Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

The nearby town has just hosted its annual music festival. It’s a vital economic draw for a community that has steadily shed employment opportunities – distilling, fishing, farming, a high-end garment business – in the last twenty years. For three and a half days, groups and individual singers and players are shoehorned into bar backrooms, onto flatbed trucks, into the old drill-hall that is the town’s main public space. A considerable amount of drinking goes on, making the so-called “survivors’ night” on the Monday not so so-called after all. A considerable array of musical styles are involved, with some emphasis on what is always called here “traditional music,” but with a strong leaning to what has been heavily branded in Scotland as “Celtic Connections,” a name shared by an annual metro/cosmopolitan festival in Glasgow and an eclectic radio program. This year’s local festival featured pretty much every non-avant-garde form, including country and western (cue the favorite joke about two deaf drunks in a noisy bar, enquiring of the landlord what sort of music will be featured later that evening on the empty bandstand; landlord says it will be some c&w; deaf drunk two comes back to over to report that the evening’s attraction is “some c*nt frae Preston”; perhaps this one doesn’t translate), and with elements of contemporary pop, a raft of aspiring singer-songwriters, perhaps an ancient survivor from an old rock band doing unplugged versions of the old material, along with ceilidh bands, a few – but not so many – spontaneous “sessions,” and a bit of disco.

I met one of the organizers on the Friday night and asked, with due diffidence and with no subtext of looking for a gig, whether they ever put on a bit of, ahem, jazz. Stares of blank amazement from all around. No, it appears they have never given thought to such a proposition. There is, I was assured, no market for it, this despite the fact that the local radio station has a “jazz and world” slot, albeit one that takes a fairly restrictive view of both those categories. I pointed out that if one were to look north-west, one could see the coastline of an island that annually hosts a popular jazz festival, which manages to attract at least one North American star and usually delivers some heavy-hitting improvisation. I was given to understand that denizens of that island were mostly six-fingered inbreds whose musical tastes were the result of eons of cousin-marrying. Either that or English.

I’ve had occasion to think a good deal about the connections between jazz and what might still be termed folk music, a term I find worrying not least for its roots in Volk and all that implies. I was recently involved in a radio feature with that redoubtable drummer and shaman Ken Hyder, whose Talisker group pioneered a jazz approach to Scottish traditional music, but who these days performs more often in healing ceremonies in Siberia and rarely trades fours with a tenor player in a London pub; he’s been based in the south (as we call it) for forty years. And yet, as Hyder often explains, it is the music of his native country that lies beneath much of what he’s done. He has described being introduced to Scottish work songs, to the extraordinary improvised fervor of Gaelic psalm-singing (which he rightly describes as one of the wonders of the musical world) and ultimately the sound of the ceol-mhor, the “great music” of the bagpipes, which is, as far as I know, and apart from some Philippine and other Pacific traditions, the world’s only strictly outdoor classical music, intended to be performed by a lone musician who strides to and fro as he (usually he) plays. The “waulking” songs of Harris don’t involve a he except, perhaps, to take an occasional field recording. The women “waulk” as they beat with their hands at lengths of urine-soaked cloth, turning it into Harris Tweed ©, and their songs, reminiscent of calypso’s origins as an island news service, are full of topical references, gossip and scandal.

Hyder says that it was a comment of Charles Mingus’ that set him off on his musical journey. The great bassist (who may have had some Scottish ancestry: Menzies is pronounced “mingus” here) was surprised that European improvisers didn’t use their native musical materials as a basis for improvisation. This, of course, has since become the basis of a huge and varied body of work drawing on Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, Greek, Czech and Slovak folk traditions and one which some scholars (at least those with tin ears and no sense of history) will tell you is the main engine room of jazz innovation in the early 21st century. In point of fact, many of these experiments are not much more than vague juxtaposition of styles or a willingness to jazz up traditional styles by handing them over to sax/trumpet/piano/bass/drums combos rather than strictly vernacular ensembles. All this is a matter of individual circumstance and judgment, but it bears saying that a lot of contemporary European jazz bears very little genetic connection to the American forms. This is a description, not a criticism.

The situation is a little more straightforward when one looks at the music of Scotland and Ireland. My local town is as far west in Scotland as you can go without being in Ireland, which is just twelve miles away. So it sits right in the center of that vast, sickle-shaped sweep of Celtic civilization which curves down from Scandinavia through Cornwall and Brittany, past Finisterre and down to Portugal. This is the rootstock of what the poet and pioneer of geopoetics Kenneth White describes as a distinctively Atlantic culture, whose vectors are, I’d argue, similar to but sufficiently different from those of Atlanticist politics to be worth noting. The whole ideology of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections was really founded on the very obvious legacy of Scottish and Irish traditional music in Canada and Appalachia. Some may have noted the recent death of singer Jean Redpath, who once roomed with Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village and whose great achievement was to record seven volumes of the Serge Hovey Burns arrangements; only Hovey’s not unexpected death halted the projected fifteen volumes still to come; maybe someone will take on that challenge again. Jean was obsessed with the connections between the narrative and lyric music of America (where she chose to spend and end her life) and of her native Scotland, to which she felt a certain ambivalence. She was musically omnivorous, but with a strength of character that prevented even very strong tastes from leaking into her usual practice, which remained “traditional”. She regarded improvisation as a process that shaped tradition, but as one that only incidentally shaped performance. Jazz was something of a closed book, though a couple of very eminent improvisers, including Marilyn Crispell, took part in the Hovey recordings, largely through Jean’s connection to Wesleyan University.

She was strongly persuaded that Scottish music had played a vital part in the shaping of American vernacular forms and in the American way of singing that reached its apotheosis with Elvis Presley. All musical Scots have at one time or another toyed with the notion that the blues represented a partial memory of pibroch on the immigrant ships and also, less edifyingly, the slavers. Certainly, as Hyder insists, there is a pretty direct line between Scottish church singing and gospel. It’s hard to know how far to push these arguments. Any attempt to add another non-African element to the chromosomal components of jazz runs a risk of being seen as hypothetically racist or neo-colonial. And yet, such connections do continue to insist. An old Stockholm stager once told me that all of Albert Ayler’s most famous compositions were pinched from Swedish folk tunes. The problem, of course, is that while we have Albert’s compositions, often mislabeled, on his recordings, we don’t seem to have access to the Ur-material, except in a dubiously reconstructive way. And there is always the old intellectual copyright issue of how many mathematical variations on a pentatonic or chromatic scale there really are, and how probable it is, in light of simultaneous evolution, that two unrelated cultures will come up with similar or identical solutions or expressions.

The issue here, of course, is that the cultures are far from unrelated. When Scottish islanders weren’t marrying their cousins, they were venturing out into the Atlantic, and it was somewhere in that salty soup that much of our musical heritage evolved. A good deal of what passes here for folk-jazz or jazz-folk is about as obviously hyphenate as what passed for jazz-rock or rock-jazz forty years ago. At a time when jazz is nervously or exuberantly or polemically rethinking its Songbook sources and attempting to find alternatives to Broadway, there is as obvious a temptation in a traditional Gaelic air as in a Radiohead or Nick Drake song. And arguably there is greater genetic congruity between Gaelic/Celtic music and orthodox jazz harmony than otherwise. Unfortunately, the other axis is a demographic one and jazz remains, certainly in this environment, a minority and even an alien musical form, a taste for which is a fairly clear declaration of outsidership. If jazz, minus its rhythmic structures but with some inkling of “swing” still present, in some way notionally originates in Celtic music, then the Celtic world has mostly abandoned claims of kinship. Something similar, and with an antagonism thrown in, has happened in the relationship between Brazilian and Portuguese music, with the “colonial” culture quite literally overwhelming the parent.

At a recent home gig, part of an ongoing attempt to naturalize jazz and new music in an area which resists both, a Gaelic composer asked a visiting London improviser if he’d just played a Scottish air. The visitor explained that he’d just improvised a melody and that, if it seemed Celtic in any way, it was pure coincidence. A diplomatic opportunity lost, or further illustration that when you put any two musics together, no matter their geographical provenance, they will almost always demonstrate some degree of stylistic congruence? It hardly matters. I have a sense that, to misquote a Charles Mingus cover, the new wave of jazz is in folk but that this doesn’t involve archaeology or Lomax-like collection – the internet puts us beyond that – and rather a refocusing of attention on what made jazz jazz in the first place and why improvisation, far from being an arcane practice, is the vernacular practice and the basis of any form of resistance to political or cultural hegemony. I write this a bare two weeks before Scotland votes on independence from the UK. You may read this after a decision becomes known. Let’s hope it was a sensible decision, for folk’s sake.

Brian Morton©2014

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