Review: Caroline Macafee, “Scots Folk Singers and their Sources: A Study of Two Major Scottish Song Collections”

Caroline Macafee, Scots Folk Singers and their Sources: A Study of Two Major Scottish Song Collections (Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2021), ISBN: 978-90-04-46440-7

This book surveys changing patterns of transmission between the late 19th and 20th centuries of the Scots-Language songs of Lowland and NE Scotland.  The author uses a comparative data analysis of the Greig-Duncan Collection, and the Scots folk songs in the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh to map what can be known, or inferred, about original source-singers and subsequent lines of contact and performance.  She is also interested in considering what might be inferred comparing these patterns with collection associations of the Child ballads, collected by Francis James Child during the later 19th century which reflected material learnt from source singers born at the beginning of the 19th century.

The Greig-Duncan folk song collection was compiled in the first decade of the 20th century by schoolteacher Gavin Greig (1856-1914) and his friend the Reverend James Bruce Duncan (1848-1917), and surveys the songs of the North East in particular.  The sound archive of the School of Scottish Studies (SSS) in Edinburgh, Tobar an Dualchais, aims to curate a larger national collection of both Scots and Gaelic material, although it is particularly strong in recordings of songs from the Traveller community so dear to SSS co-founder Hamish Henderson.   Both repertoires contain lengthy narrative strophic ballads, which are core to the Scots song repertoire, and were first collected and published by Child.

Between the work of Greig-Duncan and the work of Hamish Henderson lie two world wars, the advent of mass media broadcasting, the linguistic penetration of an Anglicised national education system, accelerated movements of population from the countryside to the towns, and similarly profound shifts in work patterns and particularly, changes in the social place of women.  One would expect any transmission analysis to find evidence of change, and this is certainly the case, although Macafee also takes care to point out that the biographical data in both bodies of evidence has significant gaps.  Positing ages for source-singers in many cases relies on her applying patterns of inference rather than on accurately recorded data.  Nevertheless, the book considers factors such as age, gender, and narratives of song sources (familial, extra-familial, oral, printed, media), using whatever data exists about this in the respective archives, and best-guess inference where the data has gaps, and makes some suggestions about patterns of transmission over the last 200 years.

Macafee’s discussion about the nature of the gaps and the reliability of the data tells readers a great deal about the debates surrounding Scots folk song collecting and the nature of the repertoire more generally.

  • What is the place of “Traveller” songlines within the overall pattern of Scots song transmission?  “Travellers” form a distinct community of Scots-speaking people, and their ballads and performers made a famous contribution to the SSSA collections and to the mid-century Scottish folk music revival.  Hamish Henderson suggested at the time he was carrying out his recordings that not only had they neglected in previous studies, but that that Grieg-Duncan and Child had purposefully ignored them.  Did his mid-century “recovery” over-compensate and thereby over-stress their cultural influence?  Macafee finds any class-based bias against Travellers to be ungrounded: “since both collections relied heavily on family and social networks to discover and recruit singers, it was probably inevitable that particular demographics would be either over-represented or under-represented” (p.43).  However, the culture of extended families in the Traveller community might have been more insulated from changes affecting the general population (see below, summary).
  • When does oral transmission become less sure as the prime method of repertoire curation?  The analysis maps as best it can the possible ages and background of the original source singers in the closing years of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and those whose performances post-date the mid-century folk revival.  The 19th century source singers might be assumed to be oral learners.  However, from around 1950, the publication and broadcasting of folksong gave singers alternatives to traditional oral transmission, and from that point in particular the relationship between literate and oral cultures is complicated.  Post-revival folk singers of Greig-Duncan material should be expected to have used and have encountered a mixture of sources over the course of a lifetime.  Singers themselves may not always remember reliably where they first learn a song.  Crafting a coherent narrative of transmission is conventionally part of folk song performance: songs and story-telling go together, and performers have a keen instinct for the sort of narrative which audiences might find interesting (p.11).  Macafee suggests a dip and decline after the first world war in oral transmission is reasonable based on both actual data and historical circumstance.
  • What is a ‘Scottish folk song’?  The survey looks at specifically songs with Scots lyrics, but Macafee acknowledges that the transference patterns into Scotland from other parts of the British Isles – particularly Ireland – make this repertoire porous (p.23). “Sources” therefore may include singers from outside of Scotland, from whom a Scottish singer first heard a song which was then naturalised into the home repertoire.  Singers who mainly sing their own compositions are not included, and neither are those who are associated with melodies but not lyrics (“song” is reasonably assumed to be a composite of words and music).  This potentially might open an additional area of methodological debate about what comprises ‘a song’ in an oral culture, as fragments of both melody and lyrics might variously combine in different songs.  Such discussion is beyond the scope of the study, but the presence of fragments, inconsistent or multiple sources and versions are clearly part of the background work Macafee has needed to engage with, and this also creates challenges for data analysis.

So what can be shown from the analysis? The findings are suggestive rather than conclusive, but include the following key points.

  • For Traveller communities in particular, the family clear sits at the heart of oral transmission of songs. In the general population, familial transmission declines after the 1890s (p.150).  Familial transmission is particularly important for the transmission of lengthy ballads (including many in the Child collection) which needed time and repeated exposure to perform and learn. Longer ballads are also more suitable for singing in pastime-familial circles than on the concert platform (p.148), and perhaps as the family fragments, this particular transmission channel has been less amenable to ‘folk song revival’. By the time Hamish Henderson was recording, the Traveller community, with its uniquely tight familial structures, might indeed have been a unique survival of an older more widespread repertoire.
  • For the general population (not Traveller) of singer-sources noted in the SSS archives, men outnumber women by 3:1 (p.75) and are much more significant as non-familial sources of songs (p.157). In the Child Ballad sources, the gender split was more even.  Peer-to-peer transmission has been historically particularly important when particular labour patterns supported this (e.g. male agricultural and female domestic service work in the 19th century and very early 20th century) but dips in the 1920s (p.150).
  • Men, who historically might have had more opportunities for social mixing outside of their family groups, still learnt songs from family members as well (p.67). But there is evidence for a general ‘female reticence’ about public singing, particularly before the folk music revival gave women encouragement to perform (p.150).  Traveller women were particularly less likely to perform outside of the family (p.72); so when Hamish Henderson discovered the gold-mines that were Belle and Sheila Stewart, and Jeannie Robertson, for example, he was indeed tapping a previously hidden source, but for reasons other than earlier-period class-bias.
  • Older women might have been slightly over-represented in the Greig-Duncan collection because the collectors were particularly interested in recording ballads previously noted by Child (p.148). Were women, singing in family circles, more likely to be the curators of the longer ballads?

So, the data seems to indicate that Grieg and Duncan were indeed recording a repertoire at a point of rapid historical change, while Henderson and the School of Scottish Studies, in the 1950s and 1960s, were capturing a very specific afterglow from a unique group of heritage bearers.  The social impact of the first and second world wars, the advent of the radio and national broadcasting, and changes in education also contributed to the loosening of traditional culture.  We should be grateful to the School of Scottish Studies for their collective input to the folk revival which seems – from this data – to have intervened to arrest a long-term pattern of decline in orally transmitted song. Outside of the archives, much of what was indeed ‘traditional’ – particularly the long, complex ballad – was gradually to be replaced by a new wave of performer-composed post-revival ‘folk’.  Based on this book, it is to be hoped that the promised digitisation of the Greig-Duncan collection sees the light of day before too many more years have passed.

Further Reading and sources


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