When we talk about bard stuff, the emphasis tends to be on original creation, be that in song, poetry, story making or wider expressions of creativity. We lose sight sometimes of bard craft in the moment, and that old tradition of sharing words and music. There are two sides to having a tradition, of which original creativity is only one. Obviously you need people to make things, or there are no stories to tell or songs to sing. In order for there to be a tradition, other people need to pick up those songs and stories and share them on, keeping them alive far beyond the death of the originator.
I grew up steeped in the folk tradition, and I know a lot of material that has been through countless unnamed other hands. To be truly part of the folk tradition is to disappear. The songs and stories live on, the people gracefully melt away. Those songs change and evolve over time, something visible in the many variants of many older ones. Change is part of the living quality of tradition.
As a performer, I dedicate far more of my time to other people’s material than to creating my own. I’m very much on the maintenance side of these traditions, not an innovator. I sing and play traditional material, and also things written by people I know. It raises some interesting issues for me. I quite often change bits. I’ll replace archaic words with things more likely to make sense to my audience. I’ll change gender to make songs fit me, or I’ll change the meaning of a song simply by singing it as a woman. Richard Marx’s Hazard becomes a story of prejudice against lesbians if I sing it the way he wrote it! Damh the Bard’s Obsession is a very different song if I sing it, just because it is me, and not him. There are songs I’ve felt comfortable tweaking and adapting, and songs where I would not change a detail of arrangement. There are songs I do not sing, much as I love them because I do not feel I can honour them. Raglan Road, would be a case in point.
This is incredibly personal stuff, and is about my relationship with a song, it’s creator, it’s history, where I got it from, what I was doing when I learned it, and who I’m singing it for. Each relationship is different, for me. I’m entirely conscious that every other person who engages with this same folk tradition has a totally different relationship with the material. This is great. Other people can mess about with songs that I hold sacrosanct and could not touch. I am not in any way distressed by this. I run into arrangements that reimagine songs in ways that inspire me, and others that make me sad, and that’s fine too. Diversity is good.
What I’ve realised over the last few days, is that my relationship with the tradition, and with each individual song or tune I work with, is important to me. I take those relationships as seriously as I do relationships with people. For me, a song is a living, breathing, spirited thing that deserves respect. I’ll only change it if it makes sense for the song. I’ve been working on a rework of Lyke Wake Dirge, which is beautiful, but needs a lot of explaining in the original, being both archaic of language and about something that we don’t have in the collective consciousness any more – the journey through purgatory. I might try it out at Samhain. In the context of my relationship with that song, I can do that. Other people may not like it. I in turn feel bloody uncomfortable when people re-write Christmas carols to make them Pagan. But, I deal with that by not singing them. End of problem.
Relationship is not one big blanket thing with a single answer for all circumstances. It is the precise way in which we engage with specifics – people, places, songs, trees… and I have only just realised in a conscious way how important that relationship with songs is to me.