By David Francis
Gary West’s new book is a welcome attempt to place the traditional arts in Scotland in the context of what some see as a ‘post-traditional’ world, where localised cultural traditions are increasingly negated by the effects of globalisation and the ever-changing processes of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has termed ‘the liquid society’.
By David Francis
Gary West’s new book* is a welcome attempt to place the traditional arts in Scotland in the context of what some see as a ‘post-traditional’ world, where localised cultural traditions are increasingly negated by the effects of globalisation and the ever-changing processes of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has termed ‘the liquid society’.
The troubling effects of globalisation are well rehearsed: the emergence of a sameness of cultural values and forms, virtual communities, a rootlessness underpinned by instant, electronic communication and high-volume mobility of people and skills.
West, however, sees a positive aspect to globalisation, the opportunity to celebrate cultural difference, to recognise it and share it, and, by sharing, understand it and each other. In this context he proposes that tradition can be a questioning, solidifying force in a liquid world. There is the recognition that it can be a hobble, making for a restricted range of activity and withered cultural limbs, and that it can be used, actually and potentially, as justification for acts of intolerance and persecution. But West is more inclined to make the case for tradition’s humane qualities. He finds within it creative and liberating possibilities, especially in the richness of multiple voices expressed in music, song and story, and shared meaning based on an affinity with place. Above all he maintains that ‘change is a crucial ingredient within the process of tradition’, adopting Hamish Henderson’s image of the ‘carrying stream’.
With that dynamic concept of tradition in mind, West explores how the encounter between tradition and individual creativity has resulted in fresh perspectives on the themes of place, the land, war and community. This is done mainly through an account of key individuals whose work has influenced and touched him over the years: pipers Martyn Bennett and Gordon Duncan, songwriters Davy Steele, Adam McNaughtan and Dick Gaughan (with a passing tip of the hat to the small but high quality output of Rod Paterson) to name a few.
A powerful influence was Hamish Henderson, who was a lecturer when West was a student at Edinburgh University, although Gary acknowledges that Hamish’s lecturing style owed more to the seanachaidh than the don, with classes as likely to be conducted round the tables in Sandy Bell’s as within the confines of George Square. In his discussion of how poets and song-writers have voiced a viewpoint on war he finds in Henderson an artistic figure who was able to draw on the clarity of the folk voice to express the plight of the ‘puir bloody swaddy’, whether in morale-lifting communal songs (with a bite) like The Banks o Sicily and the D-Day Dodgers or the epic poem, Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica.
It is that clear-eyed depiction of ‘what is’, combined with a feel and understanding for ‘what was’ in the collective experience, that marks out the best folk songs. By the same token, West is particularly good when writing of his horsemen forebears’ relationship to the land they worked. He combines an acknowledgement that those days and all their hardships have gone with an understanding that there was much in that close bond his farming ancestors had with the land, and the animals which worked it, that was profoundly satisfying and which we might never recover. I defy you to read the transcript of a radio interview with West’s Uncle Will, a highly-skilled ploughman in his day, without a prickle behind the eyes.
Nostalgia is never far away in any consideration of the traditional arts, but at the last, Gary West asserts once more the role of those arts, not as shackles forever tethering us to an idealised past, but as roots continuously nourishing the culture of contemporary Scotland. ‘Voicing Scotland’ is a fine account of how one musician and thinker’s personal experience and perceptions interlock with a rich, communal and present cultural tradition.
*Voicing Scotland: folk, culture, nation. Luath Press. £12.99