Song collecting can be broadly defined as the act of going out of one’s way to document any rare items of oral culture.
It can be done in any community and the journey the collector takes is often as much down to fate as anything else. The treasure is certainly often on one’s own doorstep, but identifying what is special, rare or of ‘value’ is highly subjective: “One man’s muck is another man’s brass” is a suitable phrase for describing the predicament of many collectors.
A song collector can be seen as a ‘cultural scrap merchant’ in search of songs, stories, lore or yarns in the custody of those who may be unaware of their rarity or beauty and may have no means to share them with others.
Certain material and knowledge continues to become notably rare and may prove of considerable value to future generations, so it’s worth keeping an editorial sense and being open-minded: what may not seem of relevance to you personally could be of great interest to the students, singers and historians of today or tomorrow. Short-sightedness about which songs are of interest has been a failing of some previous collectors; editing out material not of immediate interest or value, but which has since been seen as a fascinating aspect of the wider culture, has resulted in partial records of people’s repertoires due to certain songs not being considered ‘traditional’ or relevant to the song collector’s particular search.
With modern technology for recording, researching and mapping, the main limitation we face as song collectors these days is time.
The song collector
It is the song collector’s task to seek out Tradition Bearers and explore their repertoire thoroughly, though not necessarily without an expressed preference for certain types of song. Prior knowledge of the area, community and the kind of songs sought is useful but not essential and even with thorough research, most of your learning will happen when you meet with people.
You are advised to be open to following advice within the communities in question and always be reasonably prepared. This is for one’s own personal safety and well-being, as well as those of the individuals and communities you meet. Good research will help to maximise the value of your fieldwork and to ensure that your recordings are of most use to others.
A song collector, like any good citizen, should never go where they are not welcome.
If in doubt, get out. You will probably find that you are made more welcome than you had expected though. So, be open to that welcome but don’t overstay or overstep it.