Narrative singing among the Scots travellers : a study of strophic variation in ballad performance
Williamson, Linda Jane
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Two modes of singing were evident in narrative performances recorded by Scots travellers: singing set melodies to memorized or re-created texts, and improvising on a variable melody to a memorized or a variable text. In travellers' society both modes are acceptable but the majority of travellers today prefer set melodies. The improvisatory mode was traditional and used by the older travellers born before World War I, five of whom became my informants or Ewan NacColl's, re. Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland (1977). The tradition of narrative improvisation appears to be obsolete with the death of Mrs Martha Johnstone (Perthshire), 1980. But her 108 sung performances, 66 songs and 34 narratives recorded between 1955 and 1978, by four fieldworkers, provide valuable material for the study of strophic variability -- its function in the singer's interpretation of an essential story (Lord, 1960 and Buchan, 1972) in performance. Strophic variability is related to the Danish ballad singers' usage of variable intonations, and the author's musical analysis of the diachronic variants of Martha Johnstone's improvisatory ballads follows Thorkild Knudsen's theory of ballad melody or "melodic idea" (1967, 1976). The majority of travellers' performances, however, do not exhibit such extreme structural variations. Their ballads feature regularity manifested in a "standard strophe." In performance the regularly recurring standard strophe is fluid, composed of musical equivalents or structural options at the level of pitch, figure, motive, phrase or strophe, which the singer may or may not choose to realize. Explanations for the presence or absence of variation or variants (musical equivalents) are discussed, particularly memory failure and uncertainty on the part of the singer. A high frequency of irregular strophes is evident in travellers' narrative songs. It can be shown that irregular strophes are often "fixed" in singers' versions. According to the author's thesis on variation as a process of volition and cognition, such irregular strophes are viewed as intentional and purposeful e.g., for expressing the climax or denouement of a narrative, or for heightening a particular dramatic or narrative episode within the singer's story. Testimonies from singers, their explanations and definitions bear out the truth of the analysis. Fifty-three examples of narrative performances by seven of the author's informants and six of MacColl's are featured in the work; thirty-nine are complete song transcriptions; fourteen are included on an accompanying cassette. Three especial singers, are from different "homeground areas" of the travellers in Scotland, are the subjects of the study - Martha Johnstone (Perthshire), Duncan Williamson (Argyllshire) and Johnnie Whyte (Angus). The work is the result of ten years' fieldwork among the Scots travellers and four years' continuous travelling with one extended family.