Am Bratach No. 320
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by Kevin Crowe
“Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk,
Tradition and Policy”, edited by Simon McKerrell and Gary West, Routledge,
2018. £35.99 (ebook), £115 (hardback).
On a recent
trip to Edinburgh, enjoying the sunshine in Princes Street Gardens, we heard
loud, energetic, bagpipe-led dance music emanating from the Mound. We soon
found ourselves tapping our feet to international three-piece band The
Spinning Blowfish, consisting of a Scottish piper and two Italians, one on
drums and percussion, the other on electric guitar. Playing a combination of
souped-up traditional tunes and their own compositions, their mix of
Scottish folk with rock, jazz and funk was an excellent example of what has
been called Celtic Fusion.
Their music also highlighted some of the
key issues debated in this fascinating collection of essays written in the
context of the independence referendum; issues such as, what do we mean by
“folk” and “traditional”? Is there a difference between the two? What do we
mean when we refer to music, or any other cultural product, as Scottish? Do
the performers have to be Scottish, and what do we mean by that?
These sorts of questions are not new. Back in the 1960s, folk singer, writer
and political activist Ewan McColl believed musicians should only perform
music from the tradition in which they were socialised. Many of his
contemporaries disagreed and he was clearly swimming against the tide in a
decade which saw Dylan turning electric, Pentangle experimenting with
folk-jazz fusions, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span introducing rock
instrumentation and Donovan and the Incredible String Band mixing folk,
Indian ragas and hippie philosophy.
This process has continued in the
decades since, culminating in two of Scotland’s key regular cultural events:
the annual Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow and Aly Bain’s
Transatlantic Sessions, which bring together Scottish, Irish, Canadian and
The essays in Understanding Scotland Musically address
these issues from the perspective of the rise of Scottish nationalism and
the debates about what our relationship should be with the rest of the UK
and with mainland Europe. As one would expect, there are a variety of views,
some of which are based on authors’ experiences as working musicians, others
on academic research. There are essays looking at specific traditions such
as Highland dancing, fiddle music and the bagpipes; there are essays on the
role of institutions such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the
Scottish Arts Council and Creative Scotland; some are primarily historical
while others are more concerned with the contemporary scene.
the more unusual perspectives is that of Phil Alexander, whose specialism is
klesmer and Yiddish music and who is a researcher on Glasgow University’s
Jewish Lives/Scottish Spaces project. He was for a time a member of Salsa
Celtica which, as its name suggests, combines Latin American and Scottish
In “Traditional Music and Cultural Sustainability in
Scotland”, Simon McKerrell looks at the ways we can interpret
“authenticity”, offering a critique of those who see an indigenous oral
tradition and commercial structures as binary opposites. David Francis in
“The Emergence of the ‘Traditional Arts’ in Scottish Cultural Policy”
examines how traditional music is funded and compares it with other areas of
artistic endeavour. Fiona Mackenzie’s starting point in “‘Eun Bheag
Chanaidh’” is the work of American folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw in
collecting and ensuring the survival of so many traditional songs from the
Western Isles. In “Referendum Reflections”, Mairi McFadyen’s examination of
the role of music in the independence campaign is fascinating, particularly
in the relationship between folk music and the ideas of nation.
her multi-layered “Slaying the Tartan Monster”, Meghan McAvoy looks at the
practice of one famous fusion band, Treacherous Orchestra, and how fusion
both reinvigorates and changes traditional music. Her essay also contrasts
the working class and rural roots of folk music with its popularity among
middle class audiences since the 1960s folk revival.
“Distant Voices, Scottish Lives” looks at the relationship between the
diaspora and music. In “The Problem with ‘Traditional’” David McGuinness
questions the value of phrases like “traditional music” and “Scottish
music”. Karen McAulay, in “Wynds, Vennels and Dual Carriageways”, suggests
boundaries between genres are porous.
This is an excellent collection
of essays, ranging from dense academic texts to the perspectives of working
musicians. However, as with so many academic publications, the cost is
beyond the pockets of most of us. There has been much writing critical of
the pricing policy of academic publishers, with some economists showing that
lower prices could lead to more sales and higher profits and some
sociologists suggesting these high prices reinforce elitism. What is ironic
is that a book about the music of the people should be priced beyond the
means of most of us.
Rather than pay over £100, you could do as I
did and borrow a copy from a friend or order it from the library.