whistles.jpg
Mary Jane Lamond
Maritime Canadian Mary Jane Lamond became enthralled with the Scots Gaelic music of her ancestors during childhood visits to her grandparents home on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. She has recorded a number of CDs in the past decade, including the acclaimed Lan Duil (RCA 2000).

(This interview was recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1998.)

Fiona:

Mary Jane Lamond sings exclusively in Scots Gaelic and she's Canadian. Tell us about that?

Mary Jane:

Make it sound like I'm a total freak! Well, I guess it's partly because my grandparents were Gaelic speakers. I am, I think, a fifth generation Canadian.

I'm terrible at genealogies, I can't remember. But I guess I sing them because I like them. It's partly a roots thing, and partly that I grew up hearing the language. I just really fell in love with songs.

Fiona:

And your grandparents were from Cape Breton?

Mary Jane:

That's right. My family came over way back in the 1820s. They came from North Uist, but originally, I guess, from Skye.

Fiona:

This would be a good place to just cover a little bit of the history of Nova Scotia and to explain why there are all these Highland Scots there.

Mary Jane:

Well, I'm talking to you, and you have a Scottish accent, so I know that you know! So now I have to think about your listeners who maybe don't know. Well, this is the history of Canada and of Scotland, I guess.

You know, after the Battle of Culloden, and the break down of the clan system, many people left. I think the earlier immigrants who came to Nova Scotia probably left of their own free will, but they were economically forced out and probably very much encouraged to leave. So tens of thousands of Scottish Gaelic speakers came to Nova Scotia between the 1790s and the 1830s.

Up until that time, they say it was the largest human migration in the history of the world, this migration from Scotland to North America or from the Outer Hebrides, from the Highlands of Scotland.

So, people came to this isolated part of Canada, the East Coast of Canada and more particularly the East Coast of Nova Scotia. And because Cape Breton was isolated from the rest of Canada, even then, we've maintained the culture here.

So we have fiddle tunes as they probably were when they were brought over, and milling songs, waulking songs as they would call them in Scotland, and Gaelic speakers and really, it's a Gaeltachtd that we have here!

Fiona:

And that's because entire communities were transplanted. It wasn't just individuals who all found themselves there with a shared heritage. You would have had neighbors, friends and family transported over in entire communities.

Mary Jane:

I know. Ishbel McCasckill was saying this, that she met some people from the North shore and really, she was so amazed they have an accent, a Lewis accent! Yet that's two-hundred and some years later, and all that geographical distance. So people settled here.

All the people on the North shore, for example, are from Lewis and Harris. Many people in Inverness County are from the mainland and from Skye, and over where my family is from, around the Myra area, one group are from North Uist and just next door, the next door community were from South Uist. So, it goes even so far as religious communities settled close to each other where they were from in Scotland.

Fiona:

And from the point of view of the preservation of their language, and their culture, the isolation was a splendid thing.

Mary Jane:

It was. Unfortunately it didn't last long enough for me to grow up speaking the language. My grandparents, in the part of Cape Breton where my family comes from, they were the last generation to speak it. They didn't speak it to their children.

They used it as a language to communicate so that we wouldn't understand what was going on. I think that's a typical story. In other parts of Cape Breton, fortunately, people were further away from the city and didn't go in to work there as much, and so they tended to speak the language more in their communities.

Fiona:

Now, you didn't grow up in Cape Breton. You grew up in Ontario?

Mary Jane:

I grew up partly in Cape Breton and partly in Ontario. I was born in Ontario, my parents were living there at the time, but we moved around a lot and then they moved to Montreal, and we lived for a time in Cape Breton.

Fiona:

So there was a mix of influences, but now you live in Cape Breton and you're obviously very involved in the tradition and the culture and the music. I want you to tell us what happened for you. Tell us about your initiation, if you like, into the world of Gaelic song. Why were you drawn to go back there, and why were you drawn to immerse yourself in the culture and the language, even to the point of going to study at university?


Mary Jane:

I guess it was really just so gradual. It wasn't like I woke up one day and went down to the job center and saw a sign saying "Gaelic singer wanted." None of it happened like that. My immersion in the culture didn't even happen like that. I was at a Milling Frolic, which is like a waulking song gathering, I think people are more familiar with that term.

It was just a whole lot of older people and a few young people in this hall in North River. I was amazed at the power of the rhythm of the music. There's something about those songs, they're so old, I think they just speak to the most basic parts of humans. People from all over the world come to Cape Breton and join Milling Frolics and so I was no different.

Fiona:

What age were you then?

Mary Jane:

I was an adult. I just thought that it was music I could sing, and I wanted to participate in the community, so I decided to start to try and learn the language. Then I learned a few more songs, and people started asking me to sing at concerts, and I just got gradually more and more involved.

Fiona:

To the point where you sing exclusively Scots Gaelic song.

Mary Jane:

Yes, I mean, the first record, From the Land of The Trees, was a project initiated by B & R Heritage Enterprises, who put out some wonderful archival tapes and other younger singers. But this was their first project like this. They wanted a younger singer to do Nova Scotia Gaelic songs, and so I did it because I thought it would be a fun thing to do. Then it was nominated for two East Coast music awards, and so all of a sudden I had this career, and then I was along with Ashley MacIsaac singing "Sleepy Maggie" and all of a sudden this became my career, my job rather, I didn't consider it a career, it was a job.

Fiona:

So, Ashley was on this first album?

Mary Jane

He was, yes, and at the same time I did a cut on an album that he did, which was later re-recorded because he got signed to a major label.

Fiona:

Which became a hit in Canada.

Mary Jane:

It was a Top 10 hit in Canada, a huge hit, which is quite funny. A Cape Breton fiddle player and a Gaelic singer from Cape Breton with a Top 10 pop hit!

Fiona:

But I love that about Canada, that music like this can be so widely heard in that country, and that people from, presumably, all kinds of backgrounds, and not just Scottish backgrounds, can take an interest in music like this.


Mary Jane:

And it was a bit of a phenomenon. It was, definitely. It had a lot to do with Ashley's personality as a performer as well, I think, the success of the song. It's hard for me to describe exactly how it all happened, but as I became more involved in singing the songs, there was some pressure on me to maybe start singing in English.

But for me, the whole process of actually going out and learning the songs from the old people, or learning them from tapes, learning them from friends, that's what interests me. That's what keeps me motivated to do this, otherwise, I really wouldn't want to travel for whatever it is, ten months of the year that I travel and do this. It wouldn't motivate me to do songs. Maybe I'll find English songs sometime that motivate me, but for me, it's the whole process that interests me.

Fiona:

Now, you've traveled over to Scotland as well, and the Scots Gaelic tradition is obviously still strong there. What differences did you note between the community of singers and music makers in Cape Breton and that community over in Scotland?

Mary Jane:

Well, I think there are some similarities and a lot of differences. One of the most moving experiences I've had since I started learning these songs was in Harris...

Fiona:

That's one of the Outer Hebrides islands, so it's pretty remote.

Mary Jane:

That's right, but their song tradition, I knew, was related to the North shore of Cape Breton and the whole waulking song tradition. These women had come over to meet me and sing some songs for me, and they started to sing a song which is a very common milling song in Cape Breton.

When they sang it, the way that they sang it, they had the same verses and virtually the same words, I just had this very funny sensation come over me and I really realized then, the tenacity of this tradition. When you think about the fact that those people in Cape Breton and those people in Scotland, with no contact, have kept that song the same for two-hundred years, it's amazing.

So that's one example of that, but on the other hand, it's hard for me to describe, but I find that the Scottish singing tends to be maybe a little more ethereal, a little softer. I don't know why but we tend to sing everything much more rhythmically in Cape Breton.

Like, for example, this song, you hear people sing this all the time in Scotland -- [Mary Jane sings] -- so it's sung sort of like that, only in Cape Breton the same song would be -- [sings]. So you can hear how everything is much more rhythmic. That's the major difference that I find.

Fiona:

Let's think about that for a moment in relation to the fiddle tradition. That's what the Cape Breton fiddle tradition is known for, at least at home in Scotland, it's having this driving rhythm, the rhythm of the bow, the rhythm of that upstroke.

Whereas, in Scotland, it's just become a little gentler, a little softer, as a result of the classical influences that came in in the Victorian era. It's interesting that that would be echoed in the song tradition too, as another difference.

Mary Jane:

Yes, I mean, I'm reluctant to say too much about the song tradition in Scotland because I don't know why they sing differently. In a way, I would say it's probably had something to do with the mod and the classical singing tradition.

However, I say that cautiously. I know that, for example, the piper Dr. Angus MacDonald, we got into a bit of a spat last year at Celtic Connections. He was telling me that he thought all the Cape Breton songs were too rhythmic due to the fiddling and milling tradition being so popular, and that we had turned everything into a milling song.

I do beg to differ with him though, and I have some reasons for that. There are tapes that I heard at The Library of Congress of a woman who was born in 1848 in Cape Breton, and she was recorded in the 1920s. She moved to California in 1870 and she was recorded by a folklorist called Sidney Carl Patterson for whom she sang some songs.

So these were songs she had heard say in the 1850s, and she sang them very rhythmically, these songs were very rhythmic. So that told me that really, between 1858 and 1998 or 1996 or whenever, the singing tradition in Cape Breton hadn't changed very much. My argument is that these songs probably were sung a lot more rhythmically to begin with.

Fiona:

Yes, possibly. And also because in the Highlands of Scotland, and particularly the Western Isles, songs were often used for people to dance to. Obviously not waulking songs, but puirt-a-beul mouth music. So there was a tradition of singing for dancing which would require you to be singing very rhythmically, and very much on the beat, wouldn't it.


Mary Jane:

Yes, that's right, and I think so many of these songs were work songs. I mean, some of the love songs have a little bit more of a lilt to them, a little bit freer time but, you know, who knows the answer to that? Nobody knows the answer.

I guess the fact is that we sing a lot more rhythmically in Cape Breton. It's not a case of arguing that one's right and one's wrong. It's just saying that Cape Breton is better! That's a joke! I'm just waiting for the hate mail.

Fiona:

We'll just forward it directly to you -- we won't even open it! Just with regard to the rhythm in the songs, I think that's one of the aspects of the music that people who have not grown up with this music and are coming to it for the first time, perhaps hearing it on the radio or whatever, that's one of the things that attracts them to it, this strong rhythm.

And it gives you lots of opportunities to arrange the music in quite a contemporary way, because there are all these rhythmic possibilities that allow for the use of modern day instruments. There seem to be, I don't know, a uniqueness about the rhythms.

I know that all sorts of music all around the world, and particularly what people now call World Music, obviously explore all these rhythms too, but there's something about the way the rhythms are employed in Gaelic song that just seems special to that type of music.

Mary Jane:

Right, well I think a lot of the songs are in a 6/8 format, except for the puirt-a-beul, the mouth music pieces, which are 2/4 and 4/4, but those are the only songs you can really get a groove going on, in a way.

They're interesting to play with, like "Seinn O" on Suas e!. We played with the rhythms on that, and with the milling songs which quite often turn around. The rhythm turns around all the time. There's always an extra beat at the end of the chorus before the verse starts again, so we played with the rhythm on that one.

It was interesting to get different percussion and things going on. And then some of the other songs too. Actually, there's one song on Suas e! where I really understood the rhythm of the poetry and how important it is. It's the love song, "Horo Mo Nighean Donn Bhoidheach."

I was working with a friend of mine who's a really good Gaelic scholar, Jim Watson is his name, and he was helping me work on the pronunciation and things, making sure I had everything down correctly when I was making this record. And I realized the importance of the rhythm in the Gaelic poetry.

I was singing this song, and the verse was...[recites it], but really, those are long "A's", and when you say it correctly...[recites it again], it gives you a totally different kind of a rhythm on it.

Fiona:

What do these lines mean?

Mary Jane:

Well, it's just talking about her looking in the mirror, her thin face, looking in the mirror. I think it's all these vowel sounds in Gaelic poetry that give you a really unique rhythm that I don't think you have in English poetry.

Fiona:

Right, and which would be certainly lost in the translation. So, when it comes into the song, how does that work for you as a singer, those long As and that sort of rhythm of the poetry?

Mary Jane:

Well, I think it's when I finally understood the importance, like I knew about it, but it was just somehow to get my brain around it. I felt I'd reached another level of singing the songs. It gives you the expression in the poetry. So much of Gaelic poetry is about the sound of the words, how they're put together, and the poetry itself is fairly abstract a lot of times.

It's just these motifs that you'll find in many different songs, but it's how they're put together and the sounds of the words together that are as important as the content of the poetry.


Fiona:

In Gaelic song, and indeed, I suppose, throughout Scotland and Ireland and Celtic countries, the song is more important than the singer. The song is something which is valued and passed down, and is then lifted up by individual singers. But in our contemporary Western culture, the singer is usually the more important thing. Just talk a little bit about that if you would.

Mary Jane:

I think that for people like myself, or Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, The Rankins or whoever you might know who works with this material (The Rankins don't do all traditional material, but they do do some).

And I know that Cookie and Raylene Rankin, and all those people, we always approach this with a certain amount of nervousness, because we don't want to do it wrong. I think it's just really this is true tradition and with true tradition, what is prized is that this song is exactly as your great, great, great, grandmother would have had it.

If you have a lot of verses in the same order, and present the poetry really well, it doesn't matter if you're a good singer, like vocally a good singer or not, then you're considered to be a good singer.

Fiona:

Because you're transmitting the song in a true way?


Mary Jane:

Exactly, like I know lots of people in Cape Breton who wouldn't be considered to be good singers, but are considered to be "good" singers because they know the poetry inside out, and they can present it in a really good way, but not a typically Western "good" way.

So, when the tradition is what's really prized, the individual becomes less important because what's important is to get that song. The song actually has more status than the singer. That's exactly what you're saying, You said it very well. It's very difficult to get bigger than a tradition which can preserve things for thousands of years with very little change.

To think that you, as an individual, are going to contribute all that much to a culture like that in your short life time is presumptuous to say the least. It's so different now, though. I think we're the first generation in Cape Breton who has truly grown up with dealing with our music in this way.

Not in Scotland, where I think they've been doing this for a lot longer, but in Canada this is the first generation and so we're always in a difficult position. I grew up thinking innovation was what was the best -- that's what was artistic and creative, like David Bowie and Iggy Pop and all this stuff. That's what was cool when I was a teenager.

And then you're dealing with this material, and I have an incredible amount of respect for it, but really what's prized is the exact opposite of innovation. So you're trying to be both, and you always have one foot on one side of this chasm and one on the other, and you're so likely to fall in.

Fiona:

Do you find that you run into people who are offended by or resistant to innovation and tradition marrying. I mean, do people come up to you and say, "You shouldn't do that with these songs," or are you more likely to hear people that say, "This is interesting"?


Mary Jane:

I hear both. I hear both a lot. I mean, from people outside of the tradition, I'm happy to say, I hear mostly positive things. And for me, when I did this record, the second record, it was really a story about how I feel about these songs and what I think, and that's why I put the last song on the record.

It's a really traditional milling frolic, recorded in my home, during a very traditional afternoon with cups of tea and a few gillochs. It was really just a bunch of people coming over to be supportive and to record on my album for me, and that's what I wanted. And "Margaret's Song," I wanted them to hear the older singers because I know that I'm not representative of what that tradition sounds like in its natural environment, if you like.

That's why I did the record the way I did. Some people are very resistant, you know, I get emails from people who had the first record and they say, "Oh, I'm sorry to see that you've gone for the big bucks now," which is so funny, you know, I mean, I'm still singing all in Scottish Gaelic. How rich do they think I'm going to get?

Fiona:

Right, how mainstream could this ever possibly be!

Mary Jane:

Exactly, I mean, it takes a brave on-air radio person to play the album at all, because they have to deal with these titles that they don't know what to do with. "We're going to hear cut number six now" and they don't know how to pronounce anything.

I can also argue with people, like I did a radio interview with somebody who out and out accused me of abandoning the tradition, so I asked them, "How is the first record more traditional? Just because it has acoustic guitar and piano and not much else, that doesn't make it traditional."

You know, putting any instrumentation is not traditional. Unaccompanied singing is what's traditional and, I think, as soon as you become a performer and stand in front of a microphone, you've already lost about 99% of what this tradition is about anyway.

Fiona:

It's funny, isn't it, the discussions that do go on about what is traditional. How do you define what's traditional in the music or in the type of performance. I mean, do you have to be performing in a kind of unconscious way that's not aware of itself, that's not out there as a performance, in order to be traditional.

Do you have to be sort of snuck up upon in the shower, or sitting in your living room before it's really traditional? Do you have to be doing it just for your friends? The minute you stand up on a stage does it leave that place?

Mary Jane:

You see, that's why I'm able to move on from that now, because I think I realized, when this first record came out, and I was opening for Ashley and touring and doing the material, that I was very resistant to adding anything because I felt like such an upstart.

I would think, "What will people say?" and, "The old people will be disappointed in me, the people I've learned these songs from," and then I realized, "Boy, it's not traditional anymore, anyway."

As soon as it's about Mary Jane Lamond's voice singing these songs, it's not about the tradition anymore. I have two separate places in my mind. When I go home, I don't like to perform. I'd much rather go to the milling frolics. I'll do things to help raise money, or for Gaelic education, or whatever I can do on a grass roots level, because I quickly realized that me singing Gaelic songs in North Carolina isn't going to create Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton.

So this is all about what I do as a performer, and what I do as a performer, I hope, is not exploitative, but it's definitely not traditional.

Fiona:

And yet, surely part of being part of the tradition is the whole business of carrying something on. Something that's been passed to you, that you are then passing along in a way that makes sense to your generation, which just so happens to be through a recording or through a radio microphone.

You're passing something on that's been passed to you. Is that not the essence of the tradition, and if you put your own generation's layer on it, if you embrace it in a way that makes sense to you in the 1990s, what's wrong with that?

You know, people have always lifted up traditions and worked with them in ways that made sense to them at the time, whether it was that they brought in new instruments (and at one time the fiddle was a new instrument), whether they brought something new to it or interpreted it in a different way, or whether they interpreted it in a slightly different way because they were in a new place like Cape Breton, or wherever it was. Surely the essence of the tradition is the desire to...

Mary Jane:

Participate in a culture?

Fiona:

Exactly.

Mary Jane:

That's a very good point, and that's something I've only come to recently. There is an incredible amount of pressure when you're dealing with material like this, from a small community, like a relatively small community.

I mean, it's spread out over a geographical area, but most people, you know, it's a little bit like living in a microscope. Once you start learning this, and not just me because I have records out, but my other friends who are learning this too. All of a sudden, you're responsible for the whole culture and everything you do has this amazing impact on this very fragile little environment. It's very difficult to know what to do, but I've given up that responsibility now.

I know that the work that I do to maintain Gaelic in Cape Breton is going to be different to the work I do as a performer. I've accepted that, and I've also accepted that we have to move forward, and by doing these records, there's a lot more young people out there who think that they can do it.

It's not so much that they think it's "cool" or whatever, it's not just me, it's The Rankins, or if Natalie puts a Gaelic song on her record, or if Ashley does, it's about them relating to it. And I wish there was somebody doing this when I was younger, because then I would have taken an interest much earlier, when my grandparents were living and I didn't know it was for me. I didn't know it was part of my heritage. It was something they did and it had nothing to do with me. So it does send the message to younger people that this is something they can do too.

Fiona:

Yes, it certainly does. You mentioned the fragility of the culture. Is it fragile right now in Cape Breton? We see you out here, we hear Natalie MacMaster and we see Ashley MacIsaac all doing very well, and The Rankin Family. It could give the impression that this tradition is in great shape in Cape Breton, and that the language is thriving. Is that the case?

Mary Jane:

Well, no. It's not the case, not at all, although there are some encouraging signs. You know, sometimes I feel like the token Gaelic singer of Cape Breton. I get referred to a lot like, if there are arguments about the culture, people will say, "Well, look at Mary Jane..."

But that's not fair in any ways to represent what's really being done for Gaelic and I find it very frustrating. Somebody wrote an excellent article, a man called Ian MacKay, called "The Tartanising of Nova Scotia."

So there were some people in the '30s who decided that Nova Scotia was going to be Scottish, and there was no support for the language, there was just a lot of tartan and pipe bands and a lot of stuff like that. So now what we have now is a backlash against that by all the other cultures, and perfectly understandably.

The Cape Acadians and the Black community, we have a long history of Black settlement, loyalists, and the Micmac, the native community, they're reacting against Scottish Gaelic. So now, Scottish Gaelic is politically incorrect for other reasons. It's all very difficult, and the same old arguments are made that it's up to the school boards how they spend their money, if they want to teach Gaelic. But they don't have money to do it.

So it's the same old arguments all the time. There's really no political will to save this language is basically what it is, on the part of the provincial government. On the other hand, community groups are really getting it together, like in Judique. There's a little community there, at this school, and the high school students asked, since they knew that their principal had some Gaelic, they asked him to teach them what he knew so that they could do Gaelic as a second language requirement.

So that's coming from the students who want to graduate from high school with a Gaelic credit instead of French. They just started a new Gaelic cultural program as an Arts credit in Iona, Cape Breton. They're teaching it in Mabou, they've been teaching it for years there. In Sidney, the students go in after school, but they don't get a credit for it. For two years they weren't even getting a credit for it and they had thirty or forty students there going in to learn. So it's amazing.

The interest among the young people is definitely picking up. We have several feisan starting now, and those have been a huge success. Christmas Island is a great success for a community that had almost nothing going on, almost nothing at all. They had a fire hall, a church, a hall, and a lot of people who had just lost their sense of community.

Then they started this feis, and it brought the old people out from the rear. You know, you have all this wonderful activity down there now, and they're hiring three or four full time people all summer to work for the feis, so it's great.

Fiona:

So, if anything, things are actually picking up nicely, but not because of any institutionalized desire...

Mary Jane:

No, but because of the will on the part of the people. So, you know, there's good and there's bad, but I just don't know if it's enough. I don't know if it's enough, because we probably have less than a thousand native speakers in Cape Breton now.

And it's too bad, when John Shore made his collection of songs and stories for St. Francis Xavier's University, he collected around a thousand songs and a thousand stories, with not that many repeats, and that was only from fifty-four informants! So you can imagine what he didn't collect, couldn't have collected, in a four-year period. There was just so much and some of it we'll never get back, and there's still a lot out there to learn.

Fiona:

And yet there's been this wonderful exchange going on between the tradition bearers and participants in Cape Breton and their distant cousins in Scotland, where Cape Breton musicians and step dancers have been coming over and bringing back some of the elements of tradition that have dwindled seriously in Scotland.

Perhaps we'll see a returning of the favor in some of the more robust singing traditions and language traditions that continue in Scotland. There seems to be a partnership now and an exchange that's been put in place between the related communities across the water.

Mary Jane:

It would be nice to see some support on the part of some of the Gaelic language agencies for the efforts of the people in Cape Breton, because, I think, what we have in Cape Breton, should be recognized in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland as a repository of the culture.

I mean, it's politically good for them, as well, to have somewhere outside of Scotland that has this language. Certainly it's a great learning experience for their students who come over. Many students come, and they learn a lot about the culture by coming here. It's almost like a little museum of the culture. So, some days I feel really positive, and some days I don't. It's just a matter of getting on with the work really.

Fiona:

I think there's something that you said that I hold on to in different ways, because I've also seen examples of this, and it keeps me feeling positive. When you said that you went to Harris and you heard these ladies singing a song in the very same way, the same order of verses and approach that you'd heard yourself in Cape Breton, and you said, how could the song have continued over two-hundred years in two separate communities?

It gives you an idea of how robust the tradition is and how, in a sense, it has a will, in and of itself, to survive, regardless of generations which may neglect it. It seems to continue to come back and to come back, and it makes you feel as though perhaps there's some momentum there that can never be completely extinguished, even to the point where, in Scotland, the step dance tradition had virtually died out, and has now taken right off again, thanks to the fact that it was preserved in Cape Breton.

So, I don't know, I feel pretty positive most of the time and I think that some of the things you've said to me today about the tradition in Cape Breton, and what we loosely call tradition, the desire to make music, the desire to participate, makes me feel pretty positive.

Mary Jane:

Well, that's good. You sound like my friend Jeff, actually, in Cape Breton. Jeff MacDonald, he's a fluent Gaelic speaker, you know, he's under thirty and one day we were sitting there, and I was feeling really depressed and I was very tired.

I had just got back from touring, and I got home, and somebody that I knew had died, and it was just so depressing. I was sitting there, and I was kind of weepy, and he was at my house and I said, "You know, what are we going to have for the next generation, Jeff? There's not going to be anything, and nobody's putting enough back into this culture to make it survive." And he said, "No Mary Jane, they'll have us."

And that's true. He said, "It's up to us to just learn as much as we want to, there's no pressure, but to be as good tradition bearers ourselves as we can be, so that it will be there for whoever is interested. And maybe it will only be ten people, or who knows what will happen?"

Fiona:

I think the key is that the essence of the tradition is the desire in people to be part of something, regardless of whether they remember all the words, or regardless of whether or not they should be playing it on the banjo. Who cares?

It's the involvement, the participation and the desire to make music that I think is a bigger tradition in these communities than the actual material. You know, the desire to do it is bigger than the actual songs or the content.

Mary Jane:

I think we do have to be careful, though, that we recognize the value of the language and the tradition, because these traditions are traditions because they change very slowly, so that's a hard one.

Fiona:

Oh, absolutely, yes. It could run away with itself.

Mary Jane:

You have to strike a balance. Like, is it still a Gaelic song if you sing it in English? That's a hard question to answer, you know, but I think not.

Fiona:

But, balancing it out with that spirit of participation, I think, is what will keep it healthy. But you're right, it could run away with itself and just become so diluted that it was almost unrecognizable, and no-body would want that.

Mary Jane:

Right, and so I think that the song tradition keeps it, particularly for the tunes, although a lot of fiddle players wouldn't agree with me. But it's too easy to lose sight of what the tunes are about in isolation. I remember sitting there one time at this community gathering and somebody said, "We have to teach the kids to read music so that they'll know which are the Scottish tunes." And I said, "All you need to do is teach them Gaelic songs and they'll know right away what's a Scottish tune, or an Irish tune rather, they'll know what those tunes are. They'll hear it." If they know the songs, they'll hear the tunes. They won't be mistaking Bluegrass for Scottish Gaelic fiddle tunes, if they know the songs.

Fiona:

It's the same argument that you would make for not allowing the fiddle tunes to become too separated from the dances that go with them. If you know the dance, then certainly you'll know the tune and you'll know the origin of the tune and how it should be lifted on the fiddle. That's the same thing.

Mary Jane:

Wendy MacIsaac, who plays the fiddle with me, the band will be trying something and you know, she'll be playing and she'll say, "Well, you can't dance to that." And it's so true, like the tune doesn't work. It's the same if you think about step dancing too. If I'm singing a reel, even if I think about step dancing to it, it much easier to get the timing right.

Fiona:

think what we're hitting on here is that so many elements of the tradition are inter-related, and if you start to examine one too closely in isolation from the rest, you've lost a little bit of the plot as well there.

Mary Jane:

Exactly, yes, and I guess, what we said earlier too. But now we have to find a way to move forward, with the Internet and all of these things, we have to find a way to incorporate all the new technology and new attitudes into our tradition, other wise we won't survive either.

Fiona:

It's great to talk to you about these things.

Mary Jane:

Thank you for your great insights on it.

Fiona:

It's a pleasure also to be featuring your music through the years on The Thistle & Shamrock and we'll look forward to continuing to do that. We'll keep our eyes open for where your travels take you, on greyhound buses and whatever else, and look forward to welcoming you back to Scotland as well.

But it's lovely to cross paths with you here in North Carolina, which has it's own history of Gaelic speakers in the not too distant past, in the Eastern part of the state, so it's maybe an interesting and appropriate place for us to meet up. So, thank you, Mary Jane. Cheers!