A Sense of PlaceSaturday, 1st October, 2016
Of all the traditional folk songs I sing, my favourites are the ballads, the story songs that pick you up with their melody and words and transport you into the past and, sometimes, into completely alien worlds such as those of Faerie.
Over the summer, I was very lucky to be in the north of the UK where some of the ballads I sing are set. After a quick flit across the border from Northumberland into Scotland, I met up with my partner, Kevan, at the Rhymer Stone which is a short way outside of Melrose. The stone itself, with stands in the shade of a rowan tree, is a relatively recent addition to the place but a much older tradition states that this was the spot where Thomas of Erceldoune met the Queen of Elfland and from here she whisked him off to Faerie for seven years.
Over the past year, I’ve been performing a show with Kevan that is partly based on the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer (‘The Bonnie Road’) so it was something really quite special to see the spot where it, apparently, all began. The initial idea had just been for us to rendezvous there as Kevan was on his way up to Edinburgh for some scholarly adventures but as I sat by the Rhymer’s Stone we decided to video me singing Thomas The Rhymer in situ.
Singing the ballad in the surroundings of the tale was an immensely powerful experience, made more so by the presence of two horses and their riders who went past as we were setting up to record me singing the ballad. With the backdrop of the Eildon Hills and a ‘green lane’ a few strides away that looked as though it could have taken me to Faerie itself, and the found of horses’ hooves clip clopping around the road, I began to sing and all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Magical is certainly the way to describe it.
Days layer, I found myself heading to Bamburgh Castle with the university friends I was holidaying with in Northumberland for a week. Bamburgh Castle is the setting of another ballad I sing, ‘The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heugh’ and standing beneath the square tower of the castle, looking out towards Budle Bay I was absolutely blown away by the reason sense of place I had for the events within the ballad. Now, when I sing my version of ‘The Laidley Worm of Spindleston’ I can picture the princess greeting her father, I can picture the Child of Wind’s ship being dragged up onto the Budle Sands, I can almost taste the salt that hangs on the air around that place.
There is something so special about singing ballads in the places they are set and I think it has added to my understanding of the tales and my ability to bring them to life for audiences. I really hope to do more of the same over the coming year with various ballads I know and others I want to learn. I hope it will allow me to get under the skin of those ballads.
If you are a ballad singer, or sing folk songs set in an actual place, then I highly recommend going to sing them in situ; the effect is almost electric and I am certain you will find you have a deeper connection with both song and place than you had before.