In Art and Music there tend to be two types of exile – the kind that results from social or political struggle and displacement, and the kind that is self-imposed, a deliberate effort to distance oneself from the world. Both meanings influenced our choice of the word as our band name, and I thought it would be interesting to trace some of the history of the idea of exile in music and literature.
One of the oldest known poems in Old English, written in the late 9th or early 10th century, is a beautiful piece The Wanderer, written by an unknown poet. In the poem the speaker laments of his exile, far from his dead lord and his kinsmen:
He who has tried it knows
How cruel is
Sorrow as a companion
To the one who has few
The path of exile holds him
Not twisted gold
A frozen spirit
Not the bounty of the earth
In Anglo-Saxon society a warrior owed his absolute loyalty to his lord and was expected to lay down his life for him. Because the speaker has outlived his lord, he is forced to wander ‘the path of exile’ as an outcast far from earthly pleasure and companionship. In the poem, the speaker beautifully conjures up a world of a beautiful solitude ‘walls stand/blown by the wind/covered with frost/storm-swept the buildings/The halls decay’.
But what, if anything, are the benefits of this solitude? In ‘The Wanderer’ it is the state of self-knowledge, of living a spiritual life rather than investing in earthly things. It is a message for a materialistic world, and its haunting beauty speaks to us over the centuries.
There is a parallel in music, with the romantic figure of the troubadour, a kind of archetype of the wandering musician who re-appears from one century to the next. Its origins come from the trobadors of Occitania (Southern France) in the 12th century. These musicians would travel from house to house, sometimes staying for months at a time, sometimes just one night, living under the patronage of a wealthy patron. They would most commonly sing songs about chivalry and courtly love. The life of the troubadour is painted to be a romantic life, without permanent ties to people or places, yet at the same time there is a melancholy in their music and a longing for permanence.
This tradition of romantic rootlessness is something which has been drawn upon by modern folk singers from Jeff Buckley to Joni Mitchell. But the figure of the exile in the Western World pre-dates back Anglo-Saxon society and has roots in both Judeo-Christian stories and Greek tragedy. Greek mythic figures like Medea and Oedipus were both forced into exile because of their actions, and in ancient Greek society banishment was one of the harshest punishments a society could exact. In more recent tradition, the mythic character of the exile-troubadour Orpheus was one explored by Anais Mitchell in her folk-opera Hadestown based on the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. In Mitchell’s album, the character was played by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. And what more romantic back-story is there than the one to Vernon’s For Emma, For Ever Ago, in which he wrote songs in convalescent exile in a cabin in Wisconsin?
Linked to the tradition of the troubadour is the tradition of the self-imposed exile, one who deliberately lives on the margins of society so that he or she may be less tied to its rules and conventions. In this role the poet or musician can take on the persona of a sage or prophet, commenting about society from the perspective of an outsider. It was a persona adopted by many folk, soul and roots singers from the Sixties onwards, from Bob Dylan’s early protest songs, to Marvin Gaye around the time of his release of What’s Going On. Perhaps the most famous example is Bob Marley’s Exodus, which was written in exile in London after an assassination attempt in Jamaica.
There is also a more hedonistic streak to this tradition, in which artists live in a bohemian manner outside of social parameters. An album that springs to mind is the Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street’, written while the Stones’ were living in exile in the South of France, on the run from the taxman. Recollections of this time by the band speak of it as a period of excess but also of huge creativity. It is almost as if by freeing themselves from the responsibilities of social norms, the Stones were able to channel something creative within themselves.
I was inspired to write this piece after reading a book called ‘The Man in the White Shark-skin suit’ which follows the fates of a Jewish family in Cairo from the late Thirties onwards. The family originally come from Aleppo in Syria, but have settled in cosmopolitan, colonial Cairo where they enjoy privilege and status. After the military coup of 1952 in which Nasser comes to power, life becomes more and more difficult for the Jewish Cairenes and they are forced to leave the country. It is an illuminating book for anyone interested in modern Egyptian history, and the maelstrom of social and political forces currently swirling in that country.
The music and literature of exile is rich in its meaning and scope. People can be exiles from society to pursue personal freedom, or to comment on it from outside, or because of the tumbling dice of politics and social change. We would love to hear your stories of exile. Did you or a member of your family have to move country for reasons of social or economic change? Did you at any time in your life choose the position of an outsider because of your beliefs or identity?