And how i started my journey collaborating with pipers
I usually began gathering from my usual standpoint- archival recordings of my regular muse Lizzie Higgins (1929-1993). Lizzie was born in Aberdeen, and was a Scottish Gyspy Traveller. She working as a fish-filleter before coming to public attention as a singer at the age of 38, and unfortunately died only twenty-six years later. I could talk about Lizzie’s story all day but I won’t. There is loads more information about her life availible here.
Lizzie’s voice is striking in its ability to communicate meaning through shape, tone, texture and volume. She was an interesting figure in the folk revival, as someone who embodies a kind of inbetween space between ‘authentic’ tradition bearer and revival performer. She was quite determined to articulate her USP as distinct from her mother, Jeannie Robertson, who was a famous traditional singer. Part of her articulation of the difference was based on Lizzie having learnt her singing technique and repertoire from her father- who was an accomplished piper.
Beginning in the School of Scottish studies archives, I reviewed recordings and writing about Lizzie from 1970s and 80s. Some of these I had heard before- particularly recordings by Stephanie Smith and Hamish Henderson. In recordings of interviews with her, she talks about her thoughts on diddling and pipe mouth music.
Diddling is the practice of singing a tune with non-lexical vocables instead of words, often to a fast rhythm used for dancing. Diddling comes in a variety of forms, with some linked to specific instruments such as bagpipes or fiddle, and others used as a standalone vocal performance (Chambers 1980: 17-24). Lizzie was a very good diddler- and she used diddling as a process to put together new tunes with songs. However she would never have performed diddling onstage. In fact she clarifies that her father forbade her from piping and pipe-diddling, in spite of her prodigious talent at the chanter (see Chambers 1980: 21-36).
Lizzie’s ‘piping sangs’ are for me where her magic lies- the modal melodies, ornamentation and boldness. Her relationship with her own process, and her social policing of her own talent, seemed to echo larger patterns in the traditional music world that I want to interrogate and disrupt with my work.
The establishment of diddling contests and the romanticism of the folk revival shifted diddling from being predominantly female discipline, performed in informal, domestic or care giving spaces to a predominantly male one. In this new realm, dominated by ideas prestige and a white male-normative model, women were structurally discouraged from joining in even if they were theoretically ‘allowed’ to contribute. The folk revival, obsessed with ideas of authenticity and nostalgic ideas of rurality, acted as a lens through which we now view folk cultures of Scotland.
Alongside the divisions along gender lines, hierarchies were held up across ethnicities in pipe related mouth music. With canntaireachd held up as the ‘true’ translation of pipe music used for the purpose of transmission ‘cantering’ or ‘diddling’ was used to describe the vocal transcription process for non-pipers or informally trained pipers (e.g. Scottish Travellers). If you are interested in listening to some examples, Mary Morrison is a gaelic singer who has a wonderful example of canntaireachd in her rendition of the pibroch piece A Cholla Mo Rùn.
Following on from this line of enquiry, I am now gathering melodies and examples of piping mouth music from across the archives and other sources looking at how I can expand my understanding of the capacity of my voice to imitate the pipes.