“The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project” – A Conversation

*Originally written with Catherine Love for Exeunt*

Dan: In the opening address to audiences of The Bloody Great Border Ballad ProjectLorne Campbell attempts to convey his own internal struggle when considering the question of the referendum of Scottish independence next year. He initially began as leaning towards being anti-independence, but after talking to other artists and friends, he realised it wasn’t as simple as he thought, causing him to enter a state of confusion about the whole thing. Now, a few months down the line, as this massive, knotty, crazy idea gains traction, he realises he is just as confused. But it’s “a higher quality of confusion”.

And, to me, this is what makes The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project so special, inhabiting a position far more interesting and exciting than Tim Price’s I’m With the Band. By asking six artists to come up ballads they will repeat over the course of the month, and then adding a new verse to the Bloody Great Border Ballad each night, we find a plurality of opinion which just isn’t present in the Traverse’s offering. Add to those voices that of the entire audience each night, and you have a beast of a thing which offers an examination of all the problems thrown up by the debate.

I’m completely in awe of the narrative which is being spun each night and, having seen four out of the six ballads (Chris Thorpe, Lucy Ellinson, Daniel Bye and Cora Bissett), the level of insight being given. Between us, Catherine, I think we’ve seen all of them, so maybe they’re a good place to start. I’m interested in Kieran Hurley and Alex Kelly’s. How have they chosen to tackle the debate?

Catherine: Hurley and Kelly’s ballads make an interesting pairing, as they each approach their brief in hugely contrasting ways – one with startling directness, the other very obliquely. As a Scottish artist and a supporter of independence, Hurley has great emotional and political investment in this question. He also, as he explains before his ballad, has a lot of English mates. In an attempt to reconcile his own beliefs with those he fears his friends might have, his offering is constructed as a series of letters between him and an amalgamated version of his English friends, in which he invites questions about Scottish independence and enters into an ever more heated debate.

It’s a brilliant way of targeting some of the question marks that hang over independence, with many of the questions echoing uncertainties of my own. It’s the most direct, passionate and thought through argument in favour of independence that I’ve heard so far, but Hurley is too clever to turn this into a simple propaganda exercise. Every last reason he gives is problematised by the response he imagines from his English friends, effortlessly weaving more complexity into a few minutes than I’m With the Band manages in an hour and a half. And, as he eventually acknowledges, these questions are not in fact anyone’s but his own; it’s an argument with himself, exposing the doubts that niggle at him despite his conviction that this is the right thing to do. Hurley closes by asking for our questions, making it a knotty conversation starter rather than closing down debate.

Against this, Kelly presents something which very much resembles, as he jovially warns us, an astrophysics lecture. With the aid of a dodgy powerpoint lecture, he explores the possibility of intelligent extra-terrestrial life, reporting back on his conversations with a researcher in this field. As he explains, lightly breaking down hugely complex theories, it’s extremely improbable that there is any other technologically intelligent life in our galaxy; if there was, we would have heard from it. So it’s probably just us, a likely outcome that Kelly extends to suggest we should take care of things – and one another – at home. Not once does it directly touch on the question of Scottish independence, but instead it throws things back to its audience, forcing us to think about the best way to look after the place and the people we already have.

I’m curious about whether the other four ballads have been equally varied in tone and approach. And did you find directness or metaphor more effective as a way of broaching these ideas?

Dan: The others, just like Hurley and Kelly’s, follow a range of methods. Bissett’s takes the form of a story about her past and its relationship to music before finishing with a self-penned song inspired by two older women who helped keep asylum seekers in Scotland in order to ask questions about borders and agency. Ellinson talks about a dis-United Kingdom in terms of rich and poor rather than English and Scottish, asking the audience to become the balladeers by playing a game of 怪談 (or Kaidan). We sit round candles reading stories and losses to our communities, blowing out candles with each one in order to consider what we’ve lost by being divided. Bye’s story is, according to him, “not a border ballad”, even though it contains a refrain of sorts and is definitely about the way borders form identities. In the light of all these, Thorpe’s becomes far and away the most “traditional” of all of them, sticking to the brief in both form and content.

Which means that Hurley’s and Thorpe’s are the only ones which directly address the question of Scottish independence (though Thorpe does so by considering an imagined incident on the border in twenty years, so is still essentially a metaphor). I wouldn’t like to say whether one or other way is more effective as a way of tackling the topic, but each has their own merits. I’d say I engaged on an intellectual level with the argument Thorpe presented, whereas Ellinson’s piece just left me buoyant and overwhelmingly optimistic in a purely emotional, instinctual way. And I think that’s the whole “problem” with the break up of the Union; we may have extremely personal, unexpectedly emotional ties to the United Kingdom, but can easily be swayed by facts, figures and logical reasoning, making it extremely difficult to come to any kind of conclusion.

This may be a good place to discuss the Bloody Great Border Ballad itself, which is a tale of a foundling growing up in the years after an imagined independent Scotland told by various narrators, each of whom adds a different verse each night. Do you have a favourite contributor? Or is that a useless question to ask?

Catherine: After seeing the ballad itself twice, I’m definitely developing some favourites – Bryony Kimmings’ verse, penned with a pair of nine-year-olds, is a joy, while I also have a soft spot for the offerings from Selma Dimitrijevic and Hannah Jane Walker – but it’s the polyphony of the project that feels most powerful. We are not hearing one voice, but many.

And as a result the tone varies hugely as the ballad goes on. With each verse taking us five years further into the life of its female protagonist, found floating on the River Tweed and growing up neither English nor Scottish, the different stages of the story can range from the deeply emotional to the fiercely political. There’s also something kind of beautiful about passing on the baton each night, with each artist briefly taking up and then sharing ownership of the gathering narrative.

I’ve been thinking a lot this festival about stories and their social and political potential, partly prompted by work elsewhere in the St Stephen’s programme (How to Occupy an Oil Rig and A Conversation with My Father jump immediately to mind). The fact that this is a collectively told story, pieced together from voices on all sides of the border and the debate, feels like the most potent statement that the piece makes. Even if we are divided, perhaps we can still imagine a better future together – or perhaps that’s hopelessly idealistic.

Dan: Add to that list There Has Possibly Been an Incident and it’s easy to see why Campbell kicked of the Northern Stage programme by talking about “a space in which we are invited to imagine and experience ourselves in new liberating and terrifying ways”. And yes, the central facet of all of them is collective modes of storytelling which give multiple people the possibility of imagining something different. By having so many artists (and audiences) come together to tell a story, it’s no longer about English or Scottish, rich or poor, spoken word or sung. It’s then about using collective experience and community (definitely something which is growing by the day at St Stephens) in order to improve the future.

And we haven’t even touched on the framing used for the whole show, during which the audience listens to a song recorded from the previous night and then participates in one of their own for those in attendance tomorrow. The crucial bit, though, is that no audience chooses their own song, instead having to sing what was chosen yesterday, meaning that on any one night we can hear echoes of the people who were here two days ago (seeing as they chose the song for the previous night’s audience). Have you been singing along, Catherine?

Catherine: Yes, the singing feels equally important – and yes, I have been singing along. While as a framing device it’s great fun (and the fun isn’t to be underestimated, as I think the party atmosphere is a massive element of the community briefly forged here), there’s also something fascinating about the echoes of previous gatherings that we hear at the start of each performance. Within the space of this event, community is something that gets passed on from night to night.

Perhaps I’m pushing the symbolism of the singing a tad far – maybe it’s just meant to be a bit of a laugh – but its very nature, looking both backwards and forwards at once, feels apt in this context. We listen to what has come before and we pass something on to those who will follow us. It’s also an implicitly generous gesture; we’re leaving the next audience a gift of sorts and asking them to add their voices to ours. And of course singing once again brings people together, uniting our voices.

I don’t think that all of this collective imagining is going to necessarily lead us to answers, but I also don’t think that’s really the point. Like Hurley’s challenging but ultimately open ballad, Campbell’s project is about asking the questions, throwing them over to us and leaving them hanging in the air. Closing on that note, are there any questions that you want to throw open?

Dan: Only this: where do we go next?

*You can see all the verses here*

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