In his book Story Craft, children’s author John Erickson points out that 95% of all Anglo-American folksongs can be played with three chords.
“G provides the introduction, C creates suspense, and D resolves the tune back to G. It forms a circle, a whole. It has structure. Something inside us responds to the geometry of tone and harmony, and even listeners who don’t read or write music can sense it.”
Erickson compares the patterns found in folk music to the forms in oral storytelling tradition. “They use it because it works. Performing in front of a live audience, they can see how listeners respond to a story. If the audience doesn’t laugh, falls asleep, or walks out, something is wrong.”
The structure may be predictable, but the result is usually worth hearing, because of two elements the pattern requires: movement and resolution. As Francis Schaeffer wrote of Bach’s music, “There can be endless variety and diversity without chaos. There is variety yet resolution.”
A strict form, but freedom within it. Wordsworth would approve. “[A]nd hence for me / In sundry moods / ’twas pastime to be bound / Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground…”
Erickson takes his logic to the next level: “A structured story says, without saying it, that there is order in the universe, and in this crazy postmodern world, that becomes a profoundly positive religious statement, an affirmation of the divine act of creation. Kids are drawn to it by instinct because they have a natural craving for structure and meaning. We all do.
“Until a few decades ago, writers worked within the constraints of public taste as defined by Judeo-Christian tradition. Even more radical (to modern ears), writers considered themselves part of the community that created those constraints. Did it limit their freedom of expression? Of course it did, but every craft imposes limits. Plumbers aren’t allowed to run sewer lines uphill. Roofers can’t invent new ways of laying down shingles. Diamond cutters are not free to express their whims in the shape of a gem.”
The problem is that modern artists, in a rebellion against constraints, have invented their own rules for structure and function. They create art for themselves, accepting no responsibility for any damage it might inflict. Erickson doesn’t blame artists for all of society’s ills, but he does remind us that “art is more than a mere reflection of society. It teaches and provides examples of what it means to be a whole, civilized human being.”
One of my favorite children’s novels of 2010 is Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker. In this rich debut novel, the patterns are those of the oral storytelling tradition. Evil is evil and can be overcome. Old stories are true stories, a help to those wise enough to remember them. It’s the kind of book you read aloud by the fire, with chairs drawn close. There is structure, there is harmony, there is movement and resolution. Such storytelling has kept countless myths and legends alive through the centuries, and it is the only kind of storytelling that will last beyond an artist’s lifetime.