A Keen / Farther Along
SLH caught up with renowned Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts to record two songs and chat about music, grief and loss in the folk tradition as well as the 'three noble strains' of music in the Celtic tradition.
SLH video of 'A Keen' also appeared as a video premier in Songlines Magazine.
© Ben Webb
For those that don’t already know, Alasdair Roberts is perhaps the foremost folk craftsman of his generation, a musician and songwriter acclaimed by both fans and critics alike.
His solo output of prolific both in terms of new material as well as interpretation of songs of old and his list of collaborations is no less impressive (and far too extensive to list here) venturing even beyond music into film, literature, poetry and theatre. (see his Wiki Page for full list)
Alasdair is also a fountain of knowledge on the Scotland's folk traditions researching in depth the songs, history and roots of those traditions. Yet he is also an experimenter and an innovator, constantly pushing into new territory while reinterpreting and making those traditional roots relevant to today.
Indeed, Alasdair Roberts has that rare ability to coin a new song that is both relevant and timeless, a song that could have just as easily been written 100 years ago as yesterday.
SLH caught up with Alasdair at his home in Glasgow to have a chat and record two songs. The first is a striped back version ‘A Keen’, a piece that can be heard with full band on his brilliant new album ‘Fiery Margin’. In the second, he teamed up with Burd Ellen to do a version of the traditional American song “Farther along”.
Could you tell us a little about Farther Along?
It is an American spiritual, which I sang at my father Alan’s funeral in 2001 and which I often associate with grieving.
But it’s become less personal over time, because I’ve had friends who’ve experienced the loss of a loved one, I’ll often sing this song for them in performance or record a private version of the song for them and send it to them.
And a little about ‘A Keen’?
I was trying to write a song from the point of view of a parent who’s lost a child. It was partly born out of experiences of individuals with whom I was personally aquatinted, not my own personal experience.
More generally, it's an interest of mine, the ritual use of music and the way it marks specific points in time in the cycle of a life. The song culminates with the singer keening at the funeral, but throughout the course of the song it charts the development of the life from birth to death and the way music is featured life in a kind of ritualised way throughout that life.
How do you think about music as ritual?
Music seems to mark out all kinds of aspects of life, maybe transitional phases of life, even if that’s the transition from waking to sleep with a lullaby or the transition from life to death with a lament of funerary song, or a keen or a dirge. All kinds of liminal moments are marked by a sort of ritual invocation of music.
I suppose I’ve been kind of pre-occupied with the Celtic idea of the three noble strains of music and this idea that a complete musical culture needs to have all three of these strains represented. There’s music of lulling and relaxation. There’s music for dancing and celebration and then there’s music for lamenting.
So, if I was making a record, an album, I would hope that all three of these aspects of a musical culture could be somehow represented.
How is grief and loss dealt with in the folk tradition?
I often think of and have been drawn to ballads, narrative songs, that touch on these themes. So, I think of a song like The Wife of Usher’s Well – which is maybe somehow related to my song A Keen.
It’s about a woman who has three children and she sends them away to school to learn 'Grammarie', or magic, the North country and they all die. One dark winter’s night near Christmas she sees the spirits of her children returning and she asks them to join her at the table to have some bread and wine. They say they can’t return to share in the bread and wine as they have to reside with their saviour and that every tear she sheds for them wets their winding sheets. So, it’s like her grief is disturbing their rest in the afterlife.
Then there’s this whole class of night visiting songs or revenant ballades where the ghost of the departed lover returns. They spend some time with their living lover until it’s revealed it’s a ghost, usually when a cock crows in the morning and the spirit of the departed is called back to the other world.
For me, after my father died, I became particularly interested in these types of narrative song with a particularly tragic element. Or, like The Cruel Mother, those big old ballads with these heavy themes.
What draws you to these types of ballads?
Well, maybe I’m less and less drawn to them. You know, for me, that was a very major loss, the loss of my father, and so the further away in time I find myself moving from that loss, the more the attraction wanes, or changes somehow. The whole experience of grief changes subtly. It’s still there, but it changes. It either deepens or becomes shallower, I’m not sure what it is, but somehow the texture of it alters.
The music you're drawn to perhaps has specific meaning to you at that time. Do you find that the listening or playing such music helps you cope with loss?
Not so much listening to them, but singing them. I would find it an almost cathartic thing to sing songs. Almost like a meditative thing. As a songwriter, often in concerts I sing mostly my own songs. But when I’m at home just singing in the kitchen, I’ll sing the old songs and ballades which are kind of like a bedrock for my, an emotional bedrock, and it’s almost like a meditative thing to sit in the kitchen and sing The Wife of Usher’s Well, just to ruminating on the story and the themes. It’s also interesting how that can change over time as one (hopefully) develops and natures as a person and one’s understanding of life, death and existence deepens.
One of the folk songs that kept coming back to me was Death and the Lady, there’s an amazing version with Norma Waterson, it’s a conversation between death and the lady. One thing that strikes me about so much folk is that it’s so often sung through these stories and in the third person rather than first – which is very different to so much modern music...
I like that song. I really like Shirley and Dolly Collins version as well. It’s like a medieval tableau?. I know that Shirley likened to Bergman’s Seventh Seal, with death on the beach.
Those kind of songs, these characters in ballades are almost like faceless stock characters, which gives them a sort of universality, or something approaching universality, which means it can resonate more strongly than something specific – almost like an archetypal quality to the songs. Songs like Two Brothers, or My son David, or Lord Randell. All of the ballads I’ve sung in the past, and perhaps am less attracted to know because I’ve explored them – been there done that – but they’re still a part of my musical psyche anyway.
I’ve spoken to many people who’ve had negative experience of music, too.
I was thinking about times in my life when I’ve been low and I’ve heard awful music and it’s just intensified the awful feelings. It’s just unbearable to hear awful, insincere music. But it can also be very and painful to hear beautiful and true music at difficult times.
Have you had any strange or inexplicable experiences relating to music and loss?
Maybe about 12 years ago I was doing a music project up in Perthshire which involved visiting a lot of older people in their homes, singing, and collecting songs, stories and reminiscences. I met this woman in a care home whose name was Annie Jenkins and she’d been a clairvoyant.
We were singing together one afternoon, it was just a group of people singing in the living room of the care home. After the song she said, “there was a man here just now. He was very pleased with you. Do you know who I’m talking about?”
You can read something into that, but she sensed some unearthly presence in the room. And, you know, she seemed kind of convincing to me.
I mentioned singing at my father's funeral, I feel like in some inexplicable way my singing – I wouldn’t say that I’m a great singer - improved almost over-night. I found new strength in it singing at the funeral, I felt a new power had entered into it that wasn’t my own power.
People have always turned to music at times of loss, why do you think that is?
Some people think it’s the art form that’s closest to the emotions – but maybe that’s only if you really care about music. It’s like religion in a way. If it didn’t’ exist we’d have to invent it. It seems like something that will eventually have to exist in a given culture, whether you like it or not.