While at the BBC Folk Awards in Belfast this month I had a long chat with Brían Mac Gloinn who is a member of Dublin duo Ye Vagabonds, along with his brother Diarmuid. As well as treating us to some great songs later in the evening (along with many other Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English singers present at the post-show party) he also spoke to me about song collecting. Brían explained that he had got into song collecting through the Song Collectors Collective (SCC) which celebrates the people who conserve rare oral culture within their communities in Britain, Ireland and beyond. They aim to empower a new generation of collectors while inspiring the ongoing exploration of and creativity within these communities. Through them, Brían was inspired to record singers from the Irish travelling community and shared with me how awkward he had initially felt knocking on doors. That said, the experience had been incredibly rewarding and the communities he had visited were very welcoming.
I mention this example as I’m sure that for most, the prospect of cold-calling in a community we’re unfamiliar with or have little or no connection with is well outside most of our comfort zones. Fears aside, when Brían spoke about the experience his eyes lit up – there was no hiding the passion and reward he had gained from the experience. With the huge amount of oral histories and songs out there, the SCC is an invaluable organisation whose work I feel quite strongly about for a number of different reasons – some are less obvious than others.
Time does not stand still for us…and nor do we always appreciate our own cultural histories – something I was made very aware of when I lost both my parents this year. With them gone, went a wealth of stories – some told but not recorded…this included stories from my mother raised in a rural part of County Kerry about travelling storytellers and from my father raised in a small mining community in Scotland who ran away from home at 14 to become an apprentice at horse racing stables (he lied about his age and forged letters from his mother to accomplish this). It was through his stories and those about his father that I first heard of the Stewarts, a well known travelling family in Scotland. His father worked with them and accompanied them to horse fairs – that passion for horses passed onto my father and has now passed on down to my youngest son.
You see, the SCC is not just about songs – they also collect stories, family histories, yarns, knowledge, lore and experiences of social change. Real personal histories – not interpretations of the past by those that didn’t experience them.
There are plenty of examples of why collecting is important but one of the loveliest and less thought about benefits comes from something Sheila Stewart MBE; singer, storyteller and author, said. She passed away in 2014 when we were given permission to share a short film from 2006, directed by Dylan Drummond and Blair Scott. In Last In The Line (part of the Scottish Documentary Institute‘s Lies series) Sheila talked openly about her life, and the culture she spent her life sharing. She also says:
“what good is a culture or a memory of a culture when you can’t share it with anybody?”
So, if this has sparked some interest in Song Collecting or you would like to get involved then get yourself to this year’s annual SCC Gathering which is happening on Saturday 28 April 2018, at the Waterloo Action Centre (about a 1 min from Waterloo station), from 9:45am-4pm.
A DAY OF EXPLORATIONS INTO FOLK & ORAL CULTURES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The SCC Gathering is a celebration of folk and oral cultures in the fine company of some of the leading folklorists, singers, musicians and storytellers in Britain today. As in previous years, we will have insightful talks from esteemed invitees such as:
+ the phenomenal Scottish singer and song collector – Margaret Bennett
+ leader of the James Madison Carpenter Collection Project – Dr Julia Bishop
+ virtuoso kora player – Kadialy Kouyate
+ Romani folklore, animism and otherworld spirits from the author of We Borrow the Earth– Patrick Jasper Lee
+ founder of The Nest Collective and co-founder of The Song Collectors Collective – Sam Lee
+ folklorist extraordinaire and author of Folk Song in England, The English Year, The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, London Lore, and many, many other books – Steve Roud
+ Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music at the British Library – Dr Janet Topp Fargion
+ highlights from our recent song collecting trip to Ireland, which was filmed and recorded by Radio 4, who will be broadcasting a 2-part documentary on song collecting and the work of the SCC on May 1st & 8th
The Gathering will be followed by some informal drinks at the Travelling Through… bookshop and cafe on Lower Marsh, from 4pm. We hope to be doing more open song collecting trips, so this is a great opportunity to discuss future opportunities to join us on the road.