This is the story of a song which I began writing on the 4th of March 2017, completed on the 9th of July, and have only just found time to document! It’s been a busy summer of playing in Germany, Iceland and Sardinia, running my first marathon, organising Shetland Fiddle Frenzy and planning next year’s album. This winter I’m looking forward to focussing on song, so expect more blog posts anon!
The woman I’ve chosen to celebrate in my latest work is Jean Pole (1880-1965), a female Shetland fiddler at a time when this was unusual. Ethnomusicologist Peter Cooke wrote in his 1986 book The Fiddle Tradition of the Shetland Isles (page 122):
Presumably women in Shetland have traditionally been too busy with domestic tasks to be able to find the time to become good fiddlers. Fiddle-playing was considered the prerogative of the male; as one informant put it, ‘Fiddle-playing was somehow bound up with the sexual superiority of the male…and a woman’s “masculine” use of the fiddle and bow was almost resented as being an inappropriate and slightly embarrassing penetration into an all-male world’. In the early 1970s the only women in the Folk Society band were the accompanist and the string bass player. Earlier in the century a Miss Jean Pole was reputedly a capable fiddler, but during my early fieldwork years I met only one woman who played. All this has changed during the past ten years and it is possible that within the next decade women fiddlers will outnumber men in Shetland unless the traditional domestic division of labour persists, causing young women to give up playing once they become housewives.
I first encountered Jean when Tammy Anderson taught me a tune he’d learned from her around 1960, Da Boanie Polka (pictured below from Haand me Doon da Fiddle by Tom Anderson and Pam Swing). I was instantly captivated by the image of an elderly, seated lady dancing the steps to a tune as she played.
Last summer brought fresh impetus to learn more about Jean (pictured above, left, around 1960 outside her house in Stove, Walls). Shetland writer and current Edinburgh Makar, Christine De Luca, invited fellow female Shetland fiddlers and I to a ‘peerie celebration of the life and talent of Jean Pole’ in Waas kirkyard on the 2nd of August 2016. Here, a headstone for Jean and her family was unveiled and blessed with tunes (pictured below from Ringing Strings by Tom Anderson) and a reading of Christine’s beautiful Heeven in haps an half-glivs. Tea and tabnabs followed in the Waas hall with my oldest and dearest music friends from Shetland’s Heritage Fiddlers (formerly Shetland’s Young Heritage, pictured below). This glorious afternoon led me to an article Christine had written for the Voar 2014 edition of The New Shetlander. Reading about Jean’s achievements with adult eyes brought home just how exceptional her life had been.
From left: Mairi Jamieson, Jem Napier, Valerie Watt, Me, Vaila Tait and Jenny Keldie
Inspired by Christine’s writing, I too wanted to share Jean’s life story, but this time in song. A visit to Angus Johnson in the ever-inspiring Shetland Archives 7th April 2017 surfaced a number of sound recordings featuring Jean’s voice and music. Armed with these files and Christine’s article, I set about crafting lyrics:
SANG FOR JEAN POLE
Aged nine in Stove in Waas A fiddle first I played Soldier’s Joy an Hen’s Mairch Da early tunes I med Clementina’s fiddle Wis cut fae board an treed Seaman Faider’s playing Wis aa da help we’d need
So on turning eighteen In eighteen ninety eight Tunes for wedding dances Made music dan my fate In Lerwick Faider bocht My gaer ta tak in tow Paying eighteen shillings For fiddle, case an bow
Hadd oot a langer dances Fae four o’clock to ten Seventeen oors playin Fir me an twartree men Bow apo mi foreairm An rockin too for aese Fingers skenned bi tyoch strings An ringin lugs fir days
Atween me spells o playing Cam polkas, Shetland reels Schottisches too I danced An keekit up mi heels Mair as a decade passed In lichtsome spree an foy Whan I cam by thirty Da fiddle wis laid by
Losin Dad an Tammie An Clementine göd too Left Leebie me an Mam To mak wir hom anew Days taen up wi maakin As postie an da lik Foo life’s path is trodden It passes in a blink
Trowe it aa my fiddle Wis never far fae sicht Fir neebor-fock I’d play Whan in aboot da nicht Tammy took an interest In aa da tunes I kent Dan cam Erchie P Lee My mindins fir ta hent
Noo I’m auld an happit At eighty-five I’m don But aye I sammas wissed ‘At my tunes dey wid live on Though blate I telt my tale In hoop someen wid mind Aa at’s geen afore wis Da mett o love an vynd
I’m looking forward to using speech archive and melody in bringing Jean’s story to life on next year’s album, and a musical sketch of the piece will appear on my soundcloud site soon. I hope that Jean is dancing along somewhere.
From left: Neighbour, Flora Hay; Scottish fiddler, Betty Henderson and Jean Pole. This photo is of Stove, Walls, in the early 1950s and comes courtesy of Florence Johnson.