The Living Tradition
|Bob Blair - Tradition Bearer - by Pete Heywood Iissue 33 July/August '99||
Heywood argues that at a time when traditions are increasingly being recognised
for their value to society, the work of individual 'tradition bearers' is
being marginalised. Most of the singers show an alarming degree of modesty
when talking about their own skills but one thing that they all agree on
is the quality of the music. Good songs however cannot be taken in isolation,
the words, music and interpretation are inextricably linked. Good songs
deserve to be sung well and the work of our 'tradition bearers' needs to
The paintings, poetry and music.
Are all merely water drawn from the well of mankind
Lorca expressed in his poetry the importance of art to humanity. The image of water or of a river has often been used to represent the continuity of tradition and the value of traditional music as a foundation stone for the arts in general is gradually being recognised. This has not taken place without a lot of discussion and at times heated argument, but that is not unexpected given the passions involved and different levels of understanding of traditional music by some of those involved. In Scotland there has been some eloquent writing from those charged with a public duty towards the arts at a time when progress towards the new Scottish Parliament focussed attention on cultural matters.
In Ireland there has been similar, perhaps even greater progress as musical barriers are being broken down. Liam O'Flynn and James Galway are both recognised for what they are - great musicians. Both play instruments that are common in traditional music but in the not too far distant past, one may have been dismissed as "just a piper" whilst the other would be feted as a flautist. In England, much is going on at grass roots level but there is yet to be any significant breakthrough in terms of recognition at a national level. The attitude in general of the Arts Council of England and the regional arts boards towards traditional music is at best one of relative neglect and at worst one of artistic snobbery and protection of self-interest.
Traditions are passed on in many ways and the fruits from the work of organisations such as Comhaltas can now clearly be seen. Traditional music is also increasingly available as an option in formal education right up to degree level. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of the success of less formal 'education' projects is the music of all forms emanating from the Shetland Isles. Much of this can be traced back to the work of one great tradition bearer and enthusiast, Tom Anderson. With the benefit of thirty years hindsight the value of Tom's work is very evident. We can only speculate on the future impact of a whole raft of projects currently led by individuals and organisations throughout the country.
It would be naive not to recognise the dangers of formalising the teaching of traditional music. It was done with similar good intentions about one hundred years ago and many will have benefited from this - if benefit is the right word - through being exposed to sanitised folk songs with pianoforte accompaniment at school. Whatever is done, 'the real thing' needs to remain accessible. The definition of what is real is of course a subjective judgement and so it is important that music from across the whole spectrum can be heard. It is 'the real thing' that is increasingly being squeezed out in the media. In the UK, the BBC is rapidly losing its commitment to public service broadcasting with music broadcasting in particular moving to middle of the road in search of ratings. To the terms "broadcasting" and "narrow casting" perhaps the word "blandcasting" needs to be added. Scotland and Ireland again tend to fare better than England in this respect - their traditional music-related programmes are generally an order of magnitude better - although even they are not immune from commercial pressures.
Various myths abound about what is or is not traditional music. Some use the quantity argument to decry the value of individual musicians and say that the pop songs of the day are the real "voice of the people". This is nonsense. Great artistes of any kind are usually few and far between. For every great craftsman, the Chippendale or Hepplewhite (to use a furniture making analogy) there are always a larger number of people building with the equivalent of chipboard and brackets. This is not to say that there were not a significant number of traditional singers, but it is saying that singers like Jeannie Robertson and Lizzie Higgins were special. We may wish that traditional song was thriving throughout the general population but whether we like it or not, many of the people in the folk-scene are the current repository of much of the traditional music of this country.
We ignore real tradition bearers at our cost but also need to take care of what it is that they are bearing - songs, tunes, skills and style. When discussing a recording project with Bob Blair, it was very obvious that his greatest passion was for the songs themselves. In Bob's opinion much of the best writing is from 'the voice of the people' and he holds up The Collier Laddie as being possibly one of the greatest love songs ever written. Certainly when you examine the words of most modern writing, they tend to favour lyrics rather than meaningful words. The words of good songs however cannot be taken in isolation and read as a poem, the words and music are inextricably linked and they must be sung, and they must be sung well. One of the processes that works well in the oral tradition, is the pairing of good words to majestic tunes because if the tune is weak, the song will not easily be passed on.
The Collier Laddie
"O whaur live
ye, my bonnie lass? Come, tell me what they ca' ye?"
"O see ye
no' yon hills and dales The sun shines on sae brawlie?
"And ye shall
dress in gay attire, Weel buskit up sae brawly
Though ye had
a' the sun shines on, And the earth it hides sae lowly;
Then he has tae
her faither gaen Tae her faither gaen sae brawly;
her gowd and I'll gie her gear And I'll mak her a lady
Then he has tae
his dochter gaen, Tae his dochter he has gaen sae brawly
O I winnae hae
his gowd and I winnae hae his gear I winnae be his lady
Her faither then
baith vow'd and sware, "Though he be black he's bonnie;
love is a bargain for me Though the collier's hoose should haud me;
Are the best songs really all in the past? Surely not, for this goes against the idea that progress is built on the foundations of others. Another example of skills being passed on and a tradition moving forward is that people who have a background in traditional song often write 'Modern' songs that do have substance.
If pushed for a modern song as good as the 'The Collier Laddie', Bob would put forward a song such as 'The Bonnie Lassie of the Morning' written by Jack Foley. Jack is well known in the Scottish folk scene, he was the editor of The Broadsheet for some time and has written several songs. The song came from a real life experience - Jack's second great passion is walking in the mountains - but the words surely could never have come without a firm grounding in the tradition. The first two verses give a flavour of the song but again, it is a majestic tune which gives it a magic that takes it beyond the mere poetic.
The Lassie o the
The morning breeze
was cool as mile for mile we gaed on
Despite the central importance of the songs and the music, without singers and musicians to interpret them they would remain as mere words or dots on a page. During the period that is often referred to as 'the folk revival', there was a tendency to put singers into one of two categories - source singers or revival singers. This was a useful distinction at the time but gave the impression that a revival singer was of less importance to the ongoing tradition. Without new singers the tradition would clearly die and revival singers of any era become the source singers for the next generation.
The term 'tradition bearers' is perhaps a better description of what always seems to be a relatively small group of singers who are genuinely bearing a tradition. Singing in a traditional style does not mean a slavish copy or a lack of personal input or innovation. Real style does not come easy, but comes from those who have immersed themselves in a tradition and have the skills to carry it forward. Who currently is, or is not, a genuine tradition bearer is a subjective judgement and recognition is perhaps best awarded by their peers. Bob Blair is undoubtedly one of Scotland's strongest candidates as a tradition bearer. During a recent meeting with Hamish Henderson, Hamish referred to Bob as 'the main man'.
Bob is especially noted for his interpretation of Scottish lyrical songs and traditional ballads. He plays concertina and guitar, but generally prefers the beauty of unaccompanied singing. Whilst living in England in the 1960s and 70s, Bob was a member of Ewan MacColl's "London Critics Group" and helped start The Grimsby Folksong Club.
It is an understatement to say that Bob has a passion for traditional song. Originally from Fife and now living in Glasgow, Bob is a member of Stramash, a group of singers who care intensely about Scotland's traditional song heritage. His interest though, is not just an academic one, he is without doubt one of Scotland's finest traditional singers.
The standard of instrumental playing has risen greatly over the last few years but song is not so healthy. A couple of years ago I had a long discussion with Bob Blair at a time when he was despairing for the future for traditional song. At that point he considered that all hope was gone when jazzy/poppy version of songs were being lauded by the critics and held up as being the way forward for the tradition. Bob was on the point of giving up singing altogether.
I was less negative but still concerned. In the 70s in Scotland there were quite a few young singers who had good voices and a feeling for traditional style. I would find it hard to come up with an equivalent number from today's generation - there is a dearth of good young singers. More positive thoughts came when I realised that the singers in the 70s didn't come by chance from all parts of Scotland. Good singers in the folk revival did not burst on the stage without any background, they were inspired and to some extent taught - the products of the work of a few key individuals or small groups. These included people such as Norman Buchan who through his Ballads club exposed traditional singers such as Jeannie Robertson, Jimmy McBeath, Willie Scott and many others to young people. These were "education projects" of their time and the lesson from this is that if we again inspire and expose people to traditional song, the future for such singing may yet be bright.
Bob is critical of the lack of recognition of the importance of traditional style and his passion can give people the impression that he is just an argumentative folk purist. When discussing the re-issue of older recordings of traditional singers his view was that we should put out the best of what is available. He similarly feels that singers have a duty to sing their best, every time, whether that is to one person, a thousand people or even to themselves.
"What we have to learn as younger singers is to build on what the older singers have done. The singing styles in Britain are much reduced compared to some of the traditional styles in other countries. Style to me is crucial. If you are not going to concentrate on style then it is just another song. One of the songs that Baring Gould put back into the tradition was 'Strawberry Fair'. Anthony Newley did a version of it and unless you accept that there is something particularly special about folksong style, then it was just as valid a performance of the song as any other. But if you play that version to anybody with knowledge of folksong, they either get annoyed or laugh. It is not fair to laugh - Newley is doing a legitimate performance of 'Strawberry Fair' as he sees it. I happen to hate it, but if you don't recognise the importance of style then Newley's rendition is as good as any. As young singers we have a responsibility to develop the style that we received from the older, good stylistic singers."
At times people appear to have clouded vision and say that somebody is a great traditional singer when in reality they may have a good repertoire or a good voice, but they don't have a real feeling for the songs - there's an absence of a traditional style or the coinneach, as some travellers refer to it.
"Organisations such as the TMSA and the EFDSS are guilty of this - at times they seem to revere people with poor voices, poor repertoires and poor singing styles. It is like the emperor's new clothes syndrome; an important person in an organisation says that somebody is a good singer and everybody else is frightened to disagree. But if you go outside of folk music and say that this is an example of a good singer, then people are not impressed."
Bob thinks that this tends to happen more in Britain than elsewhere. At a recent Edinburgh International Festival, Bob went to see traditional singers from other European countries who were holding large, non-folk audiences in the palm of their hands. He thought that we should be able to do the same with good traditional British folk music, but wouldn't now dare take somebody who knew something about music to most folk festivals or competitions and say "Listen to this, this is the best that we've got." Bob has tried it and they simply walk away. Festivals can be great friendly places and people genuinely have a good time but Bob found that when he asked representatives of the Arts Council what they thought of the quality of the singing, he didn't get a response. "They suddenly had something else to do or had to go to the toilet. They feel they don't want to insult you by saying that the quality is not very good."
"Some of the singers see no necessity to become better singers - they end up sounding like old men singing and don't make an effort to improve on it. Singing is about making a musical noise - being in control of your tone, control of your breath and singing in a certain way. If Pavarotti sings Andrew Lammie it will sound completely different to Sheila Stewart singing it, but Sheila's version would always have the edge for me because of her style, which Pavarotti would find difficult to capture. Yehudi Menuin freely admitted that he couldn't match Tom Anderson or Grappelli when they were playing in their own style of music. I don't often hear that kind of admission being made in the song world."
"People often say that they sing naturally - but nobody sings naturally. We are all influenced by what we hear around us. That is why most of our pop singers sing with a mid-Atlantic accent. It's not just because they want to sell records in America, it's just the way they hear people singing."
Revealing a long dark secret, Bob told me that he used to make a passable imitation of Pat Boone and had to make a deliberate effort to move away from that. Even now he finds that if he doesn't listen to other good traditional singers it is easy to slip back into a less traditional style.
"My wife Helen is good at telling me when she thinks I am singing too much like Ewan MacColl. Lots of people say that I sound like Ewan. I am not sure whether to be flattered or insulted. I have lots of things that I learned from Ewan and I use similar techniques, but I don't think that I sound like him. It is a bit like saying that Lizzie Higgins sounds like Belle Stewart - she doesn't but she sings in a distinctive style that is not too different."
"Younger singers need to make a real effort to listen to traditional singers. If we have got any love for the music at all, then we have a duty to carry it forward. It infuriates me when I hear somebody sing a marvellous traditional song and they don't care about it." At an instrumental workshop recently Vaughan Williams was quoted as having said that you have got to love every note that you play. "It is the same with singing. You have got to love producing the voice, you've got to love producing that note - and if you love it you will do it better."
"I hear young people who have a good voice, they don't have a problem with breath control and they are not eighty years old - but the words are just drooling out of their mouths. It's pap. It's like a novel you read on a plane when you don't want to be taxed too much. They think that it is enough to know the tune and the words and if you try to talk about style they either don't want to know or they think that I want everybody to sound like Ewan MacColl."
"I wouldn't like everybody to sound like him, and neither would Ewan. The latest version is that I want everybody to sound like Lizzie Higgins or Jeannie Robertson. Oh that they could or would! At least it would be better than the genetically modified versions of traditional songs that are so prevalent these days. If the styles managed to survive, no matter how, then the possibility would exist that some singers in the future might just sow seeds that would again produce the marvellous blooms that traditional song has given us."
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