Back to the Roots of Celtic Connections
1st February 2016
Finding folk’s radical roots in this year’s Celtic Connections. Solidarity from Occitania to Glasgow; dark secrets of the British Empire; and young women challenging convention – Jen Stout goes in search of the radical side of the festival.
In 1994 the very first Celtic Connections festival took place, drawing 35,000 people and starting a tradition that would grow spectacularly. One of the first musicians to grace the stage was Dick Gaughan, the radical singer and songwriter whose influence stretches far beyond his native Leith, and beyond Scotland.
Gaughan’s music was the background to my childhood. His renditions of the big ballads and stories of the country, of struggles and heroes at home and in far-off lands, were always present and shaped my view of folk music. It was both beautiful and politically significant, and for me that set expectations for folk and trad that perhaps few other artists reach.
But as a teenager the folk scene I found seemed more about drinking than discussion. It’s a generalisation and there are notable exceptions, but overall I didn’t find much to like about the 4am tins and unmentioned alcoholism, the unchallenged gropes and entrenched sexism. Where was the politics, what was the point?
Of course, it was there, you just had to look for it. Before this year’s festival – the biggest yet – began, artistic director Donald Shaw was on BBC Radio Scotland, talking about the benefits of holding a festival which “talks about the cultural landscape of the country and where we’re going with it.”
Referring to his an earlier time when playing folk music was not very ‘cool’, Shaw said: “playing trad music, back then and now, is almost a political statement. Because you want to learn about the music, the tunes, where the melodies came from – especially learning the lyrical context of the Gaelic songs, a huge number of which are about oppression… There’s a sense of politics that you can’t fail to connect with.”
And though our musical traditions may be world-renowned, there’s nothing particularly unusual about Scotland in this regard, as Shaw pointed out. The festival has an “internationalism”, a wide embrace of the world and its music, and he is “constantly amazed at the connection between the rhythm, laments, of our music to those all over the world – from Indian ragas to work songs. It’s fascinating.”
Because in some form or other every culture tells its stories through ‘folk’ song and poetry – and the stories that strike the biggest chord and survive the years are perhaps inevitably those that tell of a pressing injustice, a martyr or hero that must be remembered; the bits of social history that otherwise wouldn’t make it into our current story of where we are and how we got here.
A rigidly stratified society with centuries of poverty, struggle and powerlessness certainly provides fertile ground for such work. The history of the British empire is a seemingly endless litany of abuse and suffering, both at home and abroad, but some elements are better hidden than others.
The forced deportation of more than 100,000 working-class children from Britain to the ‘colonies’ is one secret which even now few people know about, despite the dogged work of campaigners and journalists to uncover it. It was this hidden history which was commemorated with a concert in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall: a performance of the collaborative record ‘The Ballad of Child Migration‘ which features folk artists from all over the British isles.
Interspersed with archive footage of tiny children standing on the dock, hopeful and nervous, and audio tracks of these kids in old age describing the slave labour, beatings and sexual abuse they faced in Australia, Canada and elsewhere, the concert left many in the audience visibly upset. The perfect harmonies of the singers in ‘Whither Pilgrims Are You Going’, a hymn written for the deportees by their zealous reformers, sent a chill down the spine, with the awful pious hypocrisy of the lines: ‘Christ is waiting to receive us / He will guard and He will guide us / Guide us to the better land’. And the description of children waiting for their boat on the Broomielaw, having become the inconvenient burden of Highland lairds who were making way for sheep, echoes down the decades.
The record is an example both of the role of folk music in communicating social history, and its role as a form of protest. The project did not present the story of child migration as something to put behind us, but instead strongly highlighted the role of the Catholic Church and Barnardo’s homes, and of successive UK governments in covering up the truth. The impression given was that the mindset of racist colonialism and hatred of the poor found among political elites barely shifted between the policy’s early days in the 18th century, and 1970, when the practice finally ceased. Today, 120,000 stateless children live in the UK, unable to leave or stay, and Barnardo’s take lucrative government contracts to ‘house’ asylum seekers, including children, who can be detained for years without charge and deported to countries as dangerous as Afghanisatan and Iraq.
Celtic Connection’s theme this year was movement, and this seems a prescient one given the scenes of recent months, as children drown in the Aegean and governments put up fences. Even in the much-admired Scandi-democracies the razor wire is, it seems, present: Norway’s government is sending refugees back across the border in freezing weather, and in Sweden recently bands of fascists roamed the streets attacking suspected migrants.
Norwegian-Scottish band Boreas, who performed a set of ethereal and beautiful songs so incredibly evocative of the North Sea I felt I could be on the boat home, have a lot to say about politics and folk. “Right-wing extremists talk of ‘pure’ Norwegian culture – what even is that?” demands band member Britt Pernille Frøholm. “Even the Hardanger finddle is Arabic!”.
In the 1970s Norway had its own wave of folk popularity, akin to Scotland’s ‘folk revival’, in which Gaughan was a key figure. Since then Scotland has experienced another revival of sorts: Lori Watson, lead singer of Boreas and folk researcher, talks enthusiastically of the burst of “new, creative material” around the referendum campaign. Involved with National Collective’s ‘Trad Yes’ movement, Watson sees folk music as the “perfect vehicle for voices that need to be heard, stories that need to be told”.
Some of those unheard voices are undoubtedly female. Scottish folk music, Watson says, “can be limiting – so many of the songs are from a male perspective”. Not only that, but listen to the lyrics of some of those cheery ditties, and the bonny lassies frequently get murdered, raped or left in destitution. Inspired at an early age by Peggy Seeger’s ‘Gonna be an Engineer’, Watson is on the lookout for new ways to bring female perspectives into music.
Backstage in the festival club at the Art School on the festival’s final Saturday, the mood is merry (to say the least). Five weather-beaten French men exit the stage door – gear plastered in political stickers and slogans. One such symbol is the flag of ‘antifa’, the international street movement against fascism. Moussu T e lei Jovents sing blues and folk, in French and their native Occitan language, and lead singer Tatou tells me of his belief that music can bridge the divides in society and help integration.
“We live in an industrial city with a big shipyard – just like Glasgow. The shipyard closed and all the same problems came to us – these are in our songs”, says Tatou. “We think that if you make music – that’s politics. Politics isn’t just for people in palaces, in suits. Everyday life is political and it’s the subject of our music.”
“If there is no message in the music – why do it?” asks the ‘juvene’ of the group and bassist, Souba. Tatou is more diplomatic. “But of course music is meant to make people happy” he concludes. “You have to make sure they have a good time – so they’re ready for the next struggle!”