I would read a book titled, after Buford's Among the Thugs, Down Among the Unclefts, chronicling dissipation and disrespect in whatever curious subculture the unclefts might represent in this context.
Towards the end of my time in Chicago, a friend became associated with (is still associated with? I am unsure) Golosá, the University of Chicago Russian Choir, which I didn't think was actually affiliated with the University but which seems to be. (Evidently one can watch uncharacteristically non-tight performances on youtube—looks like the chick sitting in the chair in the lower right is having a hard time not cracking up/falling to the floor.) The style in which they sing, that of the Old Believers, is improvisatory, within bounds; the details escape me but I believe individual singers are free to vary both the melody and harmony of their parts a wee bit, resulting in the sweet sweet patches of dissonance in the tunes. This suggests a problem for Golosá's performance practice: nearly none, if not none at all, of them was even Russian, and definitely none was an Old Believer who grew up early in the last century in a small village in Russia; maybe a few of the members who had made an intense study of the style could improvise idiomatically, but not all of them, and anyway, how could you tell? Simply improvising in the performance of one's part isn't to sing in the correct style, any more than it would be proper for a church organist to play his improvisations as if he were a blues musicians.
From an interview with the founder of what I guess is Golosá's parent choir in Freiburg, in response to a question about authenticity:
But the music! Let’s consider a song which is sung by two or three women. Such a song can well be “authentically” written up or recorded on tape. Each voice can be preserved - in both meanings of this word - exactly. But now we run into the first problem: on the next day the “same” song can be sung completely differently, for example when one singer’s place is taken by another, or when a singer is added or one is missing. But even with exactly the same singers, small deviations here and there are of a surety to be expected, and I dare say, to be hoped for. …
… Completely different - again only very generally - completely different were the tenors. They were - especially in songs with a swing to them - the enfants terribles of the choir. They vanished into the highest of heights, usually almost every one according to his own taste and ability. The tenors often had the most astonishing improvisational flourishes and through this alone defined the impression the choir would make, above all the acoustic impression. As a general rule one could say that the tenors defined the acoustic color of the choir. How often I have thought of the Russian tenors when an F-trumpet resounded in a Bach oratorio! Choir, orchestra, everything because of this instrument took on a completely new acoustic color for my Russian ear - a tenor-color. When you then try to write down such a Russian folksong on paper, then you have to reign in the tenors, reduce them to a uniform line, in order to make the song in any way “singable”. Is that “authentic?”
As I say, I don't doubt that one could learn to improvise in a more or less "authentic" way, through intense immersion and either a teacher or a whole hell of a lot of well-catalogued source material (apparently only that, and no instruction from an older, more versed player, sufficed for Shawn Lane (search for U. Shrinivas), but it's probably unrealistic to expect that that could be done by many people). If the tradition is no longer so active that one can learn from someone who's got a direct connection to it, though, and therefore must rely on recordings, it's doubtful that this could be widely accomplished, and not just because the recordings, especially if they are few, only capture a certain number of individual performances. Were the tradition still alive, the borders of idiomatic improvisation would themselves change, and the neophyte, even if he learned initially by himself, could be integrated into it; that's part of the tradition's being alive. But otherwise, there's a gap, and even if one could learn what was idiomatic at one point, one would be faced with either keeping oneself artificially within the style as it existed at that time, or allowing one's own efforts to evolve into a style inspired by, but not the same as, its inspiration, a problem the original singers did not face, since where they wandered was where the tradition was heading. When one is reconstructing in this way, the situation might be analogous to someone who knows, say, classical Latin extremely well (perhaps was even raised with classical Latin spoken in his home), using his own intuitions about the language and his own changing habits to make inferences about the way it was spoken in Cicero's time (someone once told me that there actually is a scholar who does this, but it's probably apocryphal). Maybe you're even right, but there's no longer any way to see.
I think the way the choir actually learns its material at least in some cases is via transcriptions from recordings; in fact, there's one singer in particular whose parts the founder (who also invented with another member a way of speaking English in some sonorous chant-like fashion called "Hyde Park English" which I've never heard but was informed would fit marvellously with "Uncleftish Beholding", explaining its inclusion way up tip) always takes for himself and whom he has learned to imitate passing well, so that when the choir went, a few years ago, to Russia and encountered this other singer, who lives yet, the effect was uncanny. This means, assuming that the source material's kosher, that what you hear represents a genuine performance, the way the music really did at one point sound, though, again, it's quite static.
One needn't have improvisation as part of the style for such issues to manifest themselves, of course, though I would assume that not having it at least makes the performance of individual pieces less problematic (though, again, it would be a rare style that left nothing to the performer's discretion, perhaps despite attempts, would be a bit unusual, and if you're in the situation of trying to present a no-longer-active style's repertoire then, even if it's thoroughly written, there may well be things that it didn't occur to the scribe to write). I was once much impressed to hear a bluegrass group boast that, rather than add any original flourishes, they played the pieces "just like Bill Monroe wrote 'em", or something to that effect. Whether or not that was an accurate claim I have no idea, but it's a striking goal, abstracting from improvisation, given that it's not as if that high lonesome sound came with Monroe's first mandolin and that was that. In the introduction to "Watson's Blues", collected on the Monroe/Doc Watson comp Live Duet Recordings 1963–1980, he says, variously to Watson and the audience, "We was playin' out in Hollywood, Doc, in the [South?] at a club called the Ash Grove, and I'm always trying to come up with something new in the way of bluegrass and I come up with this little blues number, and Doc put a wonderful little run in it for an introduction just to start it with, so I titled it the Watson Blues, and I hope you will all enjoy it." Presumable the moderate lesson here is just that there are at least two ways of being true to the model, one that stresses the diachronic and one that stresses the situation at one moment. Even in the latter case it will probably be impossible to avoid introducing unwitting changes—the things that, at the time the would-be preserver is playing, are so natural as to be unnoticeable, perhaps—but a good deal of the audience will also not notice such things. (Those who do will be able to find fault, but they would presumably also be able to instruct the performers who don't—these things aren't completely set in stone.)
One might be skeptical even about the possibility of doing even that much—of, that is, actually managing to "get in the skin" of some morbid or moribund tradition. Thus one might observe that
For example, the probable effect of listening to an abundance of mid-twentieth century jazz and popular music is that one acquires what might be called "a hunger ofr major seventh chords": music begins to sound empty if the tonic is not harmonically supported by a fuller chord like C-E-G-B or one of its extended cousins. Befores such expectations take hold—if we have been largely raised on a diet of folk music, for example—, tonal assemblies of this type are apt to sound rather ugly; but once we have been bitten firmly on the harmonic bait, we will begin to feel fidgety if the extending tones are absent. And such an appetite for strong harmonization can, almost by itself, seriously weaken the old possibilities for expressiveness that the fiddle tunes require. Once the question "why don't we hear a Cmaj7 here?" begins to loom large, the response "how sad this sounds" may recede into unrecoverable oblivion (in fact, the affective contours of Texas fiddle music altered in much this way after World War II). There is a very real sense in which we can seem to lose a concept by doing nothing except learning something else … (Wandering Significance, p 54)
(Note the dash-comma-space, a characteristic punctuational move.) This is more or less beside the present point, but there's an equally real sense, of course, in which we can gain a concept by doing nothing except learning something seemingly unrelated, as if someone weaned on complicated chords were to admire the harmonic simplicity and straightforwardness of the fiddle tunes, finding that their spareness in this regard only enhances the sad sound—a thought that would be alien to someone whose harmonic vocabulary is exhausted by the tunes. Something similar no doubt underlies the ability to find inhospitable climes (this replaces the now-dead link two posts infra, under "desert") beautiful, what with normally living quite far from them and only needing to visit them, well stocked, at one's option. And again with, say, period instrumentation for Baroque music: we get something extra (ignoring the fact, of course, that we related to what we continue to call chamber music even though few of us encounter it in our own chambers in an entirely different way) knowing that the fiddles are strung with gut or whatever and the performance technique will be thus-and-so, which would be quite unavailable to someone of the period.
The point is rather that a diet of examples of one sort can prevent one from ever being in a position to appreciate examples of another. Call it, to be cheeky, the thesis of aesthetic finality. It occurs elsewhere, as when Wilson says of Darwin (who evidently became progressively less able to enjoy poetry and music as he aged) that his "plight, it would seem, bears much resemblance to that of someone whose ear has become previously acclimated to variant musical intervals": "sternly demanding that an auditor raised in another musical environment should learn to discern the sadness inherent in some favorite stretch of our parochial music seems tantamount to expecting that the assigned task can be divorced from all consideration of her musical toolkit" (p 60). (Pity poor Mat Maneri, who, if he really did, as the liners to Three Men Walking suggest, grow up with his father Joe's 72-note octave as his native musical tongue, evidently will never be able to appreciate almost any other music he hears, including that of all of his musical collaborators except his father! Actually I suppose that a 72-note octave is capacious enough to include the customary 12, so pity instead La Monte Young, who must feel that everything is subtly wrong whenever he listens to his own music in just intonation.) And on his own plight, which has escaped seventh-mania but lacks certain reference points:
More than once I have commented "Boy, that's a sad tune" to one of my informants, only to be answered, "Yes, it's just as lonesome as hound dogs baying after the fox on an autumn night." I personally experience great difficulties in attributing profound musicalities [sic; the subject is lonesomeness] to such events. To gain full "reciprocity" with my subjects should I spend long evenings acclimating myself to fox chases? Such a proscribed [sic; he means "prescribed"] program of canine instruction seems eerily reminiscent of the diet of Tennyson and Debussy [sic; Debussy was 20 when Darwin died] our critic would have impressed upon poor Darwin. (71)
Frankly, I see neither why "reciprocity" is in scare quotes, "which", to quote Wilson, "in this context, represent the academical equivalent of the public stocks" (68), nor why the suggestion is so obviously ridiculous. What one gets out of the music one hears is determined by more than just what other music one's previously heard; while I suspect that in this case those baying hounds are mostly just a way to evoke the sadness the interlocutor hears in the music, there could be other pieces in which an unfamiliarity, or lack of sympathetic familiarity, with other aspects of the way of life the fiddler and his regular audience share really will bar an otherwise sensitive listener from hearing what the others hear, much as Wilson reports that he has acquaintances who hear no sadness in his fiddle tunes. And if after attempting to get into the frame of life in which he might be more susceptible to such facets, he continues to be deaf to them, perhaps the only conclusion is: then he's deaf to them, just as Darwin was deaf to Boulez's charms. Darwin's critic gets on one's nerves not because he has the audacity to suggest that, if Darwin wants to appreciate music, he'll have to work at it at first, but because he's a condescending prod, which is much different, and can accompany any philosophical position. The quotation from p 60 above suggests that even Wilson should acknowledge that a version of Darwin's critic who doesn't think that merely repeated listenings/readings suffice is basically right, and the problem really is just that he's come along too late in Darwin's life—except of course that issue with the historical Darwin was not life-long philistinism but a decline, so really most of the discussion about Darwin-the-example misses the real-life point. There also seems to be none but polemical reasons for it to be necessary for me to write "a version of Darwin's critic"; the charge, at the beginning of the second chapter, that the critic is supposed to have laid at Darwin's doorstep is that his human flourishing would be better established were he to have better attended to the arts, and Wilson glosses this as containing a requirement that "the 'musical content' that eluded Darwin must be unproblematically present if he is to be fairly chastised for having shirked it" (52); I assume that it's the unproblematic presence that leads to the critic's supposedly thinking that Darwin need only listen with diligence and have with time whatever it was that he formerely missed obtrude unmistakably into his consciousness. But why should that be the case? Why can't the critic say that it actually requires a lot of complicated instruction and what's too bad is that Darwin missed that? That is, the moralist ought to be able to acknowledge that musical sensitivity is "not a straightforward matter of attending to traits standing in plain view" (53).
Here's a third place where the thesis of aesthetic finality crops up, here in a most confusing form. The subject is the preservation of moribund musical traditions by folklorists (that is, as opposed to people who are musicians first and foremost, though as we'll see the points made don't necessarily apply just to the former); Wilson's particular interest in fiddling accounts for the particular details in the passage. Some folklorists feel that they should put themselves on the tape with the autochthons (or maybe just play with them, and devil take the tape machine):
As I have noted, some measure of misguided participatory urge does seem to have infected current preservative practice. But surely such interventions must prove unfortunate by any reasonable scholarly standard. After all, our original worries about musical preservation arose from the recognition that, as fresh musical paradigms crowd around us, we can easily lose the delicate ability to respond to the nuances of an older music on its own terms. By the same token, with ears educated to Mozart, Ellington and the BEatles, urban academics are unlikely to recapture the pristine rhythmic sensibilities natural to someone raised in rural Kentucky before the advent of rural electrification. If so, why should folklorists wish to burden their recordings with blundering interventions destined to obscure the crucial details that future generations will need in order to study this music properly? Indeed, although we stressed the concern that future auditors may miss musical qualities patent to us, it is also likely that some of them may discern vital differences in the music to which we are presently insensitive. (p 73)
(Maybe our blundering interventions will help future generations hear what we hear, even as they obscure what we don't! Six of one, but—of the other, half a dozen!) I really don't see why any ear capable of serving three so motley masters as Mozart, Ellington, and the Beatles (recordings of one of whom are only available from musicians whose ears have all presumably been ruined by the musics of their days) should also be disbarred from picking up the rhythmic sensibility of a fourth, especially if one did the reasonable thing and studied with him or her, which is precisely what people and groups interested primarily in performance tend to do. (At the same festival where I heard Matt Kinman was another trio whose name I wish I could remember; their performance was characterized by the bickering of the married two-thirds, an extremely beautiful a capella rendition of a murder ballad, and the constant supply of metadata regarding the provenance of the songs: whom they sought out or encountered to learn the material, where, the style, etc.) No doubt they copy imperfectly, but it's not as if the music sprang full-formed from Euterpe's head and has only in this declining age begun to change (consider Leadbelly's musical genealogy, in "Let it Shine on Me", from Where Did You Sleep Last Night: "this here is one of the first spirituals … before our people was free, they sang on plantations. Baptist people was the first denomination there was, in them times. … and when they'd sing, they didn't speed up their music, they'd take it slow and easy:" (then he sings a verse, then we're off to the Methodists, who sang faster (and evidently a bit more rhythmically, if Leadbelly's being accurate), and then a third iteration that he seems to identify as the holy ghost (that's where you get the swing).) (And the changes may really not be so bad.)
For all the sarcasm with which the idea that one might, preservationally minded, want to "learn to play the old fiddle tunes [oneself] and pass along its [sic] proper "reciprocity" [scare quotes!] so that the music can be readily reincarnated experientially, in the medium where its proper sadness truly lives, rather than consigning its fate, as in "objectivist" [sc!] days of yore, to the fickle clutches of notation or tape recorder" (72) is bruited, it's hard for me to see what's so all-fired ridiculous about it; notation in particular is not likely to be well-suited to the task of capturing fiddle tunes, no, not even rhythmically; and insofar as these are, if you like, living tunes that may not be played the same way thrice, tape recording won't get it all either. (Tape recording certainly won't get the surrounding context which one might think worth at least noting; it really is true, after all, that listening to a fiddle tune on your sleek state-of-the-art hi-fi whilst seated in your rigidly geometric black-and-white home is not going to be quite the same experience as one would have had in its home territory, and one might want to know, since it may well not be obvious to Future Scholars, whether this was a tune for dance, for something else; was it played seasonally (in the interview above with the Russian Chorist, we learn that some tunes were so tightly associated with their accompanying activities that, when the guy wanted to hear one that went along with spinning, the singers would first change into their spinning togs and start spinning—tape-record that!). Not to mention the interests of Future Non-Scholarly Listeners.)
Which isn't to say that learning the tunes should be the exclusive alternative to recording them; after all, if one wants a record of their evolution, or wants to preserve the music of a particular era, recording's going to be a far better bet. But the comment about the ruination of our modern ears seems quite unduly pessimistic—as if, since attempting to learn and perform live the music won't keep it frozen in amber, the only thing to do is record record record, watch the last players die, and then play Mozart in the community orchestra (it would be a shame, after all, if one's only encounter with that great music came out of a magnetic box). (I wonder if there are analogous debates in language-revivalist circles; doubtless there are.) Of course if these are non-exclusive alternatives, they're still alternatives, and one shouldn't put oneself on what would otherwise be a field recording: so much is common sense.
A final note about this bit of WS. At one point Wilson says "I doubt that anyone would seriously suppose that musical classification cannot be extricated from the 'political' unless they had become persuaded of that thesis through philosophical considerations." But only a few sentences earlier we learn that the quotation to which that statement is a response discusses an argument about musical classification "that arose in the context of a funding panel upon which [the author] once served" (69). (Note again the scare quotes, which he's disparaged dyspeptically a page previous.) It doesn't take philosophical considerations to link funding panels and politics, and it's not just the occasional funding panel that intersects with musical classification in political ways. Following O Brother, Where Art Thou? one could listen to old-timey music and maintain one's middle-class self-respect among this sort of white person, but contemporary Nashville country remains a class-based no-go. It is often quite obvious the way rock bands get the subgenres to which they are said to belong reassigned as their fortunes wax and wane; I used to have some good prog-based examples of this from Q but I've forgotten them all. The basic strategy of course involved saying that so-and-so isn't really prog, a necessary preliminary before making them ok to like (because nothing classified that way could be acceptable). (The claim that some unlikely personage or other is "punk" is another way this crops up.) Genre vs. "literary" fiction works along similar lines; anyone previously thought to work in the former whose reputation rises high enough suddenly is revealed never to have been a genre author after all (and, this being the important part, gets reviewed in different parts of the paper and with more space, and maybe shelved elsewhere in the bookstore, and more people can admit in polite company to reading him or her), and someone already acknowledged to write the latter can write what would otherwise be genre fiction without thereby being ghettoized. One needn't philosophize to come to these conclusions, and they are political, broadly but not overbroadly construed. One might need to philosophize to think that Wilson's insistence on the set-apartness and purity of the Autochthonous Folk Musician who predates rural electrification has a whiff of the political about it, but it's also not clear that that's wrong. (It's also not clear that it's terribly pernicious, and if it motivates him all the more to make field recordings, more power to him.)