Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Border Widow's Lament

I AM PROBABLY of the last generation of wee Scots boys to have learned old “muckle sangs”, together with the earthier chunks of Burns, by heart before my teenage years. We took them for granted, and who can say to what extent their dark, beguiling cadences and macabre themes formed the stuff of our souls? In my own case “grain-belt” bipolarism – the unstillable oscillation between violence and remorse – survives the vanished appeal of heroic and romantic appearances – mere accidents of chivalric convention; like Webster, seeing “the skull beneath the skin”, the wee Scots boy knows that every suit of dazzling armour conceals a rotting and forgotten corpse. How many eight-year-olds today sing this?:
Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare,
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.'

'Mony an ane for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
O'er his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair,
The wind sall blaw for evermair
These are the Twa Corbies (Two Crows), planning with relish and efficiency the recycling of a “new slain knight” abandoned by his hawks, his hounds and his lady. The cold east wind playing everlastingly through a stripped, forgotten rib-cage is an image not easily effaced, especially when embibed in childhood, surrounded by the very moors, bogs and bleak uplands in which these events are set. Douglas, Percy, Lord Maxwell, Hughie Graham, Sir Patrick Spens - their grim, even when superficially heroic, ends - have, I suspect, coloured indelibly my view of the world, and especially of my own race, with whom, like the builders of those grim border “keeps” I maintain a complex and uneasy relationship.

“The Borders” (the lands on the Scots-English border) are Britain’s own Sicily – the violence and melancholy of the landscape finding a ready echo in the hearts of inhabitants who feuded relentlessly without reference or reverence to crown or law on either side of the river Tweed. Add a strong savour of Calvinistic pessimism and the ever-present consciousness of perdition, and you begin to get the picture.

Imagine, if you can, a nightclub in downtown Jedburgh or Coldstream, circa 1650 – the kind of place you’d go to unwind at the end of hard day’s blood-feuding. There’s whisky, tobacco and sheep's-offal with mashed turnips - but it’s the entertainment that really makes the rain-sodden slog here worthwhile. On the stage is a striking English woman at the height of her considerable powers, her dark, menacing contralto weaving the old tales in a new way, over the plangent, eerie-blue chording of piano, cello and bass. This is June Tabor, raising a familiar procession of Banquo’s ghosts to walk in their grave-clothes between the tables, indicating their wounds and the lamentations of their loved-ones.

Here is the new widow of Bonnie James Campbell, her barn to build and her baby unborn, tearing her hair at the sight of her husband’s good horse, returned with an empty blood-soaked saddle. Here is the newlywed laird’s vision of his chamber “full of wild swine and my bride’s-bed a –floating in blood”- his discarded lover, dead by her own hand, addressing him from the foot of the bed; a Bishop of Carlisle procuring the judicial murder of his lover’s husband – his blazing defiance from the gallows and avowal of revenge beyond the grave; the sleep-deprived fugitive duellist, who, waking in panic, fatally stabs his lover; doomed Sir Patrick “with the Scots lords at his feet” in the most genuinely moving arrangement of the old story I have ever heard. The Cruel Mother, new to me, almost unbearable in its bleak understated pathos:

Oh Mother, oh Mother when we were yours
You dressed us in our own hearts’ blood

You wiped your penknife on your shoe
The more you wiped the bloodier it grew

You buried us under the marble stone
You turned and went a maiden home
Tabor hardly puts a foot wrong: the arrangements are perfect – full of intelligence and authentic feeling for the old songs – but there’s nothing to match that voice, with its austere undecorated melancholy and seldom-absent note of menace. It fails only slightly when she succumbs once or twice to the temptation to over-egg the pudding; a slightly theatrical over-emphasis that mars – if only for a second or two – the masterfully understated quality of the whole.

The Twa Corbies themselves are absent – but their mocking cry and the moaning of the wind over bleached bones pervades the whole collection.

June TaborAn Echo of Hooves (Topic Records TSCD543)


Anonymous said...

The Twa Corbies echoes in my head to the tune it's sung by Steeleye Span. I always thought it caught the cold windon the rib-cage perfectly, brr. But I think it's not the native tune. Is there one you know well as the right Scots tune to go with that ballad?


Moretben said...

There's the one I've known since childhood, but whether or not it's also the Steeleye Span one, I can't tell you, cuz I've never heard it.