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Celtic Bards - and the way of the harp

An interview with Robin Williamson

by Tim Sheppard

First published in May 1997, Storytelling Magazine vol. 9 no.3, National Storytelling Association (now National Storytelling Network), USA.

Three things that make a bard: Playing of the harp Knowledge of ancient lore Poetic power. - from the Triads

Robin achieved fame in the '60s as an innovative folk musician, and lived in the USA for a number of years. Now he is respected internationally as a top storyteller who integrates masterly telling with virtuoso playing. His style invites favourable comparison to the ancient Celtic Bards, of whose history and stories he has such a deep knowledge.

I asked him about his approach:

Robin: I do like folktales, but one of the things that I was fascinated in was the Bardic stuff - the old literature of Britain and Ireland. The spoken word had to do with the harp, even if it wasn't exactly verse. There were metres for reciting verse to music, and there was also a tradition of extemporary prose to music. It went hand in hand with the concept of inspiration, where you would reach out into universe and draw in truth and tell it, with music. That's I think what the Bardic philosophy was based on. Bards were a kind of Druid, in a nutshell. A lot of this literature survived, but in an unperformed way, so I became interested, in about 1980, in trying to perform it, to put it into my own words and try to tell it with the harp. I always liked ballads and I grew up with them - the Scottish Border ballads. There was always a connection for me between stories and music.

Tim: Were you interested in storytelling per se, or was it all just part of those ballads?

R: I was interested in speaking and saying things, but not so much in storytelling until about 1980. I had worked in various bands - the Incredible String Band, and my own Merry Band, in the States. I liked Jack Kerouac when I was a kid, I liked the notion of that flowing voice that he had, and later looking for his origins I found that he liked people like Walt Whitman, and the origin of that style goes into William Blake, and the origins of William Blake go right into the Celtic heritage. So I found myself back with my own ancestry, which is Scots-Irish mixture, and I began then to write new material in a traditional style, because I was also very interested in Scottish and Irish music and wanted to write this flowing, original style, which I admired.

T: Did you play the harp at all then?

R: No, I played the guitar and the fiddle, and various things. Over the years it's become more like traditional storytelling and less like Jack Kerouac, but I still like the improvisatory - the notion of off the cuff, you know. Not only humour - but I like humour, and I like to put in things that are spontaneous.

T: Do you have a sense of wanting to preserve the very traditional stories - a duty to carry them on in the form that they are?

R: The form that they are in is not their ideal shape nowadays. Say you've got a story that's written in medieval Welsh, only someone who studies that can read it. So then it's translated into English, but is it translated in a good way, or is it just a literal translation? Because what you have to put into it is the tooth music and the vowel ringings, assonances and internal rhymes that they had in the original. You've got to make out a meaningful English version of it. So in that case I do try to stay to the literal text or language, and improvise the music. Then you've got two levels of creativity within a confined text.

With the folktales that aren't originally literature I take quite great liberties, because I know enough stories that the beginning of one story will mush into the end of another. Things can go on in the back of your mind, and I find about three or four threads going to make up a different story, so I do take more liberties with the oral folklore.

The longer you live, and the better sort of a life you have, then the better sort of a storyteller you're going to become. If you wanted to be a dancer you'd have to create a dancer's body. If you want to be a really good storyteller I think to a certain extent you have to create a storyteller's life. You start off your life with a "Once upon a time...", and go off on the adventure. The magical thing to me seems to be that those who seek an adventure generally seem to get it, don't they?

T: Which is more important to you, the music or the stories?

R: They're one thing to me now, because I don't have a tune that I play with a story. I just tell the story and play along. The music's never the same, it just follows the words.

T: Has it been difficult to find a way of accompanying yourself?

R: Well there's various models. If you can play and can talk, then it's possible to put the two of them together. It's remarkable how music falls into shapes and sentence structures and pulses. With a film, it's remarkable how the music adapts itself to the visuals. These things are related aren't they?

T: When I first saw you perform, you started playing the harp, gradually eased into a story, then as it developed you interrupted the story with a song which itself was interrupted by a story...

R: Oh I like that! Boxes within boxes. It's nice when it happens. I generally work in that way, where one thing flows into another, but I don't generally plan out a programme with that in mind. I often have things I'll do repeatedly in a year, but I'll do everything else differently round those things that I know will be sure-fire. So I allow myself quite a lot of change, because it keeps things interesting for me too. I start off with the same tune on the harp very often, but then I just take it from there.

I don't know anyone else that does it, but it always seemed to me to be a good idea. It's an idea that I got from radio - segue/s isn't it? When you start doing it spontaneously it's quite fun.

T: It's something I've come across in the Arabian Nights, which has the same kind of structure but not so complex.

R: And they're all cliff hangers aren't they? It's fantastic. In the famous Culhwch and Olwen story, in the Mabinogion - it's a quest for the King of the Giants' daughter - there's zillions of sub-quests, and I think a good storyteller could have strung it out to last an entire winter. But they didn't bother to write all that into the text that survives.

T: What advice would you give for combining music and stories?

R: Try and get as close as possible to what you are. In my own case it's not very specific: I grew up mostly in Edinburgh, in a Northern Irish family, and I now live in Wales. So I'm not specifically about a place. I know very much who I am and how I got that way, so I stay with that. And the songs I feel comfortable singing are either because I've written them or they mean something to me because I've lived with them, and the music feels comfortable like an old shoe. That's the way to go rather than trying to get into a style which is a long way away from what you're about, because that's acting. Storytelling is distinct from acting and when you get people acting it doesn't make for good storytelling. It comes across as overdone then, doesn't it? People tell me I overact. I tell them: No! Noooo! A thousand times no!

T: It's one thing to play music interspersed with stories, but to accompany oneself it's very easy to overwhelm the story with sound. How have you dealt with that?

R: It's quite easy if you're doing the music yourself because you pace it to the pauses in between the lines, but if you're working with someone who plays the trumpet you have to work out where they're going to toot loudly or quietly. The beauty of working on your own is that you can be unstructured. And the harp just floats right in there - that's why it was designed.

T: What do you think of contemporary bards from unbroken traditions in other countries?

R: I got to know the Ashiks [traditional bards from Turkey], and I love that stuff. They sing and play at the same time. They also have that notion of doing, to become an inspired person. There's a process of becoming, there's a method of achieving it, and there's a way of acquiring it. That tradition is spoken about again and again in the Welsh Mysteries. In the Middle Ages these things were still going on within the official church, there was a subtext of inspiration - some of the clergy were not only saints but also Bards. It involves knowing the landscape, the meaning of places, lakes, mountains, trees, when the flowers come out and why, the migrations of birds and so on. Knowing these things is an education. The real meaning of an education is not going to college; it has to do in the end with love, marriage and children, and learning to be a good human being, and you also get a big chunk of education from a tradition of any kind. ...One of the things I like most about the Celtic tradition is that it hasn't become a formal school. It never says here's what you do, step one, step two, it's a bit hazy like a lot of Celtic things. That allows scope for individuality.

They brought in the harp to the Scottish education system; you can take an exam in it. In a way it's good, but in another way maybe it would be better if they'd tried to suppress and outlaw it, so that would have a certain wildness to it. If you make something too formalised, you whack it on the head.

T: What do you think of the revivalists who quickly style themselves as bards, without going through the years of spiritual discipline?

R: You do get that. But in the end there is no shortcut. When you're a kid and you want a moustache, you're not going to get one until it starts growing. These things do take time. The only reason they are Mysteries is that they can't easily be communicated. And similarly with quality: it will out.

I've got two immediate tasks which I'm working on flat out. One of them is the recreation of how to play the Celtic harp, since no one knows how to play it. I'm working on the fingerings, the approaches to it, harmony and construction, the repertoire, and try and make it something I can do. I've been working on that since 1980-ish, and I'm really getting somewhere with it. Also the notion of trying to put into context the traditional metres, patterns and modes of music suitable to perform to text. Those two things are going to keep me busy for quite a while.

T: Do you think it's possible to recapture that, since so much is lost?

R: There's a lot that isn't lost, it's a question of learning how to do it. I've been going through the manuscripts - there's a lot of Welsh manuscripts on the subject of music. The Ap Huw is the famous one, and that's a detailed description of how to approach individual notes, how to treat patterns and shapes of sound, so I've been having a go at that.

T: Do you find that helps the stories too?

R: I think so. It's possible that originally certain melodies were associated with certain stories. There's a lot of lost stories too - in the Irish tradition there were a lot of romantic stories, none of which appear to have remained but they're mentioned by title in early manuscripts. Similarly in the Welsh poems of Llywarch Hen from the ninth century, what remain are the song sections of a vast, lost prose epic, which presumably had tunes but not now.

T: Do you hope to develop a performance in the authentic traditional way?

R: No, I'm not really trying to recreate how it might have been. I just try and perform in a way that I like, but inevitably there is something that's going to be vaguely like it was.

T: At least one can learn from the wisdom of the past; presumably all that sophistication produced something good.

R: That's right. The Indians say that music is a teacher and I'm not at all sure they're not right.

T: Are you putting down your other instruments to focus on the harp?

R: No I still play a variety, but the harp has become the main one, and I'm learning a lot from it. It's as good a place as any to start, if you wanted to be a British person - it is the personification of the instruments of Britain.

T: Would you say that there's a ritualistic element to storytelling?

R: Originally in Greek theatre the stage was an enchanted space in which reality was suspended and wonderful things could occur, and I think telling was in such a sacred space, so for me in general I think there is, yes.

T: There's a lot of reduction of performance to a commodity these days, and less awareness of that link back to all the hidden depth and profundity.

R: That's right. The other day I read out - something I don't often do - The Dialogue of the Two Sages to an elderly audience and they'd never heard anything quite like it. That piece is almost Japanese in style, with these wisdoms they're talking about. These things were widely available in Britain once, but people today have sold all that for a sense of practicality instead of the wonderful walkers between the worlds which the early Scottish-Gaelic traditions used to talk about. But it's still there, like a sleeping dragon.


You can learn much more about the Bardic tradition, and read many of Robin's full length translations, in his book "Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids", co-authored with R.J. Stewart in 1996. The book has a rare insight born of experience that the few other sources on Bardism lack. Celtic myths are poetically revealed, and a few contemporary myths about Druids are punctured. A much-needed and fascinating book. Published by Blandford, distributed in the USA by Sterling Publishing Co., ISBN 0-7137-2563-X.


The Dialogue of the Two Sages (short extract)

- from Irish tradition, English version by Robin Williamson.

(Around the time of Christ, the Ollamh (high Bard) of Ulster died and by another's trickery a young man usurped an experienced poet's natural succession. Here the elder begins to test the younger's knowledge, and discovers he is a prodigy of great wisdom. They both then return wise replies to many questions, but the elder has met his match.)

A question, o child of education

where do you come from?

To which Néde replied:

Not hard to answer

from a wise man's heel

from a confluence of wisdoms

from perfection of goodness

from brightness of sunrise

from poetry's hazels

from splendour's circuits

from that state where truth's worth is measured

from that measure where truth is realized

from that reality where lies are vanquished

from where all colours are seen

from where all art is reborn

Article by Tim Sheppard

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