Interview with Derek Scott

Interview with Derek Scott

Professor Derek B. Scott, Head of Music at the University of Leeds, talks about his early interest in environmental issues and his performance of “Woodman, Spare that Tree!”

by Kevin Dawe

Originally published in Ecomusicology Newsletter, Vol. II, No. 1: March 2013


When I first mentioned my interest in the emerging field of  ecomusicology to Derek Scott a few years ago, he took time out from his busy schedule to engage with me in prolonged and meaningful discussion about it. Genuinely enthusiastic about most things musical, he clearly had some special insights to pass on in a discussion of green issues, not just as they pertain to music but on the subject in general. He comes by his knowledge not from just singing songs with environmental themes but also through time as an environmental campaigner. In our exchange, to my surprise, Derek mentioned his membership in the Green Party and his stand for election as a Green Party Member of Parliament in the Beverly region of Yorkshire and Humberside in the 1970s. It seemed to me a wonderful opportunity to ask Derek to elaborate on his green history for the Ecomusicology Newsletter.

Moreover, I asked him about his performance of Henry Russell’s “Woodman, Spare That Tree!” (1837). The song is still able to draw an audience with Derek’s help. He uploaded the song to YouTube in 2010, describing it as “the first environmental song?” As of March 2013, it has been listened to over 11,000 times.

Woodman, Spare That Tree! (1837) by Henry Russell, sung by Derek Scott. Recording available here.

KD: Derek, can you tell us a little about the history of this song, what inspired you to record it, and what it means to you?


DS: In 1837, while on an American tour, Henry Russell (1812-1900) set to music a poem by George Pope Morris (1802-64) that had appeared in New York Mirror Magazine in 1830. The poet had gone to visit his old homestead and found a woodman poised, axe at the ready, next to an old oak tree. Morris was outraged, because the tree had many associations with his early family life, and those fond memories came rushing back. He was not simply thinking of the tree as a useful prop to memory, however. He thought also of the wild birds that settled on its branches; he reflected on the tree’s age, and he felt a sense of personal responsibility (“in youth it sheltered me, and I’ll protect it now”). I’ve loved the song ever since discovering it in the early 1970s, but I know that some may find the sentiment excessive. It is important to listen to the song in line with an older type of sensibility. Russell believed that a moral purpose made sentiment acceptable. It was only when sentiment was employed for its own sake that he thought it became sickening.


KD: You write about the influence “Woodman, Spare that Tree!” had musically. Do you know if it had any influence on listeners’ views of nature? Did it actually stop trees being cut down at the time?!


DS: I did actually use the song, myself, to try to stop trees being cut down. I gave a concert in order to raise money to fight the local council’s plans to build on green-belt land in Beverley. I was convinced this particular song was one of my strongest weapons! Sadly, I have to say that the council were unmoved by music and motivated solely by financial considerations. Ironically, it was exactly the same back in the 1830s: George Morris was unable to persuade the woodman to leave his tree alone and had to give him ten dollars in order to make him go away.


KD: Can you tell us about the way in which Russell went about setting Morris’s poem to music? [Editor’s Note: the lyrics are reprinted below.] What are distinctive musical-lyrical features that we should listen for?


DS: Russell was influenced by the Italian operatic style of the 1820s and 1830s but was also finding a means of giving it simpler and more direct appeal. I sing the song accompanying myself at the piano, and that is exactly what Russell did himself. He toured North America and was the first of many Jewish musicians who affected the course of American popular music. In turn, he was influenced by the African-American music that he heard. He became strongly opposed to slavery and, rather optimistically, thought he had helped to abolish slavery through his minstrel songs and his descriptive song “The Slave Ship” of 1851. You can recognize the Italian influence on “Woodman” if you think of the melody of “Casta diva” from Bellini’s opera Norma (1831). The accompaniment to “Woodman” is also very similar to the accompaniment pattern in this aria. The form of the song may be thought folk-like because of its regular four-bar phrases, but that assumption doesn’t quite fit with the contrasting section that occurs in the first stanza at “’Twas my forefather’s hand.” At this point, the music modulates, and the change in the piano accompaniment pattern is important to the change of mood. Such features are not typical of folk music, so we can see Russell is forging a new popular style.


KD: Are there any other examples within the parlor ballad repertoire that feature what we now might call environmental themes?


DS: Oh, yes. I wouldn’t say they constitute a large number of nineteenth-century songs, but they are certainly there. “Woodman” is interesting because it expresses sorrow at lack of consideration or care for the environment, and this is joined to a determination to act. There are plenty of songs, however, that praise the environment or portray emotions when witnessing environmental change and decay. I’ll mention two of Tom Moore’s songs, “The Meeting of the Waters” and “The Last Rose of Summer.” There are also many songs of exile, of emigrants, or of those temporarily absent from home that convey longing for the environment that has been left, as in “The Mountains of Mourne,” for instance. You do have to be wary of the songs that may appear to be concerned with the environment but are really about patriotism, such as “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Die Wacht am Rhein.”


KD: In developing a curriculum for ecomusicology, I guess that for most of us Russell’s song would be included in essential listening. This is my cue to broaden the questioning in an interrelated bunch of questions. What do you think should form the subject matter of ecomusicology? Is there a better word?! What should ecomusicologists study? That is if you agree with the term and indeed our current project in the first place.


DS: I think the most interesting thing that happened to musicology in the 1990s was the growing attention given to the critical gaze. It meant that music was no longer treated as an art that could be examined outside of its social and cultural context. I was part of that movement and, like others, I lost no time in linking music and music-making to power relations, politics, and ideology. I wanted to make clear that music could never be a “pure” object of study that exists in a world set apart from social issues. I am convinced that ecomusicology is a major step forward along the path opened up by critical musicology. At the moment ecomusicology is something of a contested term, because scholars are using it in different way, some of them veering towards questions of music perception in given environments, and others tending more towards a political interpretation. It probably won’t surprise you that I favor the latter approach. In researching the political sphere of ecomusicology, I would see questions of space and power and of sustainability regarding both material (as in instruments) and cultural production as being among the most significant areas for study. I also think that musicologists, just like everybody else, should be asking themselves if there is anything they are involved in, or responsible for, that has a negative effect on the environment, and, if so, what are they doing about it.


KD: Those of us involved in discussion and research about music-culture-nature issues often garner a certain degree of scepticism, as if ecomusicology were some fashionable trend rather than a serious attempt to find out moreabout music, sound, and communication issues. Do you think that scepticism is justified? Or do you think we are really on to something?


DS: A lot of my work, and that of others, has questioned the nature-culture binarism, but few musicologists until recent years have engaged fully with music and the environment. The first conference session I attended on this subject was at an American Musicological Society annual meeting in 2010. I recollect that it was a session held in the evening, and yet it was absolutely packed. It offered incontrovertible evidence that there was serious interest in the way musicology might (or should) relate to environmental issues.  Whenever something new happens in musicology, there are cynics who think it’s all about jumping on a fashionable bandwagon in order to secure tenure. It is rarely the case that a new field of research helps in this way. Departments of Music and other cultural institutions prefer to confirm existing knowledge; they don’t like change any more than the general public does. When I began to develop an academic interest in popular music in the 1980s, I remember being told by the professor of my department, “you have made a very unwise career move.” In the 1990s, however, I regularly heard disgruntled academics complaining that popular musicology was nothing more than a trendy way to get jobs in the academy. The scholars I have met who are involved in ecomusicology are absolutely committed to this field, and I applaud them for being so.


KD: Will we hear or read anything more of Derek Scott the environmentalist as well as musicologist, composer and performer?


DS: Well, I still vote Green at local elections, although I tend to be a tactical voter when it comes to General Elections. I don’t think I’ll be tempted to stand as a Green candidate again, but that’s because I’d prefer to encourage younger people to become involved in Green politics. In the 1960s, I was part of a generation that adopted the maxim, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Naturally, I’ve been revising that age upwards ever since, but I’m now in my early sixties and there has to be a limit.




“Woodman, Spare That Tree!”

by George Pope Morris (1830)


Woodman, spare that tree!

Touch not a single bough!

In youth it sheltered me,

And I'll protect it now.


'Twas my forefather's hand

That placed it near his cot:

There, woodman, let it stand,

Thy axe shall harm it not!


That old familiar tree,

Whose glory and renown

Are spread o'er land and sea,

And wouldst thou hew it down?


Woodman, forbear thy stroke!

Cut not its earth-bound ties;

Oh, spare that aged oak,

Now towering to the skies!


When but an idle boy

I sought its grateful shade;

In all their gushing joy

Here too my sisters played.


My mother kissed me here;

My father pressed my hand --

Forgive this foolish tear,

But let that old oak stand!


My heart-strings round thee cling,

Close as thy bark, old friend!

Here shall the wild-bird sing,

And still thy branches bend.


Old tree! The storm still brave!

And, woodman, leave the spot:

While I've a hand to save,

Thy axe shall harm it not.

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