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Sample Track 1:
"Mo Nighean Donn As Boidhehe" from Storas
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"Mairi Bhan Dhail As Eas" from Storas
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Mary Jane Lamond; Stòras (Turtlemusik) Continental Drift of a Poetic Tradition: The Fresh Songscapes and Milling Songs of Cape Breton’s Mary Jane Lamond

“Every time we lose an old singer, we lose thousands of lines of poetry,” says Mary Jane Lamond, whose upcoming CD is titled Stóras, which means Treasures. This Scottish Gaelic singer from Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island straddles preservation with gentle, tasteful innovation. She is part of a movement to reverse the disappearance of the Gaelic language, but also uses the traditional song form as her basis for modern interpretation.

There is geological evidence that, prior to continental drift millions of years ago, Cape Breton was physically connected to Scotland. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the island saw an influx of 50,000 Highland Scots brutally evicted from Scotland. Cape Breton is the only place outside of Scotland where Scottish Gaelic is still spoken. But there are only 500 native speakers left; partially the result of a government–sponsored effort to educate the children only in English and, in some cases, punish school children for speaking Gaelic in the 19th and 20th centuries. Regardless, the Scottish Gaelic culture persists on the island (alongside the native Mi’kmaq, African-Nova Scotian, Acadian, and German settlements) and Lamond is a part of a movement to rekindle the language and culture before they are lost.

“When I moved back to Nova Scotia in 1989, I went to what we call a ‘milling frolic.’ There were all these cars crowded outside. I walked into this hall and all these people were gathered around sitting at a table pounding cloth, and everyone in the room was joining in. It was a window into a tradition of thousands of songs that were sung by women as they milled wool by hand. For a person who loves to sing, it is amazing to see people drive to a hall to sing for four hours. I was so attracted to it! It was so rhythmic and the melodies are so great. For me, it was an epiphany. When I found these songs, I found my voice. And I love the whole process of finding them. I’m a born again Gaelic singer!”

“The words come first in Gaelic poetry,” Lamond continues.  “They are sung, but there is not a big differentiation between a song and poem. Poetry is a big part of the culture and has been sung since time immemorial. This was an oral tradition passed through the home. I realized how important the words and language were when I visited one older gentleman,” explains Lamond. “This man with a third grade education would come in after a long day tending his sheep and talk about poetry! He’d ask me ‘What song are you working on?’ They may not have come over with much material culture and not had much formal education, but they brought an amazing literary tradition. There are stories that would take three days to tell!”

Traditionally Gaelic songs are sung unaccompanied and in unison with no harmony. The core melodies are beautiful on their own. Lamond breaks from tradition by adding instrumentation and harmony. But she keeps the traditional melodies intact. “My philosophy is you always give the song the first voice. If you were to take away the accompaniment and harmonies from the songs on Stóras, you would be left with the melody as it has been sung for generations,” Lamond says. “That is my way of remaining true to the tradition, even though I am putting it in a modern context.”

Lamond’s prior recording—Gaelic Songs of Cape Breton (Orain Ghaidhlig)—was very traditional with most of the songs recorded in a church with old-style singers, piper, and fiddler. “That was the CD I did for them,” chuckles Lamond. “I figure now I can do this one the way I want to.”

She merged several philosophical approaches to create the music on Stóras. After putting out her prior traditional album, the Frog Island Festival outside of Detroit asked her to perform with a pared down band. She liked how much space the smaller band created so decided this album would be acoustic too. At the same time, she loves to create arrangements and what she calls “songscapes” around the traditional melodies. (This is where the all-women Blue Engine String Quartet comes in on three of the songs.)

For the first time on a record, Lamond was able to use her regular touring band, rather than an assortment of studio musicians. They made a conscious choice to record songs that would be instantly translatable to their stage performances, with no overdubs. “We wanted to keep it rootsy in that way,” Lamond explains. “We didn’t want it to be so layered. We wanted to make it sound full and still have a live feel. And I always like to have a couple of things that sound like they could be recorded in the kitchen,” she says, referring to “Bal na h-Aibne Deas (Ball at Southwest Margaree),” a party number that enlists Cape Breton “lively youth” band Beólach and “Tha Mo Bhreacan-sa Fo’n Dile (My Plaid is Under the Rain),” a milling song recorded with friends in a hall in Breton Cove.

Lamond uncovers songs from simply hearing older musicians singing them or from archives like the Smithsonian or the university libraries in Nova Scotia. “Gur e mo rún Dómhnallach (It is my love the MacDonald Man)” came from the Smithsonian recording made by a folklorist. “Sydney Cowell took these North Shore singers to Harvard to be recorded by folklorists,” Lamond explains. “Dan Morrison was one of the singers. They called him ‘Montana Dan’ because he spent years as a shepherd in Montana. These traditional singers were a bit surprised about the high turnout and excitement about their singing. Montana Dan turns to another singer and says, ‘Well I shouldn’t wonder if Hollywood won’t be calling us next.’ To which the reply was, ‘You better get your hay in first, Dan.’”

Track five is another one that Lamond heard on an archival tape. “It’s an unusual format, maybe because it is so old; from 1645,” explains Lamond. “It’s kind of interesting to me because we assume that this song was composed by a Protestant Campbell woman, but here it has been brought over and preserved for 350 years, and collected from a Catholic man in Nova Scotia. It’s definitely one of the saddest Gaelic songs I ever heard!”

“People from this tradition have such a great sense of humor,” says Lamond. “They always have a quick comeback. I was talking to an older guy last summer about how sad the songs are. There are more songs about death and drowning than anywhere else. And his response was, ‘These songs are sad. But there’s a lot of joy in singing them.’”

“When I grew up, we associated art with innovation. But that is a fairly recent phenomenon,” concludes Lamond. “This is a tradition where the biggest compliment is when someone says that you sing this song just like their great aunt or uncle. You make it your own, but you don’t change anything. It’s a different way of thinking about art. You have to find a way to strike that balance.”