Over the weekend of 22-24 February, the St Andrews Folk and Traditional Music Society hosted their second annual folk music festival. Being the third festival the group has organised (including a world music event last semester), the weekend was a packed affair, with traditional tunes heard in every corner of town. As a self-confessed folk philistine, with the exception of rugby tunes and Capercaille’s “Skye Waulking Song” – an icon for those who have studied music elsewhere in the UK – my knowledge was limited. Not knowing what to expect I entered with an open mind and discovered the delights of thishomely and parochial genre.
On the Saturday morning, shortly after 10 am, I headed to the Church of St Mary on the Rock, the small ruins tucked next to the cathedral, which face eastwards towards the harbour and sea. I was greeted by a tranquil Arcadian scene. On the ruins sat a solitary guitar player, the sound of her tuning up blended into the soundscape of lapping waves and the rich repertoire of the birds.In the distance the sea was blanketed in fog and the sun struggled through the clouds, bathing the scene in a soft ethereal light. The tide was low, the air filled with the pungent scent of seaweed, and beyond the rocks a seal’s head rose up, barely perceptible, then dived away. The guitarist was shortly joined by two more and a fiddle player. While preparing to play they discussed the weekend and those who they knew were coming: “People from Edinburgh and some stragglers from Stirling.”
Once nine people arrived, one violinist took the initiative to start, giving the rest the impetus to begin playing. First joined the other violinist, performing in a complimentary yet elegantly duelling manner, the other guitars joined, all notion of a leader diminished. Arpeggiated passages and musical themes moved from instrument to instrument, the music punctuated by the cadence of a jogger running past and the aggressive call of seagulls. The passage began to rise, with the musicians communicating through their playing and eye contact, leading to the final cadence. I saw instruments I was entirely unfamiliar with, including a tin whistle, I think. “Give us a song” quips one player. They struggle to settle on one.
“I haven’t learnt that one yet, I feel a bit guilty” responds one player. “It’s too early to sing in D”, jokes another.
Eventually they reconcile on a number of pieces, including “Rambling Rover” and “Washington Square Park”; by now the group was greatly expanded, a piper joined: “This’ll sound honking out here, I forgot we are outside.” While the group chatted, there was never an absence of playing from one instrument or a small group, many preoccupied with their own music. Meanwhile the cellist, after opening his case to a missing string, patiently made an on-the-job repair, struggling at times to thread the string through the peg. The occasion was relaxed and jovial, mistakes were laughed off as inconsequential, the performance seemed approachable even if a player did not already know a song outright; the only feigned threat being a “punishment tune” for arriving late.
The intricate polyphony and modulations that clashed with my classical sensibility drew the attention of all those who walked past. The crowd was consistent in number yet constantly changing. At the front of the group, propped upon the ruins and against a bicycle, stood their sign and donation box, constantly topped up, at times the banknotes were collected to avoid them blowing away in the wind. Families and couples, sat on the benches, turned their backs on the sea view they were positioned to admire and instead focused on the music, their feet constantly tapping, applauding and cheering the players after each piece.
Two students observed from the raised vantage point of the harbour masters hut, while another sat next to me to complete a sudoku. Expressions of enjoyment were spread among stern looks of concentration, the piper focused on a complex triplet passage with great intensity. Some pieces required few performers, a delicate guitar passage accompanied a delicate solo voice; this contrasted the immense volume of the pipes. Later the wind picked up, and the players retired.
Folk music is deeply communal, spread by oral tradition, with many influences being shared. When speaking to the society they stressed their inclusivity. They do not hold auditions and encourage the student body to expose themselves to different musical influences. Folk music is geographically specific to each area and the diverse group acknowledge folk music from around the world, fitting for a university where over 40 per cent of the student body do not live in the UK. According to the society, this element of sharing can be “daunting” for people unfamiliar with such sessions, with the folk festival providing a good opportunity to clear the first hurdle of starting. The group also stress the limitations of the local folk music scene, with the exception of the Crail Folk Club, hence a focus on community involvement. The music also contributes to a greater discourse on Scottish culture and history, often depicting pivotal historical events and cultural movements. This sociocultural significance has made such music an intrinsic element of local identity.
Two elements were critical for the festival: the dissemination of knowledge, and the focus on wider involvement. Instrumental sessions were popular, as well as a Gaelic singing session – a rare opportunity to learn such a niche skill. Scottish Gaelic is only spoken by 1.1 per cent of the population, according to the most recent census, with speakers mostly found on the west coast of Scotland. Learning with Eabhal, an established folk band in the Scottish and Gaelic tradition, was a rare opportunity that the society were proud to be able to provide. At the same time, the festival encouraged performance and engagement. The Open Mic session at Brewco provided a prime performing opportunity among the more relaxed sessions. At the forefront of the event was enjoyment – “It’s also about having fun” – with the Scenic Session and Ceilidh central to getting people turning their heads towards folk music.
Significantly, the society managed to secure Eabhal, an award-winning professional folk band, as their headline act. The society stressed their excitement for seeing the group: “It’s quite a rare opportunity to hear a professional folk band in St Andrews.” It was surreal at first, seeing the Buchanan Lecture Theatre playing host to a concert. But quickly all the uncanny semblance of a lecture disappeared when we were struck by the music. The performance was striking and mesmerising. No instrument dominated, yet the group produced a forceful sound. Though playing traditional instruments, technology was still present as in the guitarist’s foot pedals; the whole performance was youthful, it did not feel like an archaic genre resigned to history. Most instances that I’ve seen accordions have been buskers on the tube or at restaurants, playing tolerably in their search for change. Being an instrument I’ve never truly appreciated the performance was impressive, the speed and control of the playing contrasting the lilting and imprecise stereotype I had predisposed. The performance clarified the genre of folk to me, something I was entirely unfamiliar with as a soft southerner.