I like to think of our musical relationships “nesting” one within another, like Bronfenbrenner’s Russian dolls: from the first snug sounds sung between parent and child, to the wider musical cultures that surround us, if we’re lucky – people buying records, writing songs, chanting, generally administering their own sound therapy, with minimal side effects (if you don’t count celebrity). Macrosystem nurtures mesosystem. An ecology of music born of, and replicating, the intimacy of the microsystem. Music-making through the generations, we weave complex schemes binding system to system and leaping others, looping back. From a moment when players’ eyes meet over a tune, to the ultimate universal archetype – that unifying recognition that, regardless of genre, this is the sound humanity makes when it needs to sing the raw truth. One thing I have always loved about folk song is that it straddles the intimate and the grand, the earthly and celestial spheres. As “the peoples’ music”, it is accessible, asks to be learned, exists to function and so contains the seeds of it own maintenance. Simultaneously, as an art it remains unfathomable.
In good and bad times there’s something undaunted about an old song or tune, which seems to impart strength to the player, the singer or listener. Some would relate this to a concept of having “roots” – to me that word is too redolent of place, of some originating earth. I can see that contacting whatever one identifies as “roots” might help us feel at home in someone else’s home. My roots may lend me strength while acknowledging their equal in the “other”: your roots. We may forge our own routes to memories of estranged homelands or loved ones. But musical heritage, and especially with regard to its geographical provenance, is rarely a “clean line”. I once heard someone apply this term to English fiddle music, of all things – one of the gnarlier “traditions”: full of broad contemporary shakeups and deep, hot-cheeked schisms about what actually flourishes under that banner. My musical heritage isn’t a clean line; it’s a briar whose roots are hidden, which twists confusingly, and which flowers at unexpected points.
Cultures continue to clash and groups to – often bloodily – assert their dreams of soil and independence. My friend and songwriting guru Alistair Hulett first planted an idea for me: that we have the choice to clarify our feelings about who we are and the systems we live under; to modulate the effects of media manipulation and nationalistic spin; to empower ourselves – through a kind of autonomous self-description: a list of the characteristics that make us up, in order of those which we find most pertinent about ourselves. For Alistair, the position of a worker trying to survive as a particle in a capitalist food-chain was paramount in his self-identifying, far above Scottishness. “I don’t need a national identity” he said “I’ve got a passport if you need to see where I’m from.” He also once told me, when we were in Australia: “I don’t think there’s anything more vulgar than a blue sky.” This is the most Scottish thing ever said.
(Since you ask, the list of traits in order of personal significance with which I describe myself to myself goes something like: 1. Feminist 2. Pacifist 3. Working person, but you know, an Artist, sort of, so a bit off to one side. …. and English at about number 14, some distance after Surprisingly Wily Leg Spinner and Amateur Shark Expert.)
I think of Alistair often, and the way his music straddled the ancient and the contemporary. At a political songwriting workshop at Woodford festival, in the 40-degree Queensland heat, I watched him concentrate for the entire hour on presenting a traditional Scots ballad. He could have talked about fifty of his own songs. His performance was gripping. I saw young audience members become inflamed by something utterly new and thrilling to them. Alistair harnessed that strength, the indefatigable shapes inherent in that material which had ensured its immortality and brought it there to us that day, to tell us what it was like for poor people at that time, and now. And in doing so, he surrendered ego in favour of the oral expressions of a collective musical culture – a continuum of employment of the same musical shapes, within which his own writing (and singing) was firmly nested.
Structural manifestations of orality that have given life to, and are retained within, the very musical fabric of the tradition – as songwriters we borrow these structures and hang our own stories upon them. The ancient source, the sounds and shapes of our dreams – available to all and encompassing our nested, necessary relationships like the largest Russian doll. Somehow unassailable through incredible age and seldom having been, well, really cool. I have friends who are experts in ancient Norse Sagas – if you’re going to troll them you’d better actually BE a troll.
I think of Pete Seeger – and Peggy too, whom I had the chance to hear and share a stage with last month – and the songs and singers who inspire me to try and be strong yet gentle (without sounding like a toilet roll). I am now, more than ever, nourished by an extended family of nested relationships forged, in many different ways, through song.