Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Parallel lives

Folk songs are a great source of shared memories, but we often overlook the opportunity to explore the relevance of such songs for the here and now. In the project Parallel Lives: Herring Girls and Migrant Workers the aim is to explore the stories and lived experiences behind The Song of the Fish Gutters (which is about young women who migrated along the Northeast coast of Scotland in search for work) and compare this with the experiences of people from Central and Eastern Europe who currently work in Aberdeen’s fish industry. This project, commissioned by Arts Development, Aberdeen City Council, with money from the Fairer Scotland Fund, will take place in Torry, Aberdeen, from August to October 2011. 

The project, the first impressions of which I have described in my blog on folksongs in community music, consists of two strands that come together in a final event. In the first strand we will hold two workshops with residents of Torry (Aberdeen) in which we invite residents to step into the lives of herring girls by singing The Song of the Fish Gutters and studying the other documentation, after which we will express how herring girls might have experienced the temporary annual migration in song lyrics. The second strand aims to capture the experiences of migration of migrant workers in Torry, many of whom work in the fish industry, again in songs lyrics. The outcomes of these events will form the basis for two songs composed especially for the occasion, which, together with the original folk song will be rehearsed, first with Torry residents and migrant workers separately, and then with the two groups together.

For more information about the project, click here.

Other blogs on this project:
On whose terms?
Two songs, one story
We Came Here for a Better Life
We've Left Oor Hame in Aiberdeen
Singing the fishing
Writing folk songs
Why folk songs?
Following the herring
Community music - music for communities

Copyright text Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Why folk songs?

Many of my community music projects are based on Scottish folk songs or explore heritage otherwise. In the Culter Mills project I set the memories of former staff of the paper mill to music in folksong style. In the whaling song project I am interested in the stories these songs tell about what it means to go whaling. A few weeks ago I started the project Parallel Lives with Arts Development, Aberdeen City Council, to explore the stories of migration told in The Song of the Fish Gutters. Folk songs are part of our local heritage, but why do I use this in my community music work?

Singing together (photo taken by Mandy Clarke of Arts Development)
Composers and song writers write about the world around them, lifting out events, experiences and feelings that are important to them. When Karl Jenkins was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum to write a piece for the Millennium celebrations, he wrote The Armed Man, an anti-war mass dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo crisis. Folk songs do the same thing, be it on a smaller scale. When we sing traditional songs we feel that these songs tell something about our history, and what was important to our grandparents and great-grandparents. As folk songs celebrate everyday experiences people are able to identify with them. When presenting The Song of the Fish Gutters to the participants in Aberdeen, participants were keen to share their own experiences of working in the fish industry and what they knew about herring girls. Using folk songs in community music projects can for some participants thus be an empowering experience. 

Reflecting on the experiences of herring girls
But there is a more profound reason for working with folk songs as well. Many folk songs tell interesting stories that can be used as a starting point for discussion. The whaling songs, for example, celebrate man’s dominion over the whale, and thereby provide opportunities to reflect on our own heritage in relation to the current internal ban of whale hunting. The Song of the Fish Gutters tells the stories of the annual migration of young woman to work as casual workers in the herring industry. Parallels with the experiences of people from Central and Eastern Europe who are currently working in Scotland are not difficult to find. The reason why I work with folk songs in my community music projects thus is that they present a story with which people can identify, in turn giving an easy entry for reflecting on more difficult social and environmental issues. 

A few weeks ago I read a quote from  the Chinese artists Ai Weiwei: "Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo and to seek new potential." In shaping my community music projects I draw a lot of inspiration from the socially engaged arts that stress the importance of dialogue between the artist and participants, and among participants themselves. Folk songs connect past, present and future: our interest in our past forms a starting point for a dialogue about the present, and this will in turn help to shape our future.

Copyright text Petra Vergunst 
Copyright images Mandy Clarke and Petra Vergunst