There is a universe of questions to be asked about the relationship between singers and their songs. Why choose song as a medium of expression rather than another verbal or concrete form? Why go to the trouble of learning and then singing a particular song - what draws a singer to it? Is there a link between the narrative content of a song and the individuals who choose to sing it? Or does the significance of a song or singing lie in what it represents for the singer? Does it evoke memories of a friend or events that have no obvious representation in any aspect of the textual or melodic elements of the song? Or, are all songs acquired by chance when a singer happens to be in the right place at the right time to absorb another's performance? Whole or partial answers to these questions shape an individual's repertoire and the possibilities for every song and each individual singer are almost limitless.
Today, we can seek responses on the subtlest variations of these issues directly from performers themselves, but that leaves one of the greatest assets of folksong research untouched. What can be done using the far greater mass of historical material held in archives and published sources? In Britain, at least until the later twentieth century, the options for research using this material seemed limited. Collected at a time when texts and rather less often, tunes were the focus of attention, the views of any chance individual holder of 'the remnants of a common national heritage' were not seen as having any bearing on the work of recording. Many collectors regarded the name of the performer, where they lived and when their song was notated, as more than sufficient for scholarly purposes. The full extent of singers' repertoires and attitudes remained unexplored. Given this scant data, can we only use historical sources for textual or musical analysis and comparison? Or is it possible to explore other dimensions of performance and meaning? In particular, can any correlation be made between the content of a song's narrative and the gender of its singers?
For this brief study of gender and repertoire, I have drawn on a body of songs collected mainly from Aberdeenshire in north-eastern Scotland by Gavin Greig (1856-1914), a school teacher, and the Reverend James Bruce Duncan (1848-1917), a United Free Church Minister in the early part of the twentieth century. Prompted by local interest in the 'older popular minstrelsy' of the area, Greig and Duncan applied a far less circumscribed definition of song traditions and took in a wider social range of singers than was common among contemporary researchers in England, such as Sabine Baring Gould (1834-1924), Frank Kidson (1855-1926), Lucy Broadwood (1858-1929), Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) and Anne Gilchrist (1864-1954). Constituting some 3,500 texts and 3,300 tunes from over 500 contributors, their collection is the one of largest made in Britain. For many years, however, the bulk of their material was only available in manuscript form, held in the Library at Aberdeen University. Between 1981 and 2002, however, Greig and Duncan's manuscripts were published in eight volumes, The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection (Greig-Duncan), edited by the late Patrick Shuldham-Shaw, Emily Lyle and a variety of other specialists. Contributed from a relatively consonant geographical area, culture and time period, the printed collection offers a consistent and accessible resource for comparative repertoire studies using historical data.
Gender and power are expressed in their most extreme form in rape. To explore the ways in which singers interact with these issues, therefore, I have looked at a range of ballads representative of a larger group of songs in the Greig-Duncan Collection which have the theme of rape or the use of power gained through wealth and status to achieve sexual gratification. These are:
|The Bonnie Broom-fields / Broomfield Hills (Child 43; Greig-Duncan 322)
|collected Greig, July 1906
|William Scott, Cortes, Lonmay
|collected Greig, no date [1908 or later]
|The Shepherd's Son / The Shepherd Laddie (Greig-Duncan 301)
|James Mackie, Strichen
|collected Greig, 26 May 1908
|Mrs Margaret Gillespie, New Deer
|collected Duncan, September 1905.
|Jock Sheep (Greig-Duncan 302)
|John Mowat, Craigmaud
|collected Greig, 9 May 1906
|Alexander [Sandy] Robb, New Deer
|incomplete narrative in incomplete text
|collected Greig, 9 May 1906
Why would a singer choose to learn or perform The Bonnie Broomfields? In this case, we know that William Scott knew an opening verse (see Appendix B) but the performer of the completed text is unnamed and therefore could have been male or female. Would the song's celebration of a young woman's courage and daring and a young man's humiliation have a greater attraction for male or female singers? Even today in Britain, prosecutions for rape rarely result in conviction. In an age where power and gender were far more closely aligned than now, the song would seem to represent a chance of affirmation for woman and might only be sung by them. In fact, this is not the case - historically, the ballad has been widely recorded from men and in the present day English Folk Revival is largely sung by men - as for example recordings by Martin Carthy, A L Lloyd, Phil Beer and Steve Knightly [Show of Hands], John Roberts and Tony Barrant (see References). Through examination of other collections and interviews with current performers, it may be possible to assess whether these proportions have been reached by chance or are the result of underlying factors in the content of the song.
There are however, marked differences between the status and other actions of the Shepherd and Jock Sheep that may also be reflected in the different outcomes of the two sets of narrative. The Shepherd, whose attributes of flocks, pipe and crook mark out his status as a working man, unpromisingly begins the narrative by falling asleep. Waking by chance to find a young woman swimming naked nearby, he makes no obvious threat to her - though she recognises the disadvantages of her situation. In contrast, Jock Sheep, despite his rather plebeian name, is a knight who has actively made a tryst with the lady with obviously amorous intent. Although initially, they are both led into embarrassment and abuse by false promises, only Jock Sheep takes parallel action and exacts revenge on the lady.
Each singer's telling of these stories demonstrates a personal approach to the narrative. James Mackie's Shepherd's Son (see Appendix C) is chivalrous and considerate - addressing the naked maiden as 'my dear' and telling her that she should put on her clothes and has nothing to fear from him. He takes a rather conventional stance on her behaviour - rather than going in for a rigorous morning bout of open air bathing, he feels she should be 'sewing her silken seam'. Flemming Andersen has highlighted the possibilities for temptation and subconscious erotic longing in the 'sewing her silken seam motif' (Andersen, 109), but the Shepherd's Son's intentions are apparently of the purest. Ignoring the Maid's offer of money, he says he'll lift her out of the stream and take her to be 'my ain'. Then, producing matching milk-white steeds, he and she set off for her father's house, 'like sister and like brother'. Once at her father's house, the difference between their status is underlined by the appearance of a porter to let her in and an even more obvious example of unmaidenly behaviour and language. Calling him a fool, the Maid seems to indicate that, for once, all the supra-narrative implications of young women going off to the wilds may be justified and she is disappointed to have encountered such a 'modest boy' who took so much care of her wellbeing. Had she been in his place, she tells him, she would not have let herself get off so lightly. Paralleling his handing the Maid her gown to cover her nakedness, the Shepherd's Son ruefully responds that he will strip off and refuse to spare the next bonny lass he meets. But his assertions have little effect. In a finale that is almost visual, Mackie's version gives the Maid an opportunity for one more low blow:
In contrast, Mrs Gillespie's more concise telling of The Shepherd Laddie (see Appendix D) takes place in a practical world that is near at hand. Although the couple meet 'on yonder hill', there is no suggestion of underlying threat or moral ambiguity in such a location - it is near enough to be within sight in the landscape and the Maid's home is 'just near by'. She seems to be bathing simply because the brook provides sufficient water to do so and in this account, there's no dwelling on her nakedness or discussion of her clothing. The couple also appear to have a relatively similar social status; she is a farmer's daughter, he a young shepherd. But Gillespie's version has no other characterisation of the male protagonist. He has the attributes of his work, a pipe, crook and club - though he has 'laid aside' this potential weapon before the story really gets going. Little more than a narrative device, he exists simply to sleep, wake up and look round to find the 'weel-faur'd maid'.
Gillespie's account, in fact, gives all the dialogue and most of the action to the Maid, who swiftly sees the disadvantage of her position and rapidly moves to change it. Combining an offer of 'as much money As you can carry home' with the threat of a fiercely protective father nearby - who 'if he knew ye troubled me / Richt angry wad he be' - the Maid also promises a meeting at her house. Unfortunately the specifics of the favour are lost as the remaining one and a half lines of Gillespie's text for this stanza are missing. The offer is, however, taken up. Following her instruction, the Shepherd Laddie goes to her door only to find the Maid at 'a window high'. From this point of vantage and safety she flatly tells him 'Of me ye'll get no more' and then compares him to a steed of her father's who, though he was fastened out on the pasture, 'hung his head above the hay, / But never laid it on' and a cock that her father owned which, despite having, a double comb and making much display with his wings, never managed to crow. Linguistically, the sexual implications of a steed - which in literary terms are often 'mounted' and 'ridden' - both widely used as synonyms for sexual intercourse - and 'a cock', which is a common synonym for the penis are striking. However, the parallels between the horse away from any constraint but unwilling to take advantage of a situation when everything was laid out before him and the Shepherd Laddie are far more strongly evidenced in the text than the suggestion of empty sexual display in the taunt about the cock. Like the animals, however, the Maid remains in her father's keeping and her many layered, double insults end the song.
Duncan noted that Mrs Gillespie was 'a little uncertain' of the nature of the Maid's offer and also knew of more elements of the narrative than she sang to him. The Shepherd Laddie apparently approached the Maid before she told him to 'keep off', followed all her directions to the hall door and at the end, asked for money and was refused (Greig-Duncan 2: 569). Even so, the text as sung by this exceptional woman performer provides a comprehensible story. The internal world of the song that Gillespie presents is consistent and reflects the workings of contemporary society far more closely than the tale of ill-rewarded mock-medievalism in The Shepherd's Son. Here, the Maid is not a wanton and petulant upper class risk taker but a dutiful daughter of the farm who always has control of her situation. Arguably, therefore, like the 'independent and discriminating' Ozark singers studied by John Quincy Wolf, although she was aware of other possibilities within the story, Gillespie used her own artistic judgement to evolve a version of the narrative that pleased her (Wolf 101-11). Comparison of Mackie and Gillespie's texts for The Gardener (Child 219; Greig-Duncan 4: 840, 280-281 A, B) also shows Gillespie singing a spare, four stanzas concentrating attention of the female protagonist, whilst Mackie's seven stanzas build up the character and speeches of a worthy young man spurned, despite avowing - 'For we of women all are come if you will call to mind / And unto women for their sakes we surely should prove kind.' Further research on the repertoires of these two singers would be welcome to establish whether these differences are chance or more widely exemplified.
Greig and Duncan's comprehensive approach to notation indicates that other collectors' urge to record only 'full versions' of songs may have set a considerable limitation on research. As the publication of the vast proportion of their notes shows, even the fragmentary texts they recorded contain material that is suggestive of singers' attitudes and repertoire. John Mowat's two stanzas of taunts and chorus titled Jock Sheep (see Appendix E) has a variant of the Blow away the morning dew chorus closer to those found in contemporary English versions of The Baffled Knight (e.g. Karpeles 34; collected 1908) than the other variants collected by Greig and Duncan, which have choruses made up almost entirely of vocables. He, or the source of his song, may have had access to a wider geographic context of performance or printed versions of the text than the other two singers. Unlike most other texts also, Mowat's taunts allocate ownership of the reluctant animals equally to both parents - the horse to his father and the cock to his mother. On farms, the care of poultry and the proceeds from egg sales were usually the perquisite of the farmer's wife or woman of the house, so again, this form of the text may reflect Mowat's intention to represent contemporary reality of men and women's working life rather than minutely following tradition in his version of the song.
Robb's version of Jock Sheep bears some similarity to the text associated with Charles Lesly of Aberdeen and printed in Kinloch's Ballad Book in 1827 (Anon. 16-21). The earlier, much longer text continues the couple's story to a conclusion in which - after raping the Lady, Jock Sheep repeats the taunts she originally put to him, then at her request, takes her to her father's hall where they enter and 'Nae lord or lady look'd sae blythe, / As them twa 'mang them a''. This mirror image form, Robert Walz suggests is a literary construct aimed at male listeners:
The second half of the song also appears untraditional; the theme of the knight getting his own back from the lady is not found in true traditional versions of this song, and is probably a literary fix designed to relieve the disturbed dignity of all the men listening to the piece. The modifications were enough to make Child exclude this version from his collection - and certainly the song is better without them.(Walz)
Obviously, Robb's partial text is traditional and differs in a number of respects from Kinloch's - not least in that the rape appears to be followed by weeping rather than a blythe return home. It would therefore be a loss if his and the earlier form of this song were discounted in discussions of traditions of singing and repertoire.
For issues of gender, in particular, the actions of Jock Sheep also raise a number of interesting questions. Although Jock Sheep is the only male protagonist to achieve his aim of having intercourse, the means by which he attains this are highly unusual. He does not merely dress as a woman to gain access to the Lady, but takes on female status at its extreme by feigning pregnancy and labour. Throughout the period in which Jock Sheep seems to have been current, the theme of women dressed as men was presented in song as an adventurous or provocative act, whilst men dressed as women were largely comic. How, therefore, was Jock's choice of this specific disguise received by contemporary male and female listeners and what was the attitude of singers and audience to some of the other sexual undercurrents within the narrative? Jock Sheep ensnares the Lady in the greenwood through her sympathy for another woman - she manifests a consideration for a member of her own sex that she had refused to show to him. Was this regarded by women as a praiseworthy example of their thoughtful attitudes to one another and by men as yet another reason for Jock to exact revenge? Robb's text has the Lady taking a gift of wine to the apparently pregnant woman and he provided little evidence of the rape and one-by-one retraction of the taunts, which may indicate he had little interest in expanding on the vengeful possibilities of the narrative.
There are, however, other readings which are neither excluded nor reinforced by the presence of affirming or vengeful motifs. In assisting a woman in childbirth, the Lady would necessarily require access to the mother's genitalia. Jock Sheep, who had been refused sexual contact with the Lady because of her dress, then himself employs a form of dress to achieve this. As a woman, however, the nature of the contact he would potentially have with the Lady would be ambivalent, both homo- and heterosexual. These uncertainties are not only expressed in the disguise element of the text, but are also present in the scene which greets the Lady when she finally arrives in the greenwood to find Jock Sheep 'Kaimin' doon his yellow hair'. Hair combing here is not merely unusually placed, in that it generally occurs as an introductory formula in ballads, but as Andersen's research has demonstrated, it contains 'the notion of temptation and (subconscious) erotic longing' and is almost invariably an activity of young women (Andersen, 108-16).
To singers long familiar with the actuality and supra-narrative function of ballad formulae, the innovation this represented could be noteworthy and may have supported other, more extensive area of anomaly in both Robb's and the Kinloch texts. The taunts of the female protagonists in The Shepherd's Son and The Shepherd Laddie involve a reluctance or inability to engage in sexual activity. In Jock Sheep, however, the Kinloch text manages to combine unexpected content with awkward rhyme in a stanza that does not occur in the Greig Duncan version:
This preliminary consideration of the possibilities for using historical material to examine the ways in which singers interact with issues like rape and sexual violence has highlighted the complex options for negotiation in performance. A song hymning the success of a male protagonist or the wit of a dauntless female will not automatically appeal to a singer of the same gender, indeed such a proposal comprehensively underrates the subtleties of re-creation. In dealing with the difficult cultural and social dynamics inherent in sexual violence, singers like Margaret Gillespie, James Mackie, Sandy Robb and numerous anonymous voices, demonstrate a creativity that gives specific, individual weight to the narrative elements they include - transforming tradition from dead repetition to personal insight into the human condition. We cannot ask these singers directly to express their views, but close study of the way they have shaped their narratives and examination of their treatment of other songs in their repertoire may provide even greater insight into their values. The Greig-Duncan Collection and other historical sources have many answers and new questions to offer to contemporary researchers.
Georgina Boyes - 2.6.04