Tag Archives: tradition

The Wellerman is gone, long live his song!

A guest blog by Kris Hughes

When Nimue suggested that I write something about the living tradition for this blog, I wasn’t sure what I would come up with. However, the kaleidoscope that is social media has provided me with an answer.

If you haven’t been living under a rock the past few weeks, then you may have heard something about sea shanties on TikTok. You’ve likely heard a song called The Wellerman. I’m an old person who likes folk music, but I barely understood what TikTok was until this happened. And what’s a Wellerman? A guy who delivers supplies to a whaling ship in 19th century New Zealand, it turns out.

What happened on TikTok? A young chap from Airdrie, in Scotland, called Nathan Evans, posted a video of himself singing an old whaling ballad. It went viral in a way that is particularly TikTok as other singers, and then instrumentalists, dubbed in their own parts, creating a moment of rare beauty. There are a few mixes floating around now, but this one will give you the idea.

As a music scene, TikTok seems to be a place where currently isolated young people are congregating to try to share a bit of themselves, their talent, and trying to look good in the process. There’s a certain emphasis on image that I find a little uncomfortable, but that’s not limited to TikTok, or a particular age group. Lockdown has created a whole new layer of virtual self-curation for everyone.

This was the second or third shanty that Evans had posted, but he hasn’t really been promoting himself as a folk singer. He’s been singing pop covers, and few things of his own, and taking requests for months. Some of that has been folk music, in the broadest sense of the word.

I’m not here to review Evans’ singing, but his solo performance of The Wellerman is really good. I just listened to various recordings of shanty groups and folk groups’ doing this song over the past few decades, and Nathan’s solo has a depth and power that the others miss. He’s obviously enjoying the song and singing it a cappella except for beating out the rhythm with his hand on the table is perfect. So far, so good.

But it’s what happened next that is so great. People began posting mixes of the song with their own voices dubbed in duets with Evans’ original. That’s hardly unique on TikTok, but the quality and blending of some of these duets, which quickly became a choir, is amazing.

This had been building for a while. Sea shanties have been a thing on the internet since, maybe, September. This massed choir project of “Leave Her Johnny”, organised by shanty group The Longest Johns had over 500 submissions.

To my mind, this isn’t just an example of living tradition because a folk song happens to be involved, although that obviously helps. As other folk nerds have pointed out, The Wellerman isn’t exactly a shanty, but a closely related song-type – a whaling ballad. However, it’s sung here with a shanty feel. A shanty being a work song, which sailors once sang to keep themselves in rhythm when doing work like hoisting sails. With Evans’ fist banging rhythm and the song’s great chorus this works well.

Sea shanties once had an important purpose. Not only did they keep the sailors in a work rhythm, but they helped them to keep going, and stay heartened, under difficult conditions. Under a different kind of difficult conditions this winter, these songs have found another purpose – reminding people how great it is to sing together – in rhythm, in harmony, in making the whole a little bit better with your own contribution. Hopefully, this is teaching us a valuable lesson for when we can sing together again. That’s the living tradition I’m hoping for, anyway.

Kris Hughes blogs at www.GoDeeper.info
has a YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/KrisHughes1
and you can support her work on Patreon at www.patreon.com/KrisHughes


Walking, stories and landscape

I experience the landscape around me in a way that is full of story. At this point, these stories are a mix of local folklore, history, personal experience and fiction.

If I walk from my home to the top of Selsley Hill, I go through a tunnel where I once had a rather magical encounter with a fox. I pass a corner where there was a slowworm one time. I walk past a community garden where I used to be involved. There is a pub, which has a few personal stories associated with it. Then I walk past the field where the were-aurochs first transformed in my Wherefore stories. I will tend to remember the first time going up over the grassy part of the hill and saying there was a chance we’d find orchids and then being blown away by how many orchids there were. There is a path where the bee orchids grow, and I remember who I’ve taken to see them in previous years. There is a signpost that gave me a strange experience once in the mist. Finally, there is the barrow, and all that I’ve done there. And all the other points in the landscape visible from the hilltop and all the stories that connect to those.

Each re-visit adds layers to the story of my relationship with this landscape. Over time, some of the personal experiences turn out to be more enduring than others. The fictional stories build alongside this.

Part of the reason my relationship with the land is like this, is that I walk. At walking speed, there is time for memories of a place to come to the surface. There is time to share a story or a bit of folklore. At walking speed, the landscape becomes much bigger because we have more time in it, and that allows room in all kinds of ways.

The car is a rather new thing in terms of human history. Our ancestors walked, for the greater part. There were no road signs. Finding your way through a landscape may well have been a matter of having a narrative map in your head. We know that some early mapping – like establishing the boundaries of a parish, was a narrative that you walked in order to reinforce it. If you can tell a walk as a story, you can teach it to someone who has never been there. Stories make a journey more entertaining and can help you keep going in rough conditions – I’ve certainly used them in that way. Stories help us place ourselves in the landscape – as individuals, as communities, as people with a tradition of being in the landscape.

I don’t have that unbroken lineage that traditional peoples have living in deeply storied landscapes. But, my people have been here a long time, and I have a feeling of rootedness. Most of what I have, I’ve put together for myself, from the local oral tradition, from folklore books, from history, and shared experience. This kind of relationship with a landscape is available to anyone, anywhere – sometimes you have to mostly work with your own material, but that’s fine. Every tradition starts somewhere.


Why I’m not doing Sashiko

Following on from my previous post about boro –  https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/06/26/craft-culture-and-boro/

Sashiko is a Japanese embroidery tradition, and it is gorgeous and well worth looking up. As far as I can make out, the whole thing is based on a fairly simple running stitch so it’s quite accessible and easy to learn the basics. It does however use specific kit, a needle and  a totally different kind of thimble from the ones I am used to.  These are easy to find, but I have concerns about how my easily-hurt hands would respond, so that’s one reason I’ve not dug in. The other is that I’m doing non-traditional sewing inspired by boro and using fabric far heavier than you’re supposed to use for sashiko, so, it’s not going to work for me.

When I first became interested in these traditions, I found a lot of western people writing about them. I had to dig a bit to find Japanese sources.  Appropriation is something I’ve thought a lot about from a Pagan perspective and it is just as relevant for craft as for Craft. I’m greatly in favour of learning from other cultures, practices and traditions, but how you do that clearly matters.

One of the things I learned from my adventures with sashiko is this – if you learn the surface of a thing you may get a bunch of rules that teach you how to make something that looks like something. If you dig in to learn about the history, use, purpose and context of a thing you can end up with a totally different approach.

So, while I’m not following the available rules about exactly how to do this kind of sewing, I’m trying to understand how the embroidery relates to the cloth, what it is for, what it does, and where that knowledge leads.  As a consequence I’ve learned a lot of things that I can take back to my own crafting. I also think this stands really well as a metaphor for what we might do with other people’s spiritual traditions. It’s worth thinking about how much time a person invests and where they learn from before they feel entitled to present as an expert  on a culture they are not part of.

I’m happy to talk about what I’ve learned, and what my journey has been, but I don’t think it would be even slightly appropriate at this point for me to claim I am making boro, doing sashiko or able to tell anyone else how to do those things.

But if you’re curious, here is a man whose family work with these traditions, and who has a great deal of insight to share… https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCraGC2n7qN31FlQSvXYI0JA

 


Family traditions

How you present something has considerable impact on how people understand it. If you want something to sound like tradition, and like authentic folklore, it pays to mention Granny when framing it. I’ve noticed in Twitter’s Folklore Thursday that anything framed by the idea that it came from Granny is seldom questioned. I’ve experimented with this as well – when we talk about Yule Badger traditions and reference what Granny said, no one queries it. You are allowed to make folklore up so long as you aren’t honest about that. Talk about working with folklore and you can get into all kinds of trouble…

(Some of the things in that piece, my grandmother did say. Some she didn’t. There is no way anyone else can tell what’s what.)

 

This video was originally created for Patreon – I do one a month there, alongside a poem, a book excerpt and a newsletter. There’s also a level where I post things to people… https://www.patreon.com/NimueB if you’d like to support me.


Folk process or cultural appropriation

Last week I wrote about the right to be creative within your own folk tradition. Morgan Daimler flagged up to me that I need to tackle the other side, too – what happens when we mess about with other people’s traditions. Taking other people’s traditions, writing into them, or over them and presenting that as genuine material can have the effect of wiping out the tradition, not keeping it alive. How do you tell the difference?

Your relationship with the tradition is key here. If we’re talking about your culture, your family background, or the place you’ve lived your whole life as a participant not a coloniser, then you are someone who is inside the traditions around you. They are your traditions.

There are plenty of non-white British people engaging with British folk traditions, and that’s also fine. It’s important not to let this idea of who owns the tradition exclude people who want to be involved. Time spent working in the tradition, learning it, knowing it – that’s the key thing here. If you’ve put in the years, then you can enter a tradition that belongs to the place you live, or to people you are interested in, without that being a problem. The key thing is that what you’re doing is entering the tradition and participating in it. If people are willing to teach you and share their traditional things with you, then you can enter into it without issue.

The problems arise when people have brief and superficial contact with a tradition and then think they can own it. Going to one folk festival doesn’t qualify you to write folk songs. In the context of British folk, if you go to one festival, and write some songs that are wide of the mark, the odds are you won’t go far, and it won’t matter – there’s enough people who have been doing this over a long enough time to just shake off the pretenders with no impact.

If you have some superficial contact with someone else’s traditions where there are fewer people involved, and/or it’s not part of the dominant culture, and then start making your own in what you think is in the same style, there are massive problems. You may be presenting material to people who don’t know that you’re misrepresenting a culture. If you have more power – if you are a white western person messing about with the traditions of an indigenous culture, for example – you may have more scope to present the tradition to others than the people living in it do. You may have the power to inform and define a tradition that you know little or nothing about, with no one to rein you in.

This is also true if you are someone studying or recording a culture – as a folklorist or academic. Trying to pin a tradition down can be a process of limiting and damaging what you study, and shaping how it will be seen by others. Colonial misrepresentation of other people’s cultures is a longstanding problem. The determination of westerners to present non-western tradition as primitive, superstitious and irrational is a longstanding problem.

If you’re working from inside a tradition, steeped in it and invested in it, then the ways you want to keep it alive and updated are likely to serve the tradition, not harm it. But, why would you want to appropriate a tradition you know nothing about in order to play with it? What does that achieve? You aren’t keeping a tradition alive by doing this, unless what you’re working with is a people who have disappeared. Then you’re guessing and reviving, and there’s a case to make for that if it’s done honestly.

Wanting to learn from someone else’s tradition also makes a lot of sense – there’s a lot of wisdom and inspiration out there, it is reasonable to find that attractive. But surely, if you’re interested in another culture, what you want is immersion and absorption, and to get to a place of having internalised it. Running in to make up our own things in the same style is a sure fire way of learning very little. It’s a deeply questionable activity on so many levels.

There are no short-cuts to being part of a tradition. You can’t pick it up over a weekend course or by reading a book. If you aren’t prepared to invest years in building a relationship with a tradition, you aren’t interested in tradition and should probably leave it alone.


The Folk Process

In a living, oral tradition, material changes. Each person who tells a story or sings a song will add something, or leave something out. It’s easy to see this in action as there are so many songs that share features. They may have the same tune and chorus but different verses. They may tell the same story, but with a different tune and words. Sometimes you do it to keep the language contemporary. Sometimes you do it because what rhymes in one accent doesn’t in another.

There’s a natural selection process in stories as well. For example, there are many older versions of the Cinderella story, and they don’t all have glass slippers. For some reason, the glass slipper was a detail/innovation a lot of people liked, and it stuck.

Every traditional piece was at some point first created by someone, or perhaps by a small group. The idea that we can’t create new folk material seems mad to me – this is where folk material comes from. If it is only allowed to be stuff from the past, what we have are museum exhibits, not a living tradition. I have nothing against museums, but I am reluctant to take living things and pin them to boards so that we can all look at them more easily and agree about what their real and proper form should be. And this is why folk gatekeepers drive me a bit nuts.

I’m aware of a number of 20th century folk songs that are sliding into the tradition. If you are most likely to hear a song sung by a floor spotter, if you picked it up from your granny, the name of the writer may have fallen off. I’m aware of several 20th century songs already experiencing folk process, with variations of the words and tune occurring. This is good, as far as I am concerned. This is living tradition.

Sometimes it is important to change the song. Simply changing the singer can be powerful, and some songs suddenly sound queer, for example, when you get the right person singing them. Were those songs queer before? They might have been, we don’t know. As there have always been queer people, I think it’s a good thing to have older songs reflecting that.

The idea that you can ‘pollute’ tradition by adding ‘fake’ things to it mystifies me. Adding to tradition is… tradition. There’s a natural editing process here. If an addition is good, and works, it’ll become part of the tradition – as with those glass slippers. If it doesn’t catch on, for whatever reason, then that’s fine, too. There are many singer songwriters working in the folk style whose material won’t endure. For a song to survive, it has to be sung by other people. It becomes folk because of the ways in which other people sing it, adapt it and keep it alive.

Folk purism is, from my perspective, the unreasonable practice of killing folk tradition in order to pin it down in a fixed shape and own it. The whole point of folk is that it is not the property of a single person, and it is not for one person to say what it means or how it should be. Folk is of the people, by the people, for the people – it is collectively owned and anyone who wants to has the right to mess about with it. that’s what makes it the way it is. Folk is not re-enactment. It isn’t backward looking and it isn’t all about the past.

This blog was brought to you by me being cross about someone on Twitter yesterday. Here’s what was said in regards to a post about Hopeless Maine ( a project very much inspired by folklore)

“Isn’t this that made up faux folklore?”

“That feels like a rather important distinction that shouldn’t be forgot. So many people viewing this hashtag aren’t experts and it’s extremely disingenuous to have faux folklore just mixed in on the #FolkloreThursday tag. It muddies the waters and potentially tricks neophytes”

Get your hands off my living, breathing tradition. It is not a butterfly for you to pin to a board. It is not something you get to define, or own, or tell other people how to do. All folklore was once faux folklore, until people adopted it – that’s what the folk tradition is.

 


Making new traditions

For me, one of the great joys of modern Paganism is the scope we have to create new traditions. Not, I hope, with an eye to becoming the dogma for future generations, but in a playful and light-hearted way that enables us to let go of anything that doesn’t work.

We have a wealth of inspiration to draw on from folklore and mythology, but we don’t have to be excessively faithful to it. You don’t have to spend long studying these things to realise that they change over time anyway. Traditions are all about people keeping the bits they like, letting go of the bits they don’t and innovating new things to suit the time and place in which they find themselves.

Midwinter is the season of festivals, and there are a great many we might look at. Or, we can make our own. For me, one of the key seasonal features is the Christmas pudding. This is largely because of all the festive foodstuffs, it’s the one I truly love. I’ve been making puddings for years, and where I can, I make puddings to share. Having a pudding tribe is an important part of the season for me. One of my other personal traditions is visiting the swans – I live near Slimbridge, where migrant swans come in each winter to feed. They travel thousands of miles escaping the arctic winter for the relative mildness of the UK. There are also huge duck migrations, and I’ll enjoy seeing them, too.

Traditions give us fixed points in the year, they can connect us to ancestors, landscape, other living things, communities… they are very much what we make of them. Too much tradition is inevitably stifling, but sprinkled through a year, traditions form points of familiarity and continuity that can help us feel secure and give us a sense of place in both time and the physical world.

Anyone can start a tradition, and keep it for as long as they wish. As Pagans, we can, and I think should craft our traditions based on our experiences and needs, knowing what we want and need from them and acting accordingly. If we’re going to invest in keeping on doing something every year, it should be something that feeds the soul, lifts us, helps us bond with each other and brings joy, comfort, coherence, and connection.


Evolving traditions

If something is traditional, that shouldn’t mean it’s above questioning, even if you are someone who is passionate about upholding the traditions of your culture and protecting other people’s rights to their traditions.

Many cultures have a tradition of genital mutilation. Traditions of cruel punishments, unreasonable intolerance and sick leisure activities have existed all over the world through history. As someone with a deep attachment to British traditions, I am not obliged to take onboard the whole lot of them. For me, any ‘tradition’ that involves cruelty needs ditching. Baiting animals, cock fighting, bear dancing and fox hunting are all things that have been considered great traditions in this country. To try and hide that cruelty behind the excuse of tradition is intolerable to me.

Traditions can and do change. Mumming used to be more about collecting money for those in poverty during the winter – many customs have an aspect of ritualised begging to them – wasailing, pace egging, guy making to name but a few. Our trajectory away from abject poverty has reduced the impetus to go out undertaking these forms of ritualised begging. Instead, people now do them for fun. The traditions have changed.

The most ardent traditionalists from all cultures pick which traditions to ignore and which to uphold. Most usually people ignore the traditions they find inconvenient and uphold the ones they enjoy. Take for example the way in which the Christian far right in America is keen to uphold anything negative the Bible might suggest about LGBT people, but seems to have entirely failed to notice how opposed Christian traditions are to divorce and adultery.

The idea that ‘this is my culture and you have no right to tell me I can’t do my traditional but horrible thing’ has hard wired into it a complete disregard for how traditions actually work. Traditions change. They evolve to meet other changes in circumstances. If the wider culture changes, it is reasonable to assume the tradition will evolve to keep up. Cock fighting is no longer a sport. It’s been widely speculated that the great tradition of cheese rolling has its roots in some ancient practice involving burning wheels and human sacrifices. I have no idea if it did, but the principle that you can go from chasing a burning wheel with a human sacrifice in it down a steep slope, to chasing a cheese, is a good one. Willing victims offer sacrifices of broken bones.

If a tradition is no longer suitable, it can be changed, without destroying the culture it came from. I suggest that hanging onto an otherwise dead and unsuitable tradition, for the sake of tradition, is a sure fire way of actually killing tradition within your culture, what isn’t allowed to evolve, will die.


Bard Skills – matters of ownership

No one can claim ownership of a traditional song, or a story, or someone else’s poem. However, there is a kind of optimal etiquette around this, and everything works better when people are respectful of each other’s repertoires.

When you start out as a new performer, the odds are you’ll have no idea what the people around you know, and you may pick up something someone else is performing. However, the probability is that as a new performer, you’ll pick up fairly obvious material (let’s nod to good old John Barleycorn again.) This is ok, and something not to worry about too much. There are things that happen around certain kinds of material, I’ll be back to that in a moment.

However, hearing a piece performed by someone in the same circles as you and thinking ‘I’ll have that’ is not a good way to go. Many songs and stories share content, and having a different version from someone else works well, but taking someone’s version to perform in the same spaces, is bad manners. If you are going places they are not, that can be fine. Otherwise, ask. It may be that this is the sort of beginner’s piece that the performer is happy to let you have, or that they don’t mind sharing it. Get permission.

If the material you want to borrow is the creation of someone in your circle, really, really get permission. Material written by people you don’t know (youtube has become such an interesting part of the oral tradition) is fair game, but do credit it where you can.

When I started singing folk songs in public places, I sang Wild Mountain Thyme, Bonny Ship the Diamond, The Leaving of Liverpool, High Germany, and others. Nobody else at the club I was going to seemed to be singing them. My repertoire expanded rapidly in that first year and became more diverse, less obvious. Then I watched as other new-to-folk people came along, and sang a lot of the things I’d been singing. I put those songs down. It was fine. I’d had my time with them, and other people needed them more than I did. No doubt, other people had stopped singing those songs when I started.

The process of handing material over is part of what helps us all to grow, helps new people get started, helps keep things moving. I started a new singing venture this autumn. One of the regulars has picked up Wild Mountain Thyme. Another expressed enthusiasm when I sang Shenandoah. I sent her the words, happily, and have since heard her sing it. There are balances to find around what we keep and what we let go of, but it’s a key part to participating in a living tradition.


Folk and new tradition

I grew up with folk music, and was learning songs from an early age. That said, it wasn’t until I found a folk club in the Midlands, in my early twenties, that I had any idea I could sing. It came as a bit of a surprise being complimented on my voice after so many years of being told I sang like a cat…

I’m interested in tradition, and more importantly, in living tradition. I do know a fair few traditional songs, but early on I took the decision to seek out and learn the work of contemporary singer songwriters working in folk. It’s an odd thing, this, because in some ways, the measure of your success as a writer of new folk is to have your name drop off the song, and to disappear. In terms of ever getting a royalty cheque, this is not a great outcome, and I do know folk composers whose work has gone feral in this way. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

The point of folk is the sharing of material, and the writing of songs that can speak to people, and be sung unaccompanied in fields. Early on I did dabble in song writing, but frankly I’m not very good at it, and there are so many good songs out there in need of an audience. So I lend my voice to other people’s work, keeping songs alive, and audible as best I can. It’s a small contribution to the tradition, but that’s where the tradition comes from – innumerable unnamed people down the centuries singing the songs they thought should be sung.