Whatever happened to the tune?
The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics. By Corey Gibson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015. [240 p. ISBN 978-0-74869657-4.70 [pounds stertling]]
Focus: Scottish Traditional Music. By Simon McKerrell. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. [190 p. ISBN 978-0-415-74193-4. 85 [pounds stertling] (hdb)/29.99 [pounds stertling] (pbk)]
Bespectacled and buck-toothed, huge and affable, the multi-talented Hamish Henderson--poet, songwriter, folklorist, and chief of the literary lefties--was an unmissable presence in Scotland for much of the second half of the twentieth century. Always at the centre of whatever was going on from conference to ceilidh, with a pint of beer seldom far from hand, he was a public intellectual whose work seemed, somehow, to get done in the midst of a gigantic, continuous, wall-to-wall party. He was the master-spirit of the Scottish Folksong Revival, the great fixer, enabler, and promoter of countless individual talents; collector, writer, critic, translator, and a much-loved man whose death in 2002 launched an epidemic of national mourning that few of his contemporaries could have predicted and fewer elicited. Almost at once the process of deification began. An extraordinary plethora of books appeared, depicting him as saint, seer, bard, and all-round great man, including a eulogistic two-volume biography by Timothy Neat (Hamish Henderson: A Biography [Edinburgh: Polygon, 2007-2009]), and Eberhard Bort's four edited volumes of reminiscence, analysis, and tributes (Borne on the Carrying Stream: The Legacy of Hamish Henderson [Ochtertyre, Scotland: Grace Note, 2010]; Tis Sixty Years Since: The 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh and the Scottish Folk Revival [Ochtertyre, Scotland: Grace Note, 2011]; At Hame wi'Freedom: Essays on Hamish Henderson and the Scottish Folk Revival [Ochtertyre, Scotland: Grace Note, 2012]; and Anent Hamish Henderson: Essays, Poems, Interviews [Edinburgh?: Grace Note, 2015]) making Henderson, within little more than a decade of his death, the most written-about writer in Scotland after Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Hugh McDiarmid. And now we have two new books by Ian Spring and Corey Gibson.
Ian Spring's Hamish Henderson and Scottish Folk Song is a direct response to these developments and takes a refreshingly level-headed approach, remarking dryly that "Any sanitisation or sanctification of a life that was, in many ways, brilliantly chaotic, is, in my view, unhelpful" (p. 11). The section on Henderson is accompanied by several other essays by Spring of interest to ballad and folk-song scholars, including "The Weary Farmer and the Painful Plough" (a social study of nineteenth-century ploughmen's lives closely based on the bothy ballads); "Some Thoughts on Edward and Incest", which discusses various possible interpretations of the family relations at the centre of this famous ballad; a piece on David Buchan's editing of the Glenbuchat Ballads; a sketch of the Victorian collectors Robert Ford and Inspector John Ord; and a defence of the early nineteenth-century collector Peter Buchan from charges of fabrication. There is an interesting piece on "Improvement and Romance: The Horseman's Word" (pp. 176-201) which asks serious questions about the reality of the Word, the initiation rituals that surrounded it, and the socio-economic circumstances that produced it. Spring is inclined to doubt whether it ever really existed at all, although Hamish Henderson characteristically swallowed the thing whole and revelled in its mystical-macho swagger.
The essay "Why Did the Bridegroom Greet" (pp. 13-28) shows the author's typical approach. He considers a range of texts from various written and printed sources spread over a period of about two hundred years of one of the central performance pieces of the Scottish Folk Revival, "Grat for Gruel", comparing several of the song's variants to establish a putative order of priority and demonstrate the evolution of the text.
For many readers the main interest of Ian Spring's book will be the centrepiece article "Hamish Henderson: Man and Myth" (pp. 142-175). As Spring says, a "great deal has been written (and said) about Hamish since his death. However, most of this cannot be called scholarly or academic, or objective or even impartial" (p. 144): he goes on to criticise Timothy Neat's biography and how the short factually-based appraisal of Henderson's life and work that the occasion seemed to demand turned instead into a vast mythologising two-volume sprawl. Spring also departs from many recent commentators in viewing Henderson's career as essentially a failure, a life of "unfulfilled promise". The main charge is that Henderson did not produce an authoritative book-length study of folk song in Scotland (along the lines of A.L. Lloyd's Folk Song in England [New York: International Publishers, 1967]) which he was uniquely wellqualified to write, but dispersed his thinking amongst countless largely ephemeral sources and activities. As a poet, too, after a brilliant start with Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1949 (and some regard as the best English-language poetry to come out of World War II), he lapsed into long periods of apparent silence, and what he did write often appeared in obscure periodical sources, so that it was difficult to gauge his career as a whole until the publication of his Collected Poems and Songs in 2000 (itself from a small fly-by-night press, and not without its problems editorially).
The substance of Spring's criticisms is as follows:
--The legacy of writings is a fraction of what it should have been.
--Seemingly heedless of his reputation, Henderson published casually and in obscure places and failed to attract the serious critical attention his work really merited.
--He came to value his songs more than his poetry, but the number of these is comparatively meagre, about a dozen in all, although several are classics; his contemporary Ewan MacColl's output was vastly greater.
--He wasted too much creative energy in unproductive squabbling with the cantankerous Hugh MacDiarmid in the famous "flytings" in the columns of the Scotsman newspaper about the relative merits of popular tradition as opposed to high art poetry.
--His "discovery" of the famous ballad singer Jeannie Robertson, which he himself regarded as one of his greatest achievements, is disputed; at least one earlier fieldworker had already recorded her, and she seems to have been relatively well-known to Scottish music enthusiasts in her home city of Aberdeen.
--Despite his work translating Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian theorist of popular culture, Henderson never managed to reconcile the conflicting demands of nationalism and internationalism in his work.
--His bold appeal for a cultural revolution seems to have gone unanswered: the Folk Song Revival which was intended to lay the foundations for a more dynamic and socially relevant art, while it did engage numbers of youthful "folkies" and added an interesting popular dimension to the contemporary Early Music movement, came nowhere near producing the transformative changes in public consciousness that Henderson predicted.
In common with a number of commentators, Spring makes large claims for the importance of Henderson's fieldwork: "His contribution as a collector of the folk tradition is almost unrivalled and he did it the hard way, living in travellers' tents, getting to know the people, coaxing their life stories out of them" (p. 164). This may be true; but has there ever been a detailed study of exactly what Hamish Henderson collected, how many songs and variants? Until we know this, it is difficult to assess his ultimate achievement, or compare him meaningfully with important earlier figures like Gavin Greig and Francis James Child, or, indeed, contemporaries like Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl.
Spring calls Henderson "a true man of the people" (pp. 169-70), but this, too, might be challenged. As we see in his collected papers, Alias McAlias (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992) discussed below, he does indeed seem to have consciously assumed the mantle of popular tradition, and sought to speak with its authority. But this reflected ideological strategy rather than social affinity. Try as he might to submerge himself in the people, he could never erase his English public school and Oxbridge education. He seemed a nob; a swell; a "gentleman ranker out on the spree", whose adoption of the persona and cumulative literary legacy of "Anon."--and Scottish Anon. at that--could be considered, by a hostile critic, an act not so much of modest self-effacement, as of gigantic presumption.
Generally speaking, Spring's work is thoughtful and well-informed, but has one significant flaw: the approach throughout is narrowly textual--there is not a note of music in the book. The songs are treated as if they were simply poems. But of course they are not poems. Their melodies are an essential part of their identity as artworks, and to ignore this aspect both reduces and distorts them.
One other final quibble: it is a pity this stimulating collection should be marred by shockingly poor proofing. For example, there is a whole section of footnotes (13-15) missing on p. 72; a couple of sentences that do not make any sense at the bottom of p. 89, and frequent typos throughout.
Similar reservations about the overall success of the Henderson enterprise are to be found in Corey Gibson's The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics. This presents a useful overview of Henderson's "long polymath career, not only as a folklorist and folk revivalist, but as a poet, songwriter, political activist, translator, public intellectual, and latterly, as folk hero" (p. 1). The concentration here is on the more conventional "literary" aspects, although a good deal of attention is devoted to the Scottish Folk Song Revival and Henderson's pursuit, through it, of wider cultural and political goals. However, Gibson has little to say either about Henderson's work as a collector, and--like Iain Spring--offers no discussion of the musical aspects of his work. Here again songs are treated merely as poems, stripped of their tunes.
Gibson tries to pierce through the fog of reminiscence and anecdote, by concentrating solely on the written output, "to show how his life's work is underpinned by an ambitious moral-intellectual programme to reconnect and reintegrate the artist within modern society" (p. 5).
Then follow chapters devoted to the main aspects of Henderson's writing career, considering him as a cultural theorist and centring on the "Flyting" with MacDiarmid; Henderson as a poet, with a discussion of his wartime work in Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica and Ballads of World War II, and his later involvement in the Honoured Shade controversy and its aftermath; Henderson as a translator, with a discussion of his edition of the prison letters of Antonio Gramsci; finally, Henderson and the Folk Song Revival and his role as a folklorist.
Once again, the story seems to be of opportunities missed and roads not taken. Gibson does his best to present a positive case, arguing that Henderson deliberately sought obscurity, wrapping himself in the collective cloak of "Anon", in order to reconnect poetry with the people, and find a new communal medium fit to reflect emerging social and political formations, i.e., not only to recruit the voice of the people, but to the greatest possible extent to become it. If to achieve this kind of weight and cultural authority he had to "disappear" to become in very sooth "Alias McAlias", then so be it.
Gibson acknowledges the acute problems of attribution that this sometimes raises. In Henderson's edited volume of Ballads of World War II (Glasgow: Caledonian Press, 1947), it is difficult to disentangle Henderson from "Anon". For example, "The D-Day Dodgers", one of the best songs to come out of the War, has sometimes been attributed to him in its entirety (although Henderson assured the present writer that he had contributed no more than one or two touches here and there).
But Gibson constructs a career profile of potentially huge achievement that did not come to full fruition. Following a brilliant start with Elegies, Henderson's poetic career seemed to lie fallow for decades. His pioneering translation of Gramsci, completed shortly after the War, lay unpublished in book form until 1996, by which time its historical moment was well past and there were alternative translations available. His work as a collector is harder to assess, since there does not seem to have been a quantitative study of this aspect of his work, so that while one can find ample testimony to his activity as a facilitator, and promoter of bright young Revival singers, there seems to be no reliable summary of the extent of his activities as a collector in the field. Henderson's wider ideological and political goals appear to have been also largely unrealised, although the former is difficult to assess precisely. The aim was "to restore Scottish folksong to the ordinary people ... deeply and integrally" (p. 107) yet it seems entirely possible to construct a case for the Scottish Folk Song Revival as an elaborate and characteristically self-deceptive example of middle-class appropriation of plebeian cultural materials, the kind of thing that Marxist-orientated critics have been harking on about since the days of the Sokolovs. One's personal recollections of the folk revival were that it was distinctly bourgeois in membership and atmosphere. Rock 'n' Roll was the music of the people.
One is reminded that the focus has to be on Henderson as an enabler and theorist because, rather curiously, perhaps, he was not a performer: he was not an instrumentalist (he did not play), while as a singer he was mediocre at best.
There are many thoughtful and interesting things in Gibson's book, but there are pages which read like self-communing student notes, and sometimes the analysis does not rise much above mere paraphrase. The text tends to fall into "stand-alone" chapters which means there is a good deal of repetition, and although the general argument is sensible and the book marks a real contribution to the subject, it is still a little too obviously the book of the thesis, and reads as if it has been hurried too rapidly into print.
As with Ian Spring's book, there is no discussion of music here, no acknowledgement of what makes for the crucial distinction between the poem and the song; the approach is wholly literary.
The appearance of Simon McKerrell's Scottish Traditional Music should therefore have been good news. There has long been a need for a decent basic student-orientated introduction to this field, but unfortunately this book falls considerably short of the standards required for such a work. The Routledge series is aimed at students and the general public with relatively little prior knowledge, so its academic ambitions are moderate, but the publishers themselves rightly stress reliability as a cardinal virtue, advertising the series in which this work appears as "books that balance sound pedagogy with exemplary scholarship" (p. xiii). Yet within minutes of opening it, the present writer encountered serious factual errors.
Everything is viewed through the spectacles of the "new musicology" with resulting shift of focus from the music itself, to its role in constructing community and a sense of identity. The author says "... Scottish traditional music is primarily about belonging ..." (p. 9), so those who thought it was about studying and performing a body of musical work of rare, perhaps unsurpassed, beauty, were labouring under a misapprehension. The problem with this kind of highly contextual approach is that it requires a more nuanced and thorough grasp of Scottish society and Scottish history than the writer possesses. For example, McKerrell attributes the Treaty of Union to an initiative of the Scottish Parliament, flying in the face of conventional historical knowledge, as does his view of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843, which seems seriously at variance with events. In detail, too, there is frequent inaccuracy. The author believes that Fingal and Ossian flourished around the twelfth century AD (most people think the third century); it is suggested that the great classical scholar Thomas Blackwell regarded oral tradition with disdain, when the reverse is the case (Blackwell was one of the pioneers of the view of Homer as an oral bard); two different dates, 1903 and 1909, are given for the foundation of the important regulatory body the Piobaireachd Society (1903 is the correct one); at one point the composer and teacher Niccolo Pasquali is given as "Pasuali"; we are told that the Scots Musical Museum was published in three volumes between 1787 and 1803 (it was published in six volumes); we learn that Donald Roy MacCrimmon, one of the famous Skye dynasty of hereditary pipers, "around 1777 ... emigrated for America. He joined the British Army and was killed at Long Island, New York" (p. 32). This seems curious in view of Donald Roy's being alive and well and available for interview by writer and musician Alexander Campbell in 1815--the generally accepted date for Donald Roy's death is 1825.
Much of this was easily checkable and should have been picked up at the proof stage if not before. While the author has obviously been rather poorly served by his publisher, it also seems clear that the publisher had a right to expect higher standards of accuracy and information from the writer. Meantime there is still a gap for an enterprising publisher for a good entry-level book on the fascinating field of Scottish traditional music.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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|Title Annotation:||Hamish Henderson and Scottish Folk Song; The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics; Focus: Scottish Traditional Music|
|Publication:||Fontes Artis Musicae|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2016|
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