Lesley Riddoch: Joni Mitchell made in the Mither Tongue

Honouring both a supreme wordsmith and a living if under-valued language proves little is lost in translation, writes Lesley Riddoch

Honouring both a supreme wordsmith and a living if under-valued language proves little is lost in translation, writes Lesley Riddoch

Celtic Connections, the Mither Tongue, traditional culture and the artistic lives of all involved took a giant leap forward this weekend with the staging of Pilgrimer – a bold reworking of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira classic 1976 album in Scots by the writer James Robertson.

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The concert’s first half was a glorious immersion in rich, choice cuts of Scots dialect reinventing Mitchell’s memorable characters and wistful themes. The second half comprised the original lyrics of ten songs from the rest of her output – all directed by the apparently omni-competent Karine Polwart and her guitar-playing brother Stephen. Julie Fowlis performed Cactus Tree, Olivia Chaney delivered A Case of You on piano and followed it with Woman of Heart and Mind on guitar, Rose Cousins sang Blue and Kathryn Joseph produced a stunning version of Both Sides Now. Yet although the performances in this second half were world class,it was the ground-breaking, adventurous use of Scots by Robertson in the first section that created a new milestone in Scotland’s cultural renaissance. Karine Polwart’s rendition of Amelia (with Columba as the song’s reflective focus) set the pace, Rod Paterson’s performance of Grey in Grez (Blue Motel Room) was laid-back, cheeky and almost show-stopping, Robertson’s own spoken words created a knowing, compelling Scots-speaking narrator guiding the whole piece and his version of Furry Sings the Blues (Pie Jock’s Visit Tae The Mune) was relocated to Dundee and delivered in effortlessly fluent Scots by Annie Grace:

Pound shoaps and shoaps sellin charity

By the auld grey Tay, they hunker doun thegither

When the east wind blaws

In this coorse cauld weather.

Wastit bairns and shilpit men,

Wabbit weemen tryin tae jyne up the rag ends,

Poverty thrives atween these pavey stanes,

Doun and oot in auld Dundee again.

Of course, when something works this well, the scale, boldness and sheer difficulty of the original idea suddenly diminish. Yet this was an impossibly ambitious project – running the risk of objection on copyright grounds at any point by Joni Mitchell, her lawyers or record label and an even greater risk of falling flat on its o’er reaching creative face. But Robertson’s idea of paying tribute to Joni Mitchell by relocating her songs in language, time and place was unhesitatingly backed by festival director Donald Shaw and that confidence was rewarded with an imaginative tribute to the Canadian songwriter.

More than that though – it demonstrated the world-class capacity of Scotland’s female singing talent and the ability of Scottish directors and traditional performers to tackle new musical styles, collaborate with artists beyond these shores and confidently reach beyond the safety of convention. Indeed on Saturday, Pilgrimer’s playful, knowing, nuanced, contemporary use of Scots pulled the language momentarily back from an unlovely fate as the last redoubt of all things bygone and overwhelmingly agricultural – just as Runrig did for Gaelic decades back. As performer after performer beguilingly fused their twin loves of language and lyrics, Scots hovered above Glasgow’s Concert Hall again as a live, sensuous, funny and relevant tongue.

That, of course, is a large claim – and one which only 800 Scots can possibly verify. Maddeningly, the concert couldn’t be recorded for copyright reasons and will never be heard by the bulk of Scots or anyone else unless Ms Mitchell turns her back on music industry convention and gives permission for the reproduction of Robertson’s wee gem. Is it futile to hope she might? Is it pointless?

One concert – however stunning – doth not a linguistic revival make. But Scots has slowly been creeping back into the mainstream. Within the last month regular columns have been launched in one daily newspaper and online in Bella Caledonia. That’s a great advance because in the public domain of mainstream Scotland, Scots has for too long been the sole preserve of Burns Night – lauded for 24 hours, then discarded. So even if Pilgrimer is never performed again in public – though let’s hope Ms Mitchell’s lawyers relent – it has already played a vital role. Musicians, singers, directors, performers and artists are the cultural vanguard of any society, and the act of consciously preferring and proffering the Mither Tongue to a packed house will have laid the groundwork for the next advance. I’d hope too, that most of the audience – guided by a swatch at the Scots lyrics in the programme – also discovered how rich, descriptive and easily understood our Mither Tongue could be and how large a canon of references already exists for that 80 per cent of the electorate who registered as Scots speakers in the latest census – despite the near complete absence of programming support from Scots-based TV or radio.

The Scotsman’s theatre critic and columnist Joyce McMillan observes: “I think the record shows the way to keep Scots alive is to invent new versions of it, not just try to preserve old ones.

“Witness the huge impact of Liz Lochhead’s new, multi-faceted Scots in her 1980s version of Moliere’s Tartuffe, and Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. Witness also the impact of John Byrne, with that wonderful, baroque, culturally rich Paisley street-speak in The Slab Boys, 1978-83.”

Maybe it’s time for the Scottish Government to back this cultural renaissance by financing summer schools like those held for decades in Ireland where teenagers spend four to five weeks in remote areas of the country, immersed in that landscape and all aspects of Irish culture – with talks and events led by artists, writers, and academic enthusiasts.

Maybe it’s time for someone to produce a Byrne satnav or a Lochhead guide to First Minister’s Questions.

Indeed, maybe Scots is a language whose resurgence has finally been confirmed by its small but starring role in the world’s popular culture.

Who’d have thocht.