quoting in full:


“Mastery of technique is not the job of a musician, it is merely the basic toolkit for learning to do the job of a musician. The most essential element of the job of a musician is the skill to intelligibly communicate ideas and emotion from the musician to the listener via sound. The absence of that means it is not music, it is a programmed sequence of noises, regardless of however pleasant and harmonious those noises might be.


In the words of Mike Heron’s Hedgehog Song, “You know all the words and you sing all the notes but you never quite learned the song . . .””



A very odd song, but one chosen as a Desert Island Disc by none other than the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Who has also written and spoken a fair bit about learning, including a lecture to the Centre of Anglican Communion Studies in 2004 where he makes almost the same point as Gaugan does from the opposite direction.


“It is possible, you see, to learn quite a lot about let us say the history of music, about musical theory. It is possible even to recognise patterns of a page of black marks on a white background which tell you how a composition moves. But it would be strange, as I have said, if that were all pursued in the absence of any acquisition of a skill – any capacity to do something in a particular way.”


Both Rowan Williams and Dick Gaugan are arguing that learning requires both the mastery of a set of skills and the ability to set these within a wider pattern that can communicate ideas and emotion to others. However, much of current orthodoxy in educational policy sees the former as an end in itself, which is as unhelpful and uneducational as the occasional focus on the latter as the point of higher education.


But there is one key aspect of folk music missing from this picture, the idea of learning as the reinterpretation rather than the reproduction of knowledge. This is what I touched on in the #openedspace post when I quoted song collector Cecil Sharp. But Richard Thompson, in a song that is at once a folk song and not a folk song, expresses the idea thus:


“We used to say
That come the day
We’d all be making songs
Or finding better words
These ideas never lasted long”



There’s been surprisingly little written about this idea of “finding better words”, but it seems like it has a lot to say a mainstream education that is still reeling from the implications of the read/write web. An encyclopaedia that is rewritten by any reader to reflect their experience is, at heart, a very similar idea to a ballad or tune that is adapted by all those that experience it. In both instances, a certain level of technical mastery is required and a sense of the overarching pattern of the source material is required.


Competence, Experience, Appreciation.


Or, if you’d rather: purity, truth, beauty.

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