“Folk tales are for everyone”: reworking folklore for the modern era

Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook and Hag, a new podcast series, are taking a fresh look at an old genre.

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“Songs are not static things”, says the Scottish folk singer Karine Polwart. “They morph according to your own life and according to what’s happening in the world. I’ve never viewed songs as historical artefacts; I’ve always viewed them as evidence of something that connects people across different generations and different places. That’s the only reason that they stick. A song won’t survive if it can’t morph to suit new times and new places.” 

Born in the village of Banknock in Stirlingshire, Polwart has released seven solo albums and numerous others with bands and collaborators over the course of a career spanning 20 years. She writes her own new material as well as tapping into the folk tradition of performing centuries-old songs that have no single origin, and that have been passed on, generation to generation, changing over time.

For her eighth solo record, Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook, released last week, Polwart has turned her ear to pop songs – or songs that would traditionally be received as pop – and covered them as folk songs. The track listing includes numbers by contemporary Scottish bands such as Chvrches, Biffy Clyro and Frightened Rabbit, alongside Eighties classics from Big Country, The Blue Nile and Deacon Blue. By recording covers of pop musicians’ songs in much the same way as she would play a traditional shanty, Polwart is expanding the notion of what folk music is, and asking what a contemporary folk song might sound like. 

“This crafting of pop covers versus folk balladry isn’t that different. To me, each offers an opportunity to infuse existing songs with fresh meaning and relevance”, she writes in the album’s liner notes.  

Speaking over the phone from her home half an hour south of Edinburgh, Polwart describes the “spark” for the Scottish Songbook, which started as a live show of the same name and debuted at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival. She was inspired by an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland called Rip It Up, which celebrated 70 years of Scottish pop. “It took seriously the idea that pop music in its many different forms is socially, historically and culturally important – it grows out of certain times, and influences what’s to come. Because I’m a folk singer, I’ve always been interested in that”, she says. 

Her reworking of “Whole of the Moon”, a song originally recorded by The Waterboys in 1985, demonstrates the changing relationship an individual can have with a song. Polwart first remembers hearing it as she danced around “an electric-blue handbag” at a disco as a teenager, but she also performed it on the eve of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, where it was “a song of possibility”. More recently, she sang it “in a much quieter fashion” at a memorial service for a friend’s sister. “It’s had all these different meanings and it totally affects the way that I go about singing it now.” 

That ability to shapeshift goes some way to describing what makes a folk song a folk song – it’s not only about acoustic guitars and banjos. The original pop songs Polwart has chosen to cover may be lacquered with a glossier sheen, but their essence isn't necessarily too different from a folk song. “Once you take away all the original production and instrumentation, what you’re left with is little kernels of songs that you can make meaningful in your own way.”

Polwart’s Scottish Songbook isn’t the only new body of work embracing folk traditions in an innovative way. Hag, a new audiobook series available on the podcast platform Audible at the end of this month, is a collection of traditional folk stories re-written with a feminist eye by authors including Eimear McBride and Daisy Johnson, and read aloud so as to preserve the orality of the folk tradition.

“There’s nothing like these tales for crystallising what is really important – and timeless – in human existence”, says Professor Carolyne Larrington, a specialist in Old Norse and British fairy tales at St John’s College, Oxford, who sourced Hag’s folk stories from across Britain. “They teach valuable truths about love and desire, about courage and persistence; how we feel about our parents and our children; how we relate to our immediate communities, and how much we should believe – and conform to – what they are telling us.”

Kirsty Logan, a Scottish poet, editor, and author of the forthcoming short-story collection Things We Say in the Dark, has contributed “Between Sea and Sky”, the story of Skye, an outsider in a Scottish community, and her selkie child (a mythical creature that morphs between seal and human). Logan was brought up on a tradition of folk tales, and describes her childhood as “very rich in stories”. 

“One thing that I wasn't consciously aware of at the time, but am now very grateful for, is the way that all the stories I was given were presented as equal. As in, it wasn't as if the Bible stories, for example, were presented as 'true' and the rest were made-up. All were stories, full of wonder and magic and weirdness. All were mine for the taking and all could speak to me”.

This equal handling is evident, too, in Hag, where stories by working-class writers, queer writers and writers of colour sit side-by-side. “It shows that folk tales don't belong to just one type of person – they're for everyone”, says Logan. Hag comprises a feminist collection of narratives that serve a contemporary audience who are just as interested in exploring questions of gender, race, sexuality and belonging as they are in getting lost in the mysticism of the selkies and boggarts that pepper the original tales.

Liv Little, the founder and editor of gal-dem, contributes her first work of fiction to the series, in a re-telling of a tale about sibling rivalry. Originally about two brothers duelling over a shared love interest, Little’s version, “The Sisters”, follows twins, one of whom is made to leave the family home because of her sexuality. “I knew instantly that, as a queer woman, there aren’t many stories or narratives that incorporate queer relationships, especially not from the perspective of a black woman”, she says over the phone. “I was interested in exploring familial relationships, siblinghood, tensions and how relationships shift and change and meld over time, especially from childhood to adulthood.”

Little’s story is based in Tavistock Square, London – it is a rare urban folk tale. “Finding a story for London – which has urban myths and legends, but not traditional folk-tales as such – was difficult”, explains Larrington. “London was (and is) a melting-pot to which people brought their own tales as they migrated, but these weren’t London stories.”

It might be rare in the folk tradition, where urban communities are unlikely to get a look-in, but for Little, who grew up and still lives in the capital, writing about London “makes sense”. Her understanding of folklore is not so easily defined by traditional fairy stories or mythical legends. Instead, she names contemporary short-story collections, Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women and Alexia Arthurs’ How to Love a Jamaican, as well as Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker-longlisted novel Girl, Woman, Other, as her storytelling inspirations. These are books written by women of colour that speak widely to all readers interested in modern moral conundrums, as a fable might; that depict complex but relatable characters whose stories have the potential to be retold again and again, as a folk tale might.

Be they read aloud or sung, the best folk tales, though they may first seem specific to a time and a place, will remain relevant and intriguing in strange new contexts. Both Hag and Polwart’s Scottish Songbook are attempts to prove this. 

“What’s always struck me is the continuity of human experience across time”, says Polwart. “I’ve always loved – ever since I was a kid, long before I discovered folk music – songs that have stories and songs that say something about people’s lives. Because I’m in mid-life now, I realise that a lot of the meanings of songs that I remember from being a kid and being in my teens have changed for me, because my life has changed”. She has a personal attachment to the songs she has covered because they remind her of specific times in her life, but their true worth is in their ability to move people who have never known this specific context. The best folk songs are ageless.

Logan’s understanding of folk is much the same: “To me, a folk story is one that has no single author or origin. It's a story that grows and changes over time. It's a story that speaks to something deep within us: a timeless human experience.”

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.