I don’t know about you but I’ve never been able to square the circle between Scotland’s growing sense of identity and our fascination with Americana roots music. Witness the headline shows at Celtic Connections, such as Roddy Hart’s annual Roaming Roots Revue, and Radio Scotland’s recent pop-up radio station with the likes of Ricky Ross proclaiming all things Americana.
Or maybe it’s just me, and that it doesn’t really matter what music it is as long as it is good music? But I’ve long wondered about our own roots music, one that is rooted in the land back in eighteenth/nineteenth-century Scotland.
It was in this spirit that around three years ago I began independent research re-appraising our poetic song tradition, firstly at the Janey Buchan Political Song Collection, University of Glasgow, then at Caledonian University’s Special Collections, consulting relevant books, and online sources such as archive.org together with Chartist sources.
I discovered there were dissenting voices back then (not just Robert Burns) that questioned progress, but most collectors tended to ignore the more radical poems and songs. I’ve managed to trace and re-work some of them, hopefully giving them a contemporary relevance and edge as Hamish Henderson so often encouraged us to do. In total there will be around 36 songs in the final collection, organised into five EPs. The first three EPs have already been produced with the help of a grant from the Alistair Hulett Memorial Trust.
The EPs though need a little explanation. When it came to selecting the songs I wanted to present – in the spirit of Patrick Geddes, the pioneering Scottish ecologist and town planner – an holistic view, remembering that songs arise from people’s natural environment. Each EP, therefore, is aligned generally to one of the five elements. So for example the first EP ‘This Land is Our Land’ is about protest (the fire element), the second EP ‘Traces of Freedom’ is about hope (the air element) and the third EP ‘The Enduring Land’ is about loss and exile (the water element).
Through the songs the project charts the people’s history dating back to the Lowland and Highland Clearances through to Chartist Times and agitation for land in the Highlands. It highlights particularly how democracy and land ownership are intertwined, and the need for land reform.
As well as depositing copies of the EPs in the Janey Buchan Political Song Collection and the British Library Sound Archive the songs are being made available as an online educational resource at www.strainsofeden.net.
Originally from Leith, Alan Dickson studied land use planning at Dundee, then went onto train and then work in community education in and around Glasgow for over thirty years. He took voluntary redundancy from Glasgow Life in 2013 to concentrate on his music.