In 2014 Bella Caledonia created a flagship musical event as a part of the Yes campaign. ‘Songs for Scotland’ was three part: it included producing a downloadable album of pro independence songs, Bella Caledonia: Songs for Scotland the Album; staging a (sold-out) event in the Oran Mor auditorium that featured pro independence artists, and recording that event (on three cameras, in HD) for distribution on You Tube and social media.
In 2016, post Brexit, a sequel project is in development. Songs for Scotland 2 will also include a downloadable album of Scottish songs, this time themed for Alasdair Gray’s dictum, ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’. It will also seek to stage a musical event at the Oran Mor, in late November, beneath 81-year-old Alasdair Gray’s ceiling murals and in his honour.
A main goal of both Songs for Scotland projects (1 and 2) has been the creation of downloadable albums of Scottish songs, which poses this question: how can national musical idioms serve to drive political change?
I recall in the summer of 2014, when Scots were dreaming big dreams in streets and squares across the country. I heard Isobel Lindsay back then deliver an insightful ‘Ayetalk’. This is a gloss of what she said:
‘We shouldn’t be too afraid of using identity, and we shouldn’t be too afraid in this campaign of emotion […]. We are social animals, and loyalty to group and place is a basic part of who and what we are. […] Nationalism, broadly speaking, is a core part of what it is to be a human being […] but it is morally neutral, and can be used in either positive or negative ways [to affirm social solidarity, or to advance empires and militarism]. Myths are stories that we tell ourselves […]. Our national myths include Robert Burns, the highland clearances and the Red Clydesiders, and these can be made to help us embrace ideals of social solidarity and equality. […] By working with the grain of our national mythos in Scotland, we can use sentiment and emotion to advance our goal of winning in September.’
The ideas that Isobel expresses are exactly the theoretical foundations for the ‘Songs for Scotland’ projects, 1 and 2.
Songs for Scotland is a vehicle for bringing to mind certain core elements of our national mythos; and this mythos, our national culture, is the perfect antidote to the faux reasoned arguments that the corporate media clamorously arrays against us. Culture, with its roots in the deepest recesses of our psyches, can help us to overcome these false narratives, and so, to imagine and to create a better nation.
Chris Hedges wrote in The Power of Imagination:
‘Songs, poetry, music, theatre, dance, sculpture, art, fiction and ritual move human beings toward the sacred. They clear the way for transformation. The prosaic world of facts, data, science, news, technology, business and the military is cut off from the mysteries of creation and existence. We will recover this imagination, this capacity for the sacred, or we will vanish as a species.’
Native Musicians: Songs for Scotland 2
‘Native Musicians’ is Alasdair Gray’s title for his image of a bagpiping lion rampant he has licensed as our cover art. He originally created this bold and beautiful design for the entranceway of the Oran Mor; and later reused it as a part of his ‘all kinds of folk’ Scottish typology/pictorial essay that forms a part of the Hillhead subway station mural. There it is titled ‘Native Musicians’. At the Oran Mor this greeting image in the entranceway dominates an array of lettered ‘welcomes’ painted on the floor in many languages.
The second part of the title, ‘Songs for Scotland 2’, shows lineage with the first Songs for Scotland album. Songs for Scotland has now become a cultural tradition, one of recent coinage, yes, but a cultural tradition of this country nonetheless.
The Songs for Scotland musical format involves creating a mashup of genres and styles to reflect the musical scene in Scotland right now, exactly today. The first album embraced the incredibly rich mix of music during those hopeful times during the spring and summer of 2014; before the winter of our discontent set in after the ‘No’ vote. The sequel album will also be a musical portrait of Scotland today, post the Brexit vote and in the run up to the next independence referendum, which we are now marshaling to win.
Contributing artists to the sequel album, as on the last one, will be a who’s who of well-known and unknown Scottish singers and musicians. It will be graced by songs from folk/trad legends like Emily Smith, Karen Matheson, Kathleen MacInnes, Dick Gaughan and Mairi Campbell; rocked by Woodenbox, countrified by Dean Owens and Africanized by Samba Sene and Diwan; hipped (and hopped) by Loki and Stanley Odd; Reggaefied by Brina and Kieran Murray; and classically elevated by Allan MacDonald and Neil Johnstone. It will also include songs written and/or performed by Eddie Reid and Dundee’s Parcel O Rogues, neither a household name, but both songwriters and performers of occasional brilliance.
We’re aiming to have the album ready for a limited release by the end of the crowd funding campaign.
The first Songs for Scotland album is available on Amazon across Europe and North America, and we’re aiming to replicate that distribution for the sequel. The first album has a following in Germany – – the Songs for Scotland ‘brand’ has proven effective there in terms of introducing a cross section of Scottish music to an appreciative audience. Our hope is that some of these faraway listeners will continue to pursue their newly discovered interest in Scottish music (that we have helped them to discover) by listening to Scottish airs and to the Scottish artists we’ll be featuring.
Why music? ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’ — Walter Pater
In 2014, we set out to create a musical ‘Yes’ campaign under the banner of Songs for Scotland – and at first didn’t know quite how to go about that. After all, such a thing hadn’t been done before. In the event, designing it had to be done from scratch.
How did that end up working? The first album opens with the Proclaimers’ classic Cap in Hand, which exactly reflects where Scotland stood in 2014, and had for the past 307 years: asking a faraway government in London for a ‘by your leave’, very much as all of Britain’s former colonies used to do — decades ago. And then it ended with a call to arms, in Dick Gaughan’s rendition of Hamish Henderson’s legendary The Freedom Come Aa Ye. In effect, Bella Caledonia: Songs for Scotland the Album resembles an opera built from the building blocks of existing Scottish songs from genres across the board.
Native Musicians: Songs for Scotland 2 has been constructed along similar lines. The first three tracks all originate in those heady days before the indyref of 18 September 2014. From that hopeful beginning, the false dawn of a new day, we continue on to black despair (September 19th); to homeland, and then to family: mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers; to warfare and resistance, incitement to battle, and finally, to victory.
I am very close to this project, having worked on it to the exclusion of all else for months. Sometimes the experience of creating it has been emotionally shattering. Native Musicians: Songs for Scotland 2 will be an emotionally charged musical portrait of Scotland in 2016; and as well, a tribute to Scotland’s continuing struggle to join the family of small, democratic and well governed nations of northern Europe.
Listening to Native Musicians: Songs for Scotland 2 will serve as an ongoing reminder that to ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ requires first that we act collectively to create that nation; and forging a new nation must begin in an act of the imagination.
All well and good: but can I demonstrate that any of the above is more than just theoretical? Yes, I can. And I can do it with numbers.
When the first songs for Scotland album was released on Amazon in 2015, after a first flurry of purchases its UK Amazon ranking sat consistently thereafter at about 1200 in MP3 downloads/compilations — a respectable number. On 7 September of this year, it was at number 117 in MP3 downloads/compilations, and at number 24 in MP3 downloads/folk.
In politically febrile times like these, we turn instinctively to our culture to steel us for the work ahead. Or as Alasdair Gray put it, ‘culture can and should be at the forefront in the drive for positive political change.’
Please support us! We are aiming to create a collaborative cultural event to honour Alasdair Gray. It won’t be the work of one of us, or of a few of us. It has to be the work of all of us.
[Originally posted on Bella Caledonia on 11 October, 2016]