Friday, September 04, 2009

The folk song tradition

This is Maurice Lindsay, from his biography of Robert Burns:

Nowadays in Scotland there are no peasants; and ours is not a singing age. The tradition in which Burns wrought died out in the Lowlands during the latter part of the nineteenth century, lingered out a brief decadence in the form of the Bothy Ballad in the relative seclusion of the North-East, and is now gone for ever. We cannot make folk-songs any more:

The laurels are all cut
The bowers are full of bay
That once the Muses wore.




Folk traditions such as these are, I guess, close relatives of the myth tradition that I've mentioned in recent posts, their secular, human cousin. I don't think it is misty-eyed romanticism to lament the loss of the folk traditions. Where I come from, there was a very strong Travellers' tradition, with storytellers like Duncan Williamson and singers like the Robertsons of Blair, who kept alive the history of their people through the folk tales and songs they remembered and recited. These people, often reviled by the rest of the population, kept alive a grand form of humanism, and the tradition of song and story that built up among small communities helped to keep them together. Our modern world has wonderful advantages, and I wouldn't swap this time for any other, but nonetheless I'm aware of what we've lost.

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