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Craft & Skill: "Sing something we know!" On playing the wrong type of music

In a futile attempt to make it look like we had more blog submissions than we did, Tyler Hatwell (TP founder and exec director) shares musings on being a Traveller, playing music and the weight of expectation

If you’re a Traveller and you’re musical, there is sometimes an expectation of what you’re going to play. There is a hope that you’re going to be a heritage act, that you’ll give off the same kind of nostalgic (is it nostalgic if it’s from a time you never had?) feelings as going to a renaissance fair or going to a steam railway museum. The songs they want you to sing are ancient and are now some kind of canon; modern Travellers who write songs aren’t authentic enough.

Maybe I became inauthentic enough for them when I learned how to spell? Or the issue is that I’ve not spent weeks upon weeks picking spuds in Kent and therefore cannot have anything useful to say. Who in the hell wants to see what today’s Travellers have to say? He doesn’t even dress like a Gypsy. What’s the point?

In the 1950s and 1960s the UK music scene developed an obsession with blues music, particularly (oddly enough), stuff from the 1930s. This prompted the musicians from that era to come over here on tours. By this time the big names from the 1930s who were still performing had moved on in style (Muddy Waters being the notable example, plugging in and changing music forever) and they weren’t doing the same country or delta blues style from the 1930s records. A lot of contemporary reviewers didn’t like it. They weren’t authentic enough, it wasn’t proper blues. Muddy Waters & Big Bill Broonzy weren’t authentic enough bluesmen for this white UK audience.

Big Bill in London in the late 50s. Check out his stunning singing voice here

They don’t want what you are, they want what they think you are.

And it can be easy to go along with. Part of me wants to go out and wear all the rings, do my hair the way they want, dress all old fashioned and sing Levi Smith or Belle Stewart songs and play the game. But you’re then not doing what feels right for you, you’re being a cover band (only rather than covering songs by The Rolling Stones you’re covering any old Gypsy folk song)

And there’s something that feels much more right about not playing the game. As much as I do love to see Travellers playing traditional folk songs, there’s something slightly more fun about seeing Travellers making techno, or thrash metal, or drill.

Maybe that’s as simple as a childish, petulant, “Well if we can’t occupy land, let’s occupy a cultural space instead” but then, what’s wrong with being a little childish now and then?

My music, self taught, is no longer meant to be enjoyed outside of my home. Long ago I gigged and played live but it’s now something to get lost in. For the last year the principal musical messing around has been playing guitar in new tunings- doing a lot of droney bits and getting lost in the same loop for twenty minutes or so. I am sure this is unfit for public consumption, but that’s not the point. It isn’t meant to be pretty, it’s a little droney cocoon that I find myself in, and it acts as a bit of a hypnotic space. Away from it all.

And for me there’s something very powerful about being creative but it not being for others. Not being for consumption but simply doing it because you put value in it. This is then helpful because you don’t need to be much good.

back when I would venture out in public. proof that bad rock and roll is for us too

I’m idly wondering whether this desire to having things which aren’t for the public (which we also see throughout Traveller cultures anyway with clandestine ways of speaking, rituals, historically stopping in places where locals wouldn’t tread etc.) is a reaction to how much of my life growing up was on show- we’d be seen. Our lorries and trailers drew attention, the locals would come have a look and watch as we were doing bits of work; dieseling up, washing down, painting etc. One time me and my sister were playing up the trailer and this woman just walked in because she wanted to have a look. We were a bit of a commodity.

So having something that is so often a public thing and keeping it private is part of the fun, it’s mine and you can’t have it and so I don’t have to worry about if you’ll like it.

Or maybe this is something I tell myself so I don’t have to go out and get booed off stage…

At any rate, go find yourself something you enjoy no matter how bad you are at it or how “inauthentic” it may be, and don’t spend time fussing over anything beyond what it gives to you. The rest (including maybe one day being half decent at it) will come.

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