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Moston songlines

Submitted by on February 19, 2013 – 8:00 amOne Comment

hairy nosed wombats

Australia is brilliant enough already, what with its ludicrously endearing wildlife and the fact that it has airport sniffer dogs to stop you smuggling in fruit rather than drugs.

If you read Bruce Chatwin’s ‘Songlines’, though, you find the country turning into a completely new landscape. The book describes the ancient, invisible pathways which criss-cross the continent, and which Aboriginal people still travel.

These tracks are ‘made’ of songs, which tell the story of the creation of the land. As Aboriginal people walk the tracks, singing their ancestors’ songs, they sing the world into being afresh each time. The songs also describe the nature of the land over which they pass – a musical phrase is like a map reference.

As it’s described to Chatwin, ‘Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world’. That’s great.  Reminds me of the afternoon tour of the Sandeman’s port cellar in Porto, hearing ‘Ooh aah Cantona’ floating on the breeze from the hordes outside the bars in the square across the river.

A songline at half-time in the Exeter friendly, when ‘Mister Blue Sky’ was played, whisked me unexpectedly to St Andrew’s and me staring with jaw dropped as the Birmingham mascot, a portly dog, ran round the centre circle, ears streaming behind him in the wind, as the tune blared out pre-match.

Please someone confirm that this happened, and I wasn’t under the hallucinatory influence of those great balti pies?

Doubtless there’s lots of research about the links between music and memory, as well as about the power of music to trigger emotions of well-being and camaraderie.
Perhaps boffins (love that word) are at this very minute peering at brain scans to pinpoint why it is that music is our preferred method of expression at the football.  (Well, most of us, maybe not if you’re Really Cool).

People who wouldn’t dream of breaking into song in any other part of their lives relax into the communality of the occasion. And for those who like their music to have a political edge, it was worth last month making the trek out of season up the 135 Songline to Bury to hear the massed choirs of the Street Choir Festival, six hundred strong, belt out the Internationale.

There was an even more moving moment later in the day. In the punishing acoustic of a cavernous Bury sports hall, a small group of women opened the evening concert by singing to the assembled other choirs for the customary seven minutes.

They were all asylum seekers, Manchester residents, and there had been doubt over whether they’d come since their musical director had been suddenly detained two days before, and taken to Yarl’s Wood for potential deportation. But there, defiantly, they were. How extraordinary that the human spirit’s response to a life of poverty, harshness and uncertainty in the face of unwelcoming government hostility is to want to sing.

The evening had other high points.  The splendidly-named Red Leicester sang Grace Petrie’s bitterly angry ‘Farewell to Welfare’. Definitely a song to sing as you tie a Tory minister to a railway line.

And Liverpool Socialist Choir got some of the best cheers of the night with their jaunty version of the Top Cat theme, ‘Fat cat, the indefensible fat cat, The reprehensible leader of the Tory regime, He’s just like the cat with the cream…’ As someone said to me just today, sometimes you find you can sing things you’re not able to say.

So now my thoughts turn to the important task of helping to create the Moston Songline – singing the 181/182 bus route into being afresh each time.

What musical phrases will we need to guide our descendants to the ground? Could a few bars from ‘Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver’ represent for them the tall flats on Oldham Road? Maybe that riff from ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ will alert them to a pub that’s good for a lock-in. And once they find themselves humming ‘Dirty Old Town’ they’ll know they’re nearly there.

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