Folk Music as Heritage: Oral-based Tradition Handed Down Through Generations – Folk Singing

Heritage through tradition can be seen as a living process, even at the fast pace of the 21st century. Many authorless traditional songs can be seen as representing the slow distillation of innumerable individual narratives.

These are usually tales of love, loss, seduction, betrayal, exile, celebration, war, labor, murder, and triumph over the odds. Other songs, however, record very specific events. Seafaring tragedies and military defeats, such as Culloden, have been thus commemorated.

Origins of Local Heritage

Martin Martin, a Gaelic speaking estate steward from Skye, wrote of his travels through the Outer Hebrides at the end of the 17th century.

His travel diaries, “Voyage to St. Kilda” in 1698 and “Description of the Western Isles of Scotland” in 1703, describe such vestiges of ancient custom as the clan bards – these were hereditary singer-poets retained by Highland chieftains – summoning creative inspiration by lying in a darkened cell with a large rock on their chests!

This was the panegyric or praise poetry compiled to succor the egos of powerful men, effectively perpetuating their standing as heads of clans.

Protest Songs and Political Heritage

The 1707 Union of Parliaments with England and the Jacobites’ defeat in 1746 helped to prompt an upsurge in the collection of traditional songs and tunes, spurred by a sense that Scottish culture was under threat.

Among songs like “Fa widna fecht for Charlie,” sung by the Corries, which is very pro-Jacobite, there’s a song called “Ye Jacobites by Name,” which was written by Robert Burns and is anti-Jacobite.

Patriotic HedonismThe latter song conveys the danger of adventurism and opportunism. Stories of old battles are retold in the songs of 60s folk duo, the Corries.

This duo appears to specialize in Jacobite battles, with songs such as “The Braes o’ Killiecrankie,” a tale of the earlier Jacobite Rebellion skirmishes, and “Come o’er the Stream, Charlie,” which is dedicated to the flight of Charles Edward Stuart after the disaster that was Culloden.

The messages conveyed by these songs are probably far removed from the truth of the actual events in the cold light of day.

Misplaced History

As in most folk tales and songs, the past is romanticized. Another song attributed to the Corries is the story of the Massacre of Glencoe, which tells of the deed but not the history behind it.

Some of their songs, if they are to be viewed as part of the past heritage, such as “The Haughs o’ Cromdale,” actually borrow episodes from different battles and different decades, so their historical input is something to be desired. These Bonnie Prince Charlie ballads are now very dated, as are the clan cry songs often attributed to this time in “history.”

Folk Songs as Social Heritage

Robert Burns was a man of outstanding individual talents who penned many traditional Scottish songs, now considered to be folk songs. From his pen came his ideas of fair play, honesty and social justice, at a time when the poorest of the poor expected nothing but inequality.

Arguably, his best-known song today is “A Man’s a Man for a’ That.” This song was sung at the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. It epitomizes honor and individuality above landed status, titles, and riches.

Hebridean Waulking Songs

The Waulking song was born of the tweed industry. These songs were performed to accompany and motivate long stretches of repetitive physical labor. They were exclusively songs for women, whose job it was to pummel the cloth to shrink it, in order to improve its warmth and water resistance.

This was done by a dozen or so women in tandem, often wrestling with many yards of wet, heavy fabric for hours on end. Waulking songs generally follow a solo and chorus call and response format and are characterized by their vigorous, rhythmic swing.

The Bothy Ballad

Bothy ballads are generally associated with NE Scotland, the name deriving from the way of life that gave rise to them. They represent the anonymous legacy of countless itinerant agricultural laborers, seasonally hired during the 19th century on farms around the region, and housed in cramped bunkhouses or bothies.

Despite the hardships of such a life, many bothy ballads are upbeat in tone, while others give vent to resentments at unjust employers. The bothy bands that made their own entertainment of an evening foreshadowed the mixed instrument format widely adopted by contemporary folk bands.

The 20th Century and Songs of War

One of the most poignant Scottish folk songs, depicting the horror of the First World War, was written in the late 20th century by Eric Bogle. This song, called “No Man’s Land,” has been sung by others who also called it “The Green Fields of France.”

The singer/narrator of modern times tells the story of a visit to a military graveyard and finding a cross with the name, “Willie MacBride, aged 19,” written on it. This was apparently a young man who died in 1916, one of the countless youngsters who went to France with the British Expeditionary Force.

Universal Heritage

All heritage can be appreciated in folk music. Something has been written for every age and put to music. For some, it’s the only sense of their heritage that they will ever learn and therefore has to be valuable in perpetuating the story of times past.

If history books don’t tempt the palate of some people, the words of a song and its melody will be remembered, perpetuating every human story from local skirmishes to world wars.

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