Ancestral songs

The folk tradition has been part of my life from the beginning. I grew up with traditional songs, and modern singer-songwriters, and spent my twenties running a folk club. I’ve always loved the material, but I don’t think I really understood it until I started using it in a working context.

If you’re living close to the earth and doing things by hand a lot, it takes a colossal amount of time and effort. Much of it requires some attention, but won’t fully occupy your mind. If you spend whole days on fairly dull, repetitive, essential work, it can become soul-numbing, mind killing drudgery.

Unless you’re singing.

I can do anything, for as many hours as it takes, if I can sing or if someone else is singing. I can push through pain and exhaustion. I can do the utterly tedious and be happy, because I’m singing. The sharing of voices is a really community binding thing, too. Singing together, working together, that has so many levels to it, and a real power. If I’m singing then first and foremost, I am a person sharing a song, and what I’m doing with the rest of me does not define how I feel. In face of long stints of hard grind, that can be critically important.

Being a person who sings, and does other stuff, is a totally different emotional experience from being a person who is engaged in dull and physically demanding work, and is not allowed to sing. It raises interesting issues about how human and expressive we are allowed to be in our workplaces. I also find myself thinking about the important role of the radio in the modern workplace. The presence of popular music, the permission that gives to at least sing along with the chorus… it’s a lot more like tradition and ancestral expressions than may first appear.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

6 responses to “Ancestral songs

  • Martin O'Beirne

    I love this – and can relate on many levels – There was a piece of research I posted earlier this year that measured the amazing physiological synchronicity that occurs when people sing together – The heart beats of those singing in unison literally become one – perfect communal physiological synchrony

  • Aurora J Stone

    I don’t disagree at all with the importance of singing. The energy that comes from group singing. I love classical and folk music, pop is really iffy, and I can’t deal with rock and rap at all. I miss the singing part of doing church. Sometimes I chant or sing a little, but the opportunities for doing singing for one’s own pleasure are somewhat limited. I find that certain songs and performers’ music pull memories that are too painful to deal with right now, and so I don’t listen to any. Hopefully, the day will come when I can do so again. But for now, the purring of the cats, humming of the bees, the chirping of the birds and the wind in the trees are the only musics I am able to enjoy. And I do so every day with gratitude and pleasure.

    However, I really disagree about music in the workplace. I prefer to work in silence. I find that music is a distraction, annoying and often headache making when there it too much driving beat to it. I was temping last year where one of the engineers who shared the office with me had on Radio2 all the time he was at his desk. Whenever he went on the shop floor I turned it off and often had to ask that he turn it down. At another place the music was from a CD source. In both instances, the music was so loud could not always hear to answer the phone and found it took twice as much concentration to get anything done.

    There are times I have to leave shops when I can’t cope with the music blaring over store, this includes charity shops and supermarkets. The local Co-op is particularly bad in this regard, and it’s their own ‘station.’

    I think, because taste in music is so personal and idiosyncratic, that in a workplace to impose one person’s music preferences can be fraught with controversy.

    I do not discount that it can help some people, and you are clearly one of them. But music and song, does not work the same way for everyone. I know some highly sensitive individuals who can’t bear noise of any kind at certain times and being in a work environment that had constant music literally made them ill.

    Clearly, not a straightforward issue and probably that carries very strong and different reactions for nearly anyone asked. It is a worthy topic of reflection, and one that needs addressing. Thank you for raising it.

    • Nimue Brown

      thank you for nuancing this with your insights. As it happens I can’t write with music on – I can’t do both with my brain! It depends very much on the job, but the dull repetitive ones shatter me if there isn’t a tune.

  • corvusrouge

    I have spent the last 20 years engaged in work that requires of me to travel, currently, around 40,000 miles per annum. Having music with me in the cab of the van is integral to how I work. There are times when it is appropriate for me to have no music on at all, but I would say that is no more than 5%, the other 95%, music is there. We know that music is one of the very few things that engages the brain completely, that is to say, all areas of the brain are engaged in some sort of activity when most people are engaged with music (interestingly, people demonstrating no aversion to music can show practically no brain activity at all, when music is played though this is very much the exception). I find that song is a productive way of interaction and am fond of singing with the landscape.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    There were a lot of what were basically working songs in the past and songs about the work.

  • Aurora J Stone

    After seeing the above comment, and back to yours on mine, there was a reason that some jobs had their own songs. Sea shanties for deck work and line hauling on sailing ships and waulking (I think I remember the spelling) songs for working the cloth after it was woven and off the looms in Scotland, both of which depended on rhythms to lead the repetition of action, to keep the motions steady. Any more we don’t have that same shared culture — and to be honest I used to mop the kitchen floor and hoover to swabbing shanties! Preserved thanks to the work of the late Stan Hugel (sp?)the last Cape Horner whom I met in San DIego ages ago. But in an office . . .

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