Poetry, performance and place

I wrote this for the Scottish Graduate School of Arts & Humanties’ blog this week about my preoccupations with local history, poetry as a performed thing and … Dundee. Turns out I am quite interested in Dundee.

This post was written by Erin Farley, a second year PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde on the Collaborative Doctoral Award project “Poetry, Song and Community in the Industrial City: Victorian Dundee,” in partnership with Dundee Central Library. Her research focuses on how the composition, performance and reception of poetry and song reflected and […]

via Poetry, performance and place: a postcard from Dundee — SGSAH Blog

Stobsfest and beyond – events update

baxter park

Baxter Park (Dundee Central Library: Alexander Wilson Collection.) Plenty of Stobsfest events taking place here too!

On Monday, as part of Stobswell’s community festival, I’ll be doing an event with local folk singer Lynne Campbell celebrating Dundee’s songs, stories and characters (real and mythical) – it’s at Arthurstone Community Library at 7pm on Monday. I’ve heard there may be tea and biscuits. There will definitely be ghosts.

 

Later in the month, (24 May) Literary Dundee hosts Dr Juliet Shields at the Verdant Works for When Scotswomen Ran The Press – a talk exploring the 19th century women who wrote hugely popular stories for papers like the People’s Journal and People’s Friend. Their influence is often forgotten, but they shaped both fiction and the press in Scotland.

As it’s Council Elections week (have you voted yet?!) I’ve also got a blog on political poetry about Dundee City Council on The People’s Voice’s website – this is a project looking at political poetry, song and the franchise in Scotland between 1832 and 1918, based at the University of Glasgow. The word on the pavey is that they have some very exciting things coming up including (as the Poet’s Box would say) SONGS, SONGS, SONGS! So get them followed if you like that sort of thing.

Guthrie’s Wooin’

Elections in 19th century Scotland inspired many poems and songs – some celebratory, and some satirical. These were part of a wider popular political verse tradition which dealt with the extension of the voting franchise, land reform, and workers’ rights, and often engaged with inter/national political issues from a local standpoint. They could be printed in magazines and newspapers, handed out on the streets, and recited at meetings and demonstrations.

My next few blogs – as we approach the Scottish Council Elections on May 4 and the UK General Election on June 8 – will look at a selection of Dundee’s political poems and songs from the 19th century. Today’s song, “Guthrie’s Wooin'”, mocks an unpopular politician to a folk tune.  It is one of several political songs from the late 1860s cut and pasted in a little scrapbook. (Dundee Central Library: Lamb Collection 433/12)

Guthrie's Wooin

The song was written shortly after the General Election of 1868 – the first in which Dundee elected two M.P.s instead of one, and in which the electorate had been greatly expanded following the 1867 Reform Act. In Dundee, these changes had been agitated for by a range of organisations, including the Dundee branch of the Scottish National Reform League (SNRL), who advocated extending the vote to all men of fixed address (the most radical position of all Dundee’s political groups at the time.)

Guthrie’s Wooin’

Air- Duncan Grey

Guthrie he cam here to woo
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Blythe we were, although nae fu’
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Guthrie cam’, and Guthrie saw,
Mony a speech he threw awa’!
Dundee was as deaf’s the Law!
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!

Guthrie said it was a sin –
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
He’d ne’er tak the Ballot in,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
But he saw his chances fade
And a Ballot-Pill he made,
An’ wi’ a wry face ower it gae’d;
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!

Time an’ chance against him side,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Guthrie can nae longer bide,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
“I hae been a gowk, quoth he,
“I maun leave that jaud Dundee,
“Wha I thocht wad MP me:”
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!

Guthrie was a lad o’ “brass,”
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Dundee was a spunky lass,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!
Guthrie shouldna’ be her man,
So he changed his wooin’ plan
And awa to London ran,
Ha, ha, the wooin’ o’t!

J.A. Guthrie, the unfortunate candidate immortalised in this song, stood as one of four Liberal candidates contesting the 1868 election. (At this time, UK elections were very much an either/or choice, and the Tories seem not to have thought it worth their time and money standing a candidate in Dundee that year…)  He proved himself unpopular when a question-and-answer session revealed him to have much less liberal views on voting extension, and some other matters, than many hoped for. This revelation also led to embarrassment for the Dundee SNRL when their branch secretary endorsed him anyway – politics, t’was ever thus. He was rejected at the ballot box (and the SNRL branch secretary resigned.)

The song has Guthrie as a rejected suitor of Dundee (and without the happy ending the suitor in the song eventually gets.) The city portrayed as a woman approached by various wooers is a recurring theme in election poetry in Victorian Dundee, and likely further afield – a smaller version, perhaps, of the popular depictions of countries as women (think Britannia, or France’s Marianne.) There is an irony to this, given that the actual female population of Dundee were still many years away from being able to have their say in rejecting or accepting political candidates.

The song this is based on, “Duncan Grey”, was originally an explicit bawdy folk song written and/or collected by Robert Burns. He also wrote a version more suitable for polite company, but safe to say, the use of a tune with such rude connotations did not imply respect for its subject. Using existing tunes and song structures, which readers and listeners could immediately recognise, also allowed a writer to communicate their position on a topic immediately. Songs best known for sexual connotations – like this, or “The Miller O Don” – are used to strip the dignity from a political subject, while “A Man’s A Man For A’ That” would be used to celebrate and inspire. Burns’ work, to Victorian Scotland, was the ideal not only of working class poetry, but also of political poetry and poetry in Scots, and his influence is strong and widespread. The third line –“Blythe we were, although nae fu’” – is an interesting contrast to Burns’ “Ae blythe Yule-nicht when we were fu’.” The temperance movement was a strong political force in Dundee throughout the 19th, and well into the 20th century, and the songwriter is keen to emphasise that Dundee makes its political decisions while fully sober and sensible.

These songs about specific local events – while often requiring a bit of work to contextualise – are a fascinating window onto how traditional tunes were used to signal meaning and tone while dealing with contemporary events, and how important local political events were to the history of wider movements such as franchise reform. Stay tuned for more Dundonian political history over the coming weeks…

Dundee Women’s Festival and Jane Allardice Duthie

Last week Dundee Women’s Festival took the theme of “Herstory and Heritage,” using the stories of women past to inspire people onto new creations and activism. Dundee is not short of local heroic women to remember – Mary Brooksbank and Bella Keyzer, among others, were honoured at festival events.

Dundee_Womens_Festival_Logo

Dundee in the 19th and 20th centuries was known as a women’s town, because of the high proportion of women employed in the textile mills, meaning that in many families the women were the main or only breadwinners. The jute and cotton mills were the largest, but not the only employers of women – among an array of other jobs, many women were employed as domestic servants. When you think of political activism in the workplace in Victorian Dundee you probably think of millworkers on strike, but in 1872 the maidservants of the city caused a considerable stooshie when, having had enough of poor working conditions and very limited time off, they organised the Dundee and District Domestic Servants’ Association to demand certain standards from employers. This “insurrection of maids” attracted a good deal of press attention – several people wrote into Dundee papers in support, but there was, as always, a significant number of sarcastic words aimed at these women – with a dismissal of the value of their work and the group’s radical potential that one strongly suspects would not have been aimed at the inaugural meeting of a men’s trade union. The history of the DDDSA is explored in Jan Merchant’s chapter on the event in Victorian Dundee: Image and Realities, and its poetic fall-out is covered by Kirstie Blair in Poetry of the People’s Journal – both of which are freely available for your perusal in the Local History room in Dundee Central Library (hint, hint – we’ve even had a bit of a rearrange recently so there’s more desk space and plug sockets for visitors!)

While I was researching poems for my Women’s Festival event – a tour of the Verdant Works through the words of Dundee’s 19th century women poets – I came across the story of another maidservant who intrigued me. Jane Allardice Farquhar was born in the Angus village of Tannadice in 1845 (coincidentally also the birthplace of “Lochee Poetess” Elizabeth Campbell, and where my maternal grandparents lived, so I feel a small connection here.) Jane worked as a maidservant until she married, and later became a frequent contributor to the People’s Journal under her married name, Jane Allardice Duthie. Some of her work was included in Alan Reid’s 1897 collection Bards of Angus and the Mearns, including the song “When I was a lassie langsyne”:

When I was a lassie lang syne
I whyles used to bide wi my grannie,
And O! but I likit her fine,
She aye spak sae gentle an’ cannie.

Chorus: Then sing hey for the bonnie bricht days
How cheerily by did they canter,
When my grannie sat hummin’ her lays,
And my grandfather croon’d Tam O’ Shanter.

The hoose was a wee theekit cot,
But a’thing inside was aye sheenin’ –
Nae tea like my grannie’s I got
At the cosy fireside i’the e’enin’.

The chimla was roomy an’ wide
And fine fun it was for us bairnies
To draw oor bit stoolies inside,
And glowre up the lum to the starnies.

My grandfather sat i’ the neuk
And keepit the ingle aye bleezin’.
As he pored ower an auld-farrant beuk
While my grannie her oo was a-teasin’.

In his hand he aye gruppit his mull,
That horn, wi its brass lid sae bonnie.
And haundit it roon wi guidwill
When he met wi an auld, faithful crony.

The cruizie, wi’ queer double snoot
Gied a licht widna frichtened a doolie,
And aft as I jinket aboot,
I toomed on my heid a the ullie!

On the wa’s hung a picture or twa,
And, troth, there was ane I did prize, man;
It was Auld Clootie dancin’ awa
Wi puir Robbie Burns the Exciseman!

Ilka nicht we got tawties an’ fat,
Rare rivies a’ splittin their jackets,
An roon’ the wee table we sat
Some on three-legged stools, some on “backets”.

At Yule we aye got a fine treat,
My grannie made “carl scones” in plenty,
An i’the pat put a bit meat,
Or a dumplin’ by way o a denty.

We kent no the meanin’ o’ care
As for sorrow, we’d never heard tell o’t
But noo we’ve o’ baith haen a share
While o’ trouble we’ve aft haen a spell o’t.

But we’ll never forget the bricht days,
How cheerily by they did canter,
When my grannie sat hummin’ her lays,
And my grandfather croon’d Tam O’ Shanter.

Her description of childhood nights spent looking up the chimla to the stars reflects an early interest in what was to become a lifelong passion for astronomy – which itself inspired some of her other poetry, Reid noting in his brief biography of her that she sent Sir Robert Ball a copy of a poem she had written inspired by his book “The Story of the Heavens,” and that she prized the letter he sent in response. Poetry and song – and in particular those of Robert Burns – are a small everyday joy in the picture of mid-19th century Angus life she paints in the poem. Poetry was not something ‘kept for best’, it was recited and composed on small occasions as well as large – just a slightly different way of talking about the world and of inhabiting language, that brought imagination and the physical world together daily. I would like to have been able to talk about Jane Duthie, and so much of the rest of my research, with my great aunt Florrie McCann – a Dundonian weaver who wrote poetry and who felt strongly that everyone should know at least one song or poem to recite by heart.

Here’s to the women who not only kept the bairns o Dundee fed, but who kept folk singing as well.

Reblogged from Bill Herbert: Omnisatire and the Ragged Sleeve

Reading The Poets of The People’s Journal, edited by Kirstie Blair, I am so far maist impressed by by the mock-rustic ‘Poute’ (Alexander Burgess), wha conducts a sort of omnisatire, in that he critiques mid-19th century assumptions about poetry, the lower class poet, poetry in Scots, and the means of its reproduction, using unorthography as […]

via Omnisatire and the Ragged Sleeve — gairnet provides: press of blll

The NLS Research Slam

Yesterday, I went to Edinburgh to take part in the NLS’ first research slam. The format was similar to a poetry slam: twelve participants gave a (strictly enforced) two minute overview of their research. A panel of three expert judges scored us on content, performance and audience reaction. The top eight went through to the second round, in which we had two minutes to describe how we worked with NLS collections. From these eight, a final three would be given three minutes each to describe the planned impact of their research.

gromit-on-sweater

Accurate description of me (but sadly not my jumper) pre-slam

I’m used to public speaking, but I was nervous. This was down to a combination of the competitive element – I’ve never been someone who seeks out a competition – and doubt that my attempts at humorous verse would go down well with the crowd, or, indeed, the judges. The first round was alphabetical, and I was roughly in the middle of the list, among a fantastic array of subjects, including canal navvies, Scottish gymnastics, and the ethics of child labour. This was what I came out with:

1 – An overview of your research; 2 minutes

Come one, come all, and gather round,
If you listen unto me
I will tell you a tale of Victorian times
And all the Poets o Dundee.

With help from Dundee Central Library
A
nd Strathclyde University
I map the meanings of song and verse
To Dundee’s past community.

There’s mony who the sands of time
H
ave buried deep in history
But folk have always wrote and sung
U
pon the streets of Bonny Dundee

Blind Hughie stood out in his kilt
He
sang old songs and ballads well
In City Square folk gathered round
T
o hear how the hoose o Airlie fell

The wild side o auld Dundee
Met at the Poet’s Box in Overgate
If you’d a penny you could get a song
To sing of humour, love or fate

The place where poets’ fame began
W
as on the pages of the daily press
Many sheaves of verse were sent
To Mr Leng at his bank street address.

Many a factory shift was helped
By song to speed the hours by
In summer the mill’s bards would write
Of trips to glens and mountains high.

Dundee was called a radical toon
And verse on banners oft was seen
As people clamoured for the vote
Alang the streets and Madlin Green.

You see how folk in days gone by
Told the stories of the toon
The people, politics and place
Some
never written doon.

We mind their verse now in Dundee
And write new words to say
The spirit in this town of ours
Is just as strong today.

This is an adapted version of a poem I’ve used before in events. Victorian Dundonians make poetry look like fun, so joining in to spread their fame seemed appropriate. I don’t think I would have got very far in the People’s Journal back in the day with this standard, but I might have made a few pennies shouting at people in pubs. While we waited for the judges to calibrate the scores, host Graeme Hawley (who is no stranger to a poetry slam himself) entertained us with quick-fire volleys through the collections, covering violent imagery on crisp packets and casual sexism in DIY magazines. Having heard my name on the list of those going on, I began doing more deep breathing, and prepared to share more educational doggerel:

2: How your research uses NLS’ collections; 2 minutes

me-at-slam-cropped

Me reading this very verse (photo by Jennifer Thoms)

Trains aren’t cheap, stipends small, archive boxes heavy
Get your broadsides on a website already…

For the NLS created the Word on the Street
Though in Dundee we’d creh it the word on the pavey
An array of fine broadsides compiled so neat
From Scotland across, scanned and annotated

These lyrical gems from the library’s archive
Which tell of murder and love and of political shade
Sold by hawkers and shops and sung on the streets live
Can be searched by their topic or the time they were made.

One hero of our tale’s bold Harvey of Stirling
Who wrote about broadsides and chapbooks of Scotland
On his death his collections left libraries birling
To preserve and to shelter his Victorian songsheets

Now many lie safe here ‘neath Edinburgh’s streets
Though you can view them from Glasgow or Greenwich or Guam
As long as you can log in on a computer or tablet
So I can work with these broadsides wherever I am

Data’s very important in this modern era
So a spreadsheet I’ve made, tis long and tis wide
With titles from Dundee, NLS and the Mitchell
For to quantify functions of the humble broadside.

I will sort them by date by the address they’ve printed
For the Poet’s Box moved up and down Overgate
And see which songs stayed popular over the decades
And which ones were left to a forgotten fate.

Considering the quality of the other slammers – who included artists, family history researchers and historical tour guides as well as a few other PhD students and academics – I was very surprised to be chosen as one of the final three who got to talk about their plans for impact. The other two were Leonie Dunlop, a toponymist who conjured up the joy of uncovering layers of expanding meaning from a place name; and Maggie Symonds, whose story of tracing a mysterious limpet-eating ancestor lit up hidden histories of social change.

By this point in the composition process, my inner McGonagall was struggling. So (not really expecting to get this far) I’d drafted a freeform meditation on the meaning of impact and why we do it, featuring nods to my two favourite Geddeses (Geddi?), Patrick and James Young. I have never felt that ‘impact’ style activities were an add-on to my research, rather, they are an integral part of what I do as a PhD student (and as a person). So I got up and did this:

3. The impact you hope your research will have; 3 minutes.

I could now cite big plans to fit government metrics,
increasing the value of heritage tourism,
working with stakeholders, I am well versed in buzzwords.
But impact is in the eyes of the impacted,
and to paraphrase a former Dundee botanist:

Our task as academics is not to coerce people
into an approved type of culture
against their associations, wishes and interests
as we often find bad schemes trying to do.

I will run tours of the city through poetry,
proclaiming others’ words to anyone who’ll listen,
hold stalls in shopping centres for craft events, write
new broadsides, sweet-talk local poets
into running workshops, propose
courses for adult education programmes
and all of these are vitally important
and keep me up at night and make me glad to be alive
but they are all only tiny bits of a whole.

What these archives of song and story and place are,
they are the words and the work of centuries of ordinary people.

I am here to remind you not that that it is there
but that it is yours,
to read, rewrite, be inspired by,
rip up and start again, ignore it if you see fit.

The only meaningful impact cannot be measured
By counting boxes ticked at the end of an event.
Diagnosis before treatment: one plan will not fit all
The parish is the cosmos, so start small,
and listen.

People sang Dundee into being when it was cotton and jute
Which wove old streets into strange landscapes
Reinvention is nothing new to this city
And neither, dear old town, is revolution.

I can’t save the world alone with history
But we could together if you’re all with me.

Dramatic, moi? As the judges discussed the final scores, Graeme performed a piece he often does for poetry slams, dedicated to the non-successful participants. “Our fireworks went off in daylight.”

He was clearly used to building suspense – calling for another round of applause for judges or audience when we thought we were going to hear the winner’s name. When I heard mine, followed by applause, I nearly fell off my chair, but managed to get up again to say some very incoherent thank yous to the room.

The prize is a slot in the NLS events programme -likely to be in the autumn at some point. I’m not sure what we are allowed to do with this slot, but I have several ideas – have you ever wondered how the National Library would be as a music hall? Watch this space – I promise not to write any more poetry…

Street singers in song

Street singers in song: Blind Hughie and Blind Mattie

Dundee’s history echoes with the sound of song and music. It was common for people to buy song sheets and chapbooks from ‘hawkers,’ who would advertise their wares by performing: singing, or with humorous, spontaneous patter. (In Dundee, the public appetite for song led to a dedicated song shop, The Poet’s Box – more on which later.) There were also singers, poets and musicians who used the streets as a stage and sought audiences in the folk passing by or standing discussing the issues of the day. Two of the most famous of Dundee’s street singers – coincidentally both known not only by their songs but by their blindness – inspired their contemporaries to commemorate them in verse. (The role of singer or musician was, in practical terms, one of a few open to blind people in the 19th century, and the blind street performer was a familiar figure on the streets of many Victorian cities.)

Hugh Lennox moved from Kirriemuir to Dundee in the mid-19th century after his first wife died, where he became better known as Blind Hughie, the singer. He was often to be heard singing on Reform Street, but would also travel, particularly to markets or fairs around Dundee and Angus where he would be sure of a crowd. Hughie sang mostly in Scots, and his performances were a mixture of comic music hall songs and traditional folk songs. After his death in 1889, the Poet’s Box began selling a broadside which commemorated Hughie as the “last wandering minstrel o Scottish sang-lore.”

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Blind Hughie: Poet’s Box broadside (A.C. Lamb collection, box 421)

Hughie is so associated with the landscape that he almost becomes part of it – with his ‘hairst heather’ face and intense sense of direction. He almost certainly did have extremely good knowledge of the roads he walked, and ways of sensing place that may have looked mysterious to sighted onlookers. But the focus on certain aspects of his repertoire associates Hughie with a particular image of the Highlands, and the idea that the Scottish song tradition was dying in the wake of industrial modernity (this very song’s existence being part of the vast body of proof that it wasn’t.) Perhaps people thought of Fingal, Ossian’s blind bardic narrator, when they heard this song.

There are a few parallels between Hughie’s life and legacy and those of Martha Wallace (1875 or 6 – 1962). Martha was born blind, the daughter of a Dundee cobbler. After a short attendance at Dundee’s School for the Blind, she put her musical talent to work as a street singer and melodeon player. She became known as Blind Mattie, and grew to be extremely well-known and liked by the people of Dundee. In later life, she was invited to perform at the Caird Hall. When she had a lucky escape from a bus accident in 1949, but her melodeon did not survive, people donated money to a fund advertised in the Courier to buy her a new one. Mattie lived with Maggie Nicol, a friend or partner, for most of their lives, eventually retiring to a care home together when Maggie also became blind. After her death, Stewart Brown of the Dundee band Lowland Folk composed a song which, like the broadside about Hughie, celebrates the street singer as hardy in the face of a hostile outdoor landscape – though Mattie’s is urban, a Dundee of “markets and fairs, and roond the back stairs” which in the 1960s was being reshaped through the construction of high rise flats and new housing developments:

Squeeze the old box an’ rattle the can

Never mindin’ the wind or the rain

Though the nichts are drawin’ in

An’ the blood’s gettin’ thin

It’s time to be singin’ again.

(The lyrics to this song are published in Nigel Gatherer’s fantastic “Songs and Ballads of Dundee.” ) Mattie’s signature song was  ‘My Ain Folk’ – a sentimental song on the theme of immigration and exile, which was popular in Dundee in broadside versions during the 19th century. She is also invoked in Michael Marra’s “The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke,” about exile and emigration in and out of Dundee based on Marra’s family history.

The Dundee left behind in the song seems to be mid-twentieth century at the latest. Francis, an Irish-Dundonian shipwright, has died in the Yukon shunned by all of his family except the narrator:

Who among us would still say

I’ll not forgive until my dying day

Between the earth and the sky above

There must be a twinkling seam of love

I’ll summon up the drums of the Blackness Foundry

Blind Mattie, the Mackay twins too

We’ll sing it up from the Overgate to Anchorage

And place a coal upon the fire for you

We’ll place a precious coal upon the fire for you.

This is one of my favourite songs (and, as I write this, the radio warns of cold winds from Arctic Canada which may be bringing snow to Dundee). These two Dundee street singers were remembered as being so connected to their place, they almost transcend the passing of time. We remember best of all the songs they sang those which speak of something we can’t return to: a destroyed clan system or a family overseas. Whether or not those things were ever real for us is not the point. Their memory is comfort to those of us who feel exiled in our own homes. The street singer, to their audience, is always on a journey: the listener encounters them on their own walk through the town, never quite sure when they will next be seen. Perhaps an air of unsettlement, of impermanence, around the way they and their songs are remembered is inevitable.