Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Nationalism and Song

It is probably La Marseillaise that comes to the minds of most when they think about the role of song in politics. No doubt song played a significant role in politics prior to 1792, and certainly went on to be a significant feature of many other social upheavals, from Dixie in the American Civil war or We Shall Overcome in a number of civil rights movements in America, but its use in France in the revolution(s) seems pivotal. Certainly the advent of the wireless (yes a radio) and print media have allowed fast dissemination of song in a way that the travelling bard could only dream of.

As a young New Zealand émigré to Australia, I took some solace in singing God Defend New Zealand under my breath whenever the poorly-written, and usually poorly sung, Australian anthem was played. The song allowed me to still feel part of something that I had been taken physically away from, while feeling an outsider in the culture I had been taken to.

What is it about knowing a song that forms such a strong psycho-social bond in humans? Whether in college fraternities, football teams or religions, song is often used to separate those inside from those outside. It could be argued that this type of tool in the hands of the unscrupulous and powerful has led many a young person to a pointless death. I’m not sure that arguing against nationalism as the anarchists do is necessarily the answer, but it warrants some thought.

The particular song I wanted to focus on in this post is Flower of Scotland, written by one of my favourite folk singers, Roy Williamson, in 1965. The Corries (Roy Williamson and Ronnie Browne) could be credited with causing a significant change in the way Scots viewed themselves in the context of Great Britain. It was sad that Roy did not live to see the independence referendum held in September 2014 with a 55.3% to 44.7% narrow loss. I made my own small call for the yes vote here. Who knows what the outcome would have been if Roy and Ronnie had continued to sing their songs re-telling the glory of Prince Charlie or the treachery of the English.

The song itself commemorates the 1314 defeat of Edward II at Bannockburn, you can listen to my version here. Interestingly, one of my ancestors, Humphrey de Bohun, was on the losing side. In the sweep of conflict between Scotland and England, there were many other battles to choose from, however, it is always better to recall the wins rather than the losses when you are drumming up national fervour.

The song includes a warning to keep the violence against England in the past, but ‘still rise now, and be a nation again’. In this sense the song can be seen as an encouragement for Scotland to be the best it can be. This theme is repeated in a number of other Corries songs, Scotland Will Flourish being a key example.

Personally, while the lyrics ‘Let Scots be a nation proud of their heritage, with an eye to the future and a heart to forgive’ are very noble, I wonder how well this has worked when other nations play by very different rules. There were many suggestions of underhanded influence by England in the 2014 referendum.

As a folk music form, I love these songs, whether Four Green Fields, The Foggy Dew or these Corries songs. There is something in the writing, or the heart of the writer that triggers the sense of belonging that I felt singing my New Zealand anthem in defiance. Even without any personal relationship to the country or issue, these songs seem to have the capacity to capture the listener. Maybe it is a trick of the rhythm, the chord sequence or the intonation (something for some musical theory PhD students to look at), but the effect on the human psyche cannot be denied.

Tuesday is Australia Day, and no doubt the Australian national anthem, exhorting us to ‘ring Joyce for she is young and free‘, will be on repeat. I know what I will be singing.