With the referendum on Scottish independence now only a matter of days away, it is timely to consider how this relationship has been performed in Scottish traditional music.
There is a plethora of information on Scottish independence available online now and the debate (slow in starting I think) has now been energised by recent polling. But without making any political statement about the referendum result, the Union between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland may, or may not, now be over. So I think at this juncture an interesting question to consider in the national life of Scotland and the UK is: How has the Union been performed in Scottish music? Here’s an extract from my forthcoming book on Scottish traditional music outlining some of my analysis:
[Image: Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation from the Scots Musical Museum]
The idea of Scotland and Scottishness as an alterior or marginal identity within this union can be found in many songs from the mediaeval Border Ballads, to Jacobite and contemporary songs in the traditional canon. This position as an internal minority within a larger political and cultural union has provided the creative agency for many traditional and folk songs since the Union of the Crowns between England and Scotland (1603) and again after the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. Much of this alterior creative agency lies in a sense of Scottish nationalism within a union with a more economically and culturally dominant England. I argue here not for a straightforwardly nationalist reading of Scottish traditional song, but to understand just how this Otherness is performed in the multimodal semiotics of Scottish traditional and folk songs. Previous scholarship has relied almost exclusively upon the texts of traditional songs to examine the socio-cultural sense of nationalism, egalitarianism and leftist politics (see for instance Donaldson 1988; Henderson 2004; Howkins 2009; McAulay 2010; McVicar 2010; Dossena 2013). However, as listeners and audiences attest, much of the power of song lies in the multimodal understanding of text, tune, rhythm, composition and cultural intertextuality that powerfully combine in musical performance.
In the tradition of political song in Scotland, has always relied upon the longstanding leftist tradition in Scotland, and particularly since the expansion of the voting franchise in the UK, Scotland has always been politically to the left of England. Some of this has been the result of being the smaller, dominated partner in an unequal union with England. But equally, much of this political tradition stems from the large-scale industrial and unionised working heritage of Scotland. Songs such as Thomas Muir of Huntershill, written by Adam McNaughtan speak directly to this history of radicalism. Thomas Muir was a lawyer in the late 18th century Scotland who was much influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and was not alone; Robert Burns was also a supporter of the French Revolution and of social egalitarianism. The well known Scottish song Scots Wa Hae was supposedly written by Burns after witnessing the bound and chained Thomas Muir being led into Edinburgh. These songs and others espouse the grand ideals on the left at the time of greater power and franchise to the working classes, egalitarianism and liberty. One song that Burns wrote directly speaking to these themes was The Tree of Liberty. In this song, Burns bemoans the lack of a ‘tree of Liberty’ between ‘London and the Tweed’ (the river Tweed, which traditionally has been seen as a marker of the Border between Scotland and England). To me, Burns’ republican and radical socialist politics can be clearly heard in this narrative. He lays out various virtues that accrue to societies that enshrine the values of the French revolution, liberty, egalitarianism and brotherhood (or perhaps for us today, liberty, equality and community). Burns has a vision that if these values were commplace then the world would live in greater peace and equality. However, Burns’ most famous song dealing with the relationship between Scotland and England within the Union, is undoubtedly A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation. This is a very popular song even today, and was printed in The Scots Musical Museum vol. 2 (1787-1803).
One of the best performances of this song comes from the singer Rod Paterson’s 1996 album, Rod Paterson – Sings Burns (Songs From The Bottom Drawer) (Paterson 1996). Burns’ song outlines the traitorous intentions of the Scots aristocracy who sold out Scottish nationhood for ‘English gold’. The accusation stands historically correct that the Scottish nobles who received the bribe of the ‘equivalent’, effectively signed the Union in 1707 for financial gain. The song ends with the key textual reference, ‘we’re bought and sold for English gold, Such a parcel o rogues in a nation’. Within the text of the song, key physical places such as the Solway sands, the river Tweed, help to lend authority to the narrator’s voice. The Tweed also marks in the song a natural boundary between Scotland and England that has been punctured by the traitorous Scots aristocracy who have been bought ‘for English gold’. This helps to construct not only the place-bound authenticity of the narrative, but also presents Scotland and England as historically ‘natural’ provinces or nations, which the Union has forever undermined. It is a song that satirizes the stupidity and greed of the Scottish noblemen, and in this sense, is not an anti-English narrative, but a song of loss of nationhood, pride and disdain.
In the recording, Paterson takes the tune expressively and with gentle acoustic guitar accompaniment, drawing out the sentiment of the song using the full expertise of a professional and remarkable singer. The song is performed by Paterson in a clear standard Scots accent which does the semiotic work of adding to the authenticity of the first person narrative in the song. In the instrumental arrangement, the guitar plays a steady 4/4 strum using mostly diatonic chordal accompaniment but with some extended chords which help to support the wandering tonality of the melody moving between major and minor. The instrumental break in the song is provided by the Scottish smallpipes which are a marker of Scottishness both to insiders and outsiders. Significantly, the stress pattern (agogic stress for musicologists) remains almost constant throughout the song, with the lead vocal laying the emphasis on beats 1 and 3 of each four crotchet bar. In common with many of the most highly regarded traditional songs, the stressed rhythms marry with the key nouns and adjectives in the text, emphasising their semiotic salience to the listener. The guitar accompaniment supports this stress pattern but places more emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beat of the bar which allows for some added auditory interest without detracting from the prominence of the textual and vocal emphases. These vocal stresses also coincide with the textual stresses of common ballad metre (lines of 4 stresses followed by 3). This emphatic stress patterning is combined multimodally with the use of melodic contour to emphasize the key affective words of the text, taking the listener down on descending contours to emphasize the semiotic significance of the text. For example, the final line of the chorus, ‘such a parcel of rogues in a nation’ is melismatically performed over a B minor inverted arch, with key words ‘rogues’ and ‘nation’ hanging on the key tones of E and B. This enhances their salience to the listener and is just one example of the really important modal interplay of different semiotic resources that can set great songs apart from the rest.
It is not just the words that make the meaning of the song.
The sonic aspects, and more importantly, the combination between text, tune, tone and other ‘modes’ make up the multimodal meaning. For this song and many others, the total affect of the song comes from its multimodal meaning, and in this reading at least, the alterity of Scotland within the Union has been a powerfully creative trope. I’m pretty sure however, that regardless of whether the Union survives the vote next week, that Scottish music and performers will continue to entertain us with powerfully creative music.