On Scottishness, folk music and gender balance

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First published in the Guardian on 25 January, 2017

Is Scotland’s folk music stuck in gender stereotypes of the 19th century? In a nation striving to define ourselves through progressive liberalism, whose political leaders are women, whose folk culture helps shape a national image at home and abroad, why do we still fall for proto-Romantic notions of what Scottish masculinity and femininity should look and sound like?

This year’s Celtic Connections is billed as “a celebration of inspiring women artists”. Headline acts at the Glasgow festival include Roberta Sá, Olivia Newton John, Martha Wainwright and Karine Polwart. The opening concert features Laura Marling in songs orchestrated by Kate St. John with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; the penultimate night features 81-year-old English folk revival legend Shirley Collins. The theme was originally devised as an outward-facing statement, says festival director Donald Shaw. Last March he visited Lahore just days after a female musician was shot dead in the street, and that “got me thinking,” he says, “about how women can be empowered through music.” He mentions the singer Aziza Brahim, born in a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria and appearing at the festival’s opening weekend. “Music was her road to freedom. If festivals like us make a point of expressing positives around what women bring to music and what music brings to women, at the very least that might embarrass platforms in other parts of the world that don’t give women proper representation.”

Yet Shaw acknowledges gender imbalances closer to home that “we have not set out to address”, because folk music in Scotland is not yet a level playing field. Partly this is a numbers problem: more male artists are booked than female artists, more all-male bands than all-female bands or bands with at least one female member. I asked the Celtic Connections office six times for the gender ratio of artists appearing at this year’s festival, and was told repeatedly that “we don’t have that figure”. It seems indicative of a lack of general discourse around the subject that, even in light of this year’s theme, the festival had no inclination of championing 50/50 gender representation, or even of talking about the balance.

One person who has been pushing the conversation into the open is Rachel Newton, harpist and vocalist in The Shee. She raised concerns in the run up to the 2016 Scots Trad Music Awards when she noticed that the public nominations for the Best Live Act category were almost exclusively all-male bands: Elephant Sessions, Manran, Niteworks, Treacherous Orchestra and Skerryvore. Of the six acts on the shortlist, only Blazin’ Fiddles included women — a total of three against 36 men. Newton wrote a post on Facebook in which she described feeling “overwhelmed by the amount of all-male and more importantly very masculine bands that are dominating the Scottish Traditional music scene at the moment.” The subsequent comment thread culminated in a rallying cry: “TIME TO BREAK DOWN THE WALLS OF MALE DOM COCK FOLK!!”

More interesting than the simple numbers game is a prevailing acceptance of gendered aesthetics. Scottish traditional music should arguably be enlightened in this respect, given grass-roots socialism and everyman/woman equality were essential values of the urban folk revival of the 1960s. So why are many of today’s artists falling back on retro stereotypes of the kinds of sounds men and women should be making?

Gender is not a new musical dichotomy, but it is an archaic one. Victorian analysis routinely described powerful cadences as ‘male’ and gentle chords as ‘female’. When the feminist musicologist Susan McClary published her seminal 2002 collection of essays, Feminine Endings, taking down prescriptively gendered listening, that should have been the last of it. Yet Simon Thoumire, director of Hands Up for Trad which hosts the Trad Awards, says that when he wants to book an opening or closing act, “an act that is in-your-face and wakes people up, where are the female bands I could use for that slot? I struggled to think of one.” He mentions the female ten-piece Songs of Separation who played at last year’s Awards. “Some women in the audience thought they played a banging show. I loved their sound, but I didn’t think it was banging. Maybe men and women have different ideas of what banging music is. Maybe men listen to more heavy stuff in their youth and maybe that means our reference points are different.” Is he suggesting men have an innate attraction to heavier kinds of music? “Maybe I am. Maybe it’s an animalistic thing. Maybe we want pounding stuff because instinctively we should be out hunting.” Incidentally, Thoumire has asked Newton to put together an all-female band to open the 2017 Trad Awards.

Shaw supports similar theories that men and women are biologically inclined to hear and play music differently. He reckons that women “are inherently more generous musicians” and says he has “often been in a room where I’ve stopped myself saying something negative because there’s a girl there. Do women need to bring something extra to get a guy’s job? I’d argue they bring something less: they don’t bring ego.” Julie Fowlis — Gaelic singer, instrumentalist and presenter of the BBC Folk Awards — is less inclined to buy into such gender determinism. “Women can be every bit as feisty and fist-punching,” she says. “We can absolutely hold our own at sessions and we can rock out just as hard as any guy folkie. Music is not essentially male or female. But it’s true,” she adds, “that in Scotland we do have a bunch of all-male bands playing a certain type of music, generally booked as headliners to finish off a night, and women don’t seem to be challenging that slot.”

One factor might be the way in which bands are formed — a kind of boys’ club mentality. If men stay latest and play loudest at pub sessions, are most heavily fuelled by whatever substances are going around and end up falling into bands together, the music will probably sound accordingly. Shaw says he knows “plenty of bands, including my own [Capercaillie], whose social and moral decorum is enhanced by having a girl there to keep us on the level. There are also plenty of boys in the folk scene who like to indulge in a seriously hedonistic drinking culture, and maybe they keep their circles tight in order to push that moral decorum out of mind.” Yet as Fowlis attests, women can ‘absolutely hold our own’ at a session and the folk scene is not so socially polarised, so this can’t be all there is to it.

In any case, we should have already seen change via the institutionalisation of folk music education. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s’s traditional music degree was launched 20 years ago and several other courses followed around the UK and internationally. Potentially these allow for a more meritocratic, less nocturnal means of entry into the scene — which for Shaw has included some negative side effects. “There seems to be less spontaneous formation of bands,” he argues. “Britain is a hard place to live without any money these days, and that hardship is preventing scenarios whereby mates might just hang out and play without worrying about the commercial implications. Now music is more about design than chance.” Newton sees that element of design as a positive. “Maybe it does take more active thought for women to form a band together. And maybe that results in more thoughtful music.”

What does that imply, then, about the default look and sound of a spontaneously-formed male band? Consider the image adopted by Treacherous Orchestra, a Glasgow outfit that plays tunes loud and fast and favours a stage uniform of chains and black leathers. Why all the machismo? “I think their latest photos were actually quite gay,” says Shaw, though he recognises that’s probably not an image the band intended. “The mistake Treacherous Orchestra makes is trying so hard not to look like they’re part of the folk scene. They are extremely talented musicians but they’ve been going to metal gigs and deciding that’s the crowd they want to attract. They’re driven by audience rather than by the integrity of their own music, and that is dangerous.”

Another conundrum is why the folk scene seems happier to accept women as singers than as instrumentalists. Rona Lightfoot, 81 this year, is a phenomenal piper in the West Coast tradition, yet Shaw thinks of her as “more of a Gaelic singer”. Fowlis, too, grew up playing in pipe bands but has mainly become known as a champion of Gaelic song. Newton suggests that “a lot of female instrumentalists feel they need to sing in order to get ahead,” and statistics from the BBC Folk Awards would support her theory: in the 16-year history of the awards, the instrumental Musician of the Year category has been won by just one woman (Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell) whereas women outnumber men in the Folk Singer of the Year category.

Thoumire sums it up: “we have a back-line issue”, he says, citing the number of female singers across the folk world (Heidi Talbot, Kate Rusby, Julie Fowlis, Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson, Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Dervish’s Cathy Jordan) who employ male backing bands. Even String Sisters, an ensemble designed to showcase awesome female fiddlers, is backed by a male rhythm section. The reason is not access, given girls have equal opportunity to learn drums and guitar at school age. Can it really be an image obstacle? Shaw wonders whether, “if a woman straps on an electric guitar, is she genuinely absolutely comfortable when she starts sweating?” I mention Patti Smith, to name just one female musician who has no problem sweating on stage. “True,” he accepts. “Didn’t she say that in her day it wasn’t a good gig unless she either pissed in her pants or came in them…” Well, quite. If other realms of the music world rehearsed this conversation several decades ago, as Smith did, why is the folk world so slow to catch up?

Maybe it’s a particularly Scottish thing. After all, Ireland’s most successful folk export of the moment, The Gloaming, is an all-male supergroup whose misty, wispy sound sells tremendously well to a global ex-pat community that happily buys into a lyrical vision of Irish masculinity. What is it about Scotland’s self-image that means our men can’t be misty, too? There are gentle exceptions, of course: Duncan Chisholm (post Wolfstone), Alasdair Roberts, Adam Holmes, Lau, others. But let’s stick with the prevalence of those ‘cock folk’ festival closing acts.

Maybe we should blame commodified version of ourselves that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Culloden and Bonnie Prince Charlie: the stuff of rugged heroism. The Clearances engrained a valid sense of loss that endeared Scotland to continental Romantics. Rousseau’s Social Contract of 1762 overtly linked the natural world with human nature and deified an image of moral, earthy peasantry — the so-called noble savage. Also in the 1760s, James Macpherson — poet, historian and evident chancer of Speyside — announced he had found and ‘translated’ texts by a third century bard called Ossian who was then hailed as the ‘Homer du nord’. Goethe learned basic Gaelic in order to better appreciate Ossian, the irony being that there was no Gaelic Ossian in the first place, but the craggy epics of Ossian and later Walter Scott tapped into exactly the right brand of Romantic iconography. Think of the rogue emotions expressed in Germany’s Sturm und Drang movement.

All of which happened centuries ago, yet Scott’s mythologised Scotland still seems to sell at home as much as abroad. Hollywood hasn’t helped, with windswept, biceped Bravehearts and Rob Roys. Even Terrance Davies’s 2015 film adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song cast model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie, transforming one of Scottish literature’s most robust heroines into a fragile, dreamy thing.

Shaw, who grew up in Argyll, asks whether the problem now is especially acute on the West Coast, where music is “rooted in Gaelic tribalism and a mentality of working the land hard, working the sea, long hours then going crazy for 48 hours. That culture still exists on the isles and has spilled into the music.” Runrig, from Skye, reached the ultimate zenith of Celt-rock fusion in 1991 when a crowd of 50,000 turned up in Balloch Country Park to see Donnie Munro belt out Loch Lomond in saltire-emblazoned leathers. Then came Skerryvore, Skippinish, Manran (all West Coasters) and Wolfstone and Treacherous Orchestra.

What that landmark Runrig gig articulated was a nationalist fervour that felt no need for nuance. The event was declared a gathering of the clans, language harkening back to pre-Clearance Highland mythology, despite this being Scotland in 1991: a year post-Thatcher, five years pre-Trainspotting, six years pre-devolution. Now as then, folk music is an essential commodity for a small nation crafting an identity that is deep-rooted and distinct from its neighbours. And yet that still does not explain the binary gender notions — because today’s Scottish civic nationalism is a much subtler arena than it was in 1991. Scotland’s party leaders are either women or non-heterosexual, or both. The independence movement has gravitated towards Scandinavian social democratic models, strong welfare values and, yes, gender equality.

But a political climate that encourages its folk culture to be populist, in which Runrig spin-offs headline mainstream pop festivals, will end up “smoothing the edges” of the music, Newton worries. “Folk music should be wary of the mainstream,” she says. “Maybe in our obsession with reaching a wider audience — and we’ve seen how big those platforms can get — there is a danger of dumbing down the interesting and challenging aspects of the music.” Perhaps it comes back to Shaw’s concern that artists are driven by commercial concerns rather than the integrity of their music. “Folk musicians are crap at marketing,” says Thoumire; “the folk world is littered with appalling album covers,” Shaw agrees. Traditional music is popular in Scotland: could it be that musicians are simply conforming to unreconstructed stereotypes of how men and women should look and sound in order to fit a mainstream industry notion of what will sell?

There is a fascinating quagmire of social, political and musicological factors at play here. Maybe the conservation of any traditional culture will inevitably entail a degree of conservatism — I haven’t even touched on piping competitions, where traditions are passed down with fierce strictness through a lineage of pipe majors and battalions. As training grounds and rites of passage these competitions are essential, but what of the social values they preserve?

That the conversation is only now addressing the representation of men and women, while so much of the arts world has moved onto matters of gender fluidity and beyond, shows how far the folk world has to catch up. Nobody I spoke to favoured a quota system, whereby festivals would book artists on a gender basis, though Newton did suggest that “for Celtic Connections to have presented a 50/50 gender split this year would have been a great statement to make.” Shortly before Christmas she persuaded the festival to let her host a panel debate about gender in folk music.

What seems clear is that the conversation needs to be normalised. When Cambridge Folk Festival announced its first round of confirmed acts for 2017, there was not a single female musician on the bill — which indicates that an all-male lineup is deemed acceptable, or perhaps just not deemed at all. Peter Meanwell, executive producer of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction and director of Norway’s Borealis festival, told me he would not dream of ignoring gender statistics in any festival lineup. “There is no official obligation to declare it,” he said, “but we do so because it’s imperative. We need to work out the balance before we can improve it.” And if the Brexits and Trumps of 2016 taught us anything, it is just how quickly the social advances of the past 70 years can be dismantled. Now more than ever, we need to keep making the case for progressive liberalism, in our music as much as in our politics.

Celtic Connections runs 19 January – 5 February.
Rachel Newton hosts a panel debate ‘Exploring Music and Gender’ on 20 January.