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Showing posts with label popular song. Show all posts
Showing posts with label popular song. Show all posts

Monday, 19 December 2011

Who are You?–Who?Who? Who,who?

It’s not often I’ll quote a lyric from song from what I think of as the modern songbook, which I define as from about 1955 onwards. I know that covers almost 60 years, but we’re talking history here, the perspective of over a century of popular song. From about 1890-1955 can reasonably be seen as the classic period at least of Western popular song, and in that period, that meant mainly American popular song.

This was the time when the songwriter - the melody man (it usually was a man, with apologies to the great Dorothy Fields) and the lyricist – the wordsmith – were usually different people, with formidable exceptions like Cole Porter.

Anything Goes - Cole Porter

The singer/songwriter was a comparatively rare bird back then, and I have to say I would have been a happier man for the last fifty years or so had it remained a rare species. There was a kind of brief renaissance of quality popular song in the mid-sixties to the seventies, and since then the great musical desert, with the odd oasis and many mirages.

So unashamedly, my tastes lie with BCCA music (Before the Crap Came Along) and with melodies that span more than half a diatonic octave, with harmonies a little more ambitious than four simple chords.

Take time out now to dismiss me as an old man out of synch with popular culture, then we can move on. Get to the point, for ****’s, Peter! I hear you –I hear you …

The Who’s little anthem embedded itself in my mind with the CSI series, and despite my earlier rant, I admire the Who for their longevity and formidable achievements in modern popular music, and there can be no doubt that their music and lyrics, for many, reflect the culture and the times of the last half century.

Their question – Who are you – Who? Who? Who, who? – resonates in Britain and in Scotland at the moment over national identity, and polls on perceptions of that identity, or multiple identities, pop up all over the pace, prompted by the resurgence of Scottish national identity and its questioning of Britishness, a cobbled-together identity designed to support an uneasy union of vigorous and distinctive national identities subsumed within an Empire, one now in terminal decline.

The Guardian has an interesting piece today by David Marquand, principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, author of The End of the West, which is not about the last days of Wyatt Earp, but a a rather bigger topic. Entitled England’s identity crisis - England's visceral Europhobia may break up the UK – it is a short, but important piece, and it has two paragraphs that contain fundamental insights and truth that are rare from south of the border -

“… The Scots and Welsh know who they are. For centuries, they have had two identities – their own, and a wider British one. They are unfazed by the discovery of a third European identity as well. They are at home in Europe, where multiple identities are becoming the norm. To them, it seems only right that Europe's once monolithic sovereign states now have to share power, both with a supranational union and with rediscovered nations, principalities and provinces within their borders. Along with Catalans, Basques, Flemings, Walloons, Corsicans, Sardinians and even Bretons, the Scots and Welsh are emerging from a homogenising central state of the recent past.”

“… Above all, the English of the 21st century no longer know who they are. They used to think that "English" and "British" were synonymous. Now they know that they are not. But they don't know how Englishness and Britishness relate to each other, and they can't get used to the notion of multiple identities. Until they do, I don't see how the crisis in Britain's relationship with continental Europe can be resolved. If it isn't, the most likely prospect is of further European political union and the break-up of the UK, with England staying out and Scotland and Wales going in.”

Any Scot who still thinks that Scotland is not now set upon an inevitable path towards independencenot separation - in a new, interdependent relationship with its European – and Scandinavian - neighbours is engaged in nostalgic self-delusion, and is on the wrong side of of an inevitable historical process.

Who are we? Who? Who? Who, who? We are the sovereign Scottish people, ancient and proud Europeans and good neighbours. And that includes our English neighbours, slightly confused about who they are at the moment …

Sunday, 31 July 2011

British and all that - The Prospect of Whitby and popular song

Pete Wishart’s remarks on Britishness were an example of something that is rare in Scottish politics - a controversial statement of a party-independent political view, or the floating of an idea, depending on how you viewed it. As I said yesterday in my piece on MSPs’ tweeting styles -

The political opinion tweet is regrettably as rare as hen’s teeth from MSPs, who seem to wish to demonstrate as much bland conformity as Blair’s Babes (male or female).

And of course, Pete Wishart’s statement was much more upfront and public than a mere ephemeral tweet. I did, for an ignoble moment, wonder if Pete was actually floating an idea on behalf of the Party, testing the water so to speak, with the First Minister and his team waiting anxiously for the public reaction, but I dismissed this quickly - I don’t think that’s his style at all.

My own initial reaction to the idea was shock, and bafflement, having recently spent more than a little time attacking the unionist argument that Britishness was one of the things the Scottish people would lose -and regret losing - after independence. I hoped that I was not alone in feeling that I could not lose my sense of Britishness, since I had never had one, having spent most of my life feeling that I was a Glaswegian, a member of the international brotherhood of man, and a Scot, more or less in that order.

But since my second reaction is usually more reliable than my first, and because I actually enjoy having my ideas challenged, Pete’s idea sent me hame again - tae think again …

Having read Andrew Davies’ monumental history, The Isles, twice -  1707 and a' that ...  - and now well into my third reading of it, the idea of the British Isles -or Britain - as a geographical entity as distinct from a political concept is well established in my head. I have lived on its main land mass all my life. Had this given me a sense of being British, a kind of locational identity?

I revisited the idea of identity derived from place, clearly a powerful force for many people, and also a happy memory from my consulting days. I had been running a week-long residential course in London, and the participants decided we should have a night out at The Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping, arguably the most famous pub in London - named after a ship - dating from 1543, when it was a hangout for dockside smugglers and sundry criminal types. The huge bar, with its flagged stone floor, its pewter bar top resting on barrels, was packed to the rafters, with an indescribably vibrant atmosphere, and very soon a sing-song erupted spontaneously.

At first, it was mainly the old music hall songs which, in 1990, were still part of the consciousness of the population, sung in pubs and at parties - My Old Man said Follow the Van, Daisy, Daisy, Uncle Tom Cobleigh, Pack up Your Troubles, Three German Officers crossed the Rhine - parlez vous, Pack Up Your Troubles - the wonderful, vigorous, melodic popular songs from early in that century. They gave me a warm feeling - they reminded me of my National Service, of the NAAFI, of my mother’s parents round a piano, of my mother, of a generation beginning to disappear over the horizon then, and now almost totally gone.

But they were all indisputably and deeply English, albeit part of a common heritage, especially that of war and military comradeship. And I had another heritage of popular song - the auld Scots sangs and the Scottish popular theatre songs of Harry Lauder, Will Fyffe.

But then a voice emerged during a brief lull in the singing, a light tenor voice, heart-stopping in its purity. The singer was invisible in the throng - the song was Danny Boy - the Londonderry Air, a song claimed by two factions for partisan reasons, but truly international in its simple beauty. The crowd listened silently, with that kind of respect given  such moments by a boisterous crowd, sentimental and maudlin in the main, but with a core of true feeling. When the singer stopped, there was a great roar of approval, glasses were smashed on the floor (apparently an acceptable tradition at The Prospect of Whitby - when I left, the bar floor was carpeted with glass).

Then the old Yorkshire question rang out - “Wheear 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee, ah saw thee?”, instantly recognised, instantly responded to by the crowd - “On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at”. When it finished the new pattern was set - local songs, regional songs, national songs. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, I belong to Glasgow, If you’re Irish, Come into the Parlour rang out, initially by the protagonist group, but soon taken up by the mass. Waltzing Matilda was struck up by an Earl’s Court contingent, but that was a temporary bridge to more competitive and simultaneous repeats of Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at, Keep yer feet still, Geordie, hinny and I belong to Glasgow. Men of Harlech erupted, in all its powerful martial force.

Annie Laurie settled the crowd back into joint singing, one Scot attempted My Ain Folk, but it misjudged the mood: few recognised it, and it ended ignominiously with a stentorian voice cutting across it with Land of Hope and Glory, attracting enthusiastic support from most, but not all. Rule Britannia petered out - a bell was rung and time was called from the bar.

Was this an example of ‘Britishness’ in operation? Not to me, but perhaps to some. Is it replicated today in the The Prospect of Whitby? I suspect not - maybe a recent visitor to the pub can enlighten me. I would guess it has been replaced by a shared pop culture with no national or regional base

If it still exists, would any of it be lost by Scotland’s independence?

Very little, if any - after all, on that night in 1990, there were people from the Republic of Ireland present, from Australia, from America, from African countries and God knows how many more former British colonies. Yorkshire folk feel themselves to be a uniquely independent breed, as do the people of the North East of England. The city boys like me, from Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle and London probably still draw more of their identity from their urban culture than the national or UK version. The drinker whose attempt to sing The Red Flag was quickly aborted probably still feels an internationalist - and Scotland’s independence, when it come, will not make any real impact on those identities.

But it will make a huge, overwhelmingly positive impact on Scottish identity - and we’ll still love our neighbours on these Isles and sing most of their songs - but draw the line at “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Brittania” .

If that’s what Pete Wishart’s remarks on Britishness meant I’m with him - and thanks for making me think, Pete!