Tuesday, 25 August 2009


On a recent trip to Stockholm, I spent another happy day in Skansen. Founded in 1891 by Artur Hazelius, Skansen is basically a large folklife theme-park. Hazelius brought together historic buildings from around Sweden - there are mills, a church, farmhouses, a Sami settlement, village workshops, a funicular railway, etc etc - and laid them out in a park on Djurgården, an island in the middle of the city. It was designed to show off all aspects of Nordic life, so it also has a zoo.
This year I stayed on into the early evening and heard a fiddle recital in the Delsbogården, followed by a folk dance display. Both were definitely of an historical cast. The musicians and dancers were costumed. The dance was set up as a recreation of a 19th century wedding dance, with the presenter explaining where the different dances had come from, and how they had reached these fictional festivities.
I am not particularly a fan of costumed re-enactments and revivals, as there often seems something stale about them. Music on Skansen is a rather more complex phenomenon, however. In the early years of the park, large musical gatherings were organised. These were costumed, but they brought together for the first time some of the outstanding traditional musicians from around the country. Fiddlers predominated, but these events also brought to the fore a number of other musical instruments and styles which were nowhere near as familiar as they are today, including Sami yoiking, and the nyckelharpa which now seems almost quintessentially Swedish but was extremely localised at the time.
Coincidentally I picked up on this trip an excellent 3-CD reissue of the earliest documentary recordings of Swedish traditional music - 'Swedish Fiddlers from the Past / Äldre svenska spelmän' on Caprice Records (CAP21604). These phonograph recordings were made by ethnomusicologist Yngve Laurell between 1913 and 1920 at the musical gatherings on Skansen.
The subsequent dance music revival owes an enormous debt to the performances captured by Laurell. Many of these traditional players went home at the end of the summer seasons and themselves took an active role in collecting and preserving tunes. Olof Tillman, for example, was recorded by Laurell, probably in 1920 (he was working as a carpenter at Skansen as well as playing music). On his return to Dalarna he enthusiastically began noting down local tunes. He taught his sons, with whom he played extensively in later life. When he was recorded for Swedish radio in 1957 he described the extinct dances he had reconstructed. The participation of traditional musicians in what we might too easily describe as revival events should never be underestimated.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Khaleel Khan

At about 12.30am on Saturday 30 May, 16-year-old Khaleel Khan was cycling with his cousin and two friends on Ron Leighton Way in East Ham when he was hit by a police car. Police and witnesses agree that the car was not using its siren. There is some dispute about whether its blue light was flashing. Khaleel hit the windscreen of the car, flew into the air, and then hit the road. He was pronounced dead half an hour later. The cause of death was a severe fracture of the neck at the base of his skull.
In a familiar pattern of memorialisation, the crash scene was shortly decked with tributes. Flowers, messages, and photographs were left along the barriers of Ron Leighton Way. Such wayside shrines have become a traditional form of memorialisation. (See, for instance, the tributes included in Scott Wood's photographs of such shrines).
What was so striking about the tributes to Khaleel Khan were their scale. Aside from the floral and paper tributes, friends also tagged the pavements of Ron Leighton Way and the walls facing the accident site.

The tributes covered walls on the Holme Road side of Ron Leighton Way.

There are nicknames and school affiliations, using SMS emoticons and referring to Khaleel by his initials (KRK).

The messages also ran across walls on the other side of Ron Leighton Way, and into the side street by the market.

The memorials were even run across the upper storey back wall of shops on East Ham High Street North.
Folklorists have a duty to record these memorials, a melancholy tribute to creativity. The photos here were all taken on Friday 5 June. The tags are already being erased.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Marking the passing of three greats

I was dismayed to return from holiday to news of the deaths of a number of people I admired greatly.
Mike Seeger was the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. His older half-brother Pete was already playing banjo. Mike and his younger sister Peggy learned from the string of influential visitors to the house - John and Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, etc. Mike became an accomplished musician, playing banjo, guitar, fiddle amongst others.
Mike became involved in locating and recording traditional musicians. He was responsible for Elizabeth Cotten's debut recordings. She may not have been difficult to track down (she was working as the family nanny), but he also sought out and learned from musicians like Dock Boggs, Eck Robertson, the Stoneman Family, and others. He channelled what he learned about their music into his own performance. (Jeff Todd Titon has some nice comments on Mike Seeger's musical abilities here).
He was hugely influential on the course of the Folk Revival of the 1950s/'60s. The New Lost City Ramblers (formed in 1958 with John Cohen and Tom Paley) played a big role in demonstrating that this music did not have to be sanitized to reach an audience. He continued studying and learning traditional American musics. He never wrote much, but made every performance a practical demonstration of his thorough-going understanding of the music.
By contrast Edward D. Ives, known universally as Sandy, was an academic folklorist and fieldworker. He wrote a series of important monographs on poet/songsters, and the transmission of their songs into local oral tradition. In these he sought to understand the complex networks of local relationships and traditions, and how these find aesthetic reflection.
If that all sounds grimly academic - it isn't. His books are hugely readable, and show on the page the qualities that made him such an effective and brilliant communicator in the field. His book Joe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978) begins with a poignant account of being contacted by a Welfare Department. Sandy's Christmas card to an informant, Herby Rice, was 'the only coherent piece of paper the man possessed' (p.xxvii). It is unsurprising that his guides to fieldwork remain so valuable and useful.
I was introduced to Sandy Ives' work by Dr Julia C. Bishop when I was a postgraduate student at Sheffield. Julia was also employed part-time on the James Madison Carpenter collection, to which end she shared desk-space at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen. One of her great delights in this was that Stanley Robertson, who has died aged 69, was in the office next door.
Stanley was a gentle and intelligent man, conscious and proud of the immense Scottish Traveller traditions he was carrying. He had a huge repertoire of ballads, and was an outstanding storyteller. (There are several CD releases of his material). He was also an able piper. He was courteous and generous with his time at Aberdeen, even if he could be very funny about academic studies of his traditions: 'They tell me what it is that I'm doing; it's very interesting'. He was a marvellous writer, publishing plays as well as collections of his stories.
He was also, in his quietly determined way, an intransigent opponent of prejudice against Travellers. It was this championing of the enormous cultural wealth of Travellers that had brought him to Aberdeen University. Ian Olson has written a fine obituary in the Scotsman, with more information.
I only saw Stanley perform once. I remember him telling a ghost story, and being helplessly entranced by his narration. I remember specific details, and the astonishing uncanny atmosphere he created through his absolute narrative mastery. He described a specific type of rain, and simply recalling the hand movement he used is enough to explain it all again to me. He was a very great man.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Folklore in local novels

I whiled away some time on holiday reading a Dutch translation of Joost Hiddes Halbertsma's Frisian novella 'It Heksershol' (The witch-hole, a local name for the village of Molkwerum).
I'm always wary of reading local novels as simply ethnological records. There are two main dangers. One is that authors don't get the artistic credit for adapting folk culture in their own literary constructions. (They cease to be artists, and become just observers). The other, especially problematic with authors who are consciously attempting to establish the literary credentials of a minority language, is that the broadly political aspects of their work tend to get sidelined. Such writers are often trying to create a regional cultural identity in their work, rather than just reflect one. This involves a highly focused use of source folkloric material.

That said, such novels do rest heavily on local folklore. Halbertsma's account of how Gosse Knop sold his soul to the devil, the amazing things that happened to him on his travels through Friesland, and how he came to a bad end, weaves rich elements of local lore into its narratives. These can be teased out: they're not the whole picture, but they add to it.
In one sequence Gosse has lost his shadow, which is discovered when he steps into the light during a dance. That's the point of the episode, but Halbertsma enriches it with all sorts of details about the dance itself. He tells us when such a dance might be likely (after an auction), the instrument they danced to (a fiddle), and even some of the dances and tunes (they dance the Schotse-drie, and Gosse's predicament is revealed during the Utrecht march).
It's also possible to hear something of the spoken language culture. This has the huge caveat, of course, that I read it in a Dutch translation and not in its original language, but the sound of language is emphasised in some of the stories. An origin story is offered for the name Ameland. According to the skipper of a boat, Heintje Pik (the devil) had given names to all of the islands along the Frisian coast and written them down in his notebook. Beneath the last name he wrote 'Amen', but then realised that he'd forgotten one of the islands, so he wrote '-land' after it. Because Heintje is from Amsterdam he doesn't pronounce the -n at the end of words, so Amenland becomes Ameland. This isn't just a story directed against Amsterdammers, it gives a sound to history.