[9 November 2011]
“[M]y own feeling is that Alan is, in his way, a man of genius,” said Hamish Henderson, singer, communist, folklorist, co-founder of the school of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, a man who was born in 1919 and died in 2002, and a chief supporter of Alan Lomax during his field recording excursions to Scotland in the mid-1900s.
Henderson was also in possession of a clear and rhythmic singing voice, as you can hear on the album, where he performs “The John MacLean March”. MacLean was a revolutionary and pacifist and “The March” is one of several songs here that kick against the situation of Scotland—defeated by England, working through the industrial revolution, caught up in British wars. “The Big Kilmarnock Bonnet” warns young farmhands not to try their luck in the big city, otherwise they’ll end up robbed, soaked, and in gaol. “McCafferty”, which was originally an Irish song, sympathizes with a soldier who shot two of his superiors and was sentenced to hang.
The singers throughout the album, in universal folk song tradition, take on the voices of the poor and the pressured, which are the voices of themselves, informal performers, singers-to-the-neighbourhood. A poacher is executed in “Johnny O’ Braidislee”, and it’s the poacher we follow, not the foresters who shoot him. He gets up in the morning, he fetches his dogs, he goes out, kills deer, eats, and is betrayed. Trapped, he fires back and rides away defiantly. All in an economical storytelling style, all information packed into nuggets of four lines each, with an extra one on the last verse to emphasise his death.
Now Johnny’s good benbow is broke
And his twa grey hounds are slain
His body lies in Monymusk
And his huntin days are daen, daen
And his huntin days are daen
Lomax visited Scotland in 1951, lifting microphones, interviewing the singers, and swiftly recording around 250 songs in the cities and the countryside. “He brought to the task a ruthless readiness to do things with his own two hands that most orthodox folklorists would not have handled with two thicknesses of kid gloves,” declared Henderson, defending him against local experts who complained that they hadn’t been consulted, that they had been disregarded, and that the American wanted the glory of the recordings for himself. Several albums came out of this trip, and Whaer the Pig is a selection of tracks from several of them, put together to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Lomax’s trip.
There are a few fiddling tracks but mostly we hear voices. A woman, Mary Cosgrove, sings “The Collier Lad” with a voice that finds each syllable as it comes to it, not throwing the weight of the line forward to the end, not seeming to anticipate the sound and form a bridge from one word to the next, as singers are trained to do when they train formally, but lurching down at the end of one word and plunging up at the start of the next. A man named Jimmy McBeath sings “Hey Barra Gadgie” in Cant, a structured mass of borrowings from Gaelic and Romany. “Gadgie” can be connected back to the Romany gadjo. A group of children from a school in Aberdeen sing a playground chant in rocking breathless voices.
My mother and your mother were hanging out some clothes. My mother gave your mother a dunt on the nose. What. Colour. Was. Her. Blood?
Field recordings of children are always interesting. One of my favourites is the children on Saydisc’s Spirit of Polynesia singing about a snake. If the children from Polynesia met the children from Aberdeen they could fit their singsong rhythms together almost without pausing.
Some of the tracks on Pig are comedies, some are tragedies, some are records of lost love. The recordings, copies of which were donated to Henderson’s School, were one element in the mid-century British folk revival. The larger society suspected that industrialisation had crushed folk singing to the ground but here it was, here was proof of it, here it was recorded with the same microphone and heard out of the same speakers that industrialisation had brought about. But the days of tramping farmhands like Macbeath, they were indeed dying, and here was their tomb.