Monday, 8 August 2011

Writing folk songs

In folks songs people like you and me tell about the events, experiences and feelings that they feel are important. There is thus scope for adding new songs to the folk song repertoire. This is what I’ll be doing in the Parallel Lives project and in a workshop for the Aberdeen Maritime Museum.

Though I’ve thus far mainly worked with maritime themes, most songs have a love theme. This can entail expressions of love as in The Gallant Weaver, but more often it seems to be about unrequited love or broken promises. There are also ample descriptions of natural beauty such as Flow Gently, Sweet Afton. On the less idyllic side there are political folk songs like those about Jacobite cause. A category of folk songs that I particularly enjoy is those describing occupations like weavers, coopers, millers, and of course herring gutters and whalers.

The songs often use a place, object or person as a peg to construct the narrative around. For example, in This Is No My Plaid a young woman sings about how she finds out that her lover is betraying her through finding a plaid that is not hers. Pegs can also be used symbolically. In A Rosebud By My Early Walk, the rosebud stands for a much younger girl for whom Robert Burns has amorous feelings.   

Different voices can be used to tell the story. What Auld Lang Syne and The Song of the Fish Gutters have in common is that they let us take ownership of the song by describing it as a shared experience. Songs like The Gallant Weaver tell the story in the eyes of one person. An exception is My Donald in which we listen in to a personal conversation between a husband and wife. More common are descriptive songs that share a narrative without personal involvement. Flow Gently Sweet Afton is a good example of this.

One may think that writing song lyrics is a difficult task, but we forget that many of the people who did so in the past were not trained as songwriters either. Instead, I’d like to think that song writing is a creative challenge that is achievable so long as we make some conscious decisions about the theme, the peg to construct the story around, and the voice we want to use in telling our story.

The song writing workshops that are part of the Parallel Lives (or herring gutters) project will be held on Friday 16 and 23 September 2011. For more information and to register contact Mandy Clarke, community arts officer with Arts Development at 01224 814738 or

The workshop Rewriting Our History in which we’ll write our own texts for a contemporary whaling song will be held at Aberdeen Maritime Museum on Saturday 24 September. For more information and to register contact Aberdeen Maritime Museum at 01224 337700. 

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

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