minstrel: Modern Bardic Tradition

Ted Hewitt brogoose at pe.net
Sat Nov 29 10:56:48 PST 1997

This is an interview with one of my favorite artists, Robin Williamson.
He no longer lives in America, but I went to several of his concerts while
he was here.  He is one of those people who can take you back centuries
with one stoke of the harp strings.  He also has one of the widest
repertoires of any musician I know.  He can do modern, English Dance Hall
and ancient Celtic stories all in sequence - and make it work.  What he
says in this interview, I think, speaks to all of us.

Talking With A Green Man  (snipped)

An Interview with Robin Williamson By Charles de Lint conducted 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 
century when 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. 
n 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
forchildren - that is also a mistake. Fairy tales have their own morals
and their 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 

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.

Last updated: 8 October 1995 

This interview first appeared in The National Storytelling Journal in
Winter 1987. This has been reprinted in Be Glad with permission from the

... And posted to this list without permission by me.....

Edwin, Full-time Idealist, Part-time Realist
<brogoose at pe.net>

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