Wednesday, April 30, 2008

To Sum Up Briefly: The Big Scottish Lit. Paper

"Sooo, what'd ya come up with?"

Dang it, you mean that after writing it, you actually want me to write some more about it? So cruel. Ok, so I'll give you an idea through quoting myself and naming songs. Here goes.

"The Water's Wide": The Fight For Self Preservation
Some of the themes which are found both in the oldest songs and the newest revolve around issues of loss and identity. (and if you put them together, you get loss of identity)

Sailors Who Never Returned
Pretty literal here, this section covers songs about people who drowned.
"Sir Patrick Spens"
"Coast of High Barbary"
"Turkish Revelry"

This section also covers songs about men who are, as the song says, "far away from home."
"Widow in the Window" (I question whether or not "widow" is used literally, so it's here instead of with those listed above)
"Wave Over Wave"
"The River Driver"

Sailors Who Lost Themselves
This next bit is fun 'cause I quote myself in my paper - it made me feel like a true academic:
Sea shanties, due to their communal nature, begin in a place of flexible identity. Pronouns such as “I” become ambiguous and the names of people lose their significance: “Through shanties, the very definition of ‘I’ is changed. No longer is it a pronoun relating to an individual speaking about themselves, it is a now a pronoun about the collective speaking about a community. “I” becomes nearly synonymous with ‘tribe’” (Ali 8)

This is far from the complete explanation that I've developed. The fill-in part goes kinda like this - since shanties were created in true oral tradition, they're basically a type of tribal tradition where you switch out "bard" for one of the hands and "tribe" for crew. Since it's a communal and tribal type of poetry it means that everyone's helping to create, remember, and recite it, which makes even the songs sung in first person a collective expression, which means that the fundamental understanding of "I" becomes more like "We," thus the pronoun flexibility, which also creates basic identity flexibility.
"Billy Taylor"

Here I pull in some of the supernatural. Celtic folklore: the sea = the land of the faerie. Magic is transformative, thus it makes sense that those who go out to see are changed by it. In the last two songs they have the same basic plot - girl goes to sea disguised as a man, is discovered, then accepted, and becomes something different than what she started as.

Lost Names and the Ever-Shifting "I"
Goes with the bits before. Sailors go to sea and their identities are changed, they go from being named to unnamed.
"Barque in the Harbor" (while it's not the sailor who loses his name, a name is lost)
"Sail Those Same Oceans" (talked a lot about this once 'cause it's such a good example)
"Captain Kidd"

Then, I wrap up thusly:
The strangest part of this dynamic comes from the nature of communal poetry. In the oral tradition, songs were a way of preserving identity. By singing these songs about loss of identity, the singer is effectively calling upon the audience/tribe to help him hold onto what he still has left: the song itself. While the singer cannot get back that which the song describes him losing, the community can preserve the memory of the loss. Thus, song becomes memorial.

In short, all this playing around with identity was a self preservation tactic because the guy in the song was really you, and by singing and passing that song on, you were really passing yourself on and ensuring your immortality, even though your name was long-since forgotten.

Whew. That's the super-abridged version, but it gets the main points. I'll even throw in a list of CDs I pulled from.
Great Big Sea: The Hard and the Easy, Sea of No Cares, and Turn
Various Artists: Rogue's Gallery
Russell Crowe & TOFOG: Bastard Life or Clarity
Seven Nations: Old Ground
Then, there were some that I don't have on CD at all, and you can find them in a book/online easily.

And that, my friends, is what I wrote 20 pages about.


Debbie said...

Sounds all pithy and stuff. If you don't mind sharing, I'd love to read it. Especially since I know and love most of the songs you're talking about.

And now I have Captain Kidd stuck in my head. Not a bad thing, really.

Ali said...

Not a bad thing at all :) It's funny, I used to be pretty indifferent about that song, but now after having written about it, I like it much more. Funny how that works.

I don't mind about the paper, I'll e-mail it to you.