essay : community under pressure
David Francis, director of the Traditional Music Forum, explores how communities in Scotland have fought to prioritise the collective over the communal in a specially commissioned essay for the Folk Film Gathering 2020.
The Scottish Community Alliance is a network of networks, most of which, as you might expect, have the word ‘community’ in their title. From health and transport, to woodlands and gardens, from arts to energy, land to housing they represent civil society, that part of life and society that abuts and overlaps the public sector and the markets. They stand for an approach to ordering the key components of our lives that seeks to find alternatives to the fiat of public institutions, elected or otherwise, or the vagaries of capitalism.
Community is one of those tricky words, though, like ‘tradition’ and ‘identity’ that we are inclined to put on the positive side of the ledger, but which require some parsing in order that we are not inured to their more negative aspects.
‘Communities of interest’, people connected through the nodes of shared pursuits, are not our focus here, but communities located in the geographical and topographical realities of particular localities. That combination of community and locality is held to be a vital component of what have come to be known as the ‘traditional arts’, my particular bailiwick. Indeed, my colleague and counterpart in Wales, Danny KilBride, once went so far as to write that
The traditional arts are significantly different to other kinds of art. The difference is in the nature of the source. The French have a word to describe wine-making. Terroire. It doesn’t translate easily into any other language although the Welsh word ‘cymry’ with its nuances of both community and a shared landscape comes close. It means the history of the community that makes the wine as well as the geography that sustains the vine.
That notion of a shared condition is at the heart of the idea of community. Indeed the word is derived from the Latin for city walls and denotes all those to be found within that boundary. There can be communities within communities, however, dislocated or relocated groups who find themselves within others’ city walls with varying degrees of welcome, and who cleave to their own identities and the cultural expression of those identities in order to anchor themselves, steadying themselves against hostile currents. I have always been moved by the resilient testimony of the Irish singer from Arranmore, Róise Rua Nic Gríanna when, speaking over a hundred years ago of the dances she loved, said, ‘These dances helped to give heart and lift depression from us who were in the midst of strangers.’
Community, then, has both tangible and intangible dimensions, and in the latter has connotations of togetherness that can mask power structures and their resultant tensions. As Valdimar Hafstein and Martin Skrydstrup have noted:
Part of the political attraction of communities lies in their apparent naturalness. Nevertheless, like nations before them, communities need to be made up. Boundaries and distinctions have to be put into place. Communities have to be visualised, surveyed and mobilised.
So, when we personify ‘the community’, giving it qualities of identity, imagination, a point of view, we need to be clear about just who we are talking about, who speaks on behalf of the community, whether such people represent a consensus, and from where they derive their authority.
One person who was assigned authority to speak on behalf of others in traditional communities was the shaman. The shaman had the power ‘to go into non-ordinary realms of experience and then come back and integrate them with everyday reality…A good shaman knows everything that is happening in the tribe, has great interpersonal skills, and is often a creative artist.
Writer, Tony McManus goes further, contending that the shaman’s ‘practice goes away beyond the role of “the artist” in modern society’ , using the skills they have acquired to draw on their perceptions in order to make them available to the community at large. We may not live in a time and context when the powers of the shaman are readily available to us, but the figure has its more grounded counterpart in the bard.
One of the best accounts of the role and function of the bard in modern times is Tom McKean’s ‘Hebridean song-maker: Iain MacNeacail of the Isle of Skye’. As McKean writes:
The bard baile was an important figure in Gaelic society for centuries and remained so until well after the Second World War. These unpaid, unofficial poets were the de facto spokesmen and women for their communities; as such they wielded considerable power over their neighbours and public opinion.
Iain MacNeacail, known by his byname of An Sgiobair, The Skipper, would spend up to six nights a week in the ceilidh houses, the designated gathering places. He was an integral part of the community, and it was through him that his fellows’ thoughts and feelings could be expressed in song and verse. He had considerable influence to the extent that his satirical barbs were much to be feared, but his authority was conditional. He told Tom McKean, ‘If it’s not to the [right] music…they [the ceilidh-goers] would soon check you on that’, which leads McKean to observe that the bard had to operate to a certain standard and within a certain aesthetic.
This relationship between bard and community has informed a critique of the relationship between the artist and society in the contemporary context. John Lane sees the contemporary artist, ‘glorying in his own genius’, as betraying the primary function of the artist as he sees it, which should be as a servant of the community . That idea of service also finds voice in Hamish Henderson who professed himself increasingly out of joint with 'the 19th century concept of the romantic specialist super-creator… in this anxious, despondent, febrile period of late capitalism, artists have become more and more isolated, more and more shut in on themselves… Gradually the poet and the community must be threaded together again – and we must start here, where we stand – we can do no other. '
Henderson speaks of threading the two together again, of achieving a balance between the artist’s vision and a collective vision, something we have learned to be wary of, as throughout much of the twentieth century, what purported to be the collective will was a mask for highly concentrated power.
Art is a powerful human tool for community transformation. Since the 1960s, through the community arts movement, contemporary artists have been taking up something of the bardic function by agreeing to lay their skills and insight at the service of the community in which they find themselves, recognising what A.L. Lloyd saw as ‘the perpetual struggle for synthesis between the collective and the individual, between tradition and innovation, between what is received from the community and what is supplied out of personal fantasy.’ By negotiating the structures of power and influence, forming alliances and keeping negative forces at bay, by deploying diplomatic skills as well as artistic ones, artists have been drawing on collective memory and the creative resources to hand to help communities to articulate their sense of themselves to themselves and to the world around them. And by doing so helping to upset the odds.
Capra, Fritjof, Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations with Remarkable People (London: Harper Collins, 1988)
KilBride, Danny, ‘It’s only words’, OnTrac, 10, 2004
MacAoidh, Caoimhín, Between the Jigs and the Reels (Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim: Drumlin, 1994)
Hafstein, Valdimar and Martin Skrydstrup, ‘Europe at the Crossroads of Rights and Culture(s)', Ullrich Kockel, Mairead Nic Craith and Jonas Frykman (eds), A Companion to the Anthropology of Europe (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), pp 389-405
Lane, John, A Snake’s Tail Full of Ants: Art, Ecology and Consciousness (Totnes: Resurgence, 1996)
Lloyd, A.L., Folk song in England (St Albans: Paladin, 1975)
McKean, Thomas A., Hebridean Song-maker: Iain MacNeacail of the Isle of Skye (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1996)
McManus, Tony, The Radical Field: Kenneth White and Geopoetics (Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2007)
Neat, Timothy, Hamish Henderson: A Biography, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2007)