In her work with the Feral Choir, Ali Burns has frequently used the spoken word as counterpoint to song. In Macmath – The Silent Page, she uses the spoken word again, but this time to carry the narrative of William Macmath’s work as a recorder of the oral tradition. The story David Sumner will tell in the Ryan Centre in Stranraer (26 May) and that I will tell in Langholm (Buccleuch Centre, 27 May) and in Dumfries (Easterbrook Hall, 31 May) is the story of how a seemingly unlikely man from the Stewartry, who worked most of his life as a legal clerk in Edinburgh, collaborated with the foremost song collector of his time – the Harvard Professor, Frances Child. What is remarkable about the songs that are given voice (from The Silent Page to the Singing Page) in this concert-ceilidh is that all of them were sung to Macmath by people living in the Glenkens.
Some years ago, Tom Leonard, working as writer in residence in Renfrew libraries began to unearth a mass of poems from a popular working class tradition. He published them in a book called ‘Radical Renfrew’ – a book that carried the social and political voices of the time. It was a remarkable book, but it also suggested that the work that Leonard did reflected a small part of what must lie in libraries and archives across Scotland, waiting to be discovered. The fact that all these ‘Macmath’ songs have such a local provenance shows the richness of the oral tradition in these parts, while suggesting, as does ‘Radical Renfrew’, that there are further riches still submerged in many other areas of Scotland.
That is the local dimension. But there is the other – the aspect of the transference of oral culture elsewhere. It is, I think, a particular thrill to hear the ‘Ballad of Lord Ronald’ and to recognise the unmistakable structure of Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. This is but one example of the echoes and resonances the songs and tunes carry that I picked up; those with greater depth of knowledge will hear far more.
It is very moving to hear songs that have never been sung together before – sung and played by outstanding musicians from this region. The story is indeed one that is worth hearing, but of course the music is the thing. These songs – which will also be recorded and released – now have the chance to become part of the repertoire of the musicians who deliver them and others who will hear them: in other words they will become part once more of what Hamish Henderson called ‘the carrying stream’ of a living, oral culture. In a recent talk on Radio 3, titled ‘About Song and Laughter’, John Berger said, ‘Songs have a dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song, whilst filling the present, hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward further and further. Without the persistence of this hope, I believe, songs would not exist. Songs lean forward.’
Come and hear Macmath’s story – it is a story of uncompromising commitment – but it is a small part of the evening. The greater reason by far is to come and hear what was lost given life. These are beautiful, lively and powerful songs, delivered with terrific skill and passion. This is a project of which D & G Arts Festival, Creative Scotland, The National Trust for Scotland and The William Grant Foundation can be very proud of supporting.