Letters - May to December 2002
It is true that the repertoire of just about any Cape Breton fiddler today will contain numerous tunes that were composed by the likes of William Marshall and Scott Skinner. (However, for Roberts to lump the Gows, who also feature prominently, with these two is inaccurate they were from around Dunkeld.) It is thought that many of these tunes entered into Cape Breton primarily via the manuscripts and tune collections imported from Scotland during the 20th Century. Of course, they would have been circulated orally by and large, from literature players to the more numerous non-literate players. Moreover, many of the older tunes of these books were probably in circulation already, as part of the rich oral tradition. What was not imported, however, was the classically-influenced aesthetic, bowing style, articulation and generally less stable rhythm that, by then, were prominent in Scotland, promulgated by players like Skinner.
In several comments, Mr Roberts states his unwillingness to accept that Cape Breton players preserve an older style of fiddle playing, akin to what would have been found in the Highlands and Islands around the time of the Clearances. He bases this argument on the above non-evidence, and his assertion that Cape Breton music "in fact, is not so much a case of survival as of constant regeneration through continuing links with Scotland". It is not clear whether by 'links' he means the aforementioned literature, or people; if it is the latter, then he is mistaken. There was actually very little emigration to Cape Breton by Scots after the middle of the 19th century. Tourism between the countries was infrequent until the mid to latter part of the 20th Century. Before this time, were a fiddler from Scotland to have visited Cape Breton, the two would have likely spoken different languages both musically and linguistically. In a nutshell, we know what Cape Breton fiddling was like from the earliest recordings done around the early to middle part of the 20th century; before this, and back to the 1850s or so, few Scots came across.
Mr Robert's statement that "[t]he bulk of the material is of late 19th/20th century origin which surely scotches (sorry!) [sic.] the myth of 'ancient pre-clearance music'" betrays an ignorance about what constitutes tradition. He dissociates one aspect of Cape Breton music-repertoire-from a web of cultural evidence that Cape Bretoners held on to many areas of inheritance linking them to the Scottish Gaidhealtachd. Consider the following other pre-Clearance survivals:
? The Gaelic language of course, including certain mainland dialects which languished hereTo pry fiddling away from these important aspects of culture is simply bad ethnology. Is there any reason to suspect that, while Cape Bretoners preserved these other facets of their culture well, their fiddling is nothing but a doppelganger, or a tradition gone astray? All evidence points to the contrary.
? A profoundly rich oral tradition, with songs and stories of many genres, some dating to the Middle Ages and before
? Mouth music ('puirt-a-beul'), which helped to preserve traditional settings of instrumental tunes
? A pre-competition style of bagpiping
? Scottish step-dance
While the repertoire of most younger players is fairly progressive, it is important to question the relative value attached to different tunes by their players. Although aware of no formal research on the matter, I would be surprised if even younger players didn't give more importance to old tunes that have been played over the generations than to, say, a modern composition. There seems to be a recognition that these old tunes capture something special. It is both their age, and the important fact that they are great tunes, which is, after all, the key to their long life. Cape Bretoners play a combination of old, pre-Clearance material, pieces learnt from tune books, and a large helping of recent compositions. It is these collective elements which imbibe the music with such vitality.
Mr Roberts would do well to check out some other recordings of older Cape Breton players, such as those contained on producer Mark Wilson's multi-volume series ('Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton'), to get a wider picture of the tradition. Old wire recordings in circulation as dubbed tapes can tell us a lot as well. If he were to do a bit of research - such as by checking some select field tapes of the School of Scottish Studies - he might be surprised to find that the style of older, Gaelic-speaking, traditional fiddlers recorded in a place like Moidart is remarkably consistent with the recordings that we have of Cape Breton players from the same epoch. This is important, because we are talking about a separation of at least 100 years. These tapes show commonalties, particularly in Strathspey playing, which distinguish them from more recent 'West Highland' style players and other largely non-Gaelic styles in Scotland.
A few final quibbles first, Mr Roberts brings up pibroch, saying that it is untrue that Cape Bretoners preserved the 'true' form of this type of pipe music. This is a non-issue; perhaps someone got confused with the term pìobaireachd which simply means 'piping'. I have never heard anyone informed on the matter advance such an opinion. The older Gaelic-speaking pipers in Cape Breton did preserve a pre-competition, oral style of playing. But, curiously, pibroch (often referred to as ceòl mòr 'big music') seems not to have been known by these players. It appears that the context for its performance and cultivation disappeared with the old Gaelic aristocracy, which these players had left behind. Second, Mr Roberts states "the art of formal composition is highly regarded and central to this tradition and any fiddler worthy of respect must compose as well as play". Yes, composers are highly regarded, but what on earth is 'formal' composition? And it's simply untrue that fiddlers must write to gain respect in Cape Breton. Third, Mr Roberts complains about the number of jigs on Theresa's album and mentions that his old pipe-major said something along the lines of "jigs, leave them for the Irishmen". Should the Irish have left the reels to the Scots? This is balderdash. There are plenty old puirt-à-beul-Gaelic mouth music in jig time. The jig form must have been, literally, already on the lips of the people who left for Cape Breton from Uist, Barra, Skye etc.
Paul Roberts is obviously an intelligent and informed writer. But his position on Cape Breton music appears to originate in prejudice and a lack of knowledge rather than open-mindedness and research. I have yet to read - despite searching for such material - cogent argumentation proposing that Cape Breton music and dance, at least as practised by older tradition bearers, are anything other than directly linked to traditions that once existed in Gaelic Scotland. There is no reason to denigrate any player of the modern West Highland style, Orcadian style, or any other fiddle style on offer as not being 'truly' Scottish; there are fantastic exponents of every Scottish fiddle style and all are part of the country's musical heritage. But for individuals interested in a uniquely Gaelic approach to fiddle music, the closest we can get, today, is Cape Breton.
(Dr) Will Lamb
Hope this helps.
Dr Stuart Eydmann
Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama
John Cowley stayed with me this weekend and he showed me how to get into the search engine of the French national sound archives and, lo, there was this item along with three others:
James Ozanne, of Saint-Pierre-du-Bois, Guernesey. 'Voix [dialecte anglo-Normand]'. Recorded Paris, 9 July 1938
|La Ribotresse / Jean Gros Jean
|- I have this item
|Dansez donc ou dansez pas / Ah mon beay laurier Le jour du lavage
|Proverbes Les Grande Charrues
|La chanson du terrier - poeme
I hope that I have interpreted the information on the web site correctly. Like most archive web sites this has been compiled by someone without any knowledge of discography. I wonder whether any of your readers know of these sides or have even heard them? I would imagine they must be the only recordings in Channel Islands French made before the trips of Peter Kennedy.
Bill Dean-Myatt - 5.11.02
Whittle Dene itself is located west of Newcastle on the A69, about two miles west of the Wylam junction. Local legend has Whittle Dene Castle as the lair of one 'Long Lankin'. The 'castle' itself was an incomplete tower from the early part 13th century. The Whittle Dene Hornpipe is widely regarded as a Northumbrian tune, it appears in the Northumbrian Pipers first tunebook (first published 1936).
Rob Say - 5.11.02
It is very gratifying to see that records are not lost. Thank you.
Moro Baruk - 1.11.02
On first listening, you can't believe the singing - you think either this bloke (or someone else) is taking the piss - or someone must owe him a favour. But I persevered and within a couple of weeks it had become a firm favourite of mine. It would now be amoung my eight desert island discs.
Of course it's impossible to defend the voice quality - but in this case that's quite different from the performance quality, which is bewitching. Maybe we've had too much sophistication in folk recordings of the last twenty or so years (perfect, error free digital recordings / Nigel Kennedy-style virtuosity replacing genuine enthusiasm) - I don't know, but there's a sort of honesty about Dessie's stuff for me. Courtin in the Kitchen is rollicking sort of Spinners meet the Clancy Brothers thing - but it really rocks along. The Soldier's Farewell is unbelievably cheesy - yet every time I play it it moves me to tears (Like De Dannan's version of Danny Boy!)
The only thing I agree with your reviewer about is Will the Circle be Unbroken, which seems like something they added on as an afterthought.
I will admit that the quality of the backing helps - I'm not sure I could listen to the whole thing through at one sitting if it weren't for Sharon Shannon and friends.
I wouldn't want Geoff Wallis to go on listening to the recording if he doesn't want to, but I'm not sure he should get away with such an abusive review without some sort of balancing opinion. I just don't see any justification for Geoff's sneering tone.
Obviously, I don't object to reviewers having a point of view that's different from mine or to them expressing it - it's just that this one is so damning about something I find very moving. The Pound Road is almost certainly a one-off. I probably wouldn't buy Dessie's second album, should he make one - but I love this one.
Simon Haines - 7.10.02
As far as I can see, in keeping with their facial expressions, they are not playing instruments, but assorted pieces of tubing which are made to look like comedy instruments. On the left, the man appears to be playing some form of trombone. In fact it looks as if there is no slide - the instrument is no longer with an extended arm than it is when being held 'at rest'. The second from left appears to have neither keys nor finger holes and whilst the middle instrument may at some point have been a bugle, the other two instruments are also highly unlikely to have ever existed!
There is however, the possiblilty of a heretofore unrealised tradition of exotic instrument-making in Rotherham. Perhaps it was hearing this band that caused Spencer the Rover to set his sights back towards his home!
Paul Burgess - 13.10.02
Even more unfortunately, I do not have a copy of the LP booklet, and do not know whether the writer made anything of this interpolation. However, while I don't think we are dealing with a literal personification of the historical Robert Ford, the choice of name is significant, as a symbol of treachery. The way I heard it was that Ford, who was a member of the James brothers gang, shot Jesse James in the back while the latter had taken off his gun belt, so that he could stand on a chair to straighten a picture. You can't get much lower than that.
The presence of Ford in these versions of Matty Groves puzzles me. On the surface, the use of such a Judas character - 'that dirty little coward' as the song about Jesse James describes him - suggests that the singer's sympathies are with the adulterers. Yet I would have expected Southern Appalachian strictures against extra marital sex to have been severe and violent; and that such violence would have been thought justifiable in terms of the social culture of the area. Indeed, I have always thought that the song's continued popularity in that part of the world, was due to the fact that the transgressors meet with savage retribution; 'A Warning to All Married Women', perhaps, and quite a few single men.
In sociological terms, we can argue that folksongs are functional. That is, they contribute towards the stability of the social order by providing a means of psychological reassurance for the members of that order. In other words, the performance of folksongs represents a mechanism whereby social and personal tensions become dramatised and thus ameliorated, and are thus prevented from causing schisms within the community. In order to do this, the songs have to be in some way cognate with the social culture of which they are a part. It is true of course that the songs of a community often run counter to the social mores of that community. For example, think of all those songs in Ireland about young girls being forced into arranged and unhappy marriages with older men. The sentiments of these songs oppose the norms of Irish rural society, for arranged marriages there were not considered an aberration. They were a necessary consequence of the need to stabilise land holdings in a poor economy. However, one can still interpret such songs as part of the cathartic process, and one can still see in them a contributing factor towards social stability. They were a means of resolving that which is unpleasant and unavoidable, but socially requisite.
However, Matty Groves underlines, rather than opposes, the sexual norms of the Southern Appalachians; all except for that verse of Wallin's and Chandler's about Robert Ford.
The motif of Ford as betrayer leads me to wonder whether there may be an element of flexibility in those norms that I don't know about; that the socio/cultural conditions of the area may demand an element of accommodation from its residents. I am no expert but, as far as I know, Southern Appalachian marriages are freely entered into by consenting parties, and one would not expect them to be the source of undue social tension. Nevertheless, they often seem to take place among very young partners, where conditions of poverty may impose a strain on their relationship. Moreover, and again I must stress my lack of knowledge, I have always imagined Southern Appalachian marriages to be for life, with divorces both rare and frowned on. If so, then whoever makes a mistake is going to be stuck with it.
Two possibilities strike me. Firstly, in a no-way-out situation, is it possible that a bit of wrong side of the blanket activity might be tolerated by the community at large, as a sort of marital safety valve? I doubt it, for there are very few bawdy Southern Appalachian folksongs, and that suggests a sexually repressed society as well as a violently retributive one. In such a social climate, I doubt that sexual transgressors would be treated lightly.
If we rule that out, then it seems to me that what is preying on the singer's mind is the consequence of exposure. In a society as turbulent as the Southern Appalachians is reputed to be, might it be prudent to keep what you know to yourself? To put that another way, would it take a skunk the size of Robert Ford to go telling the husband, when the presumed outcome will be the double murder of the adulterers, and the possible hanging of the murderer; to say nothing of the communal and kinship rifts which would result?
If the latter explanation is valid, then it sounds as if the Robert Ford motif does not imply sympathy with the adulterers. Rather, it may be a means of underlining the song's central message; that terrible consequences follow culpable action. If so, then the whole song, Ford and all, emerges as a reinforcement of Southern Appalachian normative behaviour.
Unfortunately I do not know enough about the social culture of the Southern Appalachians to stick my neck out. Nevertheless, I would be interested to hear what other people think, for I am aware that I have touched on a nebulous topic. It is the very fact that they deal in such intangibilities which makes the big ballads such powerful articulations of human behaviour, and their meanings are sated with shades of grey; unless of course you see only black and white.
By the way, there is another curious piece of Americana which has crept into the Chandler version. Instead of beheading the mistress as happens in most versions, he takes out his special pistol and dispatches her with a special ball. Another indication of the song's continuing relevance?
Fred McCormick - 18.6.02
Attached are copies of two lantern slides from Rotherham's Central Library Archives, titled 'Rotherham Parish Church Musicians' (catalogue nos 10841 and 10842). Archives have attributed a broad date of 1900-1937, though I'd have thought the fact that these are lantern slides rather than photos would suggest the earlier part of this period. Judging by the comedy approach being taken, I wondered if the highly respectable gents pictured had come across the band's funny old instruments and decided to record their quaintness for posterity.
I know a bit about the history of church music in the Rotherham area - from medieval times, good music and competent musicians were highly valued and the town's Waits were a matter of civic pride here. But I'm not expert enough on forms of instruments to be able to say whether the ones shown in the lantern slide are genuinely the type associated with church bands. Can you - or any of Musical Tradition's readers offer any help? Click on the thumbnail pictures to view full sized.
Obviously, I'd also be passing on to the Archive (with credits) any information that might be offered.
Best wishes - Georgina
Georgina Boyes - 4.6.02
But, of course, I'm not. And the simple answer is that I don't know. The name Robert Ford did not register when Cas sang me his ballad, and, as Cas is no longer with us, I cannot ask him if he knew the song Jesse James. But, as Alan Lomax has called Jesse James, 'the best-known and most singable of all our outlaw ballads', it does seem quite possible.
Mike Yates - 4.6.02
Just reading through the notes of the Far in the Mountains sets. I've only listened to volume 1 so far, but it's amazing stuff and so beautifully complements what's available from other sources. Really great work.
I'm writing because I noticed one thing that Mike Yates doesn't mention in the notes to volume 3, and I thought it might merit a query in the Letters section:
In the version of Lord Daniel (aka Mathie Groves) sung by Cas Wallin on Volume 3, Lord Daniel's informant, who betrays Mathie and Lord Daniel's wife, is called 'Little Robert Ford'. Little Robert Ford is also the name of the gang member who is said to have shot Jesse James in most versions of the ballad Jesse James. I suspect this may be why Wallin stops singing to say "he busied hisself, didn't he?" right after the verse that contains Little Robert Ford's name; that is, he may know Jesse James and be ironically commenting on how this one character led such a distinguished life of betrayal. Indeed, the name may be introduced because this character is seen as the quintessential betrayer, the Judas of American folksong. This is particularly likely, I think, given that Little Robert Ford is introduced as though you know who he is - and the reasons why he'd tell Lord Daniel are never made clear, as they are in so many other versions of the ballad.
I wonder if Mike Yates, or any other Musical Traditions readers, can comment on this. Has the name Robert Ford been collected in other versions of this ballad? Is Robert Ford better identified in any other version? I know I'll be looking through my Sharp and Frank Brown books soon, but if there's anyone with information from other sources I'd love to hear it.
Stephen D Winick, PhD - 29.5.02
Director, Delaware Valley Folklife Center
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