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the one where herr honk stirs shit up: Scottish folk music and inclusion

Beware, white-girl-bellyaching ramble about how to be more inclusive follows. Any points I need to get telt, tell me.

herr honk and I were talking about our most recent gig over dinner. (He and I are in a Scottish folk band together, with others.) That was on Friday night at a Scottish folk music festival club setting of four acts. Of the four, the other three were comprised of proper professionals (as in, music performance and teaching is all they do; our band members all have primary careers other than music). They were also... all men? So our band, with three women in the front, were the only female representation that evening.

Deviating slightly from this as a feminist issue, I forgot to notice this myself and it took my straight white husband to point it out the next day! Then last night, he brought up the topic further. Apparently, the paucity of women in Scottish folk acts is a well-recognized and known phenomenon. For context, I’ve lived here ten years and played in all manner of bar sessions and managed to never notice this, but then again, once he pointed it out... yeah, I see it, and I also see the ways in which I’ve been subtly elbowed out in certain scenarios by either men or by Cool Girls. (God, there’s a lot of Cool Girlism in high-skill Scottish folk circles.) Anyway, he went on to say that the Guardian posted an in-depth article awhile back, as follows:


Further to that, my first thought was, we’re also all white as fuck, and folk music in the UK is ENORMOUSLY white. That led to a broader discussion of how various professions siphon off women from the top echelons of whatever field it is, and now herr honk knows what intersectionalism means, so that’s good. Then we turned to how this particular area could be fixed. It isn’t like Scotland is a POC-free society. We aren’t - at least in the cities, we have loads of immigrant or second-generation immigrant communities who are doing well economically and who are well-represented and included in schools and the workforce, and there are many many many young people (and middle aged and old!) people here of colour who are Scottish by birth or by migration. And yet the only successful minority folk musician I can think of here is a Scottish kid born of Iranian parents who’s killing it in... Irish folk music*. Meanwhile, in the US, there are many examples of highly talented and skilled WOC playing Scottish folk music, although not as many as the genre deserves or as many as could be. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are probably the highest profile and most successful example performers. And there’s certainly a talent pool of women and POC young people in classical youth orchestra training in the US, so there’s an extant group of people with skill for folk music to appeal to.

This bothers me for obvious reasons of lack of inclusion but even more so for less-obvious reasons of exclusion. The reason I was originally drawn to folk music was that it felt accessible and inclusive to me - unlike classical music, the skill level required to be able to participate (if not perform) is quite low due to the nature of pub sessions and parties and folk clubs. I wonder if it just doesn’t feel as welcoming to POC. Possible reasons could be the wider notion of folk music as a “heritage” pursuit - which I hate, because there aren’t enough pureblood wizards left for that to make any sense, if I may draw an analogy from Ron Weasley, and that smacks of Spencerist bullshit nationalism. And, historically, folk music as heritage doesn’t add up to excluding POC. As I pointed out, there are plenty of POC in Scotland itself, and unless you want to declare the genre dead and its musical performance a study in archaeology, there is no reason not involved with folk music as a contemporary endeavour and fun thing to do. And, looking at the States, there is plenty of derivative Scottish folk music in the form of zydeco and bluegrass even if you DID want to be heritage-minded - you would only have to go a little farther back in history to make it fully Scottish. Furthermore, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there’s been documentation of Scottish (and others) folk cultural transmission to African-American slave communities that then were adopted and adapted and evolved. (If there’s a better way to have said that, get in and correct the fuck out of me - what I mean isn’t that any POC owe anything cultural to white people, what I mean is that seemingly white folk traditions historically belong to way more people, and contemporary performance should reflect that.)

What do I do about it? Fuck knows. I’m not teaching music at the moment and that’s not on the horizon right now, so there’s no obvious outreach avenue there. herr honk and I talked about staging ceilidh dances for the massive influx of Chinese students coming in to study at Glasgow University, but they seem to be very insular and shy because of language difficulties, which would make dance calling difficult. I’d say the best job of it we had was with a group called Indepen-dance, whose ceilidh we did for their festival two years ago - they do dance performance and training for mixed capability dancers, including wheelchair users and people with learning difficulties, and that was AWESOME - in addition to being ability-inclusive, it was much more minority inclusive than most ceilidhs, and (whether related or not) they were better dancers and really happy to be there and really appreciative and we raised a lot of cash for the group. I don’t know how to go about including minority groups in Scottish folk performance, but at least maybe I can contribute to including minority groups in Scottish folk enjoyment, as a start? Oh god GOD I HAVE AN IDEA PROJECT. Free welcome ceilidh for refugees (and whoever else wants to come). I have to go talk to herr honk about this.

*Asterisk because I wonder if Ireland suffers the same issue within Ireland? Lately, Ireland has been a bit better about “selling” Irish culture outside Ireland as a brand (Riverdance?!) and there’s definitely a “back to my roots” sort of feeling among Catholic Glaswegians about listening to and playing Irish folk music rather than Scottish. That would also explain why people might feel freer to adopt Scottish music from an American standpoint absent a strong heritage, much like I did. Now this really is enough rambling, so I’ll stop here.

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