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Note-able Journeys

Jack gets there on time for a change!

My good friend Randy Shell runs a used bookstore here in Wytheville called Oracle Books. About six months ago he began a section of records – LPs and CDs (even some 78s). It’s amazing some of the things I’ve found there.

The latest is one of a series called ‘Ballads from British Tradition’ in Virginia and this particular one focuses on this south west corner of the state. Included, of course, are Texas Gladden and The Stanley Brothers, but what really startled me was the field recordings of obscure (to me) singers and musicians. The recordings were made in towns around here including Norton, Wise, Galax and the wonderfully named Meadows of Dan.

Although ‘British Ballads’ is technically correct most of them originated in Scotland. The great Francis James Child of Harvard University published his definitive ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’ in the late 19th century and most of them were Scottish. Then a few years later Cecil Sharp traveled through Appalachia and produced his ‘English Ballads of the Southern Appalachians’. They were also mostly Scottish, although I suspect he meant English language rather than originating in England.

Our old friend Tom Burton who is Emeritus Professor of folklore at East Tennessee State University carried out research some years ago resulting in a paper called ‘The Lion’s Share’. In it he constructed a kind of ‘top twenty’ of British ballads found in Appalachia based on how many variants had been collected. The majority were originally from Scotland and the top five were all from there. He had to discount Barbara Allan as there were so many versions it completely skewed his calculations!

Another friend – the great English singer Brian Peters, has pointed out to me that although the majority of the Appalachian ballads may have originated in Scotland, many got there via England and there are quite a few distinctly English ballads that came over as well. Another piece of research by Tom Burton bears this out. He was able to trace the route by which the Scottish ‘Gypsy Laddies’ ended up in Appalachia as ‘Black Jack Davy’ and it wasn’t (as he’d assumed) via Ulster in Ireland, but actually by way of south west England.

In the end it’s just fascinating that these ballads continued to be used as either moral signposts or just as pure entertainment by the folks who came over and settled here.

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Wull Ferlies neer decis

Jack makes it over the line for his Wednesday post for a change –

I’m very happy to see a revival of interest in the Scots language in Scotland.

The blue area is mainly Gaelic and The small Irish area is similar to ‘Central Scots’.

When Wendy teaches classes in cultural geography she often notes that countries are defined by their languages and culture. Scotland is no exception. The three main languages are Gaelic, Scots and English. The traditional culture is mainly centered around Gaelic and Scots.

My natural language has always been ‘Scots-English’ – in other words standard English with a large injection of Scots words and phrases. Of course I’m really bilingual, having disciplined myself to speak ‘proper’ English in formal settings and my natural language in more social ones, very much like Gaelic speakers do.

However, for a very long time Scots language has been frowned on in schools and described as just poor English, and there are many reasons for that. I don’t really blame my teachers as they believed that to get on in life we had to speak ‘proper English’.

One thing that really irks me is the apologetic apostrophe, where a word in Scots is similar to the English equivalent and the writer adds the apostrophe as if there’s a letter missing. Examples would be o in Scots and of in English or fa and fall. It doesn’t happen where the words are completely different, so why do it when their similar?

When Wendy first came to Scotland she worked with Matthew Fitt, a writer of Scots language children’s books that really helped begin the change in attitudes. More recently my friends Steve Byrne, Fiona Fyfe and Frieda Morrison have put their shoulders to the wheel and there are moves within the Scottish parliament to get things to the same level of support enjoyed by Gaelic.

Following the forming of the United Kingdom in 1707 and despite Scotland retaining many existing powers over law, education and Church, the language and culture were seen by the authorities as too ‘different’. After an abortive attempt to rename the country as North Britain a subtler approach was adopted and that was much more successful.

But the language lived on, particularly in rural and working class areas, and I’m glad that despite my elevation to the middle classes I’ve never lost it. Perhaps singing traditional Scots songs helped!

The 2011 Scottish census returned 1.5 million speakers of Scots within Scotland making up some 30% of the Scottish population of 5.4 million.

Some examples again – ‘Haud yir wheest’ (keep your mouth closed), ‘ca cannie’ (go carefully), ‘lang may yir lum reek’ (may you always have something to burn in your fire).

As an extra –

Living here in Appalachia, where many Ulster-Scots settled I have little trouble being understood by the locals. Lots of Scots words, grammar and pronunciation came over here.

Wull ferlies neer decis is Scots for ‘will wonders never cease’.

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