TradFest conclusion looks at state of folk arts

Karine Polwart argued folk embraced all human experience. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Karine Polwart argued folk embraced all human experience. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE final day of what appears to have been a successful debut for Edinburgh’s 12-day TradFest saw some intriguingly disparate elements – from Robert Burns to Patrick Geddes – invoked in a conference assessing the place of the traditional arts in 21st century Scotland.

Delegates at Monday’s conference, Open Fields: The Future of Trads, in Edinburgh University’s Teviot Row House, included folk musicians, storytellers, academics and a sole politician (independent Highlands and Islands MSP and arts organiser Jean Urquhart). And at a time of economic and consequent social uncertainty, it was argued that the arts in their broadest sense and the traditional arts in particular, far from being considered an extra, should be fundamental, at the very heart of society.

Piper, broadcaster and ethnologist Gary West, head of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, gave the keynote opening talk, reprising his recent book, Voicing Scotland, in considering the place of local cultural traditions in the face of globalisation, and it was he who invoked the spirit of the scientist, pioneer ecologist and town planning visionary Patrick Geddes, who defined “folk” as “people who co-operate” – a view perhaps reflected by TradFest’s aims in re-uniting disparate strands of music, song, story and dance.

Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, later brought the discussion back to Geddes and his concern about what enables a society to flourish in terms of physical, social and spiritual wellbeing, when looking at what kind of communities, society or nation we want to create at this crucial point in Scotland’s history. “I don’t feel that this discourse is marginal,” he stressed. “It’s absolutely at the heart of what kind of nation we want to be.”

There is little room for complacency, however. Singer and archivist Steve Byrne described the positive response to playing archive recordings from his native Arbroath to local school children, but added that he thought a crisis point was looming in terms of a dearth of cultural democracy, with communities failing to recognise their own cultures. Mae Shaw, a lecturer in education and community with a particular interest in political song, warned against considering empowerment and democracy as concepts that could be “delivered like a pizza”. There was clearly an important role for the arts in stimulating the democratic imagination, but in the current climate it was, she said, becoming hard to talk about cultural affairs in language other than that of the market.

Singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, while agreeing that there were less of the political protest songs prevalent during the 1960s and 1970s, felt the politicisation of folk song was now more in terms of connection to place and environment – “less explicitly sloganeering but profoundly and poetically rooted”. She sang a snatch of Burns’s song Now Westlin’ Winds, recalling once being asked to sing it to a convention of Swedish ecologists, who contextualised it as an early anthem of “deep ecology”.

The very nature of folk song, Polwart argued, was that it embraced all human experience, and was “connected to everything”.

Looking ahead, songs connected to everything will doubtless inform two small but talent-rich festivals this weekend. Tom Paley, a great survivor of the American folk and country scene, plays a gig tonight in the Green Hotel, Kinross, in advance of FifeSing, the 11th Fife Traditional Singing festival, which starts properly tomorrow night in the Fife Animal Park at Collessie (see Paley will also play the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh, on 17 May, and Milngavie Folk Club on 18 May.

Heading south and west, the 12th Moniaive Folk Festival also opens tonight until Saturday, its eclectic programme including the fiery fiddlers of Session A9, harpist Corrina Hewat’s fine new band, Pete Garnett and Greg Lawson from Moishe’s Bagel, traditional signer Alistair Ogilvie and much more (see