Who, where and what to record

Who, where and what to record

The Song Collectors Collective has initially focused on recording with the English Gypsy, Irish Traveller and Scottish Traveller communities as these groups were of particular interest to the founding members of the collective for having kept alive large stores of traditional oral culture into the modern day. For this reason, these communities are a core touchstone to the evolving philosophy of the SCC.

The Gypsy and Traveller communities are rich in undocumented material and are deserving of more positive representation in the media. The SCC intends to be a part of this positive representation. However, many people are understandably not always welcome to the intrusion of strangers into their lives and this may be the case in whatever communities you choose to record, even in your own community.

Working with marginalised and lesser-known communities can be a very rewarding experience and the characters you meet can be some of the most entertaining and enlightening people you’ll ever cross paths with. More information on perceptions of the Gypsy and Traveller communities in particular can be seen in a video of a talk given by Michael Doherty and Simon Evans at the SCC conference in January 2013.

However, Gypsies and Travellers are not the only people in possession of interesting oral culture and many other communities have their own ancient, unique and beautiful songs, stories and lore.

We look forward to hearing from aspiring or experienced song collectors who would like to record within other cultures – whether it’s their next-door neighbour or a community far away, their own family or someone they’ve never met.

Whether it’s Somali refugees in Manchester, Georgian polyphonic singers in Tbilisi or Montserratian migrants in Tottenham that you’re interested in working with, you’re as likely to be enriched with stores of old lullabies or ancient tales by them as anyone else. The SCC platform is a means through which introductions to unknown neighbours and the more isolated members of your community can be made. Song collecting is a particularly good opportunity for conversations between people of different generations too, and can cross divides that many are unaware of in our society.

We are also interested in publishing existing recordings that people have made, so please get in touch if you would like to donate your recordings so that they can reach a wider audience, to ensure their safe-keeping and to inspire other song collectors to keep our global oral culture alive and well.

One restriction that the SCC does set is that the song collecting we encourage does not involve recording and publishing recordings of people who could record and publish themselves and particularly not people who have already published recordings commercially. The SCC recordings are intended more as a resource for such people, rather than an opportunity for them to promote their own songs and singing further.

Where to start song collecting

In the modern era, ancient oral culture is as likely to be found in a metropolis as it is in a farmstead. However, orally transmitted culture tends to survive well through illiterate individuals. Indeed communities with limited literacy all around the world have been found to be the ones most likely to have notable Tradition Bearers of old story and song as it is often the case that illiteracy goes hand in hand with a better memory for orally transmitted information.

Research of areas and communities in advance is always helpful when possible, though don’t neglect to follow your nose! Keeping your eyes peeled and knocking on plenty of doors to make polite enquiries as one contact leads to the next is usually a surprisingly fruitful adventure. Taxi ranks are great places to ask about where to find certain people and places. The same can be said for popular café-owners who know their locals as well as publicans, grocers, and newsagents, particularly in rural or less commercialised areas.

Conduct, attitude and approach  – ‘The Listening Game’

It is always important to remember that song collecting is often, by its nature, intrusive into people’s private lives and circumstances. Always be aware of your presence and if you don’t get a welcome response, it may just be bad timing, so move on, but ask if you can come back another time. Potential contributors may for very good reason not be interested in visitors or in sharing their knowledge at a particular time, particularly on the first meeting. This can be for a multitude of reasons including the very songs of interest being associated with departed members of the family or it may be due to a person’s current health issues, fear of exploitation or mistreatment, or mere suspicion over your motives. Giving people time to have a think about what you are talking about can make it more appealing, though it may go the other way too and they may regret doing any recordings or imparting certain information.

Being sensitive and respectful of such reactions is important and should inform your conduct at every moment. As with all meetings, behaving respectfully, with enthusiasm and willingness to listen is vital. Often contributors don’t see the difference between the mundane aspects of their lives and the aspects that others, such as song collectors, feel is of interest so you can expect to spend lots of time discussing issues of health and the ‘state of the nation’ as you would with meeting any stranger. Be sensitive to give these issues room and value and to not dig too hard. Respect these opportunities for such complaints to be aired as this is a good way to get to know each other and build mutual understanding and trust.

First impressions

Some people can take years to find the trust to welcome you into their home, whereas others may be more immediately comfortable and welcoming. The first thing you say may well be the most important – especially if it ends up being the last thing you get to say as a door closes in your face!

State your name and who you are. If you are interested in songs, say that straight away and state you are a singer or storyteller if you are. Be ready with a bit of a suitable song or story to prove it too, if requested, or to give an example of the kind of material you are looking for. You might find that the people you meet are put at ease by your apparent fearlessness of sharing your repertoire but don’t steal the show. Likewise, if you are not a strong singer but know a few lines, it will probably be well received for you to get the ball rolling by singing a bit. This can also be a very powerful tool in proving you are not somebody more suspicious or unwanted, while also proving that you indeed do know about the culture you claim to be asking after.

You should not bombard people with information about you, the SCC; at the same time aim to make your intentions clearly known as soon as possible. Don’t conflict with the truth or avoid any questions asked of you. People will always ask why you are interested in ‘this old stuff’ and use this as an opportunity to refer to how you are interested in meeting people who know old songs and stories and, if they allow, making recordings of that disappearing culture, which is not being valued by mainstream society, so that it can be made available for free to help in keeping it alive for future generations.

Do not expect to do any recording in the first meeting with someone and only broach the prospect of recording if and when you feel it is appropriate. Work first on gaining the trust of potential contributors. It may be helpful to mention others that have been recorded by you or other collectors and even to play recordings to help trigger memories or encourage the idea of being recorded.

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