Singing with our ancestors: connecting to landscape through song

Birch trees

By Emily Heuvel

I have always been a singer. I was born in the Scottish Highlands, and one of my earliest memories is of sitting on the swing in my garden, singing about the hills and the birds – about what I could see. That’s how it has always been. Traditional music was forged from the experience of being of that landscape – it comes from the people of that place singing what they see.

I was talking recently about this with Ffyona Campbell, who teaches wild food in Devon, tracing what she has identified as an ancient hunter-gatherer migratory route. She informed me that this is how Aboriginal songlines work – the songs reflect and describe the landscape, enabling navigation even for those who have never been there before.

I believe we used to be much more ‘of’ a place – elements of wherever we came from ran through almost every aspect of our lives – we lived in that place’s weather, worked on it’s land, ate the food it produced. We knew the local landmarks, stories and songs – and those songs reflected these place-based experiences back to us, embedding them further. Now our food comes from across the globe, and we travel long distances or relocate entirely without a second thought. Most of us don’t live where we were born or spent time as children.

There is a sense of belonging that comes from enmeshing our lives with our landscape. Folk songs grow from this belonging, often coming from a place of natural rootedness, through which human experience is filtered. In The Cuckoo (Roud 413), the singer tells of the pain caused by an ‘inconstant lover’, framed by the trusted cuckoo who ‘tells us no lies’ and his return in spring. Cuckoos, from whom we get the word ‘cuckold’, is hardly to be trusted either. This naivety is doubly heart-braking, as we witness her once again unable to see what is below the surface.

Many traditional songs cluster round this archetypal understanding. ‘Broken Token’ (Roud 265) songs speak to lovers separated by war, while in ‘The Unfortune Rake’ (Roud 2) cycle young people dying of bad decisions (and syphilis) warn others not to follow their path. We took these songs with us – a sound-world depicting our place – as the world expanded and people left their ancestral homes. Smithsonian Folkways produce an entire CD of some of the hundreds of changing versions of The Unfortunate Rake, as it travelled from Ireland to America, becoming the cowboy Streets of Laredo, The Bad Girl’s Lament, and arguably even The House of the Rising Sun.

While many songs navigate human experience against a backdrop of the natural world, it is not only their subject matter that links them to place. Listen to Irish sean-nós singing and you can almost hear the wind in the dissonance each phrase leads to.

Some of our first instruments were reeds, which became bagpipes, and many think the often highly ornamented nasal traditional singing styles mimic these instruments and the melodic decoration made by fluttering the fingers. These instruments were made literally from the landscape, to make music that codifies the experience of being there.

Folk and traditional song, then, is a direct route to connecting with our ancestral heritage, and is innately tied in with ancestral landscape and sense of place. For me though, as I’m sure it is for many, connecting with ancestral heritage is complicated. I was born in Scotland – and like a chick leaving the egg, the colours and feel of the place have imprinted on me so that nowhere else feels quite so much like going home. But my blood is not from there, I left at six and have only returned twice. My father’s family emigrated from Holland a few generations back and were Jewish until my great grandfather converted to Catholicism in order to marry, but I don’t know anyone in Holland, and those Jewish traditions have never been a part of my life. My mother is from Yorkshire, but left young and dropped her accent. I have grown up in south-east England, but my blood is not from here either – but my blood is not from anywhere in particular.

What, then, can I claim as mine? Who, what, and where can I connect back to? Perhaps I do not need to connect backwards – after all, I am in a place now. The hills here I have known longer than I have known anywhere else – it is here that I know what wild food grows where, and the food of here that I have taken into myself. It is here that I know the landmarks and their stories, and here that my bare feet know the feel of the ground. Here who’s mud I scrape from my fingernails, and whose twigs I find in my hair. This is my landscape, and the ancestors I connect with are the people who were of this land before me.

Emily Heuvel is the founder of Birch Tree Folk Choir in Dorking. Follow @BirchTreeChoir on Twitter. 

One Reply to “Singing with our ancestors: connecting to landscape through song”

  1. Elizabeth Silvolli says: Reply

    Thank you. Another beautiful and inspiring story from this blog.

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