Thursday, March 21, 2019

Beware of some academics – "The Globalization of Irish Traditional Song Performance" by Susan H. Motherway (2013)

My rather odd inclusion in this 2013 book (GoogleBooks edition here) came back to mind the other day. I stumbled upon it a few years ago, with some surprise and then bewilderment. The author - who made no contact with me or the other guys in the group (as confirmed by the list of contributors) - dissected the CD booklet notes, and overlaid an analysis, perhaps fulfilled the course requirements and satisfied the publisher's expectations. But this mangling is what can sometimes happen when normal low-key people's lives become 'content':

"the constructivist nature of Ulster-Scots music, the political overtones of this music, and the perceived low standard of performance are preventing Ulster-Scots from entering the global market".

It might come as a surprise to Susan H Motherway, but sometime people of very limited ability simply enjoy music for their friends, families and local communities with not a care in the world for what the politics and sociology fixated few, or the 'global market', think. I would suggest that some of the other references within the chapter are ... revealing in their tone and implication.

The first 'Low Country Boys' CD Gran Time Comin is/was a local effort with limited sales and popularity. So, using it as some kind of cultural quality or legitimacy indicator is like comparing Portavogie Rangers with Real Madrid. I remember the late, renowned, Geoff Harden reviewing one of our performances where he said something like 'vocally okay but instrumentally mediocre'. He was probably right!

This is not an isolated example. Numerous academics have used Ulster-Scots as content fodder for their own purposes, I have experienced and observed this myself, and I know it has been the experience of many others. These academics selectively home in on the themes and material which suit their own momentary interests, but to the exclusion of the wider available canon. On one level it doesn't really matter. But it leaves behind a trail of (potentially) skewed misrepresentations, with a gloss of academic authority. These live for a long time both online and in libraries, and cast a long shadow of influence. But the course is passed, the grades are achieved, and they move on to the next subject.

In my own design and interpretative work, I make very sure to consult and clear people's contributions before printing. Folklorists of times gone by would go to great lengths to treat their contributors with respect and to present them with authenticity. This seems to not apply as an ethic for some academics. Plenty of knowledge but no understanding, and no desire to understand.

In a world now obsessing about 'privilege' (some of which is to me exaggerated and divisive, but some of which is absolutely true) then surely there is academic privilege. This entitles some in the academy to scrutinise and critique people who are much further down the social hierarchy, who have much less power, who don't have access to well-funded career paths, publication contracts and intellectual and social influence - 'punching down' if you will.

Be careful out there.