Cultural commodification

Cultural commodification

Wikipedia gives the following as an example of cultural commodification:

‘A Hawaiian Luau … was once a traditional performance reserved for community members and local people but, through the rise of tourism, this tradition has lost part of its cultural meaning and is now mostly a "for profit" performance.’

To what extent, if at all, would you say this applies to traditional Irish dance music?

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Without a doubt commodification has happened in ITM, tunes and song but there is still a lot of amateur
playing to be found in pubs, clubs and homes. It may seem that trad music has become a profession with degree courses and heavy marketing but most players/singers perform in informal settings for their own pleasure with no profit motive. The general public probably only see the paid bands so only get exposed to a slick, commercial version of trad. Luckily this style has not yet eclipsed the more roots type of performance.

As an aside; I cannot think of any commercialisation of Morris music as a separate genre. Are there any "Morris" groups out there?

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"A Hawaiian Luau … was once a traditional performance reserved for community members and local people but, through the rise of tourism, this tradition has lost part of its cultural meaning and is now mostly a for profit performance."

That definition has a Captain Obvious feel to it. Before outsiders colonised Hawai’i everything anyone did was "reserved for community members and local people". And saying something "was once a tradition" is talking in circles (how could a tradition not once have been one?)

The goofy wording aside, for sure many cultures have packaged their traditional music and/or dance for commercial or educational purposes.

In Disneyland back in the 1950s there was an "Indian Village" which was given over to various Tribes, one at a time, to present their own unique songs and dances.

I think that’s a great thing about many traditional Irish sessions: they continue to be musicians gathering for the sharing of music among themselves, with the entertainment value being ancillary.

I’ve spent most of my life in the Highland pipe band world, which has proven (perhaps understandably) resistant to commercialisation. At contests most of the audience are other pipe band people.

Ditto piobaireachd- people have commented over the years how rare it is to have non-pipers in the audience.

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which has proven (perhaps understandably) resistant

Possibly "incapable" might be a better word :D

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DickT wrote: "As an aside; I cannot think of any commercialisation of Morris music as a separate genre. Are there any "Morris" groups out there?"

Ashley Hutchings (Albion—fill in the blank here—Band) put out a couple of recordings with titles including "Morris On", and similar names with instrumentation similar to Fairport Convention. Don’t know whether they sold enough to be considered "commercial", but they are out there.

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But Highland Games like the ones in Estes Park, CO are very much comodified, commercialized Scottish culture. They run a pipe band competition, but outwith that, they are very twee with lots of plaid and people running around with clan symbols and kilts, and you can buy photos of Glencoe or Skye or whatever, and there’s definitely no one getting wasted on Buckfast near grey tower blocks with sandblasted cladding that look like they were built by the Soviet Union. You can also walk down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and find the same over-commercialization, so people are happy to comodify their own culture if they can make money off tourists.

The degree to which Scots I’ve met care about this is precisely zero.

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I’m sure that there has been money changing hands for the music since we had a discernible tradition. It’s not intrinsically a problem-

In fact - financing the music is it’s life-blood in many ways.

I love some pure drop playing as do all musicians - yes even the ones that get slagged for playing “jazz” (in fact they are often the masters). However - the existence of blended and pop versions of the music (or tourist versions) does not diminish our tradition - fortunately it appears to strengthen it.

Looking at Banghra gives a great example- it is the mixing of traditional Asian music with pop hip-hop -

When the overwhelming popularity of that music looked to be eradicating the skill & esteem of traditional music - pioneers mixed traditional music with pop hip hop music - creating banghra.

The thing is - had the traditional musicians decried it as sacrilege or somehow stood in its way - Asian music would then become defined by what it is not - now it is global in its reach and the numbers of listeners & appreciaters are almost innumerable. But what is more is that the traditional music is in fact in a stronger position due to this -

And those who define the tradition only by what it is not - will be defined by other music and not the tradition itself -

As for authenticity - you’ll find it all around and I’m sure the commercial tourist gigs will even be filled with some proper craic-

I don’t think our traditional music is is under threat from tourist & other shows at all.

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Riverdance is the most obvious recent example of ITM commodification, with numerous troupes across the world performing it for the last 15 years or so. This has provided steady employment for many ITM musicians and dancers and, no doubt, brought useful export earnings into the Irish economy.

It is nothing new, though. A recent BBC Scotland documentary reported on the worldwide ‘Scottish craze’ promoted by Queen Victoria, Walter Scott etc from about 1850 which led to a clamour for all things tartan. Suddenly every family needed a tartan, and nine yards of cloth for a kilt, sporran and other jangly bits, and the British woollen industry duly obliged by making up dozens of ‘newly discovered’ tartan patterns. The Royal Mile has never recovered but the money keeps rolling in.

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The revival of Morris dancing has influenced English traditional music in general (particularly the slow, lumbering tempo and heavy staccato downbeat that is so foreign to those accustomed to Irish music - a kind of anti-lift*), including many musicians at the ‘commercial’ end of the scene. I am sure Morris sides sometimes perform at private events for payment (not just in real ale), but Morris dancing is treated with derision or, at best, indifference, by the majority of people in England (although you would get a different impression if you were to attend one of the major English folk festivals). Traditional musician and dancer Laurel Swift has choreographed a number of stage productions based in Morris dancing - but they have not quite had the mass appeal as Riverdance.

*This is not a criticism on my part, just an attempt to describe the contrast with Irish traditional dance music. Coming from multi-cultural London, the ‘deep Englishness’ of Morris dancing and the like is somewhat foreign to me - and I like the foreignness of it.

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I play with Black Swan Border Morris and the Brixton Tatterjacks sometimes in London. The flavour and style maybe different but the sense of tradition is hot. And a lot of young (20s) people being involved. Morris dancing is a collecting money device, dancers, musicians, all manner of riff raff busking. So it’s always been a commodity. And remember the border style dancers have bloody great sticks and know what to do with them!

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The quote in the OP is from a section on ‘cultural commodification’ in a page on ‘commodification’. I guess music as a ‘commodity’ has been around ever since someone good at it found they could get payment from others in their own community - busking in the market or playing at someone’s party maybe.

‘Cultural commodification’ is different and given as "areas in the life of a community which prior to its penetration by tourism have not been within the domain of economic relations regulated by criteria of market exchange”. Most times I see an Irish band in England the audience has a large contingent from the Irish diaspora and the intros from the band often take that into account. There is a strong element of playing ‘their’ music for ‘their’ compatriots. The music is a commodity, but not ‘cultural commodification’ as described. Is the OP only thinking of Ireland?

I agree with Yhaal about Morris dancing being a money collecting device - that’s what all the research into the history suggests. I’m not sure I agree with CMO about the influence of Morris on English trad music - many of the ‘source musicians’ that the revivers were influenced by (and suggest newbies listen to) played for social dancing. Scan Tester for example.

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We should be thanking whatever gods we pray to (or don’t) for cultural commodification, because the dollar signs in the eyes of record companies in the 20s and 30s gave us the recordings of Coleman, Killoran, et al. that Irish musicians cherish. It’s not all good, of course, but the fact that many players have been able to devote themselves full-time to playing and teaching the music is a good thing, even if they’re often playing to tourists just off the Blarney Castle bus.

I also think that there’s a big difference between cultural commodification by the people whose traditions are being commodified and commodification by outside forces, which often leads to exploitation and appropriation. In the case of Irish music, the former seems more common.

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Bigscotia, in the case of Irish dance it goes back to forces inside Ireland. Though since then outside forces have become significant too.

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About the tat shops on the Royal Mile and such, I took the OP’s subject to be the for-profit presentation of traditional music and dance.

For sure loads of money has been made from Highland costume, especially that which is made in Sialkot.

With Irish music, American vaudeville stages often had Irish musicians and comedians, some of which were great musicians like Patsy Touhey, who would dress up in top hats, swallowtail coats, and knee-breeches to become the perfect stage-Paddys.

Touhey was very proactive about marketing himself and his recordings.

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‘top hats, swallowtail coats, and knee-breeches’: sounds like a Morris side!!

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CreadurMawnOrganig, your description of English music is mistaken in almost every aspect, but this is probably not the right forum to discuss it.

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@Howard Jones: That’s a fairly thorough slating, but possibly deserved - my comments reflect my relatively limited experience of English music. Feel free to PM me with your corrections (I am not looking for a fight, only education).

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I just followed AB’s link, apparently John Kirkpatrick’s ‘Plain Capers’ is selling in excess of $900???
I don’t know if its a misprint , a bad joke or what. Here in the UK it sells on average for £10. Its well worth a listen [but not for nearly 1,000 bucks] people who think they don’t like Morris , or English trad per se might be quite impressed - none of the sloppy melodeon playing or out of time drumming that often gets Morris performance a bad press.

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"CreadurMawnOrganig, your description of English music is mistaken in almost every aspect, but this is probably not the right forum to discuss it."…..

Well Howard, right forum or not, it seems outright wrong to me that you would publicly sledge a comment, especially one that comes from one of our well respected and knowledgeable members, without ‘attempting’ to justify your claim.

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I’m living in hopes of getting to see some Morris Dancing for real, but when I get to England, usually in August, there’s none to be seen. Maybe it’ll be commodified by next August?
Alex.

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English dance music … are you in for a 5 minute argument:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXDggGC9TVc


A twenty minute argument:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiB7Ks14XvI


Or go deeper:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cw9qOr9Abl4


Want to know where the lift is in English dance music? Dance to it and you’ll find it in precisely the same places that it is in Irish, Welsh, Scottish and other music.

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Gobby, my comment was intended neither as a "slating" nor a "sledging", and I didn’t go into more detail as I am conscious that this site is primarily for discussing Irish music. I have already PM’d CreadurMawnOrganig, as I was invited to, and I gladly apologise to them, to you and to anyone else who took offence at the tone of my remarks, which was entirely unintentional.

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Thanks Howard, maybe I just got a bit hot-headed. Sorry.

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No problem, it’s difficult to get the tone right on forums and misunderstandings happen. I should have put more thought into my post.

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Perhaps it is cultural sharing rather than commodification. When I was playing GHB our band was invited to play at a celebration of a local tribal people. We shared our music and they performed traditional dances. I have also had an opportunity to observe a Japanese Tea Ceremony. And some years ago heard Ravi Shankar perform. These and similar performance by people outside of one’s own culture can be a way of teaching about and sharing the culture of the performers.

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It’s obvious Creadur was generalising and it would be interesting to hear the details about how much Morris dance music *has* influenced traditional English music as well as ways in which English traditions are yet distinct from Morris styles.

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Since Hawai’i and the lu’au was mentioned I feel I am qualified to mention a few things on the topic.

I grew up in Hawai’i and play Hawaiian music professionally here in California. My wife & I go back to Hawai’i at least once a year to keep in touch with relatives and friends.

Although a version of the lu’au has been made into a money-making venture for the people who produce it, the lu’au itself is still a vibrant part of Hawaiian lifestyle. Lu’au (a singular and plural noun, and a verb too!) are thrown for graduations (mostly highschool and college), birthdays (especially first birthdays), weddings, retirements, deaths, loved ones leaving the islands, and loved ones returning.

Yes, the food includes, but is not restricted to, the typical fare at a tourist lu’au. There is also a lot of other ethnic foods that would include Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Samoan and US staples like burgers, hot dogs and chili.

Yes, there is also music, musicians, hula, leis and poi!

If you happen to know or meet up with a Hawaiian family that asks you to their lu’au you should by all means GO!

All this to say that although the lu’au has been made into a commodity, it has in no way disappeared or lost its place of value to the Hawaiian people.

The several commercial lu’au that I attended while working in the tour industry were always very keen on presenting an educational, as well as entertaining event. Cooks, dancers, musicians, tour drivers and many other local people find that working at a commercial lu’au is beneficial to themselves as well as the Hawaiian economy as a whole.

Were the commercial lu’au to disappear, the lu’au as enjoyed by the Hawaiians from the past and today would go on as it always has.

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@ Alexander Gurgan: no Morris dancing in England in August??? Where have you been??
You must go to Sidmouth Folk Festival - first week in August, or Whitby, last week (whichever one includes the Bank Holiday weekend). And other festivals in between. That’s where they all are and you’ll see so many different styles of dance: Cotswold, Molly, Border, NE and NW clog, Rapper, Longsword, to name but a few! You’ll be spoilt for choice!
(That’s if festivals and dancing in general are up and running again by next August!)

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A Pagan/ Morris-like festival still existent in Irish culture, of course, is the Wren Boys event on St Stephen’s Day (26 Dec Gregorian/ ‘Boxing Day’). I’ve been wanting to do one in London, Europe for many years. This would certainly bring the Irish trad music/ dancing community together with the ‘English’ trad music/ Morris sides folks in a fab seasonal glorified pubcrawl! It’d be better than the usual ‘cold turkey sandwich with Aunty’ traditions for that day!

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Hmm, Morris dancing isn’t "pagan", and that’s really all that needs to be said there.

Also, English traditional music has much more than the Morris (much as I love it). Even Morris has many different styles and types.

There are many different (and regional) styles of step dance, clog dancing, Rapper and Longsword dancing then all the social dancing ; there are hundreds of English dance bands and they ain’t playing "Morris music."

Then there are the many festivals and sessions, there is huge variety.

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OK, back on subject.

Capitalism tends to commodify everything, right down to human relationships.

For me there is a basic thing about trad music and that is community, the interactions between people, how the music-making reacts to different social environments, its relationship to dancing etc.

When you isolate folk music on a big stage I think you are inevitably taking a step away from its essence. I’m not arguing that staging trad music is a bad thing. I do it myself after all. But in the end watching it can’t be the "real thing" because that means your own involvement at some level.

I’m not sure how well I’ve put that, maybe it’ll be questioned and sharpened in discussion.

I have no problem with players being paid for doing tourist sessions. Paid being the key word there. It’s not quite the same as the piper at the fair being paid a coin to play a few tunes to dance to, but that lives on in a different form with modern dance bands.

OK, stop rambling now …. 😀

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"no Morris dancing in England in August" (trish santer) To be fair, a visitor would be lucky to find Morris in August away from a town with a festival. Either the sides would be at a festival or would not be dancing because the members were at festivals and/or away with family.

I don’t think Morris (or English traditional music for that matter) has been commodified as a tourist attraction in the way the OP suggests Irish music and dance has. Outside folk festivals you are more likely to find it around a town on a bank holiday or at local events were most people haven’t traveled far - much as it may always have been as Yhaal House indicated.

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I think in the trad world we’re sometimes in danger of imbuing the music with some kind of mystic qualities it doesn’t really possess. Of course there are aspects surrounding it which add interest, but that is not unique to trad, and other genres have their own back stories. In the end it’s just music. It’s a different experience, for both audience and musicians, if it’s played on a large stage to a passive audience or in the back of a pub for the players’ own enjouyment, but both are equally valid, in my opinion. If the musicians in either situation get paid, good luck to them.

I think the question of "commodification" comes down to intent. When I go on holiday and see "folkloric" displays I often get the sense that these exist solely for the tourists. Here, whether it’s Irish trad in a pub frequented by tourists or a morris display, I know that they are doing it for the love of it, and will also play and dance in situations where they don’t get paid. The public shows are not their primary reason for doing it.

What I don’t know is whether this perception is correct, or is based simply on my inside knowledge of what happens in Irish and British folk music. Are the people in these folkloric troupes simply doing a job of work, churning out a dumbed-down version of their traditions to please ignorant tourists, or is it a dream job for someone who loves their traditions and enjoys sharing them? Are they full time professionals or amateur enthusiasts? I don’t know, and I suspect the answer differs from place to place, and perhaps person to person.

The question is, does it matter if casual visitors get a dumbed-down impression of a tradition? In most cases they’ve been entertained for a while and then think no more about it. No real damage done there. However some might be sufficiently intrigued to want to learn more, and find themselves drawn to the real thing.

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David50: that was exactly my point for Alexander: that if you want to find Morris dancing in August, you need to find a festival, as that’s where the dancers and musicians will all be! You don’t necessarily need to stay in whichever town it is: you can just drop by and you are bound to see some dancing going on, and all free (apart from the collecting cans for festival funds.)

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@Trish Santer. Sorry, I should have included the "Where have you been?" but when I noticed it was too late. However, my main point was that August was the month when a visitor was *less* likely to happen across Morris if not near a festival.

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Cultural commodification is tied to economics, where tradition, ceremony, context and culture are removed and in their place is a transactional and superficial transfer of culture.

"The goofy wording aside, for sure many cultures have packaged their traditional music and/or dance for commercial or educational purposes.

In Disneyland back in the 1950s there was an "Indian Village" which was given over to various Tribes, one at a time, to present their own unique songs and dances. "

Hawai’i didn’t go from "non-colonized" to commodified over night. There was a long period of time where ceremony and community was reserved for those within the community and tradition and there was plenty of colonization to go around. So the luau was a tradition reserved for within the community, and not a "spend $300 to get a luau at your beach step"

Disneyland wasn’t some cultural sharing center. They stole from other cultures to create commodified entertainment, and watered down tradition, culture, and language to accomplish those goals. There’s not only an asymmetric power structure between Disney corporation and the Native Americans, Disney dictated the terms and turned what was ceremony and regalia into entertainment and costumes.

I think a good analysis for cultural commodification comes from taking into account economic and power differentials. If a people from a culture are starving, they’ll likely trade ceremony and tradition for money to feed their children.

As Howard Jones pointed out, intent also goes a long way, though I think it’s intent on both directions. The intent of the sharer and the intent of the receiver.

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Whenever people ask questions like this they look at those who perform and make money. But for every performer who succeeds at such a quest there are probably more people like most of us who do not perform and do not make money, or at least not very much money at it. We play in sessions at pubs or in the park or in our homes. We play alone or with friends. There may be people listening or not, passersby who stop for a moment and those who demand to know if we have a permit and if not, demand us to leave. Whose experience is the truer expression of the cultural influence or representation or worth or continuity of the music?

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Thanks Aldon for that information about the continuing role of lu’au in Hawai’i.

Goes to show that something can be commercialised for outsiders while also remaining traditional and authentic to those within a culture, which is something we all might keep in mind.

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By the way it’s odd that the USA was initially colonised by the English, and the preponderance (if not the majority) of people here have English last names, yet overtly English cultural events are extremely rare.

In contrast to the communities of Irish, Scottish, German, Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Greek, etc. descent which have festivals and other events regularly. My wife and I attended a Hungarian festival in Los Angeles a while back.

So, I’ve grown up around Irish, Scottish, and Mexican music and dance but I’ve never seen Morris dancing or knowingly heard English dance music (except Northumbrian piping).

Time for the English to commodificate around here!

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@Richard Cook. When searching on youtube from tunes from Playford’s Dancing Master it’s very common for the first hits to be folk in the USA dancing them in costume.

I guess it could be just a few dance groups who are keen youtube posters but it gives the impression that (non commodified) 18th century English dance is more popular over there than here in England. The tunes are still around but usually with a less genteel delivery.

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"By the way it’s odd that the USA was initially colonised by the English, and the preponderance (if not the majority) of people here have English last names, yet overtly English cultural events are extremely rare."

Does that contain the answer? Due to early migration up to about 1800 or so "English American" was the unspoken default from which other nationalities distinguished themselves?

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There is also a lack of ‘English’ culture in England. Here in London, Europe there are many communities celebrating their cultures (music, food, dance, religion/ folk law, language, costume) but almost zero ‘English’. I can (pre-Plague) attend many trad Irish sessions and one or two trad English. I can eat Punjabi (both Sikh and halal), Nigerian, Jewish , Tamil, Cantonese, Portuguese, Mexican et cetera food. No English restaurants except fish’n’chips and the occasional rare Pie & Eel shop. I’m involved in Morris but the majority of the ‘English’ are embarrassed by it. There is no discernable English culture except cups of tea, saying ‘sorry’ inappropriately and the class system.

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Can verify that kanaka maoli and other Hawaii residents still do luaus for special occasions and get-togethers. No tourist involvement necessary.

Whoever thinks that the luau traditions have been completely commodified by the tourist industry needs to get out of Waikiki and out into the countryside a bit, and to the neighbor islands! 🙂

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Vechey made the point I wanted to make, but hadn’t quite untwisted how to say it.

"I think a good analysis for cultural commodification comes from taking into account economic and power differentials. If a people from a culture are starving, they’ll likely trade ceremony and tradition for money to feed their children."

The power dynamics can’t be ignored. There’s a world of difference between Scots comodifying themselves on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and the Washington Redskins. If you’re happy to sell a Disneyland caricature of your own culture that tourists want to buy, more power to you. Keeps people employed (well, not anymore). But it becomes problematic when a group who has all the political power effectively creates a Disneyland caricature of a group with no or very little power. Usually, that kind of cartoonification further entrenches that power dynamic by heavily invoking "otherness" in the minority group.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that, is it? Like someone said earlier in this thread, the Tartan tat associated with Scotland was made up by the Victorian gentry and monarchy, who were marketing their version of the Highlands, while at the same time, engaging in a massive land grab that displaced thousands of actual Highlanders.

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"The Tartan tat associated with Scotland was made up by the Victorian gentry and monarchy, who were marketing their version of the Highlands, while at the same time, engaging in a massive land grab that displaced thousands of actual Highlanders."

Absolutely true, and yet the Scots themselves have embraced the short kilt and multitude of tartens and made them a crucial part of their culture. I’ve never met a Scot who refuses all that because of where it came from.
Yhaal House is right about English folk culture in general and Morris in particular. It’s sad but true that Morris sides are a go-to source of of lazy amusement throughout the country. Traditional English folk is a very niche interest, compared to how important Irish folk dance and music is to the Irish, or even Scottish folk is to the Scots.

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"By the way it’s odd that the USA was initially colonised by the English, and the preponderance (if not the majority) of people here have English last names, yet overtly English cultural events are extremely rare."

I’m pretty sure the Scots, Welsh and Irish were there too with their Scottish, Welsh and Irish last names.

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"Traditional English folk is a very niche interest, compared to how important Irish folk dance and music is to the Irish, or even Scottish folk is to the Scots." (Jimi Limpet ). I don’t think English traditional music has been seen as a ‘national music’ in the way that Irish and Scottish music has.

That’s probably down to the economic and political dominance of the English, with Irish and the Scots pushing back against the English. According to some narratives during the ‘first folk revival’ in England Cecil Sharpe and his middle-class pals were using the music of the common folk to push back against the popularity, in England, of European art music. That ‘commodfication’ gave us some (IMO) rather nice orchestrations of English folk themes by Vaughan Williams and others and some (IMO) mainly cringe inducing song arrangements. Apart from putting a representation of traditional music into schools it didn’t get far and some of the early Morris revival had a rather dodgy far right-wing political flavour.

Come the ‘second revival’ in the mid-late 20th century the political left took the lead. So rather than traditional music having an aspect if "us challenging the English" (and the diaspora revering their roots) it was liberal-left challenging the political right. In the late 90’s at a folk concert the band asked for a show of hands as to what newspapers people read. Out of about 200 hundred there were just two determined hands for the Daily Telegraph.

I suspect it’s still much that way but mainly it looks to me like folk who get together for tunes and songs that not enough other people like for it to be worth commodifying.