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Robin Williamson: Songwriting and the Bardic Tradition (1 of 3)

I’ll sing you this October song

For there is no song before it

The words and tune are none of my own

My joys and sorrows bore it


—from "October Song"

     These opening lines of the first song Robin Williamson ever wrote are the words not of your average teenaged Scottish boy, but those of a young man gazing into the deep, disquieting waters of the bardic tradition. They set up both the song and Williamson’s lifelong attempt to make poetic sense of his place in a world and in a history stretching back farther and wider than most of us bother to think about. This was heady stuff for a teenager. It’s no less heady now, 35 years later.

     Today Robin Williamson is considered a bardic poet as well as one of the most widely-travelled and prolific veterans of the folk revival. Many remember him as co-founder of the Incredible String Band in the ‘60s. Many more discovered him as he developed and grew through the following decades, first with his ‘70s quartet, The Merry Band, and then as a solo artist, turning increasingly to his Celtic roots for inspiration.

     What makes Robin unique is his way of blurring distinctions between songs and poems, or between poems and mythic tales. He uses them all to guide his audiences from realms hilarious to achingly beautiful. Since the early ‘80s, his solo concerts have really been meticulously-shaped theater pieces comprising songs accompanied on harp or guitar and long stories, both comic and serious, marked by multiple voices and musical interludes. One might have a hard time, after one of Robin’s concerts, explaining exactly what happened or why they were so moved. This may help explain why the popular media doesn’t always know what to make of Robin.

     Robin’s been based in Cardiff, Wales for over ten years now. During that time he has participated in an astonishing variety of musical and historical projects, staged and televised, solo and with other artists and ensembles. He returned to the stage with String Band co-founder Mike Heron briefly last year and just recorded a CD with his other original band-mate, Clive Palmer. Among his other recent CDs are two in a series called Gems of Celtic Story, an album recorded with a brass band, and his first exclusively traditional album of songs, A Job of Journeywork. His new original songs are as sensual and intelligent as the best of his older work. He seems to demand as much of himself as he does of his audiences.

     Robin just toured the west coast for the first time in nearly five years. After giving a workshop on Storytelling and the Bardic Tradition in Sebastopol, California, he provided some insights on his work as both poet and songwriter.

In your wild, eclectic days with the Incredible String Band, you seemed to abandon the traditional British Isles folk song form in your writing in favor of songs that stretched every which way and broke all the rules.

     In the ‘60s I was mainly concerned with writing songs that would use various forms of music to convey the lyrics. We were pretty much the first band to explore the notion of World Music as an idea. And it was probably me more than anyone else in the band, who was trying to get the Indian, African, Chinese, music hall, Gilbert & Sullivan, and whatnot into the words. Because it seemed to me that what James Joyce did with Finnegan’s Wake, by breaking down language and taking the language into the realm of highly convoluted puns and layers, it seemed to me that you could take language on the basis of the fact that if all human beings are related, then all human music must be related. Therefore, if you’re going to write a song you can use various forms of music in it. That was my approach then.

Then eventually you felt moved to discard the more far-flung influences and focus in on British Isles traditions?

     It was only later, after the String Band, when I moved to the States first and began looking at my own life backwards down the telescope, I tried to write songs in the style of what would have been British country music had British country music ever existed. British country music didn’t exist because World Wars One and Two wiped out the young men who would have carried on traditional music into the twentieth century. So British country music didn’t occur. What occurred was a folk revival of antique styles of music. And it seemed to me that it might be an idea to have it being a new traditional music that wasn’t so antique and trying to keep the best of the bits that were there and just update it slightly by talking about things that were relevant and current to oneself or to other people. So I tried to write new words in a traditional form, and update the traditional form to suit the words. Slightly.

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