Thursday, November 20, 2014

Alexander 'Eck' Robertson and Henry Gilliland - 'Masters of Southern Fiddling'.

Fiddling is not that common any more in the circles I move in and the community I live in. After nearly 15 years of travelling around playing music the fiddle is an instrument that rarely appears at the events we are asked to go to. 100 years ago it definitely was the most common instrument - and the same tuning meant that the mandolin was also quite common - but 'progress' means most folk would now rather watch a screen than learn a skill and modes of creative expression. Local County Down fiddle tradition has been magnificently captured in Nigel Boullier's book Handed Down which I had the privilege of designing with Nigel. Some photos are below.

Local fiddlers did not have the opportunity to be recorded, so much of the once-vibrant tradition has been more or less lost. The same applies to local songs - undervalued, and stylistically outdated, they have been lost and replaced by the pop music of the 20th century. Music sessions not far from here will see people arrive with electronic keyboards and electric guitars with mini-amps to play old 1960s hits, just as often as an accordion with a range of traditional tunes. Of course there are some exceptions, but in the main, globalised consumer culture has displaced local vernacular culture - musically, linguistically, architecturally, and so on. This can lead to people feeling 'rootless'. 

The lack of a defined, captured, recorded, published, marketed heritage is particularly acute in Ulster-Scots communities. It is not easy for the general public to access the old stuff. Finding Irish traditional material is a breeze - this might be a sweeping generalisation but, despite the awful 'Riverdance-ification' of aspects of Irish culture, the Irish community seems to me to have more regard for its traditions than the Ulster-Scots community does. So accessing Ulster-Scots material is like archaeology. It has always existed but it was seldom treasured, except by the few who appreciate its cultural importance and enjoy being part of it all.

There is a vast difference between somebody who lives a tradition, and somebody who just reads about it in a book or online. You cannot substitute a lifetime of understanding with half an hour on Google. I grew up around country men who exuded 'No Surrender' as a characteristic in every aspect of their lives - stoic, quiet men of deep resolve - whose lives did not need to shout 'No Surrender' as the antagonistic sloganeering the expression is sometimes reduced to. I am fortunate that people whose lives have been devoted to gathering up cultural remnants have been generous enough to share their knowledge and experiences with me. The characteristics you exude are more revealing than the words you use. 

One trend with the Ulster-Scots world of the past 15 years or so has been for some to 'over-claim' and exaggerate. I find this particularly the case with American connections - by people on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a fair degree of nonsense talked, written and broadcast (I will resist the temptation to cite examples!) and this tends to become high profile, easily accessed and therefore opinion-forming. The good stuff tends to not get noticed.

American fiddling is not the same as Ulster fiddling, although they are undoubtedly connected. Here's an historic tune by Alexander 'Eck' Robertson and Henry Gilliland from the 1920s, who featured in the eminent Scotch-Irish Society of the USA's bulletin of Winter 2012 in an article by Mike Scoggins. Robertson and Gilliland are said to have been the first country music recording artists in the world. The Society was founded in 1889, just two years after Robertson was born.

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