Life's been busy. Didn't mean to keep you hanging. This week I've got a morsel of leftovers to serve up, but it's a good 'un. Piping hot. Below is a reprint of a reflection my mom wrote on her travels to Scotland back in the day. She wrote the piece some 25 years ago or so and traveled to Scotland during college, where she worked for her lodging and spent most of her leisure studying the music and song of the area. The timing and era is different for the two of us, of course, but many of her sentiments and concerns mirror my own as I prepare for and daydream about my own post-graduation "wanderyear." I'm trying to make mine less of a stumbleyear and more of a looselyguidedstrollyear. I admire what I see as her maturity in confronting the realities of traveling and impressing oneself upon another culture; it's not always a smooth exchange between cultures and personalities but there's always some insight that can be gleaned from such an experience. And we tend to generally forget the knotty times and look back on our travels with fondness. Anyway, here's mom:
"I started having a dream of being out there in the world instead of being in college studying. My first two years had been years of exploration, and I was getting interested in music and in folk arts. I had a dream of seeing the folk world, of being in a place that still had a living folk tradition. But at that time I just wanted to take a year off, too, because I didn’t know what I wanted to study and I felt I was spending a lot of my parents’ money being in a sort of muddle. That was definitely part of the decision to go.
The reason I started out by going to the inner Hebrides Islands in Scotland was because of an opportunity that came up through friends of my grandmother’s. Every year my grandmother would get fascinating letters from a couple who lived on the island of Canna. The description of the place! It sounded exactly like my dreams. I also needed to find some way of earning money in order to travel for part of the year, and I knew these people always had two girls from New Zealand to help out with the cooking and housekeeping. There were always a lot of visitors staying at their home since there was no inn on the island. When I wrote them, the Campbells agreed that I could come. I ended up staying there several months, and I went on to the Outer Hebrides, too, and eventually I traveled around Europe.
It turned out that learning about the music wasn’t as simple as I thought. I arrived at the Campbells saying that I wanted to learn about the folk music, and I didn’t even know Gaelic. They were both authorities in folk music and Gaelic, and they told me that the genuine folk music is found in the old walking songs, or the songs that went with things like the shrinking of cloth. They’re in Gaelic, and there’s a certain pattern to them. The best way to learn them was to go to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, where more of the old music had endured, and to try to learn a little Gaelic.
When I went to South Uist, I lived with a family farming and living on a croft, a piece of land that had come down through the generations. For the two months I was there my job was to help care for the father, who was nearly blind and had had a slight heart attack. He loved to sing, and had written songs, so when he got his strength back, he sang a lot of songs for me.
There were other singers I got to know on those islands, and I began to see how the songs themselves had been affected by the changes in the society there. Originally, when people were actually doing the work while they sang, they remembered more verses, and they were continually making up new verses. The songs were always sung with one person and a chorus. Now they are no longer used for work. They’re remembered only by a few old people in isolated places, so they’ve been slowed down and are sung in a more melodic and less rhythmic way.
I taped an old woman singing, and when I played it for the mother of the family I was staying with, she said, “Oh, we don’t want to hear that old cow mooing!” The woman who was saying that was a singer and had enjoyed songs all her life, but she was scornful of all these old ladies who sang old fashioned songs; they weren’t tuneful.
I went to the Hebrides with a lot of ideals. I was looking for a place where tradition was still alive and where a lot of the old customs were still going on. It was like heaven to me to be in a place where there were still thatched roofs, a place that was still so in touch with the earth and had beautiful songs. So it came as a real shock to see that people were turning away from the old things – they liked the acrylic stuff they could order out of catalogues instead of the old tweeds.
It seemed to me that the young people were unsure where they should give their loyalties, and that I was valuing the old ways much more than they were. Maybe that was why I found it so hard to get close to them. The very old people, though, really loved to talk to someone who was interested in the old ways. They wanted to tell about them, and they were lonely.
The ones in between, in my mother’s generation, have seen really hard times. They had to work too hard, and in their minds the old things went along with that. They wouldn’t touch a spinning wheel because when they were young, when they came home from school they had to spin and spin and spin; that’s all they could do, they couldn’t have fun. They had to card for their mothers, and they couldn’t go anywhere without the sock to knit. So they just didn’t even want to see any more of it, or else they were being sort of super modern about it. They’d gild the old spinning wheel and put it in the hall as a decoration, or put plants in it. In a way they were saying, “We don’t need to do this work anymore.”
You could understand all that when you got to know them. I learned a lot about the complexities of it, and that it wasn’t easy to say: this is good and that is bad. But I think I ran into a lot of difficulty because of my idealism. You might call it being naïve, but I got very wrapped up in those people. I would throw myself into something, and then be devastated when it didn’t work out. And yet, because of those extremes of emotion, I think I learned more. I fell in love with that place the way I couldn’t now. Now I might not let myself see it as deeply or feel it as deeply. I guess you learn to hold back a little so that you won’t get hurt. It was hard living right in the middle of the family on South Uist. There were clashes of culture, and I didn’t fit any mold that they could figure out.
That’s part of what happened that year: I was free of stereotypes about myself, and free of my own culture, while not being exactly in the other culture, either. I was very lonely because I couldn’t find any people my own age to help me figure out all the things I was experiencing. I was depressed at times, especially during the winter when there was so little day light; I could have used a little more support. I found that I would write to friends back in the United States and share my feelings with them, and that became very important to me.
But then, I had gone away for the experience of being in a different culture, and I think it was good to have that loneliness because it made me think through a lot of things on my own. I was able to get a freedom of thought by having that lonely period.
When I traveled on to other places, I discovered that I liked traveling alone. I enjoyed staying with friends in the Basque country of France, at a folk festival in Switzerland, in London, and in Italy, but I came to look forward to the feeling of adventure I had in between places when I was really on my own. My favorite picture is one of me standing on the top of Ben Nevis looking wonderfully independent.
I also discovered that I learn the most when I am traveling and come in contact with people who have a lot of skill or knowledge in their own fields, like the Campbells, the old folk singers, or the farmers on the farm where I worked for a month. They taught me how to drive a tractor one day, and on the next day I was pulling the trailer with tractor, carrying the silage and dumping it in the barn. I was pleased they had so much trust in me.
Sometimes now I have to laugh a bit at the way people reacted when I came back to school, as if I were a heroine because I had done such an adventurous thing. I knew that it wasn’t as amazing as they thought, but it did give me a status I hadn’t had before. I actually had accumulated expertise in the field of Scottish music, so that I had something to share with other people. This was an important way that that year changed my life. I now had the confidence to start calling contra dances, and as a result of my being more active and of my knowledge, I gained a reputation in my area of New England. I started to direct most of my energy outside of school to the people and events that had to do with folk music.
I graduated two years later with a concentration in environmental education and not in music. It was on the island of Canna that I came to terms with what I wanted to do in the music field. When I was there I felt that I wanted to prove to Mrs. Campbell that I was serious about my interest in Scottish folk music, but I know that I disappointed her in some respects because she had expected me to have more formal knowledge of music than I had, and to have a more scholarly disposition. I discovered that although I like to be with scholars and to learn, I am not the kind of person who is able to go into the depth required for true scholarship. I found that my own strengths lay more in the social context of music – music and people using it. I came out of that year with even more interest in traditional songs of all cultures, and with a stronger interest in singing.
It strengthened my desire to live close to the land, teaching and working with children, with music and folk lore and old people being an on-going part of my life."