Scottish Gaelic songwriter, song catcher and language preserver Julie Fowlis has captured the hearts and minds of listeners in Great Britain, Europe, North America and beyond with her collection of Scottish Gaelic songs. You will find reviews of her recordings also on this blog. I caught up with Julie via e-mail and I hope you enjoy the following conversation.
WME: How do the traditional songs from the Hebrides and the Scottish mainland differ besides the Scottish Gaelic dialect?
Julie Fowlis: Traditional Gaelic songs from the Hebrides in many ways would be similar in style to those sung on the mainland. However, there are differences. For example - the tradition of ‘waulking the tweed’ was very strong in the islands, and so the songs that accompanied this type of work would have been far more common among island singers. The subject matter of course would have differed greatly too between mainland and island singers – a great number of poets were moved to compose poetry about their own surroundings, and this would have been a common theme. The Gaels have always historically had a great connection with the physical environment that surrounded them, and this provided much inspiration for poetry and song.
WME: It’s interesting that in your liner notes and also in the press notes, you mention your connections with Brittany and Galicia. “They have minority languages which are struggling.” Besides the minority languages, did you discover many musical similarities between the songs from your island and the songs in Brittany and Galicia?
JF: There are many connections of course. Musically (and more specifically, melodically) the traditions remain very different and with their own clear identities. But we have great connections to our neighbors in Brittany and Galicia for example, to Brittany through the strong piping links particularly. There are similarities in the tradition of call and response singing also.
WME: I think it’s wonderful that you are preserving language through traditional songs, since song traditions and languages are going extinct all across the planet. It’s ironic that as the Internet brings the world communities closer together, English still dominates as the language of choice, but at least for people who listen to music traditions, they are exposed to probably hundreds of languages or dialects if they listen to field and other global music recordings on a regular basis. What are your thoughts on preserving and sharing the original language of the traditional songs during an era when the world appears to be shrinking, but many languages are also going extinct because of dominant cultural influences?
WME: I love this idea of work songs. I realize that work songs have a certain rhythm that goes with the work performed, but do the stories in the songs perform multiple purposes? (For instance, I noticed that tweed-making songs tell stories about lovers or love gone wrong, almost like a cautionary tale or perhaps a sort of gossip among the women). Are these songs also sung to prepare women for married life?
JF: Well this is true – many songs have dual purposes. Work songs, lullabies and love songs can all have another purpose, sometimes a dark side which tells another story…
The work songs most certainly often had a jovial role – the long hard hours of work were lightened by stories and tales and fun. The ladies did sing about men quite a lot too!
WME: This is the first recording that I heard a milking song. How old are these songs? And are they only song to calm the cow down for milking? Are there also songs for herding, for shearing the sheep? (I think songs connect the humans with animals in the process of milking the cows).
JF: There are songs for almost every type of our old work traditions – for example milking the cows, churning butter, rowing a boat etc. The songs date back hundreds of years and represent a rich part of our history through these cultural and social practices.
WME: You’re a woman with a mission to preserving and sharing culture and you’ve been honored with awards for your albums and recognition for your work. But how do you measure success for yourself? My feeling that the awards are wonderful for you, but perhaps success is being able to share something you are passionate about with the rest of the world.
JF: Well - the awards are lovely and I am very grateful for them, but I am under no illusions of grandeur! I just happen to spend a lot of time promoting the language where I can. It’s a huge part of my life and I am glad to play a very tiny part in bringing it to the attention of people around the world.