A poet and a modern day bard, Robin Williamson has always told stories.
He was born on November 24th, 1943, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Raised there and in England, he has been a musician since leaving school at the age of seventeen. His first musical forays involved the traditional music of Scotland, England and Ireland as well as skiffle music, but it wasn’t until late 1965, when he formed the Incredible String Band with Clive Palmer and Mike Heron, that his music began to gain larger recognition
The Incredible String Band went through numerous line-ups, a documentary film, and thirteen albums with such evocative titles as The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air, until it finally broke up in 1974. For a while Robin contented himself with a solo album, fiddle and tin whistle music books, poetry collections, and a collaboration on a mystery novel, The Glory Trap, published under the name of Sherman Williamson. Then in 1977 he formed the Merry band, with whom he toured extensively and recorded three albums, turning to solo work once more in the early eighties.
More recently Robin has composed the music for a stage and British TV production of The Mabinogi, a score for a thirteen week TV series on British history, The Dragon Has Two Tongues, and songs and music for a dance theatre piece on Dylan Thomas. Robin’s latest solo performances have been of a bardic nature incorporating harp, song and story. His latest recordings include a new album of songs, Songs of Love and Parting, a collection of 17th century Lowland harp tunes, The Legacy of the Scottish Harpers, and a number of cassettes of Celtic legend, wit, mystery and romance.
This interview was done by letter and cassette during the Spring of 1985.
You have been described as a ‘Celtic Bard’. Could you give us some idea as to what is meant by this?
The bards were founded in the dim and distant past. They were around when Caesar invaded the islands, as a part of the druid order, and they seemed to have survived in Scotland up into the beginning of the eighteenth centurywhen the clan system was finally destroyed. They were poets and, as such, originally held a sacred function in Celtic societies.
What would be the role of the bard in present-day society?
I think the poet’s sacred function is something that we have lost. In our society, it’s been replaced with such things as the star system- the rock star, or the film star – that’s the relic of it. But it’s really something different. The star system is more like idol worship isn’t it? The poet’s function, rather than being worshipped, is perhaps to worship. Speaking for myself, I seek to give people a sense of continuity – a sense of their part in the universe and of us all partaking in the mystery of being alive and sailing this extraordinary ship of fools which is the world.
Your stories, in performance and on cassette, are usually accompanied by harp music. What brought your interest to the harp and how important is it to your storytelling?
I’d always wanted to play the harp, but it wasn’t until the late seventies and my work with the Merry Band that I came in contact with Sylvia Woods, who plays the harp. After the end of the Merry Band I began incorporating on the harp ideas that I’d always tried to do previously on the guitar. I think the harp is the perfect accompaniment to what I do now and, of course, it’s traditional. The ancient poets always used to play the harp or perform to harp accompaniment.
Can you tell us a little bit about Scottish storytelling and how it survived over the years?
When I was a boy in Scotland, there was a lot of surviving folklore, though no-one had got around to labelling it as such. It was just there. Scotland has proved to be, in the last five or six years, about the richest vein of contemporary traditional storytelling that’s ever been collected anywhere in Europe – including Ireland. They’ve collected hundreds and hundreds of stories in Scotland in the last twenty years.
Storytelling survived, was continued and brought on into the twentieth century almost entirely by the lowest classes of people, particularly by the travellers or tinkers. But in the ancient past, storytelling – even some of the stories the travellers tell – originated essentially with an aristocratic class of poet, the bards, who were the associates of kings.
Do you feel that class structure is important?
Apart from disputing the notion that art originates in any particular class, no. I regard art as a classless pursuit. It seems to me that, if you become an artist, you step outside of the class system and can associate with both high and low. That’s the charm and its virtue. While someone like myself will never be able to enter the world of a traveller like Betsy White – a marvelous Scottish storyteller – with my literary background I can add to the tradition what is perhaps its key to the future.
Storytelling must become classless in order to transcend its current demise in the world and to step into the future along side of various media developments. Without these traditional extensions into the future, the world of the future will be very, very mechanized and devoid of the human touch. For the same reason that people turn to pottery for a sense of touch of the earth, I think people turn to the storytelling tradition for a touch of the human soul and our place in the world.
How much of your storytelling is based on traditional sources?
All of it is based on traditional folklore, but all of it is in my own voice. I have acquired my own niche in that contnuing heritage because as a boy I was able to meet people like Jeannie Robertson, Jimmie MacBeath, Davey Stewart – the last of the great traditional Scottish singers. In a way, what they represented has been handed on to me. I have become the next link in the chain by virtue of my having been there and been privileged to hear it. I am a part of that heritage and my stories are all based on it, but they are mine as well.
Is there any difference in the way that you approach the writing of a story or a poem?
Writing a story, writing a song, writing a poem – they’re all the same thing, whether creating or relaying. It’s a question of finding your own voice. It’s a question of not imitating somebody else. When people sound like themselves, there’s an honesty and a truth about that communication that comes from something close to their heart, or close to what they are.
But what if the source of the work is traditional?
Traditional stroies are not authored by one individual, but by the race or the nation. This doesn’t deny the fact that an individual storyteller may have his or her own creative part in that continuance, of course. It’s possible to be extremely creative, even when playing a simple fiddle tune, for example, because it’s the personal emotion that is put into that tune that makes it unique. In that sense it’s possible to put a lot of one’s own personality into a traditional story without altering the content at all.
How do you see stotytelling surviving in the present day?
When I used to live in North Africa, I listened to many of the storytellers in Marrakech and Fez. They have big market places in those towns where there is still the medieval-style tradition of open-air storytelling that continues in the present day. These storytellers tell stories that happened a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, and stories that happened to them yesterday, in exactly the same tone of voice. I think that’s very, very important.
In our society, storytelling is still alive as jokes and humorous anecdotes. There have always been jokes, but I think one can extend the type of storytelling that is common and popular to include things that have happened to one, funny things, what somebody said, even telling what happened in a film. Present-day storytelling should try to include these things, together with the whole body of the tradition, and use it to make a leap forward into the future. That’s what I try to do, anyway.
Do you have any other advice for present-day storytellers?
Just to tell the truth from your own heart. Other than that, there is no advice, except to add that I think it’s very important not to analyse the ancient hereditary material that we’ve been handed down by the past. It’s a mistake to assume that we can make some superior sort of judgement as to its meaning. Also, the notion that some bits of the human tradition are not somehow suitable, that some fairy tales, say, are not suitable for children – that is also a mistake. Fairy tales have their own morals and theor own ethics. Perhaps the violent element in some fairy tales is a sort of preparation for the violence and unfairness of the world. Such stories are much preferable to the junk pap on television or in movies like Star Wars and E.T. that are only imitations of our ancestral heritage.
In order to avoid storytelling’s becoming some sort of cutesy parlor activity, or some patronizing entertainment suitable only for children, it’s important to maintain a string thread to its roots – to the personal voice, to one’s commitment to the millenia that go before us, and to the unchanged mystery of the stories themselves.
Stories are an inseparable part of the human dream.
Robin and Bina Williamson’s website, Pig’s Whisker Music, is here.