ENGLISH 685:002  /  SUSAN TICHY  /  FALL 2005



This week your first set of written assignments are due. Guidelines are here. So we'll take a little break from reading.

READING (a little) & LISTENING (a lot):

Please listen to the songs, first and foremost. A song list and notes will be sent out by e-mail. Read those, along with the notes below. After a few times through the songs, start focusing on a few you'd like to talk about, or ask about. Listen to those again. Think about how a song differs from a poem on the page, how music creates affects that in print poetry must be created solely by words. It's all right if you are attracted to a song for the sake of its tune: that's what makes it a song.

Think, too, about some of the issues we've talked about in the poems. What about corpses? bodies? gender? weapons and machines? Are the songs "pastoral"? Ironic? What is the relation between "front" and "homefront"? And where is power in these songs -- who has it? who defines it?

Please read : Jack Mitchell: an excerpt from “Hamish Henderson and the folk song revival,” on Henderson's "51st Highlanders Farewell to Sicily". This essay appears on the web site of Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan. This link will take you to Gaughan's Song Index page. Please read the copyright notice, then find the songs by title in the alphabetical list. Once you click through to "Farewell to Sicily" you'll find a link to the essay. (Optional: Gaughan's personal appraisal of Henderson can be found at the "Links in the Chain" link on the righthand side of the Sicily page.)

My gloss on Scots words and phrases in Sicily & Victory Hoe-Down.

Alec Finlay: more notes on Henderson


As in any anthology, many of the songs are provided as context for the few we’ll talk about. We will certainly talk about Hamish Henderson’s World War II songs. I’ll talk about the formal and structural differences between traditional ballads and modern folk songs – which will perhaps shed some light on why the Farewell to Sicily (which adheres to ‘impersonal' or 'classical’ form) is so revered. (Compare it, for example, to the explicit commentary about war in Eric Bogle’s songs.)

I'll also talk about differences between the living tradition of ballad and folksong and the always already belated genre of "ballad" in literary contexts. In this vein, I included this rock recording of the Trooper and the Maid not only to make a companion to Henderson's "jolly soldier" side, but also to demonstrate the tradition's mutation and survival in generations younger than Henderson's. The songs I've chosen deal with wars and armies going back to 1513, yet the very fact of their currency in a live singing tradition makes them part of the debate about war in our time.

Alec Finlay, from "A River That Flows On: A critical overview of Hamish Henderson's life and work," an afterward to The Armstrong Nose: Selected Letters of Hamish Henderson, edited by Finlay. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1996. Notes on the beginning of Henderson's career as a scholar of folk song. Page numbers follow.

A period of transition followed the literary success of the Elegies. A key event, and one which had a great influence on Henderson's outlook, was the memorial meeting honouring the, 25th Anniversary of John MacLean's death in Glasgow, November 1948, which Henderson helped to organize and chaired. He addressed the rally and his song, 'The John MacLean March', [was] composed for the occasion… The important influence of his political beliefs, his 'revolutionary humanism', on his art is borne out by the way so many of his folksongs have been composed with specific political events in mind.

Then, in the Spring of 1950 travelling on the prize money he received from the Somerset Maugham Award [awarded for the Elegies], he set off for Italy. His reason for returning there is described in a letter to MacDiarmid 'I am working hard [translating] Antonio Gramsci's Letters from Prison, a book of the first importance. G. was certainly the most important Marxist thinker outside Russia in the period 1920-35.' Henderson had first heard of Gramsci from his comrades in the Resistenza; and later, in 1950, he met Gramsci's friend, the political economist Piero Sraffa, at Cambridge. Henderson was therefore one of the first people outside Italy to be in a position to recognize his political and philosophical importance. Receiving Gramsci's writings as they were published in Italy, their influence on his own thinking was immediate. Gramsci makes a crucial though unacknowledged appearance in the phrases, 'a literature of presentification' and 'pluralism of superstructures' in [Henderson’s essay] 'Flower and Iron of the Truth'. His theoretical writings shaped Henderson's campaign to revive the Scottish traditional arts over the course of the decade. He was the justification for a political utilization of folksong, as Henderson writes in his Introduction to the Prison Letters, 'fostering an alternative to official bourgeois culture, seeking out the positive and 'progressive' aspects of folk culture.'  313-314

Henderson's journey to Italy was an overtly political project, a turning aside from his literary career. If the Folk Revival was also consciously planned, its beginnings can still best be traced to a chance encounter   one signalled in a letter Henderson received from his friend Ewan MacColl in February 1951, warning him of an imminent arrival:
There is a character wandering about this sceptred isle at the moment . . . Alan Lomax. He is a Texan and the none the worse for that, he is also about the most important name in American folksong circles. He is over here with a recording unit . . . Columbia Gramophone Company are financing his trip. The idea is that he will record the folk singers of a group of countries . . . He is not interested in trained singers or refined versions of the folksongs . . . This is important, Hamish. It is vital that Scotland is well represented in this collection.
With the synchronicity of this meeting all of the elements that would gel into the modern Folk Revival fell into place. 314

When McCarthyism forced Alan Lomax to temporarily quit America, he brought with him a piece of machinery already in common usage amongst collectors in the States, which became the chief weapon in the armoury of the Revival, a tape-recorder. This made possible a fidelity to the oral tradition, a ‘presentification’ of the spoken and sung voice, creating a new kind of Revival in which the oral arts remained predominant, rather than print, which had always come to dominate in the past.  315

The primary aim of the Revival was, firstly, to record these songs and stories; and secondly, and in a way even more importantly, to create a renewal of these traditions, especially among the young, so that the material could be preserved in its only true form, a living interpretation. The Revival was, as Henderson admitted, an intervention, a synthetic means to reassert a traditional process. Once it was initiated, and modulated by the influence of the living tradition, he believed that it would become self-perpetuating, as indeed it did. 333

HENDERSON'S SONGS: Gloss on the Scots & a some notes on "51st Highlanders Farewell to Sicily"

Dick Gaughan glosses Ewan MacColl's "Jamie Foyers" and Henderson's "The John MacLean March" & "The Freedom Come All-Ye." Featherstone offers a partial gloss of "Sicily" and "Victory Hoe-Down,"  but not enough for most American readers. These glosses are mine--

“Victory Hoe-Down”

hoor = whore, meenit = minute, ‘oor = hour, tanner = tenner, taigle = tangle,
sonsy = friendly, plump, comely, reel-raw = a disorder, and a pun on the ‘reel’ they’re dancing
lowpin like a mawkin = leaping like a hare, oor = our, steer = stir, commotion,
dames fae hell = ladies from hell, a German nickname for the kilt-wearing Highland troops,
glentin cramassies = glinting crimsons, dudelsack = bagpipe, breeks = trousers,
douce = pleasant, respectable, Musso = Mussolini, fae a Billy tae a dan = from a Protestant to a Catholic
tyke = dog, beery = bury, loon = rascal or fool, Kesselring = German Field Marshall,
ding doon = knock down, bring down, dee = die, pree = taste, partigiani = Italian partisans,
rory = something big for its kind , crood o’ bams = crowd of bums, auld Hornie = the devil
gie’s anither twal drams = give us another twelve drams

51st (Highland) Division’s Farewell to Sicily

dozie = stupid or stupified / pipie = pipe major, the boss of a bagpipe band
fey = doomed to die, or more generally behaving oddly [originally included the idea of being under the influence of fairies or spirits]
he will-nae come roon for his vino the day = he won’t come round for his wine today
unco = strange, odd, spooky / bricht = bright / chaulmers = chambers / shaw = thicket or wood
Jock = slang for a Scotsman / kyles = straits / puir bliddy swaddies = poor bloody swaddies (privates)
smoor = cover, smother / wiles = wiles (as in guiles) or wilds
drummie = drum major, boss of the drummers in a pipe band / ava = at all
braw = brave, fine, splendid in dress / beezed himself up for a photy = slicked himself up for a photo
shieling = shepherd’s hut / ha’ = hall / a’ = all / shebeens = drinking dives, often illegal ones
bothies = farm workers quarters, a term with strong particular associations in Scottish folk song, b/c of a genre of singing/songs ("bothy songs") that flourished among farm workers in the 18th & 19th centuries / drub = scold or beat

Henderson was an intelligence officer attached to the 51st and served with them in North Africa and Italy. After waiting some weeks in Sicily, expecting orders for home, the regiment received orders for the Normandy landing. Henderson received different orders, so their embarkation for that bloody campaign was also his farewell to them. He has described watching them embark and hearing this song come into his head almost as hallucination. (He tells the same tale in more mundane terms on the CD.) The words are set to the pipe tune "Farewell to the Creeks," which was written during World War I.

Dick Gaughan has recorded "Sicily" twice, and has this to say about it:

This [on an early album, "Kist o' Gold] was my first attempt at recording this. Two problems resulted in my returning to it 20 years later. The first was my comparative youth and the second was the limitations of analogue recording - there came a point when the tape hiss was louder than the fading guitar notes and so I had to sing the song faster than I would have liked. The digital technology of the 90s meant no tape noise so I could at last give the notes their full value, leaving them to decay almost to silence. In my late teens, this was very popular, sung as a rather jaunty march. One night in the late 60s, I heard it performed by the singer Nigel Denver, who seemed to add a poignancy to the song I hadn't heard before and this started my lifelong obsession with it. I have become increasingly aware of the elegiac nature of the piece and also its affinity with piobaireachd. I believe it to be the supreme example of the creation of new art within the aesthetics of traditional culture. The guitar was tuned DAAEAE [to emulate the tuning of the Highland pipes]. (1)

Piobaireachd [that's Gaelic; in English spelled pibroch] is the classical music of the bagpipe. It is technically complex and, though wordless, originally evolved as a narrative or memorial music. Many are now played in fragmented form, but a full pibroch may be 45 minutes long. A few are twice that length. As you will hear, Gaughan's second recording of "Sicily" is quite slow, quite long (though nothing like a pibroch!), and, as he said, allows each note to "decay almost to silence." He also changes the sequence of refrain lines, withholding the line "puir bluidy swaddies are weary" until the end. He has said he thinks his interpretation of the song is conditioned by the fact that, unlike Henderson, he belongs to a generation that was not sent to war.(2) I take this to mean that a soldier's jauntiness has been replaced by the elegiac sense he mentions above, and an urge toward memorial meditation. 
(1)  Web page notes to Kist o Gold: http://www.dickgaughan.co.uk/discography/dsc-kist.html June 15, 2002.
(2)  Live performance, Edinburgh Folk Festival celebration of Henderson's 80th birthday, November 20, 1999.

Optional Reading:

Featherstone: Part III: Slater: from 'Bless ‘em All',