The Warblers and the Bellowers

There follows a reworking of a rant originally inspired by the same event that led me to compose Lord McGee, my song about the awful minority in the SCA who seem to want to ruin things for everyone in the name of their particular and peculiar definition of The Dream.  I’ve edited this to de-incriminate some people, and I offer it as a kind of an explanation for why it is that there’s an East and a West of SCAdian singing, and never the twain shall harmonise… except when they want to, of course.

There are two kinds of singing in the SCA. The Winebar Warblers are the ones doing part-singing, your standard choral stuff. Most of it is authentic to the renaissance period or a little later, so well within the acceptable range for what we call period. It’s generally religious, modulo a little John Dowland smut, and requires that you know (a) your voice part, and (b) how to read sheet music. It sounds gorgeous, and adds a huge amount to the atmosphere of an event. It would be tragic if it ever disappeared from Festival, because a lot of branches don’t have the minimum number of competent sheet-music-literate singers to get it started, so for many people Festival is the only time they get to hear or sing the stuff.

The other kind of singing is done by the Bardic Bellowers. They sing folk, generally; at best it’s seventeenth century stuff, but mostly it’s “perioid” (note spelling), done in an attempt at period style, with varying success, by SCA people, or else filk, which is songs written Weird-Al-style to existing tunes. The canonical example of perioid is Silfren’s Uislenn (The Known Words, page 1); the canonical filk at the most recent Festival as of the date I wrote this was Celsa’s version of the Hunters & Collectors not-a-one-hit-wonder, Throw Your Arms Around Me (TKW page 76). Bardic singing is much more accessible to more people; there’s no sheet music, just words written down or remembered, and it’s always in English. But it’s not as lovely to listen to at a distance. You have to be right there taking part in the bardic stuff, whereas for the warblers it’s often very pleasant to stand at a distance and let yourself be transported by the harmonies.

Two very different styles. Now: which one belongs in the SCA, and which one is the abomination?

Some people, like the individual in the third verse of my song Lord McGee, would have us believe that the bardic stuff doesn’t belong. Even Llewen the Unruly, he who wrote The Miracle and popularised a modified version of Graham Pratt’s Black Fox as The Foxy Song, has expressed the opinion within my earshot that the bardic stuff shouldn’t be done at all, even at Festival.

These people are wrong.

The SCA lets you in if you make a reasonable attempt at pre-17th century clothing. Does that mean you need pre-17th century hairstyles too? Pre-17th century eyeglasses (ie none)? Pre-17th century underwear? Diseases? Bigotries? Religious arguments? No, obviously not. Is that because the SCA has appalling low standards? No! It’s because the SCA has appealingly low standards. That is: the SCA has found the sweet spot, between the twee Disneyfication of the Renn Faires and the strict anal retentiveness of the serious historical reenactment groups. You can join in at your leisure, dip your toe in the water, and if you like what you see you can come back for more. We welcome newcomers, we welcome dilettantes. We like it that way, and the result is that we have a considerably greater membership than the other organisations for a considerably lower personal cost.

So why should music be any different?

There was a time when Llewen, to pick a name at random, sang folk and silly stuff. For a while he transformed into a Winebar Warbler, taking himself as seriously as his awestruck fans do, and that’s his right; but in doing so he forgot for a moment where he came from. If the warblers had been the only game in town in 1983, would The Foxy Song be the unofficial Lochacian anthem now? More importantly, would his magnificent voice have been sending shivers up people’s spines for most of the last few decades? As a court herald, maybe; but not as a singer.

Or how about Silfren? She used to sing. She got criticised once too many times by the anti-bardic minority, and now she’s a fencer who feels unwelcome when she opens her mouth. How is that justice?

And me: I hardly belong in this sort of company, but it’s my website so what the hell. I started with filk because it was easy to do. Now a lot of my best stuff is original: Songs of the West, When Sarah Smiles, Oh The Baron, My Son I’ve Been A Rover. I can guarantee this: I would never have written those, I would never have joined university choirs and learned the warblerish side of things at all, I would not still be in the SCA, if the bardic circles of my early days had been banned, or if they had been even half as restrictive as the old whinging Lord McGee believes they were.

I don’t think the current crop of new singers will stick around if things get more restrictive. That would be a great shame. So I don’t intend to let it happen. There will be the warblers, and good on them. Any time I get a chance, I’ll join in, as I have done in the past. I almost ran down the hill to join in when the Abbotsford hard-rocking music fiends started on Laudate on Sunday night at one Festival, but I had a circle to run so I didn’t. But I will always love the bardic tradition, and I will defend it to the death.

My name is Karl Faustus von Aachen, and I am a Bard. Deal with it.