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Pipes for Cut Throats

- Edmund Hardy

 

Tom Pickard, The Ballad of Jamie Allan (Flood Editions, 2007)

John Harle, The Ballad of Jamie Allan (Harle Records, 2007)

 

Authority confronts publicity when a popular memory insists on the presentation of a life which was out-lawed by or invisible to the structures of sociology and government; but this is complicated in the re-telling or re-publicising of such a case centuries later, the danger being that a surplus presence of researched memory – witness statement, historical document – will seem to diminish all other artifice, affirming only the unrepresentable past . To bring a man who died in gaol back to life is to risk an interdiction of history such that the spectacle outlines then kills him again.

These are the problems for Tom Pickard and John Harle’s folk opera The Ballad of Jamie Allan, of which I have two traces before me: Harle’s studio recording on a CD and the Flood Editions Pickard book of the libretto extended with accompanying documents and very large blow-ups from Bewick wood-cuts. Jamie Allan was a gypsy piper of the eighteenth century Borders, famous for his adventures, musicianship, and horse stealing. His record remains in the military annals of Deserters, in trial papers, criminal records, a note from Walter Scott, and various biographies published in the decades after his death. One of these, published by the radical Newcastle publisher Eneas Mackenzie, was found by Pickard in an auction room (the finding of a document is often cited in afterwords and prefaces to projects such as this, a necessary visceral myth). The new ballads Pickard has written to tell of this life are seen and heard at the very point at which they partly emerge from their documentary sources. There’s a narrator or archive speaker who joins the cast of two balladeers in the opera, sometimes fading in and out; and within the collage structure of the book, lines of official Information rework into succeeding song. When Allan was finally tried for stealing a horse from one Matthew Robinson, Robinson’s information is given as document/voiceover, before fading into a ballad of two voices, Robinson’s and Allan’s, ‘Hey Up and Away’. This technique of constant emergence and dissipation of lyric from and back to historical tracings tends to suspend any surplus diminishment in a conjunction of formal regimes, as well as causing the reader or listener to rethink the material’s making.

If the design is also to resummon the politics of counter-law, pointed to by a prefacing quote from Hobsbawm’s Bandits, a lyric investigation into the archive will substitute one politics for another because it can only represent or comment upon the first, the place of the potent memory now vanished, publicity without its original confrontation. For artists, this risks the same process by which grand opera was predicated on the French Revolution but presented revolution and the chorus/nation as commodified entertainment, the former providing a titillating current of contradiction which could guarantee a conservative veracity to the latter’s dispensation. If the risk is there in The Ballad of Jamie Allan then its own attempted transference is itself underdetermined.

Musically, the opera sounds like a cross between Benjamin Britten and Les Misérables  – quite appropriate for a ‘folk opera’ with several pointers back to John Gay. With The Beggar’s Opera in mind, the CD makes an interesting companion piece to Fairport Convention’s narrative album Babbacombe Lee, Lee being a nineteenth century murderer reprieved after the gallows failed three times, just as Baroque stage convention saves Macheath, and as, unsaved, only the wind and its echoing pipes is invoked as Allan’s testament:

you who make music

and music makes

whose fingers fly

make of air a song

your breath be steady

and the tune be long

All three works also contain a dream or reverie given off from a prison cell as if the bars force the mind back to a vision or mania which exceeds circumstance and exceeds the coherence of the overall work – Macheath’s distracted run through a list of ballads not already used is a collage opera in itself. In Jamie Allan, a vision of a hawthorn tree on a hill – berries red, prickles sharp, blossom white, modulating in description – and of lying back beside it “in the bleeding heather”, the texture of a lyric so rich that it uninstalls time. But as Pickard reminds us, a prison scene, says the Beggar, is always found to be “charmingly pathetick”.


Edmund Hardy

Readings webjournal, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX. email: estaphin@gmail.com or redochre.aodan@gmail.com or phugill@mac.com