Western Songs
(Traditional American Folk Music of the 19th Century)

Today, when someone writes a song, he or she has the ability to write down the lyrics (because literacy is taken for granted), write a lead sheet, orchestration or even just a chord chart, record the song in some form, reproduce it as many times as he or she wants, and legally protect it by obtaining a copyright. Now everybody can be a songwriter.

It wasn't always so.

In 19th century frontier America -usually identified as anywhere west of the Ohio River- songs were written and sung by farmers, cowboys, miners and frontiersmen as a means to pass the time, tell stories and find expression in their lives of adventure, loneliness, boredom and longing. These composers and troubadours of the west, anonymous and unheralded, usually semi-literate, carried on a centuries-old tradition of musical storytelling that traveled from town to town, camp to camp, always changing and evolving. A song that was written in Montana might eventually make its way to South Dakota or Ohio, imbued with so many changes and permutations on its journey that it would barely be recognizable to the original composer. These songs took on lives and meanings of their own, and while most disappeared with the wilderness, many survived to this day, their authors unknown. They painted vivid and sometimes poetic, sometimes prosaic, stories of the west as they took their indelible place in the folklore of America. Those who wrote these songs were never recognized and certainly never compensated. The concept of "intellectual property" had not yet been recognized in this oral tradition.

What happened to these songs in the intervening years since the advent of recording, the publication of sheet music, and copyright laws?

What would these songs sound like today if sound recordings and publication never existed? How would they have changed or remained the same or similar to the originals? Who would hear them?

How would today's music mutate in the absence of sound recordings, publication and copyrights?

Is it only a question of different circumstances or a different frame of mind in the understanding of authorship and "intellectual property" that influences how songs are preserved and performed today?

How does this differ among other (particularly, oral) cultures?
These questions will also touch on and challenge our notions about "ownership" of a piece of art. This not only relates to music but to all art, and in the abstract, sciences as well.

This project may analyze the foregoing questions by looking at source material (i.e., music) in addition to what has been written about it by historians and critics. Contradicting paradigms clash when we think of folk music. The traditional art of retelling and reinterpreting stories would be a crime rather than an art according to today's notion of copyright law and its enforcement. But the internet and new forms of cooperative writing undermine this one sided view.

This project is not a music history course such as might be offered in a traditional university. Here, participants might include musicians, historians, folklore scholars, sound engineers, lawyers, music producers, graphic and visual artists and anyone interested in exploring the cultural, historical and legal effects of these colliding paradigms. In our laboratory we will create new scenarios, new music and new works of art. The results of this collaborative effort will be surprising.