The Battlefield Band, named for the members’ hometown of Battlefield, Scotland, proclaims the motto “Forward with Scotland’s past.” That can be read two ways: as a defiant assertion of Scots musical traditions or, conversely, as an argument that traditional forms must move forward if they are to survive. The Battlefield Band, which has undergone numerous changes in membership since its founding in the late 1960s, can live up to either reading. For crack traditional playing in not only reels but laments, where unison tones rise and fall with their own tension, the band is tough to beat; they’ve been called top dog in a genre with a thousand pups. But the Battlefield Band is best known for original songs that treat traditional materials in whole new ways.
Two settings of poems on their latest release, Room Enough for All, are unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. Neither is Scottish. Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music” mimics nonsense verse as it ruminates on the decline of village cultures. It evokes Celtic rhythms: “It’s no go the merry-go-round, / it’s no go the rickshaw, / All we want is a limousine / and a ticket for the peepshow.”
The poem is only strengthened by the addition of actual bagpipes, which give traditional culture the chance to make a sharp rejoinder of its own. The other poem set is American: Aaron Kramer’s “In Contempt” is a largely forgotten 1950s attack on the prison-industrial complex. In the Battlefield Band’s version, the perspective provided by the Scots instruments is quite complex, including elements of reproach, lament, and idealistic hope.
The Battlefield Band also plays traditional and traditional-style dances and songs in Gaelic and English, never devolving into tedious recitations of who learned what from whom. The liner notes for Room Enough for All, presumably a fair indication of how the music is presented live, give a feel for why tunes are grouped together, how they express the contents suggested by their titles, how they fit into a traditional web of storytelling and song. Some of the music is old, some of it is new, but reasons are given for all of it beyond its simply being “traditional.”
New members have kept the Battlefield Band fresh, and there’s nothing of musty tradition in their music. I’ve never heard them in person, but I’m not going to miss the chance coming up at the Ark on September 18.