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

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