Border Ballads – Richard Skelton

Even before you open up this sonorous and glorious album – before you press play the first time – let’s take the time to think about that glorious title. Before we discuss Border Ballads, let’s think about the border ballads. Firstly, the title brings into play that every piece of music is in fact a ‘song’ of some kind; it evokes; it kindles; it provokes; it’s almost impossible not to construct narrative from notes – or even from timbre, actually. The border conjured by border ballads is, of course, the one between England and Scotland – a place with more than its share of places blasted by the weather, blasted by the military, and blasted by successive generations of poor farming policy. The borders were once a more lawless place than other lawless places; in fact, they were semi-deliberately kept that way: much better to have a hinterland, or buffer between nations frequently at war. Many a sensible hand (such as the future Richard III) was sent north by successive rulers to police the area. And many southern writers have damned it having galloped through as fast as they humanly could.

As the line between nations has varied, and the strength of each nation has changed in relation to the other, and as two thousand years of technology has changed existence at this frontier… the people made music. It is not happy music. But it is glorious and rich. Border ballads were, in fact, my entry point into narrative. Things like The Cruel Sister’, or ‘Twa Corbies’ are part of my linguistic self. My contention is that the corpus of border ballads is the expression of the people held in a psychologically complex position; to be at the border and work the land is to be both: livestock, grass, birds, seed, wind – these things take little notice of a line on a map. Neither do reivers in the night. The ballads express this; this is partly because every border in a nation’s or people’s commonly held metaphor trove is death. The ballads creep a line of introducing, explaining and policing our fear of it. The lawlessness, the unforgiving nature of cruel humanity, the near-constant presence of an otherworld that was often more just (if not exactly benign). In fact, if you compare the border ballads with the often prettied-up southern-based folk tradition that often seems like a flat Napoleonic snapshot, the border ballads are more full of life, the (deliberately) unexplained and the provocative (I have an unposted post half-constructed where I argue that the border ballads are actually Modernist texts… that might be a little too much for now…) and the macabre as a manifestation of our own fears, desires and tensions. And so, having said this – we move to Border Ballads.

I read once, in a review of In Search of Spaces (Flying Saucer Attack’s ‘live’ album pieced together from tape recordings by Bruce Russell) that it frequently sounded like sound ‘bellowed from a cave’.

That phrase comes into my head repeatedly as I listen to Border Ballads. Except that it isn’t the sound of the cave in this instance; it’s the sound of moors, heath, hill, hidden valley, caved-in quarry. For my ears, this is not the sound of the ‘natural world’ per se, but the sound of the reacting natural world. You cannot be in this country without seeing – somewhere – it affect of ‘industry’. For thousands of years human beings have twisted their environment into the shape we see it now – but it bears the buckling shapes of this twisting just under the surface; it is not well grassed-over; the moss has not hidden it. In places like the borders (where, I suppose, this is being typed) the physical world still retains the stress from its occupation by humans. Whether that’s the scrape of an ard, or the claw of a modern machine: it doesn’t matter. The soil bears the record. The scatter of stones is a signifier. What we leave… what we have done… what we have altered. it is all woven into the pattern. I remember being taken as a child on a walk in Northumberland and finding an abandoned farmstead; I have never wanted to find it on a map and I have never heard it’s name again, but it was called something like ‘Blauweary’/’Blawearie’ – it was the most terrifying place I have ever felt – it wasn’t a visible sensation. It was a deep sense – perhaps some trigger just below the skin: that what was here was the witness to awful human things. These are the scapes that are brought to mind by my listening. Plants react to their physical contact with the world; it’s called thigmomorphogenesis. How can ‘place’ not, too?

Part of this – I think – is the deep bass register of many of these tracks: listen to the opening track and you’ll see what I mean. I am not sure if anyone would agree with me, but these tracks also sound to me like they could be played by a quartet (with different results, obviously).

And there are echoes of the first Richard Skelton record that I ever heard (Marking Time) with the skeletal piano chords struck as if being worked from a different room. Most of all on this album the timbre that a bowed and scraped instrument produces is worked to its most evocative end. The singing quality of these instruments – and the voice that Richard Skelton gives them – tell of the same human tales that the border ballads do. We have come only as far as this:  building topple, rulers change, a ‘people’ invade and decline and are replaced, and yet the human touch remains in the form of the movement of THAT stone, the course of THIS river, the flowering of these plants HERE. When the harp (sometimes a violin) made of human bone starts to sing and cry for justice (or perhaps more accurately: vengeance) in the old border ballad ‘The Cruel Sister’ it is the wailing metaphor for the way that a human life transcends its own limitations. Listen to the notes in Border Ballads – their yearing, their regret and yet their dignified power. In the Inferno the shades that Dante meets know all  future and all past, but not the present; this is how I feel that Border Ballads and the border ballads reflect human endeavour back at us in a mirror whereby our ‘progress’ is stitched into metaphor and sound. In my written responses to Flying Saucer Attack’s Instrumentals album I wrote (for ‘Instrumental 4’) that ‘Maybe there are no wild places/ anymore. Just forgotten ones,/ mossed over; resentful/ groves where/ a laid hedge unthreads/ a wall buckles/ a chassis whistles.’ The border that the pieces on this album cross is the border of time – but the  dread (at its most potent) and awed reflection that is created here is not alien to us – it is not ‘weird’ in that sense – or at all, actually. It is very well known, and it has names that we ignore. The power of Border Ballads (similarly to the border ballads) is that we bring power of the high winds across the fell (say) into our listening spaces and give it full contemplation, rather than closing the door on it.

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