Indelibly Scottish, or Is It?
SOME people - according to Hugh Fordin, biographer of Oscar Hammerstein II - believe that "Edelweiss" is a genuine Austrian national song. A sobering thought. For Austrians, anyway. There are also those who think that "Old Man River" is an authentic old working song of the South.
And of course everyone knows that "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" has been sung for generations at harvest time in Oklahoma by cowboys and farmers alike, in rich exhilarating harmonies.
Knowing such things to be true and above-board, I was not perhaps as shocked as I might have otherwise been to learn from the London Times the other day that the Scottish song "The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen" was written (words and music) by an Englishwoman called Mary Webb who lived in Leamington Spa. It seems - according to the writer of the Times piece - that the said Mrs. Webb had never, in fact, seen the northern lights and had never been to Aberdeen. Apparently she couldn't even claim a Scott i
How is it then, one might well ask oneself, that her song has become, as evidently it has, such a convincing example of everything that is Scottish? Is it because of its lilting Scottish tune? Is it because of the first, oh-so-Scottish words When I was a lad: a tiny wee lad/ My mother said to me"? Is it because it is sung in unison on football terraces - an unmistakably Scottish thing to do?
From here on in the plot thickens. What else, I immediately wondered in my cynical fashion, may not be what it appears? I did a little speculating. Perhaps, I wondered in reeling horror, W. S. Gilbert hadn't been to Japan to research "The Mikado"! (Of course he hadn't.) Maybe Shakespeare had never relaxed in a gondola on the Grand Canal in the build-up for writing "Othello, The Moor of Venice!" (Of course he hadn't.) Could it even be that Offenbach had spent no time in the underworld and had had no on-l o
cation meetings there with Orpheus? (Not so certain about this.) Had these great people - surely not! - relied on imagination rather than observation? How can these things be?
The answer is, easily. It really is a rather recent phenomena, the notion that to paint or write about a place you have to have been there. It's all part of our modern notion of "authenticity though that notion is probably Victorian at root. Think of William Holman Hunt painting his ghastly picture "The Scapegoat" actually by the Dead Sea, to his and the goat's considerable discomfort. Contrast this with the much earlier Paolo Veronese. He had definitely not been to Egypt before painting his "Discovery o
f Moses." His pharoah's daughter is magnificently dressed in 1580s Italian dress.
Normally, though, we don't today expect such things. Everything must be researched to the hilt. Everything must be accurate down to the buttons. Mustn't it? We live in an age of authenticity, don't we?
Watching the "Poirot" series recently on British television, I'm once again amazed at the vast effort into which the designers of such period pieces go! There isn't a shot in it - not a street-scene, not a staircase - that doesn't immediately announce "the '30s." The cars, the costumes, the hairstyles, the make-up - even the choice of ochers, whites, and browns as predominant colors - all are strictly "in period."
There are, however, two strange things about such total dedication to the authentic. One is that in this case such striving for accuracy contrasts sharply with the way in which this TV series is not really true to Agatha Christie's books at all. It has gradually been turned into a vehicle for character (and period) rather than plot, yet everyone knows that Christie was brilliant at plot but less than fulfilling at character.
Indeed the very thing that makes Christie Christie, the denouement in which it is at last explained how the murders in question were the work of the one individual who couldn't possibly have done them, is down-played or virtually missing. Instead there is a wonderfully entertaining central performance, supported by happily portrayed lesser characters - and the murderings and detections seem almost peripheral. The series may be startlingly authentic visually; but it simply isn't accurate to its written o r
Perhaps, after all, we should be grateful to the perpetrators of musicals and sentimental songs for keeping alive the idea that an imaginary evocation of a place, aesthetically speaking, can achieve its own sort of validity.
It does seem as though things "Scottish" are peculiarly vulnerable. All you have to do is mention bonnie purple heather or the road to the Isles and everything that is Scottish in most of us is away in an instant dream. The business of Scottishness has been around for a while, at least since Scots have through choice or compulsion left their country in droves and settled in ubiquitous diaspora throughout the known universe.
In the main it is displaced Scots who take their Scottishness most seriously - perhaps they have forgotten, or never knew, what the place is actually like. The native population have a strong tradition of making fun of "Scottishness" as well as promoting it. How could anyone take seriously songs which contain words like "Oh can ye sew cushions?" (anonymous, and rightly) or "I hae laid a Herrin in Saut" (which it announces at the head of the music that it should be played "pawkily").
There are still, it is true, Scottish singers who make professional careers out of romantic Scottish songs, and there are still writers writing them. A fairly recent (post-war, like Mary Webb's song) addition to the genre is the truly appalling "Oh the River Clyde, the wonderful Clyde!/ The name of it thrills me and fills me with pride./ And I'm satisfied, whate'er may betide,/ The sweetest of songs is the song of the Clyde a lyric of such stunning clumsiness that its survival thus far, however cheerful
it's tune, is inexplicable.
In defense of Mary Webb's shameless appropriation of a Scottishness she never had, it might, be pointed out that she was working within a tradition. Even within Scotland such things went on. The famous song "I belong to Glasgow," everyone knows, was written by a comic called Will Fyffe who was born in Dundee. "Bonnie Dundee" on the other hand was written by Walter Scott, who was Edinburgh born and bred. I also noted in my researches into such dubious matters that there is a song called "An Old Old Castl e
in Scotland" attributed to "Berlin Irving presumably, as American as Hammerstein II wasn't Austrian.
BUT - steady yourself! - it's "Auld Lang Syne" that is the real shocker. It is, of course, the communal song everyone sings at New Year (which the Scots invented), crossing hands in universal goodwill. It is rousing. It is moving. It is nostalgic. The words are authentic Robert Burns. It is indelibly Scottish... .
The tune, however, was written by an Englishman called William Shield. It has been lifted from a forgotten opera he wrote in 1783. In a posthumous tribute someone wrote of Shield that he had been "a popular composer of real English music."
Och aye - of English music.