It's easy to say that traditional music is music for which the authorship has been lost to the ages. But there are different levels of loss, and certainly different ages. Consider "The Rivers of Texas" - a wonderful ballad that mentions fifteen Texas rivers (Ann Zimmerman has an excellent Kansas version) and has a great sing-along chorus. This song was collected by the folklorist Vance Randolf who heard it from his friend, Irene Carlisle. She said she learned it from a cowboy that rented a room from her for awhile, whose name she had forgotten. She could have done the Roy Acuff thing and claimed that she had written it, and her kin folks could still be collecting royalties - but she opted for truth. So even though it's from the twentieth century, we don't happen to know who wrote it - does that make it a traditional song? And there were songs written over a hundred years earlier that we can still attribute to Stephen Foster or Silas Sexton Steele. All are considered "public domain" (because Steve and Silas's copyrights ran out, the cowboy never had one), but is one any more or less "traditional" than another? Of course, Mr. Foster, (the Bob Dylan of the nineteenth century), composed many of his songs around older, traditional melodies. In many cases, both still survive, but the Foster compositions remain the more compelling and years from now "Hard Times Come Again No More" may become as much a part of our future musical tradition as "Buffalo Gals" or "Black Jack Davey" are to our tradition today. Given enough time, so might "Blowin' in the Wind". It's all folk process, to be sure, I'm just fascinated by how it all fits together. And somehow I'm driven to comprehend the distinctions - maybe just so I can spot the next one when it comes around.
I'm also interested in how technology affects things. Perhaps Foster's songs have remained his own because he had access to printing presses to print his sheet music and distribute it at concerts, much the way we sell CDs today. Without this evolutionary step, his songs might have already become as "traditional" as say, "Banks of the Ohio" or "The Water is Wide". It's entirely possible that the authors of those songs were just as prolific as Steve and Silas, we just don't know because there's no record. And let's reconsider that cowboy with the "Rivers of Texas" song - today he would have drifted up to Denver and sang it at a couple of open mics and Harry Tuft would have been on the phone to some hot indie record company - and we'd have the next Townes Van Zandt. Maybe.
My favorite aspect of all this is people who are making their own music but making it in a way that sounds traditional - the Be Good Tanyas or Old Crow Medicine Show immediately come to mind. Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie are also both masters at this sleight of hand. The Holy Modal Rounders and The Incredible String Band made it look really easy, and had great fun with it. The wonderful ballad "Darcy Farrow", first recorded by Ian and Sylvia in the sixties, has the look, feel and texture of the very same ancient celtic folk song that Tom Cambell and Steve Gillette were trying to pass it off as for a class at U.C. Berekley. They had in fact written it themselves - based loosely on an accident Gillette's sister Darcy had on her horse. It was effective then, and was especially so later in the skilled hands of the Tysons. To this day, folks who never bother to read the liner notes assume that it's as old as "Barbry Allan". To this Old Folkie, that's the holy grail of folk music - to sound a couple of hundred years older than you really are. And still relate to the people around you.