|8 Lost Songs –
background to the production of a 'hybrid'
In order to explain something about the concerns that led to making Lost Songs, I first need to say something about the project of which it forms a part.
Between late July 1999 and the publication of 8 Lost Songs in early November 2004, I worked on what eventually came to be called The Sowdun Project, one aspect of which is still ongoing. The Sowdun Project - which has at its heart my interest in the interrelationship of memory, our sense of place and our sense of identity - has had what I can only call a 'formal' and an 'informal' life, although obviously these are very closely interwoven. The 'formal' life of the project has come to be represented by an artist's book called Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode, while 8 Lost Songs represents the more 'informal', experimental side of the project.
Between July 1999 and September 2002 I had no very clear idea of what I was doing with the material I was gathering or the images I was starting to make. If, in the summer of 2002, someone had asked me what I was actually doing, I would probably have said something like this:
I've involved myself in a kind of open-ended 'wandering', both physically and intellectually, through all sorts of new territory. My starting-point has something to do with growing up in the country when and where I did; with my interest in the philosopher Paul Ricoeur's notion of 'narrative identity'; and with some ideas I found in Janet Wolff's wonderful essay Eddie Cochran, Donna Anna and the Dark Sister: Personal Experience and Cultural History. I have been reading up on the archaeology of the Borders region, on traditional Border ballads – particularly two very old and interlinked ones called Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. That got me looking at place names and led to the parish of Southdean, just north of the English-Scottish border, which, in addition to names that suggest possible links to Tam Lin, also has a lot of place names that refer to wolves. That then led to reading up the history of wolves in Britain and thinking about their possible links to the folklore of fairies and the pagan tradition that informs historical witchcraft, which seems to offer one way of thinking about Tam Lin.
What is important about this is my sense that, in the gaps between the eight or nine different versions of Tam Lin I'm looking at, there seems to be an invitation to think differently about the history of the Borders landscape and our relationship to it. So I'm building up a set of ambiguous relationships between the history and geography of various places and their names and a way of thinking about two different kinds of identity, one based in rational thinking and the other in a more imaginative kind of thinking. In starting to link aspects of the history and physical geography of the parish of Southdean to the gaps between different versions of Tam Lin, two parallel, partly overlapping palimpsests are starting to appear which seem to mark out a kind of metaphorical place – the place 'between' Carterhaugh - which is a fiction place in a song with roots that go back to the early Bronze Age - and Tamshiel Rig - which was the best preserved Iron Age farm site in Britain until the Forestry Commission ploughed it up after the last war so that it's now almost impossible to find on the ground'. So the 'place' I'm exploring exists between the 'living' fiction of a song and the very last physical trace of a historical reality.
Practically, I've been walking with my younger son to identify and photograph Bronze and Iron Age sites, the remains of medieval fortified farms and the two abandoned graveyards in the parish. I've also been working away in the studio on paintings and material for a book. Oh, and I've been listening to a lot of music that relates to my teens and early twenties.
By early September 2002 I realized that I could only finish the project, and in particular the artist's book I'd decided I really wanted to make, if I could get hold of quite a lot of extra money. To do this I submitted a bid to the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB), who in May 2003 agreed to fund what became the 'formal' project, based on the following research question:
That 'formal' project is linked to ideas about what it might be possible for students doing creative practice-led doctorates to do when they 'write up' their research, but I'm not going to talk about that here. It's significant only because the AHRB money both enabled me to finish Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig, but also in certain ways distorted or lost some of the potential in the original project that later led to 8 Lost Songs.
Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode - which interweaves different accounts of types of event, different 'narrative voices' and histories, collective fantasies, a personal dream, specialist academic knowledge, images, practical field work and documentation and personal memory - was published in January 2004. It was produced in an edition of 500, by Wild Conversations Press – the Press is my way of losing money by making and publishing collaborative artists' books - and was launched at a three person exhibition at Sherborne House, called reading, writing & 'rithmetic, curated by Sian Bonnell for TRACE (which co-published the book), where I also showed work from the Carterhaugh series, which combine paintings and digital prints. The book was designed by my long-time collaborator Jonathan Ward of MakingSpace Publications, printed using commercial off-set litho, and is soft bound with 167 pages, 62 of them in colour, with 13 black and white images.
In an ideal world, where money grew on trees and there was enough time to do everything as one would wish, Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig would have been a rather different book. It would, for example, have had hard covers and, set into them front and back, two CDs of the different types of music the text refers to – there are twenty-three artists and bands listed in the discography for the book. One CD would have had as many different versions of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer as I could find and the other CD key songs from a range of the other music referenced. I realised of course that this was never going to be possible, but this daydream became the seed of some ideas that, in time, turned into 8 Lost Songs.
One of the starting points for Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig had been buying a copy of Hannibal's 3 CD set of Sandy Denny's work between 1967 and 1977 - Who Knows Where the Time Goes - which includes Fairport Conventions' version of Tam Lin. Like many box sets it contains a little booklet with photographs, lyrics, etc. Over the last six or seven years I have become fascinated with these little mass produced books and the different relationships they have to the music they accompany – relationships that, for me, have suggested new possibilities for the work I make.
The booklet for Who Knows Where the Time Goes is not particularly interesting. It consists of a short introduction, the lyrics, small black and white photographs, - including the obligatory photography of the artist as a child that led to the inclusion of the photograph of the child with the dead wolf in Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode – and little more. Much more interesting, and a direct reference for 8 Lost Songs, is the booklet for Hannibal's 3 CD set The History of Richard Thompson: Watching the Dark. More important still is the twinning of a bound book containing five CDs slip cases with an annotated play list together with a 60 page hard cover book that makes up the Grateful Dead's So Many Roads (1965-1995).
While the booklet for Who Knows Where the Time Goes simply delivers the basic information it is assumed we require, the booklet for Watching the Dark, with its use of different papers and typefaces, play between colour and black and white photography and more substantial text, is a real pleasure in its own right – sensuously adding another, historical and reflective dimension. The two books in their slip case that make up So Many Roads (1965-1995) are something else again, mapping out a multi-dimensional space around the music that includes musical history and criticism, social history and personal reminiscence in ways which I found highly suggestive when I started to put together Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig. Once I had absorbed what Janet Wolff was saying in her essay Eddie Cochran, Donna Anna and the Dark Sister: Personal Experience and Cultural History I saw this pair of books as the basis for a 'hybrid' way of working creatively that had enormous possibilities and started to try to develop these in that book.
Some time after Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig was published I started to read the work of the West Coast American writer, environmental activist, and art critic Rebecca Solnit, who has argued that American geography – the land - is central to the rancorous, melancholy forms of early American country music, where it serves as a substitute for a sense of society, using this insight to offer insight into the fundamentalism of George Bush's America. The implications of Solnit's awareness that country music is the 'immigrant bastard grandchild' of 'gory and gloomy' 'old Scots and Irish ballads' – which, while fascinating, are too complex to go into here - both link to my own interests in unexpected ways and add another dimension to Janet Wolff's reflections on music as a bridge between the personal and collective cultural and social history.
As I started to reflect on what I seemed to have been doing in Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig, a number of things became clearer.
One was that I knew I now wanted to work more directly with the creative possibilities of an interrelating of music, image and text – something that I had felt was somehow latent in the packaging of Watching the Dark and So Many Roads (1965-1995).
A second was that I also wanted to find some way to creatively work with my growing understanding that 'the identity of human subjects (individual or collective)' has to be 'recognized as a perpetual task of reinterpretation in the light of stories we tell ourselves and others'.
A third was that I wanted to find some way to address the fact that I had come across dozens of names of people, in the process of my research into the history of Southdean parish, whose only memorial is some tiny snippet of historical information – so-and-so was fined for fighting, or for selling goods before the market bell rang, so-and-so was drowned, married or buried, all on such and such a date. Everything else it might be possible to know about these people is lost. Yet traces of the landscape they inhabited survive, holding some sense of cultural memories and traditions.
I wondered if these slender facts could form the basis for a re-imagination of place and identity that was both grounded in 'historical experience' and, at the same time, acknowledged that those lives are – as almost all our lives must be after a few generations - wholly irretrievable in their individual particularity. The ballad of Tam Lin was still at the back of my mind, a narrative put together over a period of some four thousand years and which speaks directly of the necessity of metamorphosis to identity, as was Marina Warner's understanding of metamorphosis as a blurring of art and nature, a blurring she claims 'runs counter to notions of unique, individual integrity of identity in the Judaeo-Christian tradition'. Warner's observations particularly interest me because I see them as paralleling Susan Hiller's claim that:
My 'self' is a site for thoughts, feelings, sensations, not an impermeable, corporeal boundary. I AM NOT A CONTAINER … Identity is a collaboration. The self is multiple'.
I also link these observations with the 'polytheistic' psychology of James Hillman, Ginette Paris, Mary Watkins, Rafael Lopez-Pedraza and others, for whom:
'Self is the interiorization of community', is 'constituted of communal contingencies' – the same contingencies that, on one level “make up” the Southdean landscape in which the all-but-vanished people whose names I had found in the historical record had once lived.
A fourth was that I knew that, recently, cultural geographers have begun to argue for an understanding that recognises that landscape is experienced 'in an embodied way through a complex web of senses, through sounds, smells, direct contact and social organisation and experience'. This has led to calls for, among other approaches, a reassessment of 'hearing as a way of dwelling'. In this spirit I wondered if song offered, by opening up another relationship between seeing and hearing, another way of thinking about how landscape is constructed and what it means.
So I had a rich soup of ideas and hunches out of which to work. What I then needed was a strategy to turn these into a reality.
One of the reasons I make artist's books is that they allow me to work collaboratively, and in ways that are very different from working as a full-time academic in a university, which is my day job. When the original Sowdun Project became formalised as an AHRB research project, some of the risk and playfulness I enjoy in collaboration had to be put aside – the price paid for gaining funding to finish the project. One reason for making 8 Lost Songs was to recuperate that sense of the pleasures of risk involved in improvisation and collaboration.
In this spirit I imagined titles for eight 'lost' songs:
1. 'The Crow Child';
2. 'The Righteous Fugitive';
3. 'By Katey's Cross';
4. 'Wandering Jamie';
5. 'Bold Helen';
6. 'The Death of Thomas Thomson';
7. 'Black-eyed Border Maid';
8. 'Margaret and Isobell'.
Each title links to one or more characters who had once lived in the parish of Southdean. I then wrote a short text and sleeve notes in the style of a Sixties folk LP. The introduction to the text reads as follows:
This project is best described as a celebration but, paradoxically, one that has at its heart a number of absences.
It is a response, in words, images and music, to such information we have about a set of eight lost songs, linked as far as we know only by their connection to the parish of Sowdun. We know almost nothing about these songs beyond what is set out in Alison Oliver's notes, reproduced below. No attempt has been made to literally 'reconstruct' the songs – as figures like Sir Walter Scott might have done in the past – not least because there is simply not the information available to us to do so. Instead, we have simply responded, on the basis of what information we have and empathetic imagination, to the spirit of such sparse facts we do have, particularly to the enigmatic trace of the various individuals whose lives provided the focus around which the original songs appear to have taken shape.
A typical sleeve note – in this case that for The Death of the Rev. Thomas Thomson – reads:
The text concludes:
The sleeve notes suggest that, whatever their origins, these songs represented a rich and varied set of insights and imaginings about the people and landscape of Sowdun between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Having persuaded a musician friend who works in the faculty, Gary Peters, to write, play and record music for me, I gave him these texts and asked him not to recreate the 8 lost songs, but to write his own contemporary equivalents to them, based on the sleeve notes. Because we have shared musical interests, and because I knew that that Gary had worked his way through college by playing in Country Music bands – and so understood something of the subsequent musical metamorphosis of the material I was working with – I though he would come up with something interesting. He did.
Eight Lost Songs is published by MakingSpace Publications in an edition of 50. It consists of a die-cut and hand sown sixteen page book with text, a CD of specially commissioned music, a printed silk map of the Sowdun area and 8 loose digitally-printed images. The design, production and overall realisation of the book are by Jonathan Ward, of MakingSpaces Publications, Isle of Wight, who are also publishers of the book. Jonathan has been an essential partner in this enterprise. The music, lyrics and production of the CD are by Gary Peters, with the exception of the lyric for The Righteous Fugitive, which are mine. Gary provides the vocals and plays all instruments other than piano, played by Veryan Weston, and viola, played by Josh Biggs. With the exception of the photograph to accompany The Crow Child, used by kind permission of Ruth Jones, all images are mine.