The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection

Volume 8 edited by Patrick Shuldham-Shaw, Emily B Lyle and Katherine Campbell

Published by the Mercat Press for the University of Aberdeen in association with
the School of Scottish Studies and the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh 2002
722pp.  ISBN 1841830127   35.00 - 26.25 online

With the publication of the eighth and final volume of the Greig-Duncan Folk-Song Collection, one of the finest scholarly undertakings in Scottish studies in the latter half of the twentieth century is brought to a triumphant close.

It is easy to take such things for granted once they are there on the shelves.  Easier still, a year or two later, to start picking holes and find opportunity to display one's own superior wisdom.  It is therefore all the more important that this great labour and all those who have contributed - a litany of some of our finest scholars - Coverbe duly honoured but, in particular, Gavin Greig and James Bruce Duncan themselves, and the subsequent Editors, Patrick Shuldham-Shaw, Emily Lyle, Peter Hall, Andrew Hunter, Adam McNaughton, Elaine Petrie, Sheila Douglas and Katherine Campbell.  One editor alone has lived through the whole process - Emily B Lyle.  Raise your glasses, ladies and gentlemen, and drink deep.

For those who are already using the Collection, the single most welcome aspect of this final volume is the accumulated Index.  Volume 8 itself only has a Contents list, but the layout of the accumulated Index, with volume numbers in bold is eminently readable indeed the quality of the print, layout and binding throughout the whole series is worthy of the contents, and the use of a cream-coloured paper is easy on the eye.

This final volume also includes indices for the Child ballad and Laws American ballad concordances, Roud index numbers (a computerised index of English-language folk-song), a Place-name Index (invaluable) and a worthy Melodic Index.  There are welcome biographies of some of the original contributors (including a few photographs) as well as two useful extended pieces by Ian Olson on Greig and Duncan.  There are essays by the editors of this final volume, Katherine Campbell on the Music of the Collection and Emily Lyle on its Formation.  There are also addenda and supplementary notes to the previous volumes.  All in all, a proper rounding off to a saga now a hundred years in the making, and a vivid testimony to the riches, not just of Aberdeenshire's song culture, but of Scotland's too.

At one time there was a danger that the Collection might be abandoned on the grounds that it was insufficiently pure in its sources.  Did the song not emerge spontaneously from the untutored lips of an illiterate born of a long line of illiterates, it was deemed inauthentic.  William Walker was the culprit and caused the bulk of the Collection to be left in limbo for some forty years.  Fortunately, the centuries-old interplay between the oral and the literate traditions in Scotland is recognised in this work.  We have prided ourselves on high levels of literacy from as early as the middle ages and when a fine song such as The Corncraik slips into the oral tradition from the pen of a versifier who is honest enough to imitate a style without trying to conceal himself behind it, it is accepted.  In the same volume (5) you will find The Sour-milk Cairt; the transmission of which probably involved publication and whose author is known.  And in this last volume amongst many touching songs of farewell, with splashes of local colour, one finds the beautiful Under the Moon One Thing I Crave which is a generalised song of disappointed love that surely has literary roots.

Great credit then, must go to Greig and Duncan for recording this wide variety of material without censoring the taste and sources of their informants, though Katharine Duncan removed two volumes of her father's collection from Aberdeen University Library, possibly because she thought the songs too indecent.  Her father was a minister; but the self-righteousness of moralism is not essential to the ministry nor unfound in its critics.

The fact that the collection has been classified necessarily leads to anomalies.  Songs do not know about classifications.  Thus it is that Farewell to Tarwathie is quite properly in Volume 1 as a Nautical Song, though it might have reasonably claimed a place in Volume 8.  Likewise The Flower of Sweet Straeban is in Volume 4 as a Song of Particular People, though it is also a song of Farewell.  Thorough acquaintance with the entire collection is the only way of ensuring that you have not missed that Narrative Song which might be found under Songs of Love and Marriage, which take up Volumes 5, 6 and 7 of the Collection.  This is no criticism, just a fact which may one day be made irrelevant by computerisation of more than opening lines, along with attendant search facilities.  In the meantime, the Place Name and other indices must suffice.

Readers should also retain an awareness of the fact that this is precisely what it says it is - The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection.  I make this obvious point, because disappointment at the absence of a tune for, say, Farewell to Tarwathie; or annoyance at a failure to refer to some other well-known source, would be misplaced.  The task of Greig and Duncan was not to edit, and it is one of the marks of proper respect for this approach, that the subsequent editors presented the music wherever possible in the handwriting of its original collectors.  That said, readers should be aware that material gathered directly by Greig from published sources, and also the Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs are not covered.

Those unfamiliar with the complex history of publication of song in and furth of Scotland should also note that this collection does not purport to trace songs back through their earlier appearances.  Such information can be had in part from other sources, such as Bronson and Johnson, who are cited in the bibliographies.  Researchers into the antecedents of much of the material should, however, look to a number of uncited sources.  Amongst scholarly works one might include Aloys Fleischmann Sources of Irish Traditional Music, in two volumes, New York 1998 which contains a huge amount of Scottish material: Charles Gore The Scottish Fiddle Music Index Musselburgh 1994: Claude Simpson The British Broadside Ballad Rutgers 1966 (including addenda and corrigenda published by John Ward in Journal of the American Musicological Society XX No1 Spring 1967 pp28-86), and John Glen Early Scottish Melodies Edinburgh 1900; and among earlier printed collections, those of William Thomson, Alan Ramsay, James Oswald, Robert Bremner: but there is a host of others, not to mention manuscript sources.  The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection could not possibly have undertaken this task, but it is important to understand that a significant percentage of its contents may have roots in earlier publications, including broadsheets and balladsheets and dramatic entertainments from at least as early as the late 17th century.

Looking at the editorial material in Volume 8, Emily Lyle's essay on the Formation of the Collection is a model of clarity and also has its own Index of Place Names.  She handles Greig and Duncan separately and, moving through the complex processes year by year, adds straightforward commentary, quotations from correspondence and much ancillary material, without any personal intrusion.  There is a modesty about everything she has done, but I suspect that, were one privy to the process as a whole, hers would emerge as the resident genius of its accomplishment.

Ian Olson's authoritative studies convey much of Greig and Duncan's personalities and introduce a welcome stylishness in the writing.  Coupled with Lyle's work, we are given a remarkably full picture of two fine men and their generous dedication.

Katherine Campbell's contribution is eminently sensible.  While clearly expressing the problems that necessarily arise in collecting from the oral tradition, she does not belabour Greig and Duncan with that misplaced ethnomusicological rectitude which so readily turns pleasure into dust and ashes.  Mostly she confines herself to an account and explanation of Greig and Duncan's methods of recording the music: their reasons for by-passing the newly arrived recording machines: their taking down of tunes at a different pitch from that at which they were sung: their good sense in refusing to become bogged down in recording every minutiae of every known rendering, which has led to ethnomusicologists entering in their transcriptions such otiose absurdities as 'here the singer coughs' - a practice of the same order as that of students who, in taking lecture notes, write down the lecturer's cheery "Good morning!" - something I myself have witnessed on several occasions.  In other words, this is a fair and balanced assessment of what was in any case a quite remarkably faithful job of recording for the period.

She has, however, exchanged her own modal analysis (based on Bronson) for that of Greig and Duncan.  Modal analysis has progressed a few centimetres since their days, permitting increased flexibility of interpretation at the expense of systematic ordering: but Bronson only skirts round the problems and my own opinion is that most modal 'analysis', based as it is on an arcane and inappropriate mediaeval system, has little to tell us.  In Volume 8, The Supplementary Notes to the previous volumes include Katherine Campbell's modal attributions for each and every tune a major undertaking.  This creates no inconsistency in editorial practice, but it is none-the-less open to criticism.  For instance The Hermit of St Kilda is classified as Aeolian, presumably on the assumption that its last note (its 'final') is the key-note of the mode.  But the average musician might well be forgiven for regarding this tune as essentially Ionian with only a twist to Aeolian in the last two notes.  Bread and Cheese to Rorie is indeed pentatonic, but its effect is of a very basic alternation between minor and major, or Aeolian and Ionic.  But I have no intention of stirring up any more dust and ashes myself.  Suffice it to say that I would still wish to take the analysis and in particular the percentages attributed to the appearances of particular modes, with a very large pinch of salt.

A word about the Melodic Index.  It is a great pity that no standard method of melodic indexing has been established.  Personally I find Charles Gore's system in his invaluable The Scottish Fiddle Music Index the most accurate and revealing.  It is based on Breandan Breathnach's scheme, and recognises only on-beat notes and represents them by numbers, but it does rely on identifying which is the key note, represented in the index by the number 1.

The system used by Fleischmann in Sources of Irish Traditional Music avoids identifying the key note but assumes each tune starts on the note G.  This is fine if you have a stable first note, but this is frequently not the case; and the system of indicating in which octave a note lies is confusing.  Katherine Campbell's method of entering repeated notes is economical, allowing more of the shape of the tune to show through and thus avoiding a flaw in Fleischmann's method: but she has not specified the direction of octave leaps, and leaps in excess of the octave are not indicated at all.

The old system of Barlow and Morgenstern's A Dictionary of Musical Themes was set up for Classical Music, for which it works tolerably well.  In this system you mentally transpose your phrase into the key of C (major or minor), without necessarily establishing the key of the tune as a whole.  The method employed here is similar to this last.  It is that of entering the first eight notes as though the melody were in the key of C.  However, Campbell's note describing how to use the Melodic Index does not mention that minor key tunes should be thought of as in C minor.  The distinction is important.  Many people looking for an archetypal minor key on the white notes of a keyboard will automatically think of A minor.  The problem is that the researcher is probably not starting with the tune as it appears here, but with some unidentified tune the key of which (if any) is not immediately apparent.  For instance, if we take The Hermit of St Kilda but recall only its first phrase and wish to find it or related tunes, we have little chance of success.  This is because of the assumption referred to above.  But its opening phrase is absolutely and unequivocally Ionian.  So if we follow the method and transpose the first eight notes, as we hear them in our heads, into the key of C, we would naturally look for G A C D E D C D.  But it is indexed as Bflat C Eflat F G F Eflat F.  This is by no means an isolated example, so if you think your tune is in the Greig-Duncan Collection and you can't find it in the Index, try thinking of it in other keys or modes.

The Melodic Index suffers from another difficulty in that it includes up-beats which are not indicated as such, and whose presence or absence in traditional music is unpredictable.  Fleischmann enters tunes with and without their up-beats - a distinct advantage.  For example, taking the above tune, even if you know it has an up-beat for the initial word 'And', it is quite likely that the version in your head has only the first of the two notes given to it in Greig-Duncan, so you might be searching for it as Bflat Eflat F G F Eflat F G.  In other words, this Melodic Index is a rough tool.  That said, a large proportion of the tunes can indeed be found using this method, and it is a great deal better to have it than not to have it; but be flexible and have Patience in attendance with a moist cloth and a dram in her hand.

These comments are no more than minor additional guidelines with respect to the proper use of the Collection.  More important than anything a critic can write of it, is that at long last it exists in available and handsome form.  Congratulations to all concerned!  It is a noble piece of work; a job well done; worthy of praise and expenditure; and establishing beyond doubt the richness and variety of a song culture that should never go un-sung.

Available from: www.mercatpress.com

John Purser - 20.12.02

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