Monday, 29 October 2012

A School's Kist

If you've already visited the Kist o Riches website, then you'll have an idea of just how vast our archive is, with thousands of recordings from all over Scotland, some from as early as the 1930s. As such, it represents a hugely important resource for people who are keen to reconnect with their local heritage, and in particular for children, some who will never have been introduced the traditional lore of their native area.

So when I began my Artist in Residence role for Kist o Riches earlier this year, one project that I drew up as a priority involved going back to my own roots in Dundee and bringing some local voices from the Kist to the city's primary school children. I soon had a plan to work with six classes over the period of one month. The aim was to help the children rediscover some of their local songs, and use these as a vehicle for an exploration of their local heritage. In our first workshop, we looked at what we mean when we talk about 'traditions', and the kids went home and found traditions in their own families. There were some great finds, including traditional items of dress, traditional recipes, dandling rhymes and even some special seasonal customs. The Kist o Riches was introduced as a way we could learn more about traditions, both local and national. I showed the kids the original tape recorder used by Calum MacLean and Hamish Henderson (below) - very much the Ferrari of recorders in its day!

 Stuzzi 671B Reel to Reel Tape Recorder (1957) as
used by Calum MacLean and Hamish Henderson

As a lead in to talking about traditional songs, I asked the kids about their own favourite songs, and how they had first learned them. Rather predictably, the answers mostly included YouTube, CDs, TV, and so on. When I asked them if they ever learned songs from each other, a few said they had learned some from other family members, but by and large that was much less common. So we talked about learning by listening to people, and how people had learned things from each other before the internet, tv or radio existed. We also looked at a picture of Hamish Henderson recording blind traveller Ailidh Dall in 1957, and thought about how Ailidh might have learned all his songs and stories without having been able to read them in a book.

By now, the kids were getting a sense of what kind of material the Kist contained, so we started our exploration of local songs by listening to a track recorded in 1952 in a Dundee school, from children much like themselves:

"A bumbee [bumble bee] stung me, I canna tell a lee,
 A bumbee stung me, I canna tell a lee
 O the bumbee stung me, I canna tell a lee,
 For meh wee lassie's haen [had] twa-three [two or three]."

The kids guessed correctly that the item was a skipping song, but rather than learn it for skipping, we developed a two-person clapping game to perform while singing it, and the kids were then challenged to come up with their own special actions to go with it. At this point, something quite incredible happened: in the last school I visited, after playing the track to the class, one girl put her hand in the air and told me that one of the voices on the recording was her grandmother. After a bit of investigating, it turned out that her grandmother had indeed sung A Bumbee Stung Me for William Montgomerie, who had come to record her and her classmates at a local school in 1952. So here we were, full circle, listening to a pupil's granny recorded sixty years before. This was a great example of the way that the Kist o Riches can link us back to our past.

One of the primary messages of the workshops was the importance of the family role in passing on traditions. We'd already looked at the traditions the kids had found in their own families, and so to bring something personal to the table, I showed the kids a video I had made of my own grandmother, Grannie Ruby, singing two street songs she had learned as a child in the Hilltown in the 1930s. These proved immensely popular with the kids, and we sang them many times over the weeks that we worked together. You might recognise the songs, as there are localised versions all over Scotland, usually modified to refer to the singer's native area. Here's the video of my grannie Ruby (right) singing her two songs Wha Saa the 42nd? and Kiltie Jeemie :

                           Wha Saa the 42nd?
                           Wha Saa the 42nd?                            
                           Wha Saa them gaen awa?                          
                           Wha Saa the 42nd,                          
                           Comin through the Cannle Raa?                          

                           Some o them had baits an stockins,    
                           Some o them had nane ava,                        
                           Some o them had baits an stockins,
                           Comin through the Cannle Raa.

               Kiltie Jeemie
               Eh'm gaen awa on the train                            
               An you're no comin wi me                          
               I hae a lad o ma ain                          
               An they cry him Kiltie Jeemie                          

               He wears the tartan kilt                          
               An he wears it in the fashion                        
               An every time he birls aroon                          
               Ye canna help fir laughin!
Ruby once worked in Dundee's jute mills, as had many of the grandparents of the children in the workshops, so we decided to explore a little bit of Dundee's jute history through some artifacts, old videos and songs. The good people at the Verdant Works - an old jute mill now operating as an excellent museum - were kind enough to lend me some physical examples of jute products and equipment so that the children could get a hands on experience with the material.

Among the items we looked at (see right) were a wooden shuttle from a jute loom, still in use up until the 1970s, some old bobbins from the spinning machines, and jute samples from various stages of the spinning and weaving process. The children's favourite item (and mine) was a pair of 'Rovies', or jute slippers knitted by the women who worked in the factories from left-over roving (hence the name). We also watched a couple of short videos, including one on old Dundee to see what life was like for the mill workers, and a clip from the jute museum itself.

Here, the Kist o Riches had something special to offer, through recordings of Mary Brooksbank (1897-1978) talking about her own experiences of working in the jute mills and singing her famous Jute Mill Song, also known as Oh Dear Me.

Click here to listen to Mary sing her song.

Mary's song mentions many of the items we'd been looking at first-hand, but more importantly conveys the real hardship of working in such difficult and dangerous conditions. What makes this track all the more poignant is being able to hear in her own words the experiences that moved her to compose verses for the mill worker's refrain:

"Oh, dear me, the mill's gaen fest,
The puir wee shifters canna get a rest,
Shiftin bobbins coorse an fine,
They fairly mak ye work fir yer ten and nine"

 We also heard Mary describe how her mother had tried to put her into 'service' - meaning she had been sent to work as a maidservant - at a large house, and that this is where she first saw how "ill-divided" the world was between rich and poor.
I wanted the kids  to get a sense of just how little mill workers like Mary were earning at the time, so I created an interactive whiteboard exercise called 'Mary's Messages' (i.e. 'Mary's shopping') in which the kids had to budget for a week's groceries and other items from the 'ten and nine' (ten shillings and nine pence) that Mary was paid in the 1920s.  I used a contemporary Sainsbury's brochure and some other sources to make sure that the prices were accurate for the time period. If they went over the budget (equivalent to about £30 in today's money), the whiteboard flashed a red sign, and they had to remove some items and make the budget work.

Suffice it to say, that the kids got a bit of a shock when they tried to include things like a ladies' wool coat, or shoes, each of which could cost as much as two or three weeks' wages without keeping anything back for food or rent. During the exercise, the kids remembered back to Mary's comment about young mothers not being able to afford to clothe and feed their young babies on such meagre factory wages - and duly included some dried milk baby formula in their budget. I also showed them some examples of old coins, which were passed round the class for them to feel and look at up close. The kids had a hard time believing me when I told them that there used to be 240 pence in the pound - I don't blame them! 

We decided to stay with Mary Brooksbank and learn her lovely song Love and Freedom (aka Hey Donal) which quickly became the kids' favourite. I mentioned that Mary had been born blind and only regained her sight at the age of three - ever after, her sight was her most precious gift she possessed, and Love and Freedom reflects the pleasure she took in viewing Scotland's landscape. The song had special meaning for one school as it is set in Strathmartine, which is a stone's throw from their grounds - so it's now become their 'local song'.

With all of this under our belt, we decided to finish off the workshops in the final week by performing the songs in front of the whole school, and by giving them all a glimpse into our work on traditions. As a special surprise for the last, and biggest class, I arranged for my Grannie Ruby to come to the school and meet the kids. They could scarcely believe their eyes when she walked into the hall, unaided, at the ripe old age of 85. She even brought her old moothie (harmonica) along with her and played us all two of her favourite tunes: My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, and Rowan Tree. Ruby then had the great pleasure of hearing her two songs performed by sixty children, almost eighty years after she learned them in the streets of the Hilltown.
So after a month of workshops, around 150 primary school children had learned five local Dundee songs and had explored their own family traditions, as well as the life experiences of people who had lived and worked in the city all their days. What's more, in performing the songs for the rest of the school, we were able to teach the choruses and even some of the shorter songs in their entirety to as many as 1500 children. Many of the teachers in the schools have asked the workshop classes to teach their own classes the songs we learned, and are planning to use the Kist o Riches website in their own class projects. Most tellingly for me, the kids themselves have begun teaching the songs to their own brothers, sisters, mums and dads - and even their grandparents!
For me, the workshops were a powerful confirmation of a fundamental truth: that Scotland's children want to learn about their local traditions, and indeed, are keen to be tradition bearers themselves. All they need is the encouragement to explore their local heritage - and the Kist o Riches could hardly be a better place to start.


Among the observations that I made during the workshops, the one that struck me most concerned the children's awareness of their local language. Interestingly, when I asked them if they could tell me what language the name Tobar an Dualchais was in, a flurry of hands went up, and each one told me without hesitation that it was Gaelic. When I asked them the same question for Kist o Riches, not a single one could identify it as Scots. In fact, only two or three kids in the five schools I visited even came close, with 'Dundonian' a pretty reasonable answer. Clearly, the drive to promote awareness and interest in Gaelic has paid off in spades when kids in Lowland schools are able to identify the language without knowing what individual words mean. Yet it's also clear we still have a huge way to go in making sure that they can identify their own local Lowland languages and dialects.

Image and Photo Credits:
Images of Mary Brooksbank, school children performing on stage and in group photo are reproduced here courtesy of D. C. Thomson Ltd. 
All other images are copyright of Chris Wright and are used with permission of the participating schools.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Kist Goes Stateside

At Kist o Riches, we've always been keen to spread the word about our online archive as far and as wide as possible. So when I spent some time in the USA last month, I took the opportunity to do just that by delivering two public lectures on the project, each followed by a concert of Scots songs drawn from our archives. The first lecture was held at the world-famous New York Public Library, in just about the swankiest auditorium I've ever seen. The Folk Music Society of New York very kindly organised a follow up house concert in Manhattan, which turned into a very cosy and enjoyable affair. A week later, I gave another lecture and concert at a wonderful centre for Irish traditional arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota named The Celtic Junction, with the event jointly hosted by the Traditional Singers Club of the Twin Cities.  

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Kist o Riches

For the last few years, I've been working for the Kist o Riches - a landmark project to digitise, catalogue and place online tens of thousands of recordings of Scottish traditions. Most of these recordings are drawn from the archives of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, whose fieldworkers began collecting material in the 1950s using the then newly-available portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. The recordings document many different aspects of traditional culture, ranging from detailed descriptions of traditional crafts and working practices to performances of the traditional music and songs that have been passed down through generations over hundreds of years.