On the surface, this is a charming and adept musical odyssey of Scottish folk music. Aidan Moffat, lead singer of band Arab Strap that gained some fame in the 90s, has developed an interest in traditional ballads.
With all the bravado of a healthy white male, Moffat feels they no longer connect with modern day Scots and so goes about updating them with more relatable lyrics. The Scotland of his present, that he loves, is one of taxi ranks, fist fights and alcoholic violence. With his newly minted songs, he embarks on a low tech tour of village halls, ending with a gig at the famous Glasgow Barrowlands.
Moffat narrates as though he is penning a letter, or having a late night conversation, with Sheila Stewart. Awarded an MBE, Sheila is the last of a long line of balladeers and musicians in her family. A traveller, or gypsy, for her the legacy of maintaining the songs is as much about preserving a dying culture as it is about tradition. Growing up with little influence from popular music and culture, she holds fast to the perennially truthful stories that the ballads tell.
Moffat seeks her affirmation for the legitimacy of his modernisation of the songs and, delightfully and unsurprisingly, she tells them how shite they are. What she makes clear is that he hasn’t understood the real meanings of the songs and his problem is that he doesn’t really listen. It’s a beautiful example of well-meaning but misguided cultural appropriation that Moffat seems largely oblivious to. When we see Sheila sing a song about a woman turning to whisky after being battered every day by her husband, we understand how the songs speak of unchanging human stories.
Moffat extols his love of the dark side of Scotland, the frisson at the possible dangers lurking around every corner, but seems unaware of his separation from any real danger. We see the burning of traveller caravans but little insight from him how the perpetuation of the old songs is a form of cultural pride and tenacity. Perhaps he sees himself as fighting for cultural pride also, in a Scotland he thinks is real and undervalued. His Scotland though seems mired in masculinity; the locals he talks to and the songs he rewrites all reflect a male viewpoint. It also seems a culture that needs little championing.
The shining heart of the film is Sheila. We see little glimpses of her and Moffat doesn’t shy away from telling her story, allowing her space to speak but not as much as he does. Although the final scene at Barrowlands could be seen as a little patronising, it had a heartfelt resonance that said more to me than all of Moffat’s well-meaning bluster.
Walking to my next film, the Parting Song stayed with me. And sorry Aidan, it was Sheila’s version.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.