The Battlefield Band: a Phenomenon in the Scottish Music World

BY KIRA L. SCHLECHTER

Money makes the world go ‘round. Money is the root of all evil. Money can’t buy happiness. All of these ideas, clichés though they might be, are at the heart of the Battlefield Band’s most recent album, “Zama Zama”: how the pursuit of wealth often turns people into unrecognizable, heartless beings – or destroys them completely.

Founding member Alan Reid, at the helm of the venerable Scottish folk band for 41 years and soon to end his affiliation with them, spoke about the album and its theme prior to the Battlefield Band’s Nov. 6 Susquehanna Folk Music Society show, slated for 7:30 p.m. at the Camp Hill United Methodist Church, 417 S. 22nd St. (A potluck dinner will precede the show at 6 p.m.)

His answers to e-mailed questions are as follows: 

Q: You said “Zama Zama” started as a collection of songs about gold, as you put it—first of all, why did that concept intrigue you at the onset of the project? Had you collected the songs first and then realized there was a concept, or did you have the concept first and then find songs that would realize it?

A: We were looking for a concept to hang an album around and the topic of gold came up. I started on a couple of songs, but the other boys thought the idea too restrictive, especially for the tunesmiths. So the suggestion was made to widen it to the pursuit of wealth in different forms of human activity.

Q: So did you then have to perhaps look for more material that would suit a concept like that, or did the material you have work for that idea as well?

A: Having settled on a broader, looser concept, we then had to look for more material, and, in a sense, think outside the box. It made for interesting choices of material and approaches to the music. Widening the net meant we could think less parochially, i.e., not confine ourselves to Scottish material.

Q: Do you read special or different meaning into a song like “The Auchengeich Disaster,” or even “Zama Zama Boys” for that matter, now perhaps considering the successful rescue of the 33 Chilean miners (perhaps reiterating their themes of the dangers of mining, no matter the recent good news from Chile)?

A: We can look at our recent history, when there were many mines in Scotland and the U.K., and find a link with recent disasters in other parts of the world, especially China. It proves things don’t change. In the West, our coal industry has all but disappeared. Why? Because it’s mined cheaper elsewhere. Cheaper coal, lower wages, more hazardous working environments, etc. So the mining disasters have moved elsewhere as well. And it’s all due to the pursuit of wealth.

Q: You relate “Robber Barons” to current times most effectively —when did you write this song, as the scandals in the banking industry and the British Parliament were going on, or how did it work?

A: I wrote it in the summer of 2008, thinking that by the time the album came out later in the year, it would be old news. It wasn’t. No we are all facing cuts, and working people are looking at banks and saying, ‘Hey, they’re still not lending, they’re still paying out big bonuses to themselves and carrying on just as before and we’re suffering for their bad speculations.’ So the song’s relevance sadly still holds.

Q: The same with Alasdair’s tune, “Bernie’s Welcome to Butner”—was that written before or after the fact (before or after – or during – the whole sordid Bernie Madoff affair)?

A: Not sure when it was written, but it was named after the affair had come to prominence. Too tempting not to, I’m afraid!

Q: How easy or difficult was it to adapt “Plain Gold Ring” to your own style — it seems to fit into the Celtic thematic canon perfectly?

A: It’s one of those lovely songs that doesn’t fit into any category. As a consequence, you can do it in (any) style. We found it pretty easy to arrange – and fun!

Q : Needless to say, you do not have a high opinion of the pursuit of wealth, it seems, or at least the pursuit of excessive wealth apart from making an honest living (like the third brother who stays behind and becomes a cobbler in “Three Brothers,” who comes out as the real hero)—true?

A: I like making up stories about little people. Most of us are ordinary people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t have a story to tell. I tend not to write political songs, or songs that push a particular point of view. I prefer to try to be more subtle and let the audience make up (its) mind. Of course, ‘Robber Barons,’ a song I kind of wrote to order, is an exception.

Q: And also needless to say gold is back in the news because of its skyrocketing price and the rush to invest in it—do you have a theory on why that’s happening?

A: Ah, it’s economics. Historical cycles. In hard times when stocks are low, unemployment is high, and house prices are falling, the speculators turn to the sure commodities, like gold and silver.

Q: You’ve been working on tracks for a new album — will it also be based around a theme, and if so, what, or don’t you know yet? How far along are you; what’s the status of the process? Do you have a release date in mind?

A: That’s all the work of the new band and I am not involved. But I know they are more than halfway through and it will be a regular album, released probably early next year.

Q: You are hanging up your touring shoes after this swing is over—why now, and will you still be part of the group even though you are no longer touring with it, and if so, in what capacity?

A: I’ve been in this outfit for 41 years and in the last couple felt a bit restless. I’m a Taurean, so I take a while to make up my mind. I decided around 18 months ago I should think of making a change. I won’t be part of the band, but I’m happy to offer them songs, if they want. And if they’d rather not and want to go their own way, then that’s fine.

Q: You now want to focus on your duo work with Rob van Sante — can you talk about that more and why you feel you want to work on that type of scale rather than a larger band-type scale? What will happen with that project once you’ve finished touring with the Battlefield Band (do you have an album or tour planned)?

A: Temple (Records) are bringing out an album of my choice of my songs spanning my (Battlefield Band) career. This will coincide with a U.K. tour I’m doing with Rob, which begins at the end of January. I’ve worked with Rob on a limited basis for a few years, and I felt I’d like to develop that work more, play in smaller, intimate venues, and feature my own songs more. And hopefully tour in a less hectic manner! It may not turn out that way.

Rob and (I) already have brought out two albums in the last few years and we have another one in the can. It’s another themed album on the life of the sailor John Paul Jones. I’ve written all the music, so it’s somewhat of a pet project (almost obsession!) of mine. But we’ll give the Temple album some breathing space and hold the JPJ album for release later in 2011. And of course, the duo plan to come Stateside. 

Q: Did you select Ewen Henderson to replace you (and was it a band decision), or how did that whole process come about? Why is he the right man for the job, do you think?

The boys decided on Ewan; I had no input in that. Ewen is a friend of Alasdair, so it was a case of a personal contact and Ewen being willing and available. That’s the way it usually works in our music scene, because in a small country, so many musicians already know each other.

Ewen comes from a large family of outstanding musicians. He is a completely different kind of musician from me, which means he won’t be compared to me. I think that’s a good thing. It means the band will change in style a little and perhaps be more instrumentally oriented, but there will still be a large element of continuity.

The Batties have evolved and endured for the last 41 years. Now there is a new generation, and who knows how long the band will exist? Maybe another 30 years? It’s a phenomenon.

The Battlefield Band will be performing on Saturday, November 6 at CHUM in Camp Hill. The concert is sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society. Information at http://www.sfmsfolk.org/concerts/BattlefieldBand.html

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