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The Modern Toolbox of Scottish Folk Music

Folk music has been reborn in the United Kingdom and across the world as it throws itself into a new realm, aligning with the new political youth who are haunted by climate anxiety. It meets the gaze of a generation who feel the burning desire to return to a natural state, to stand barefoot in green grass and conjure images of time before CO2 emissions could be stacked higher than every one of the tallest trees combined. It also looks to the future by appreciating cultural links outside of the United Kingdom with festivals such as ‘Celtic Connections’ in Glasgow bringing folk music from across the pond and around the world to a growing audience. Folk music has forever been symbiotic with the landscapes, people, and stories of its culture. What was once an orality-based tradition has transmuted itself into a myriad of new forms throughout time as media and technology have developed. The new, climate-centric angle on folk music has placed its trust in the hands of a group called Spell Songs. 

Initially commissioned by Folk in the Oak Festival to ‘reawaken our love of the wild,’ Spell Songs became the multimedia protest child of English writer Robert McFarlane, English illustrator Jackie Morris, and a collective of folk musicians branching from Scotland to Senegal. Regulars of the folk scene in Scotland; Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Rachel Newton, Kris Dreaver, The Lost Words Spell Book, and Beth Porter joined forces with world-renowned kora player Seckou Keita from Senegal and percussionist Jim Molyneux from London’s electronic music scene. Spell Songs released their creations in two main mediums, an album and a well-illustrated ‘Spell Book’. However, since their founding in 2019, two books, three albums, a multitude of prints, jigsaws, card sets, and more have been released for purchase. In creating the various levels of media, Spell Songs has made itself highly accessible to all avenues of public attention, widening its audience past just that of folk music fans. 

As a celebration of the minuscule details that fill our world, the Spell Songs album pulls at every individual cog in a natural ecosystem; the heron, the willow tree, the acorn, and more. The poems are written in a similar style to the old Scottish compendium, Carmina Gadelica, a history-making collection of folkloric incantations, lore, and prayers that was gathered together across a century by Alexander Carmicheal and his descendants. The defiant refusal to let traditional folk tales, images, and tunes slip between the grasps of future generations is upheld and transcends into a new era as the Spell Songs become the 21st Century’s Carmina Gadelica. The incantations are designed to be spoken aloud, acting as a call to the wild, a polite ‘please’ for its return. Each one focuses on an individual flora or fauna, drawing our attention and honour to all the little things that make our world tick.  

The eclectic mix of creatives behind Spell Songs are highly adept at blending and bending all of their influences to form a coherently curated sonic, visual, and textual world. Track One of the original 2019 album entitled ‘Heartwood’ opens with a lilting honour to the forest. All musicians shine within their own right; lulling cello, well-balanced harmonies, muttering kora melodies and spellcasting lyrics. The instruments complement each other well, fusing into a trance-like earthy soundscape. In Spell Songs 2: Let the Light In, fragments of Scots Gaelic language add a new dynamic, especially in the track ‘Bramble,’ steeping Spell Songs further into the world of Scottish Folk. 

With all eyes turning to nature and climate concerns, Spell Songs resonate and respond to a diverse audience, transcending the boundaries of mainstream art and media. Their commitment to accessibility through various media has rooted their role as pioneers in a revived folk music movement looking for interconnectedness within nature, culture, and creativity.

Photo by Sophia Hughes

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