Is fiddle music traditional?

Ronnie Gibson’s thoughts on whether he should use the F-word or stick with the more formal ‘violin’ prompted me to think further about our use of another couple of words: ‘traditional’ and ‘Scottish’.

Looking at all these old books of fiddle tunes, we inevitably make judgments of them based on our own 21st-century experience and categorisation. One of the questions often asked is whether the material is in a traditional music genre, which might perhaps be best suited to the word ‘fiddle’.  In the 18th century, only a small proportion of the music was traditional; it was mostly new, and that was seen as a virtue: many title pages and descriptions proudly proclaim the newness of the material. ‘Old’ tunes were seen as valuable mostly by antiquarian music collectors, rather than by professional musicians promoting their own work.  For us, the term ‘traditional’ might be better used for a tune that appears in many different versions throughout the sources: this shows that it was widely played and transmitted aurally, rather than it already having a long history. The tunes of Marshall, Mackintosh and the Gows weren’t (yet) traditional; they were new.

So if ‘traditional’ isn’t a particularly useful term when looking at this music historically, what about ‘Scottish’? One widely-used method for making value judgments on old fiddle books has been to ask whether the tunes are in an identifiably Scottish style, rather than an imported one. But this is deeply problematic. If the music clearly had an active life in Scotland, why should a demonstrably Scottish origin for its style necessarily make it much more valuable to us now? Aren’t we filtering out important parts of the nation’s musical history? (I wouldn’t dare to suggest that the Rezillos are less interesting because an Englishman, Jo Callis, wrote the songs, and because the group’s pop culture references are largely American.)

In conversation with Noel O’Regan and Katy Cooper yesterday, we were discussing the assumption that Scottish music went through a dead patch in the 17th century: that there just wasn’t much new music being made. What seems a more likely explanation is that after the Union of the Crowns and the moving of the court to London, English music became more influential, and that modern musicians and scholars have just ignored anything that seems ‘English’ or English-influenced, as somehow invalid for consideration as Scottish music. Noel pointed out that particularly for the 17th century it makes a lot of sense to talk about there being a British repertoire, even if Britain didn’t yet exist as a state. If you require a less Unionist term than ‘British’, how about ‘cross-border repertoire’?

So … when considering ‘Scottish traditional fiddle music’, it’s quite possible that to include it all, the only word that really fits is ‘music’.


I couldn’t help but notice this sentence from the obituary for the Chieftains’ fiddler Martin Fay in today’s Guardian:

Although he had a classical training, Fay had a natural understanding of traditional music.

That little word ‘although’ betrays an assumption that being ‘trained’ in one species of music makes it unlikely that you will be fluent in another. The history of the Scottish fiddle tradition certainly suggests that this is not the case: Mackintosh and Scott Skinner are two obvious examples that spring to mind.  Note the contrast that the writer here draws between ‘classical training’ and ‘natural understanding’, implying that traditional music skills are innate rather than learned.

One of the aims of our research project is to challenge received notions about the interaction of oral and literate traditions: I think I just stumbled across two!