Am Bratach No. 320
June 2018

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 US musicians.

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.

One of 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 dance music.

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.

In 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.

MJ Grant’s “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. 

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