The Subject of Folksong: Colleceted Writings on Scottish Folksong (review)
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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 499-500



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The Subject of Folksong: Collected Writings on Scottish Folksong. By Gavin Greig. Ed. Stephen Miller. (Onchan, Isle of Man: Chiollagh Books, 2000. Pp. iii + 168.)

Francis James Child at least had the pleasure of completing his canon, even if he did not live long enough to write the definitive introduction to the 305. Gavin Greig, M.A., late headmaster at Whitehill, parish of New Deer, Aberdeenshire, unfortunately never even got that far. Instead, Greig died at age fifty-eight in 1914 before he could bring to press the 2,500 Scottish songs he had faithfully gathered in croft, loft, and public house. One can only conjecture just how great his reputation might have been had he lived long enough to publish his extraordinary collection. Only 125 of Greig's painstakingly notated songs and ballads saw scholarly print, and then Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs (The Buchan Club, 1925) was published eleven years after his death. The notes were by Greig's collaborator, the Reverend James Bruce Duncan; the single volume was edited by Alexander Keith. Greig himself remained silent.

In 1963 Kenneth S. Goldstein and Arthur Argo reprinted Greig's 180 newspaper articles methodically surveying the folksong of the Northeast (Folk-Song in Buchan and Folk-Song of the North-east, Folklore Associates). Written originally for the Buchan Observer from 1907 to 1911, the anthologized series hinted at the richness of the Greig-Duncan holdings. "Hinted" only. There were no tunes.

Not until the publication of a first volume of Greig's material in 1981 was it clear just how important a collector was Gavin Greig (The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, vol. 1, Aberdeen University Press). The seven volumes now in print—a concluding eighth is due as this is written—raise up a man to rival Cecil Sharp or the Lomaxes, not only in the size of the collection, but also in its scope and faithful reproduction of oral tradition. Greig was one of the few people capable of quickly setting down text and tune by hand; he was musically literate and took impeccable Pitman shorthand.

But still Greig the scholar has remained elusive. He had published or lectured, but the bulk of his conclusionary writing was buried in obscure, even forgotten volumes until now, with the publication of The Subject of Folksong by Chiollagh Books, which is to say the University of Glasgow's Stephen Miller. Here, good reader, is a labor of love, the product of one scholar's grubbing about in libraries and his obviously bleary-eyed proofreading.

The sixteen articles reprinted here comprise a surprisingly sophisticated analysis of folksong, of singers, and of the isolated Aberdeenshire society in which they thrived. Published from 1899 to the year of Greig's death in 1914, these sixteen lectures and articles suggest what he might have written as an introduction had he personally edited the great collection of Scottish songs and ballads he amassed in and around the district of Buchan.

If he is ballad-centric—mark that down to the influence of the much admired F. J. Child—Greig is also sensitive to sociological questions first being posed in these early years of the [End Page 499] twentieth century. As a collector and a scholar, he acknowledges that his motives are, in part, patriotic, to preserve a national heritage. But he does not let his partisanship interfere with his scholarship.

Miller has done us a valuable service in bringing together this anthology. We now know the good schoolmaster not only as a great collector, but as a thoughtful scholar.



Ed Cray
University of Southern California

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