Wednesday 8 February 2012

Dig where you what?

I was born and brought up in the small fishing town of Arbroath in Angus, on the east coast of Scotland, and I grew up listening to and learning local songs. For several years I've had it on my mind to develop an idea called Dig Where You Stand in relation to Scots song, (and the wider traditional arts of music, dance, storytelling). In particular I'm interested in collected archive material as marks in time of the culture of local communities. Interaction with archives has formed a large part of my studies and professional life, whether as an ethnology student, archive cataloguer, or a performing traditional singer.

A version of a song in an archive is just one time-stamped marker of its journey; archives are but temporary lodgings for traditions which have a life of their own both before and after the fieldworker takes aural or visual snapshots of them. But thankfully they had the good sense to do so, as we were never really taught that local songs were valid cultural expressions worth hanging onto. Because they weren't often written in books, perhaps we just presumed somebody would remember to remember them, amidst the clamour of the 20th century.

But Dig Where You Stand? Well, I've long held the belief that traditional singers have a responsibility to research and revive their local songs and traditions, which I have attempted to do for my own home region over the years. Before we get too bogged down and dusty about this, archives are all well and good - but my main interest is in getting people to sing their own songs again.

That said, there is some theory behind my thinking. A few years ago, my great Dublin friend, singer and labour historian, Francis Devine, brought the work of the Swedish activist and writer Sven Lindqvist to my attention as we were discussing the idea of seeking out your local songs. It fitted like the proverbial glove.

Dig Where You Stand is part of the translated title of Lindqvist’s 1978 book, "Gräv där du står: Hur man utforskar ett jobb" (Dig Where You Stand: How to Research a Job). It revolutionised the way people in workplaces viewed their occupations, as it was, to quote Lindqvist's website, 
designed to explain to workers how they could set about researching the history of the firms they worked for. By exploring the archaeology of the workplace, he hoped that workers would be better able to confront the difficulties of the present day.
The website of the National Labor College in the USA gives more insight into Lindqvist's thinking: 
His theory was: “The experts might each be experts in his or her own field but when they are talking about your job, you are the expert.  That gives you a measure of self-confidence and a basis for amateurs and professional researchers to meet on equal footing.” [...] Until workers understand where they stand...and how to use the resources/tools available to dig with (local library, county museum/archives, local/state labor history society), they will be forever in the background of the “official” version of events...[E]very worker in every country has the power and potential to create a new image for labor, one “that puts workers and their work in the foreground.”
[Sven Lindqvist, “Dig Where You Stand,” Meddelande Från Arbetarrörelsens Arkiv Och Bibliotek (Stockholm: Vol. 16, September 1980), pp. 42-47].
So how does this relate to folklore? As a Scots-language song cataloguer for several years for the landmark bilingual archiving project Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches, it became quickly apparent to me that absolute screeds of material were out there of which local communities across Scotland were not aware, and it is material that belongs to them and their forebears. In other words, these singers and their songs now coming to light were often under the radar, had never been part of the “official” version of Scottish traditional culture, even to those within their own communities today, under the cosh of internet-driven, 24-hour, always-on, mass media.

The internet ain't all bad though, no sir. Tobar / Kist itself is an online project which since 2006 has digitised 12,000 hours of folklore fieldwork recordings from several archives, most significantly the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, my alma mater. From my own home region, there are around 50 people recorded in the School's archive. Almost none of these are anything near household names in the county, and the majority of the song repertoire or the very fact it existed is unknown amongst the wider population in Angus. I am most struck by evidence of a ballad-singing tradition that seems to have stretched back to at least the late 1700s - the ballads of a Mrs Arrott of Aberbrothick (Arbroath) were collected by Robert Jamieson in 1800 - and traces of this tradition were still being found when Bill Montgomerie took his tape recorder down to the fisher folk of Auchmithie by Arbroath in 1952. But who in Arbroath knows this?

Debates as to why Scotland finds itself in this position are probably for another forum, although the reality of a small country next to a large neighbour with significant influence over cultural policy, broadcasting and media, is an obvious place to start.

Digging for the last leaves?
In seemingly endless cycles, folklore is often lumbered with the dubious moniker of  'the end of the line', the 'last leaves' of a tradition. But with good reason. Like I said above, we need to remember to remember. In 1960, Alan Lomax wrote:
Every smallest branch of the human family at one time or another has carved its dreams out of the rock on which it has lived- true and sometimes pain- filled dreams, but still wholly appropriate to their particular bit of earth. Each of these ways of expressing emotion has been the handiwork of generations of unknown poets, musicians and human hearts. We of the jets, the wireless and the atom blast are on the verge of sweeping completely off the globe what unspoiled folklore is left, at least wherever it cannot quickly conform to the success­ motivated standards of our urban- conditioned consumer economy. What was once an ancient tropical garden of immense color and variety is in danger of being replaced by a comfortable but sterile and sleep-inducing system of cultural super-highways - with just one type of diet and one available kind of music. It is only a few sentimental folklorists like myself who seem to be disturbed by this prospect today, but tomorrow, when it will be too late- when the whole world is bored with automated mass-distributed video-music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture.
Sound familiar? X-Factor anyone?

In a similar train of thought a couple of years ago, I started to formulate another phrase. You may have heard of Slow Food. I thought: what about SLOW CULTURE? (Inevitably other people elsewhere in the world have begun to think the same, so I can't quite claim to have coined the term!). My idea of Slow Culture is the enduring tradition of ballad, song, story, dance, passed down across generations, either orally or through print, (in my view these distinctions are overplayed and far less distinct in reality), that has created what German Egyptologist Jan Assmann calls cultural memory of a local area or population; you might think of it like a shared community identity. It is not the transient, chart-topping, one-hit-wonder monoculture that the internet now helps to offer us. Anthropologist Grant McCracken has a useful way of describing it: 
Slow culture plays the country cousin, less interesting, less fashionable. It is punished with neglect. Think of it this way: Fast culture is like all the boats on the surface of the Pacific. We can spot them, number them, track them. Slow culture is everything beneath the surface: less well charted, much less visible...But it is equally important. 
[Grant McCracken, Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation, Basic Books, New York, 2009, pp. 44-45.]

While the raison d’être of most folkorists' collecting efforts would seem to aim precisely at the concerns expressed by Alan Lomax, (namely that traditional, local culture was at risk of being lost largely through mainstream society abandoning it), one of our greatest collectors in Scotland, Hamish Henderson, recognised that the media age also holds advantages for marginal cultures: 
And what about the influence of radio and TV? Well, here again, I think the tendency has tended to be too pessimistic by half. The coming of print and the broadsheet did not kill folksong; it merely meant that another less assimilable strain entered it, leaving gobbets of material which might take decades even centuries to dissolve. The radio and TV are by comparison much more fluent media – they are (or can be) in fact, a powerful ally of culture, and offer immense possibilities for the diffusion of… our national culture…
[Tim Neat, Hamish Henderson: A Biography vol. 2, Birlinn, 2009, p. 126, quoting from HH’s article in ‘Rock and Reel’, in Scotland, November 1958]
In the even further developed internet age in which we find ourselves, the same near-paradox continues apace. While the internet is a homogenising force, and millions of us are all seeing the same YouTube clip spread via Facebook, it also provides small, accessible and punchy platforms for marginal cultures to have a place, and in some cases thrive. Lomax himself talked of the concept of new media being 'multi-channeled', being the strength that non-mainstream culture can capitalise on. However, we have to be wary of the paradox it brings about. In the old days, we had 4 TV channels, with a limited scope, and we were mostly all fed the same stuff. In spite of the multi-channels today, many of us still gorge on the same diet fed to us by media corporations and big business. There is something glorious in millions of members of the human race being able to share in the same cute or comic or feelgood clip or historic event coverage, but when the matter being consumed is controlled by money and media interests, the balance has tipped the wrong way.

The Rhyme is in the Region
I've said it before, I'll say it again. I'm interested in getting people to sing their own songs again. They are the experts, they are the tradition, the bridge between our past and our future. Zukunft braucht Herkunft - the future needs an origin to start from, it needs to know how things got here, the present. Dig Where You Stand also has an obvious strong parallel with the concept of place-based education often used in Scandinavia and developed in the United States. Although more commonly applied to science and environmental education, it has huge relevance for traditional arts. It is my belief that the regional, place-based approach, using Tobar/Kist as a starting point and a major digging tool, can help rebuild our local communities, their confidence in where they have come from, respect for their own culture and equip them with the tools to face the world and respect the cultures of others.

Lomax’s tenet of ‘cultural equity’ has been a guiding principle for me over the years:
All cultures need their fair share of the air-time. When country folk or tribal peoples hear or view their own traditions in the big media, projected with the authority generally reserved for the output of large urban centers, and when they hear their traditions taught to their own children, something magical occurs. They see that their expressive style is as good as that of others, and, if they have equal communicational facilities, they will continue it...
Practical men often regard these expressive systems as doomed and valueless. Yet, wherever the principle of cultural equity comes into play, these creative wellsprings begin to flow again...even in this industrial age, folk traditions can come vigorously back to life, can raise community morale, and give birth to new forms if they have time and room to grow in their own communities. The work in this field must be done with tender and loving concern for both the folk artists and their heritages. This concern must be knowledgeable, both about the fit of each genre to its local context and about its roots in one or more of the great stylistic traditions of humankind.
[Alan Lomax, "Appeal for Cultural Equity," From the Program of the Festival of American Folklife, edited by Thomas Vennum, Jr., Smithsonian Institution, 1985. First published in World of Music, XIV [2] 1972); online at]

Let's change the Lindqvist quoted a few paragraphs above a wee bit. How about instead of  -

"[E]very worker in every country has the power and potential to create a new image for labor, one “that puts workers and their work in the foreground,"

we write,

"Every singer in every country has the power and potential to create a new image for traditional culture, one “that puts singers and their songs in the foreground."

So here I begin. With like-minded friends, we are embarking on a mission to take the material in Tobar an Dualchais /Kist o Riches back to the communities whence it came. In early 2012, I will begin with a project (made possible through Tobar / Kist and the Aberbrothock Skea Trust) in my home town of Arbroath. We will Dig Where We Stand. I'll get people singing their local songs again. What about you?