Bardic tradition and relationship

Bardic tradition and relationship

By Nimue Brown

When we talk about bard stuff, the emphasis tends to be on original creation, be that in song, poetry, story making or wider expressions of creativity. We lose sight sometimes of bard craft in the moment, and that old tradition of sharing words and music. There are two sides to having a tradition, of which original creativity is only one. Obviously you need people to make things, or there are no stories to tell or songs to sing. In order for there to be a tradition, other people need to pick up those songs and stories and share them on, keeping them alive far beyond the death of the originator.

I grew up steeped in the folk tradition, and I know a lot of material that has been through countless unnamed other hands. To be truly part of the folk tradition is to disappear. The songs and stories live on, the people gracefully melt away. Those songs change and evolve over time, something visible in the many variants of many older ones. Change is part of the living quality of tradition.

As a performer, I dedicate far more of my time to other people’s material than to creating my own. I’m very much on the maintenance side of these traditions, not an innovator. I sing and play traditional material, and also things written by people I know. It raises some interesting issues for me. I quite often change bits. I’ll replace archaic words with things more likely to make sense to my audience. I’ll change gender to make songs fit me, or I’ll change the meaning of a song simply by singing it as a woman. Richard Marx’s Hazard becomes a story of prejudice against lesbians if I sing it the way he wrote it! Damh the Bard’s Obsession is a very different song if I sing it, just because it is me, and not him. There are songs I’ve felt comfortable tweaking and adapting, and songs where I would not change a detail of arrangement. There are songs I do not sing, much as I love them because I do not feel I can honour them. Raglan Road, would be a case in point.

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