In mid January the group of musicians all met up at Aaron and Clare’s place in the little village of Beattock near Moffat. It was the first time we were getting together to go through all our musical ideas. After the last meeting it was decided that we’d all have 2 or 3 three songs to take away and work on, so this day was spent going through all the songs and listening to the ideas people had come up with.
One of the things we’d been anxious about at the first meeting was that there might be too many ‘gloomy’ songs to fit into a performance. However once we’d gone through our whole list we were glad to discover that nearly all the songs have a driving beat or a great upbeat tune or something about them that rescues them from being too dark. Of course its lovely to have one or two slow songs to wallow in – but no more than 2 in a 45 minute set is the rule we all agreed on! It was great to hear the songs tentatively coming to life with everyone’s ideas.
Our other issue is that some of the songs are ‘broken’. In other words, they have either lines missing that the singer or person who gave them to Macmath couldn’t remember, or in some cases they are illegible. Some songs were written down in handwriting that is very hard to read.
Here’s an example of a broken song: you can see where Macmath has put a line of stars where the missing line should be. There were also several words none of us could agree on! What struck me when Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre came to look at the collection was how quick they were at reading the old-fashioned handwriting. They’re both of the generation above me and probably just grew up knowing how to read and write that style of writing. I constantly found myself struggling to read the beginning of a line while Alison was way ahead of me reading fluently.
Sometimes you can mend a song easily by going to another version of it and finding the complete line. And sometimes you just have to guess the missing word or make the line up. People who have an interest in balladry and folk song often have a keen ear for the language used in songs from this genre. I recently heard a storyteller talking about traditional stories and describing the language as ‘licked bare’. That’s exactly it, I thought, the same with ballads – the words are unfussy everyday day words but that simplicity is what gives the songs their power to reach across the centuries and touch people three, four, five hundred years later.
“Where hae ye been a day Lord Ronald my son? Where hae ye been a day my handsome young one? I’ve been in the wood hunting Mother, make my bed soon; for I’m weary, weary hunting and fain would lie down.”
Later in the day we divided up the song between our lead vocalists Emily, Robyn and Aaron so they can get on with word learning. It takes a while to really embed a song – to memorise it and sing it like you’ve known it all your life. It’s one of those skills that definitely gets easier with practice but the longer you have to work on a song the better. Professional singers make it sound so easy even when they’re singing something for the first time!