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Monday, 16 January 2012

The Singer and the Song - Part 1

The traditional music of England, represented by a vast repertoire, contains chilling echoes of remorseless violence, resignation and vivid and precarious human emotions that fit anything but the comfortable stereotype so often attached to it. As a music of made of deep-running undercurrents it has long acted as a mirror and guage of social change as well as a clear cut chronology of events.

But after many years of listening to and sometimes performing this most human of music it has become clear that it can act as a catalogue of our relationship with the landscape and the natural world. In the classic imitational mirror of life and art it has tracked our changing priorities and attitudes.

The witnesses to this are everywhere. The sea has long been painted in traditional song as escape route, taker of young lives, lifeline and reflector of mood. In the Welcome Sailor the singer reminds us that her ‘heart is like the sea, always in motion’. In the songs of whaling and whalers there are constant shifts of mood and outlook. There is the romanticism of the decision to ‘ship aboard a whaler’ and the enticement to ‘you trawlermen, forget your snapper and your prawn…we sail, fishing for the humpback whale.’ In some songs, the danger of the exploit is treated as adventure but in other times and places the taste of whale oil, blood and blubber begins to taint the air and the singer becomes embittered; it becomes a life of slavery, where years of one's life is given up for little pay, in a freezing ocean where ‘of right whales there are none.’

These seemingly fickle changes are no different to mankind’s (generally) shifting attitude and is repeated in the indigenous music of many cultures. The focus of the song changes with our understanding of the precarious nature of the relationship and the even more desperate situation of the world we live in. This works on so many human levels and the music of someone like Chris Wood, exploring John Clare’s poetry as a chronicle of our landscape’s mistaken identity is one of many powerful examples. So looking back, are we able to view these songs as testimony of how far we’ve come, a casebook of our worst crimes or a roadmap to find our way back again?

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