‘Tis Sixty Years Since
The 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh and the Scottish Folk Revival
Editor Eberhard Bort
University of Edinburgh
Last Leaves to Carrying Stream
From the ‘Stane’ to ‘Ding Dong Dollar’
The Ballad Boom
The Rise of the Folk Clubs… and Sandy Bell’s
Whither the Folk Revival?
“The national consciousness is stirring; if we act promptly and boldly,
we can make the folk-song revival a powerful component part of the Scottish Renaissance.”
The above is a quote from 1955, four years after the First People’s Festival Ceilidh at Oddfellows’ Hall had galvanised the modern Scottish Folk Revival. As Hamish Henderson and other contributors to this volume describe, the impact of that seminal concert can hardly be overestimated. It introduced an urban, Lowland Scots audience to a treasure of songs – preserved in the rural parts of Scotland, mainly by the Travellers – that contrasted in their earthiness and raw beauty with the prettified, ‘salonified’ way folk songs, and in particular the songs of Robert Burns, had been interpreted hitherto, if at all. Here, at the end of August 1951, Hamish Henderson presided over a Ceilidh that brought together some of the finest source singers and tradition bearers he had encountered in his travels. And the effect must have been electrifying.
In the same year, the School of Scottish Studies was founded at the University of Edinburgh, and the collecting of Alan Lomax, Calum Maclean and Hamish Henderson formed the corner stone of the School’s ever-enlarging archive of ballads, songs and stories. Sixty years later, most of the archive has gone online as part of Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches project. This project, part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has seen 11,500 hours of recordings digitised, from the School of Scottish Studies, but also from the BBC and from the Canna Collection. The range is amazing – going back to a time over hundred years ago, when wax cylinders were the latest in recording technology, there are among the more than 15,000 recordings “bothy ballads, love songs, children’s rhymes, laments and songs composed by village poets along with fairy stories and tales of ghosts and kelpies.”
Having met Ewan McColl at the BBC earlier in that year, Alan Lomax came to Edinburgh in June 1951. He had “blagged his way to a contract with Columbia to produce a 40-disc anthology of world music,” as Peter Cox described it, and “it had the useful by-product of getting him out of McCarthy’s firing line – anyone with anything to do with folk music was a prime target for his committee.” There are two ironies in the Lomax connection – that Senator Joe McCarthy should become at least partly responsible for the British and Scottish folk revival, and that the Edinburgh People’s Festivals should come to a premature end when, as Hamish Henderson put it, “not long after the 1953 Festival there was an outbreak of ludicrous McCarthyism in the Labour Party itself, and the People’s Festival was banned.”
All this already indicates that, while there is no doubt about 1951 having been a pivotal year for folk music and folklore studies in Scotland, not everything started in 1951. There were tradition bearers and collectors before Jeannie Robertson and Hamish Henderson. In the 1930s, John Lorne Campbell (1906-1996) and Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004) carried their Ediphone around the Outer Hebrides, moving on to the Presto Disc recorder and Webster wire equipment, later to the Grundig Tape Recorder and a Phillips Portable Recorder, collecting way over 1500 songs and 350 folk tales from the people of the Southern Isles – the collection is still stored at Canna House.
Canna House contains a collection of literature, recordings, photos and film images which is invaluable. Campbell has published 15 books on Gaelic language, history and culture; he has recordings of singers in Barra in the 1930s and the Gaels of Nova Scotia…
Some of the collection has been published, for example the 135 waulking songs in the three volumes of Hebridean Folksongs, edited in a collaborative effort with Francis Collinson from 1966 until 1981. Working “outside the conventional institutional framework of the universities,” Hugh Cheape argued on the occasion of Campbell’s death in 1996, gave “his work a freshness of approach in the study of Gaelic literature and history.” Margaret Fay Shaw’s Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, first published in 1955, is a modern classic of folklore studies by “one of the most notable collectors of authentic Scottish Gaelic song and traditions in the 20th century.”
Before them came Marjorie Kennedy Fraser (1857-1930) from Perth. Her father was a noted singer, and she became a musical teacher in Edinburgh, when she was widowed aged 33. She discovered Gaelic song on a visit to Eriskay in 1905. Fearing that these traditional songs were on the verge of disappearing, she made it her mission to record (on a wax cylinder phonograph) and transcribe the music of the Hebrides. She arranged the songs for piano and clàrsach, making them fit for parlour consumption in the tradition of the Schubert and Silcher Lieder (or ‘art song’), and published the three-volume Songs of the Hebrides (1909-1921), and a fourth volume a few years later. In 1930, she presented her song archive to Edinburgh University Library, including her original wax cylinders of recordings, and from there they found their way into the archive of the School of Scottish Studies – and Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches.
More than 3000 songs and tunes are contained in the magnificent Greig-Duncan Collection (8 vols, 1981-2002), remarkable for its “sheer breadth and range; the quality of content; the thoroughness and ‘modernity’ of the collecting techniques employed; the relationship of the collectors to their informants; the revolutionary nature of the songs (especially as far as Scotland is concerned).” Songs from the North-East of Scotland are at the core of the collecting of schoolmaster Gavin Greig (1856-1914) and Reverend James Duncan (1848-1917), a minister of the Kirk. Ian Olson puts the collectors and their collection into their historical context. It was, he writes:
an era of rapid change and social instability, with people throughout Europe afraid that their ‘traditional’ cultures might soon be lost forever. There were plenty throughout the industrialised world who were driven to ‘rescue’ and ‘glean’ as many ‘last leaves’ as possible in the short time they feared was left. It’s best to see Greig and Duncan’s efforts as part of a universal interest and activity, appearing in newspaper columns, popular and scholarly writings and lectures, and by the formation of ‘rescue’ groups such as the British Folk-Lore Society in 1878 or the Folk-Song Society in 1898.
their deaths in 1914 and 1917, respectively, the collected manuscripts got deposited at Aberdeen University. Only the ‘proper’ folk songs made it into a publication, while all the material recorded under the Gavin-Greig definition of folk song (‘songs which people sing’) and their motto ‘Give exactly what you get’ (i.e. no bowdlerisation, no ‘improvement’) had to wait more than a half-century before it appeared in print, under the editorship of Pat Shuldham-Shaw and Emily B Lyle (with Peter Hall, Andy Hunter, Elaine Petrie, Adam McNaughtan, Sheila Douglas and Katherine Campbell), showing its glorious diversity, from music hall ditties to street ballads.
Gavin Greig had also edited, in 1904, The Harp & Claymore Collection, the music of the fiddle maestro James Scott Skinner, also known as the ‘Strathspey King’, who had made his first cylinder recordings in 1899. Tunes like ‘Hector the Hero’ (1903) made him the first international Celtic music star. As Last Leaves indicates, many of these collections – and that includes previous, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century efforts – had this ring about decline and preservation about them. David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, etc.: collected from memory, tradition and ancient authors (1776) were incorporated into The Scots Musical Museum which was published in six volumes between 1787 and 1803 by James Johnson and Robert Burns, and the Select Scottish Airs, collected by George Thomson (1799-1818), included contributions from Burns and Walter Scott.
In the early 1950s, to get back to our pivotal date, there was also a sense that the onslaught of gramophone and radio and, just about to happen, television, would sound the death knell for traditional song and music. It was now mainly the travellers and a few stubborn tradition bearers who upheld the oral tradition. Not only in the North-East and in the Hebrides. Willie Scott, the Borders shepherd, was a unique figure whose significant presence at the time of the folk song revival bridged the old world and the new. He was a masterly, veteran tradition-bearer and ambassador of the songs and lore of the Borders:
Willie Scott’s legacy cannot be overestimated. A son of the Borders, his song collection portrays a long tradition that has expressed people’s hardships and love stories; their humour and sadness; their sense of history and connection with the land.
The People’s Festival Ceilidh of 1951 was as much a wake-up call, or call-to-arms, as it was in itself a manifestation of a ‘living tradition’, of the fact that the carrying stream had not run dry yet, despite the fact that a way of life was vanishing. And Hamish Henderson’s belief in that carrying stream became firmer as the Folk Revival took its course.
The year before the first People’s Festival Ceilidh had seen the Christmas caper of repatriating the ‘Stone of Destiny’ from Westminster Abbey, itself a reaction to the frustration of two million signatures on John McCormick’s Scottish Covenant (demanding Home Rule for Scotland) having no effect on the body politic. “Half the best poets of Scotland wrote songs to praise the act,” with the Bo’ness Rebels taking the lead – among them Norman MacCaig, Tom Law, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Morris Blythman (Thurso Berwick).
If the ‘Sangs of the Stane’ were the first wave of political songwriting, two years later, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth (II of England, I of Scotland) triggered the next wave, with Morris Blythman’s ‘Nae Liz the Twa, Nae Lillibet the Wan’ and ‘Coronation Coronach’ – songs reasserting Scottish nationality and standing up to (British) authority seemed ubiquitous, and the Bo’ness Rebels Ceilidh Songbook became the essential carrier for them.
years after the ‘stane’, it was the “unholy doings at the holy loch” that inspired a new wave of protests, when American nuclear submarines with their Polaris missiles arrived to be stationed north of Glasgow. This produced a body of ‘agit prop’ song – the most famous among them were ‘Ding Dong Dollar’ by the Glasgow Song Guild and ‘The Glasgow Eskimo’ by T S Law and Jim McLean. But the most enduring and lyrically far superior song of that period is Hamish Henderson’s ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ – a veritable alternative anthem for an internationalist Scotland.
The next wave came with the SNP campaign which, eventually in 1967, led to the victory in the Hamilton by-election. “The S.N.P. were coinciding with a major movement of the people,” wrote Morris Blythman at the time, and we were happy to work with them. The Party had nothing really to do with this changing climate of opinion but they were there to reap the benefit of this movement of mind. Our obvious decision was, therefore, to back them up as the movement most likely to bring Scottish independence. They had become the popular movement in the same way as the C.N.D. had been the popular movement some years before.
Again, popular tunes like ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ or ‘I Shall not be Moved’ were given new words in songs named ‘Swing to the S.N.P.’ or ‘I’m Going o Change my Vote’ – agit-prop for immediate use in demonstrations, rallies and marches. Many of these songs were indebted to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and the songs of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, but also to Glasgow street songs and ballads.
From the early 1950s, American Blues musicians had been touring in Britain, and Big Bill Broonzy played the Usher Hall in 1952. Between 1954 and 1964, there were repeated visits to these shores by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Slim. Their influence can be seen in the ensuing skiffle boom, led by the Glaswegian Lonnie Donegan and taking its cue from the likes of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. They also exercised a huge influence on a new generation of guitar players like Davy Graham, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. In 2007, Jansch described to Mike Barnes how he first listened to Big Bill Broonzy when he was an Edinburgh boy of 15:
I found a little EP in an Edinburgh store and for the next year that’s all I listened to. It was a complete mystery to me at the time, because I was trying to learn guitar, but couldn’t understand how you could pick out more than one melody at the same time. I was really intrigued by that. And to this day I wear a thumb pick like he did.
Blues and American roots music – the American folk revival – had a huge influence on Irish music, giving rise to The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in Greenwich Village, and to the ballad boom in 1960s Ireland, culminating in the formation of The Dubliners in O’Donoghue’s of Merrion Row in Dublin. The American and the Irish influence also influenced the Scottish ballad revival. In 1956, the Clarion Skiffle Group was formed in Birmingham by Aberdonian Ian Campbell; it would morph into the Ian Campbell Folk Group, boasting in its long career until 1978 players like Dave Swarbrick and Dave Pegg, and performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, showing that the transatlantic link was a two-way street.
Jean Redpath went to the US in 1961 and made her name as a Scottish singer there, as Ed Miller would do a few years later. Ayrshire-born David Francey found a new home in Ontario, Canada, and Peebles-lad Eric Bogle made a name for himself from Australia with ‘The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda’ and ‘No Man’s Land’.
Ewan McColl, Alex Campbell and Hamish Imlach became the arch balladeers of the 1960s and 1970s, soon to be joined by Iain MacKintosh, extending their popularity across the European continent. Tradition bearers, singers and songwriters became a strong feature of the folk revival: Lizzie Higgins, Elizabeth Stewart, Robin Hall & Jimmie MacGregor, Dolina McLellan, Arthur Argo, The Gaugers, Ray and Archie Fisher, Alastair McDonald, Danny Couper, Mike Whellans, Rab Noakes, Gerry Rafferty (in the ‘Humblebums’ with Billy Connolly), Bob Bertram, Matt McGinn, Liz & Maggie Cruickshank, Barbara Dickson, John Watt, Adam McNaughtan, Sheena Wellington, Arthur Johnstone, Enoch Kent, Owen Hand, The Laggan, Aileen Carr, The McCalmans, Danny Kyle, Alistair Russell, Chorda, Elspeth Cowie (of Seannachie and Chantan), Gaberlunzie, Bill Barclay, Tich Frier, Dougie MacLean, Bobby Eaglesham, Janet Russell, Christine Kydd, Barbara Dymock, Rankin File, Davy Steele, Drinker’s Drouth, Mick West, Haggerdash, Isla St Clair, Jim Reid, Ivan Drever, Dick Gaughan, Brian McNeill, Eileen Penman, Nancy Nicolson, Stramash, Palaver, Maureen Jelks, Anne Neilson, North Sea Gas, Chris Miles, George Duff, The Linties, Calluna, Sinsheen, Peter Nardini, Ian Walker, Kinrick, Heather Heywood, Jimmy Hutchinson, Jack Beck, Robin Laing, Fraser and Ian Bruce, Alistair Hulett, Gill Bowman, Dave Gibb, Jim King, Ken Campbell, Back of the Moon, Rallion, Real Time, Other Roads, Ragged Glory, Chris Rogers, Martin Boland, Mark Barnett, Tom Fairnie, Tom Clelland, Jim Malcolm… an impressive list, but by no means an exhaustive one!
The Clutha were formed at Norman Buchan’s Ballads Club in 1964, and soon recruited the singer Gordeanna McCulloch to their line-up. The Corries, founded in 1962, became the dominant folk group, for a time featuring the Irish singer Paddie Bell. They became the resident group in the BBC’s Hoot’nanny Show on TV, and impressing not just with their balladry, but also through their instrumental sets.
In Ireland, the composer Seán Ó Riada (1931-1971) had set up Ceoltóiri Chualann in 1961, out of which The Chieftains evolved. Their emphasis on Celtic tunes found an echo in Scotland in the Corries, but particularly in The Whistlebinkies, formed in 1967 in Glasgow, and their composer and flute player Eddie McGuire. They led the revival in the use of the bellows-blown bagpipes in Scotland and were the first to combine the three national instruments: the fiddle, bagpipes and clàrsach (Scottish harp) in regular performance. And performances have taken them across the globe, from the Celtic countries through Europe and, as the first Scottish group ever, to the People’s Republic of China.
One of the most exciting and influential bands to come out of the Scottish folk Revival was Silly Wizard in the early 1970s, with youngster Johnny Cunningham on fiddle and, a few years later, his younger brother Phil on accordion. In Andy M Stewart they also had a great singer and songwriter. Their untamed inventiveness was to influence coming generations of bands, from Shooglenifty to the Peat Bog Faeries.
The Battlefield Band came together in 1969 in Glasgow on the initiative of Brian McNeill and Alan Reid, who were joined by Jenny Clark and piper Duncan McGillivray. They have since clocked up more than 30 albums and travelled the world with their music. But by 2010, with Alan Reid’s departure, there was no longer any founder member involved in the band. Like the Batties, The Tannahill Weavers, named after the poet and songwriter Robert Tannahill (1774-1810) and formed in 1976 in Tannahill’s home town of Paisley, successfully incorporated the Highland Pipes into their sound, and they, too, are still on the go, albeit with many personnel changes – only Roy Gullane and Phil Smillie have been with them right from the start.
In the late 1970s, when Planxty and the Bothy Band had set the standards, and Irish music ruled OK, Jock Tamson’s Bairns – Rod Paterson, John Croall, Derek Hoy and Norman Chalmers – set a distinctly Scottish accent. Disbanded between 1983 and 1995, the original members have now been together for another one-and-half decade or so, delighting audiences with their fine arrangements. Scotland’s most original songwriter, Dundee’s Michael Marra, saw them worthy of a wee paen:
Jock Tamson’s Bairns are Rare
And Rare is the new Cool
Bold and Bountiful on Grand Scales
These Oatmeal Brothers
Fed on Scones of Destiny
And Tunes of Glory
Neither lightly cooked nor underdone
Through Real Time and Strathspace
An International Adventure
True Romance and Universal Riches
In the Big Picture of the Handing Over
Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ Fingerprints are Ubiquitous
Ubiquitous and Rare
Members of the short-lived Contraband formed Ossian in 1976. Singing in Scots, Gaelic and English, with each member being a multi-instrumentalist, Billy Ross (later replaced by the remarkable guitar player and singer Tony Cuffe), Billy Jackson, John Martin and George Jackson impressed with their filigrane arrangements.
From within the traditional framework, Glasgow duo Findask (Willie Lindsay and Stuart Campbell) made an impression in the 1980s with heir original material. The music of the North-East of Scotland lies at the core of the Old Blind Dogs, with Johnny Hardie on fiddle and Ex-Craobh Rua frontman Aaron Jones on vocals. Deaf Shepherd, a six-piece based in Edinburgh, encompassed pipes, fiddles, bouzouki and the magnificent voice of John Morran, to make them one of he favourites of the 1990s folk circuit. The Shee is a cross-border enterprise involving six young female musicians with an astonishing level of instrumental prowess, and boasting no less than three powerful vocalists. Bodega is the product of The National Centre for Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High School, from which all five group members graduated. And the latest band to make waves from Glasgow is the Paul McKenna Band.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were the time when folk clubs began to materialise. The very first one was the Edinburgh University Folk Society, founded by the writer Stuart McGregor. It celebrated its sixtieth anniversary at the 2008 Carrying Stream Festival. Ewan McColl, born in 1915 as Jimmy Miller in Perthshire, founded the first British folk club. Norman and Janey Buchan in Glasgow followed, Roy Guest ran Edinburgh’s Howff, and then there are the survivers: Dunfermline Folk Club (which just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary), or Aberdeen Folk Club (which will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2012). Scotland’s clubs were fairly open-minded, as Alastair McDonald recalls in his contribution to this volume. Britta Sweers had this to say:
The early 1960s … witnessed a mushrooming folk club culture. With the background of the thriving living tradition, however, Scottish clubs were never as dogmatic as in England and always presented a mixture of American, Irish, Scottish, and English music.
This eclecticism is well reflected in an obituary of Owen Hand, who was a very fine singer based in Edinburgh and embodied this typically Scottish “maverick” approach:
Musically, he was an unreconstructed eclectic maverick of the folk revival to his dying day, the last of the seriously wild rovers, interested in anything that made traditional sense, whether it be a Woody Guthrie song from the Dust Bowl, a low-down, gonna-miss-ya-if-it-kills-me-baby John Lee Hooker blues, a palpitatingly poignant Aly Bain slow air, a Gaelic congregation moaning in straggly unison to the precentor’s call, a rasping gaggle of Breton pipers. He taught the burgeoning British folk-club scene of the Sixties a lesson that it eventually learned: there is not ONE traditional music – there are LOTS of traditional musics. And some of them, believe it or not, come from America.
Folk Clubs were the place to be. Licensing hours were restricted – most clubs were dry. And after-club parties were all the rave. Here is how Maggie Cruickshank remembers it:
We had such a busy life … there was a continual round of socialising. It was hectic but it was also very relaxed – you wafted in and out of things and weave in and around each other. You saw people like Archie and Hamish and Josh McRea as being high up in the hierarchy and us down below. But we didn’t stay there for long – everybody was so encouraging to each other.
As to pubs, yes, we need to mention the Scotia and Clutha bars in Glasgow and, more recently, Laurie’s; and in Edinburgh The Royal Oak has kept music alive, on a daily basis, week in, week out, for nigh-on 30 years; there is the Taybank Bar in Dunkeld, the Ceilidh House in Ullapool, Hootananny’s in Inverness and the Waverley Bar back in Edinburgh – the birth place of The McCalmans. But the undoubted doyen of traditional music howffs in Scotland is the capital’s Sandy Bell’s Bar – the “oldest unofficial folk club in Scotland,” as Hamish Henderson put it in 1965:
The oldest unofficial folk club in Scotland is undoubtedly the Forrest Hill Bar, better known as Sandy Bell’s. This was our local during all the early Festival ceilidhs, and is still the local of the School of Scottish Studies. Dozens of songs which are now the common currency of the folk clubs had their ‘revival première’ at Sandy Bell’s. In April 1952, old Willie Mathieson, source-singer of ‘I’m a Rover and Seldom Sober’, gave spirited renderings of this and other songs for an audience which included Johnny McEvoy (author of ‘The Wee Magic Stane’) and two professors of the ‘Toon’s College’. Sandy’s first theme-song was my own version of the ‘D-Day Dodgers’, but it soon acquired songs of its own – for example, ‘Old Bell’s Bar’ and ‘I’ve been wronged by a Sandy Bell’s man’, written by Stuart McGregor (…).
Greentrax has re-released Sandy Bell’s Ceilidh, which features a host of the Sandy Bell’s Bar regulars of the 1970s, including Aly Bain, Dick Gaughan, The McCalmans, Chorda, Liz and Maggie Cruickshank, plus The Bell’s Big Ceilidh Band – local musicians (like Jimmy Elliot, Jimmy Greenan, Jock Brown and Adam Jack) who regularly played music in the Bar – and The Bell’s Chorus, made up of regulars who were known to join into song at the drop of Hamish’s hat.
But the 1960s were also a decade of controversies. As the opening quotation from Hamish Henderson indicates, the plan was to have the folk song revival complement the Scottish (Literary) Renaissance. But as it gathered pace, the ‘custodian’ of that renaissance, Hugh MacDiarmid, distanced himself from what he called, in one of his more flowery phrases in the letters pages of the Scotsman in 1960, “unlettered ballad-singers yowling like so many cats on the tiles in moonlight”. Four years later, when the flyting reached its climax, he claimed:
At the present stage in human history, there are far more important things to do than bawl out folksongs, which, whatever function they may have had in the past, have little or no relevance to most people in advanced highly industrialized countries today.
In his polemical swerve, he went so far as to state: “I … have been bored to death listening to more of it [folksong], including the renderings of Jeannie Robertson, Jimmy MacBeath, and others … and I certainly never want to hear any more of it.”
Hamish Henderson begged to disagree. He had “no doubt that in the long run it is the folksong revival which offers the best hope for a genuine popular poetry, a poetry which, when it gathers strength, will make many of the raucous booths of Tin Pan Alley shut up shop.” He cites the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, for whom folk song is “a separate and distinct way of perceiving life and the world, as opposed to that of ‘official’ society.” Back in 1956, he had made the point that
Scottish folk-song is part of the submerged resistance movement which reacted against the tyranny of John Knox’s Kirk at a time when the Kirk was making a bid for absolute rule in Scotland. This explains why, in the whole range of our folk-song, there is hardly a reference to ministers or to religion – apart from the most formal – which is not hostile or satiric.
When, in 1967, The Dubliners climbed to No.7 in the British Pop Charts with ‘Seven Drunken Nights’, another controversy came to the boil – the agonising over the commercialisation of folk music, its reduction to mere ‘entertainment’. When the Beatles manager Brian Epstein had predicted folk would be the main trend of popular music in 1965, purists feared what they knew as folk-song might be “devoured in the same manner as the Skiffle craze.” And Hamish Imlach was slightly chided for having produced “a happy night with an audience rather than … presenting a serious folk-song production.” Countering the ‘folk police’, the record producer Nathan Joseph warned:
When you hear the cry “commercialism”, be careful to ask yourself before you swallow it whole whether it isn’t just a bait to get you to condemn ‘in toto’ all that is new, experimental, professional and exciting in folk music in favour of all that is old, static, amateurish and dull. Because it often is.
That folk singers could make a (meagre) living out of their music caused some people to accuse them of selling out, of becoming ‘professional’. Colin Wilkie and Shirley Hart vented their anger at this idiocy, shortly before they emigrated to Germany (where Colin to this day is a folk icon, having influenced a whole generation of German guitarists and singers):
We are sick, sick, sick of a small minority (whose knowledge of the English language is apparently non-existent) using the word professional as if it was a dirty word. For our part we are proud to be professionals.
Hamish Henderson foresaw that “a certain stream of the folk-song revival may well go commercial, and become a new type of pop song,” and he adds, “in which case it will probably do the pop-song world a lot of good.” He was firmly convinced that “new generations of Bob Bertrams and Matt McGinns will come forward, to make new songs, and adapt old ones, whether they are invited to go commercial, or not.”
Towards the end of the 1960s, new trends were appearing. In 1966, The Incredible String Band was formed in Clive Palmer’s Incredible Folk Club in Glasgow, playing psychedelic folk and winning the Melody Maker’s ‘Folk Album of the Year’ award with their first, eponymous LP. But their best year was undoubtedly 1968, when they released their most durable and most celebrated albums Wee Tam and The Big Huge and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. The following year the band, led by Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, appeared at the legendary Woodstock festival.
A dose of Dylan, and a smidgen of psychedelic flower-power, and you have Donovan, from Maryhill in Glasgow. That is perhaps a slightly unfair categorisation for the man who had a huge hit with Buffy Sainte-Mairie’s ‘Universal Soldier’, and whose other hit singles included the folk anthem ‘Catch the Wind’ and songs like ‘Sunshine Superman’, ‘Mellow Yellow’, ‘Jennifer Juniper’ and ‘Atlantis’. “The press were fond of calling Donovan a ‘Dylan Clone’,” his friend and guitar-mentor Mac McLeod remarked in a US radio interview in 2004, “as they had both been influenced by the same sources: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jesse Fuller, Woody Guthrie, and many more.”
In 1967, Bert Jansch got involved with Pentangle, fusing folk, rock and jazz, and they were signed up for Transatlantic Records by Nathan Joseph. Pentangle disbanded 1973, but reformed in 2008 – and Bert Jansch’s last public appearance was with the band on 1 August 2011 in the Royal Festival Hall in London.
In 1969, Jim Divers, Sean O’Rourke and Des Coffield founded The JSD Band, soon to be joined by the irrepressible fiddler Chuck Fleming and Colin Finn. They were the first truly electric folk band in Scotland. Dick Gaughan and Bobby Eaglesham were the frontmen of Scotland’s most successful ‘Celtic Rock’ band, Five Hand Reel, formed in 1974. On their second album, For A’ That (1977), they cut the first Gaelic folk-rock song – ‘Bratach Bana’. Thus, in a way, they paved the path for two of Scotland’s most famous bands of all time, Runrig and Capercaillie. Seelyhoo, with Gaelic singer Fiona MacKenzie and the Orcadian twins Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley, plus the formidable talents of ‘out of his box’ Sandy Brechin, have sometimes been compared to Capercaillie. Dàimh, a band based on the West Coast of Scotland, boast members from Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton and California. Their Gaelic music is high octane, with a live energy matched by few contemporary outfits in Scotland. In a different kind of fusion, traditional, swing and blues influences can be heard in the music of Saltfishforty from Orkney. Bluegrass is also the forte of Blueflint, of Home Made Jam, of Kathy Stewart & the Frequent Flyers and of the Edinburgh-based Southern Tenant Folk Union. Every July, the Scottish Bluegrass Association brings the finest of that musical genre ‘home’ to Guildtown in Perthshire.
Bagpipes had, by the 1980s, been integrated into the folk band sound, with the Tannahill Weavers and the Battlefield Band. Now, Wolfestone used them to good effect in their Highland folk-rock approach. In the 1990s, Big Country, a rock band with folk leanings, used the ebow guitar to create a bagpipe effect. One of the most exciting outfits to come out of the 1980s was The Easy Club, playing a kind of folk-swing which was well ahead of its time. Jack Evans and Jock Tamson’s Bairn Norman Chalmers were among the personnel of the Cauld Blast Orchestra, which started as a project for Glasgow’s stint as European City of Culture in 1990, with writer Liz Lochhead involved, as well as musicians from all walks of musical life.
Legend has it how Ian Green discovered Shooglenifty in the Central Bar in Leith, where they played in session. Their music combines traditional tunes with contemporary dance rhythms, loops and beats. Around the same time, the Tartan Amoebas were mixing up the ceilidh dance scene, and a little later the Peatbog Faeries from Skye would unleash their fusion of electronica with a fiery concoction of bagpipes, fiddles, and whistles onto the dance floors of Scotland and beyond – twice winning the ‘Life Act of the Year’ title at he Scots Trad Awards.
Jazzy themes were taken up by Bachué Café in the 1990s, with Harpist Corinna Hewat and pianist Dave Milligan. The latter worked also with concertina-wizard Simon Thoumire who, in turn, kept it up with…. Keep It Up, featuring guitarist Kevin McKenzie, who is equally at home in jazz and folk settings (Trio AAB). From a slightly different angle comes Salsa Celtica, an 11 piece world music fusion band, based in Edinburgh, whose synthesis of Scottish and Irish traditional music with Latin American salsa elements makes them feel equally at home (or different) at celtic, jazz, world music and salsa festivals.
Twins Charlie and Craig Reid formed The Proclaimers in 1983. With their rockabilly meets Buddy Holly meets Scots anthems like ‘Letter from America’ or ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, with ‘Sunshine on Leith’ adopted by Hibernian FC as their theme song – and their own story told in a successful musical, named after that hit – they have been called “national treasures” and “arguably the most popular Scottish band on home turf.” Mike Whellans, who started out with Aly Bain and the Boys of the Lough as a traditional musician, turned himself into Scotland’s only one-man blues sensation, just as if Lauder in the Borders had a 42nd Street.
A new generation of Scottish singer/songwriters were inspired by the likes of (Bennie) Gallagher & (Graham) Lyle and John Martyn, leading to Jackie Leven, Alasdair Roberts and the Fence Collective of Anstruther, most prominent among them James Yorkston and King Creosote (aka Kenny Anderson). The greatest among the singer/songwriters is Michael Marra – Scotland’s own Randy Newman, with a highly idiosyncratic leftfield view of the world, as spotted from the vantage perspective of Dundee.
New York-born Talitha MacKenzie, working solo and with Mouth Music, first joined Jamie MacDonald Reid’s Scottish folk ensemble Drumalban, then worked with Martin Swan in Mouth Music and subsequently became a star on the world music scene. Also in Drumalban was the boldest experimentalist of them all, the piper and violin virtuoso Martyn Bennett. Particularly his last two albums Bothy Culture (1998) and Grit (2003) – Martyn died aged 33 of cancer in 2005 – pushed out the frontiers of traditional music, as he increasingly relied on samples and synthesizers to create his music.
The trio presently credited as being the cutting edge of Scottish folk music is Lau, comprising the prodigious talents of Orcadian singer and guitarist extraordinaire Kris Drever, award-winning fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke from Oban, and maverick accordionist Martin Green from East Anglia. They quote the Bothy Bnd as their musical heroes and have recently recorded with the legendary Jack Bruce of Cream fame.
There was a strong Gaelic element in the People’s Festival Ceilidhs – with the Barra singers Flora MacNeil and Calum Johnston, who “presented Hebridean folksong, stripped of its Kennedy Fraser mummy-wrappings.” A more comprehensive impression of Gaelic singing at that time can be gleaned from Gaelic Songs of Scotland: Women at Work in the Western Isles, also recorded by Alan Lomax on his 1951 collecting trip and issued by Rounder in 2006, curated by Margaret Bennett. Here, we have spinning and milking songs and waulking songs – twenty-six songs by seventeen women from the Outer Hebridean islands of South Uist, Benbecula, Barra, and Lewis, as well as the mainland area of Moidart – interspersed with snippets from Lomax’s interviews with the singers. A more detailed insight into Lomax’s interview technique is given in Margaret Bennett’s piece for this collection. Margaret Bennett, originally from Skye and now based in Perthshire, is Scotland’s greatest living folklorist, and sings in both Gaelic and Scots.
Like Flora MacNeil and Calum Johnston, Catherine-Ann McPhee was born in Barra. Other notable Gaelic singers are Maggie Macinnes (the daughter of Flora MacNeil) and Màiri Macinnes (no relative), the Glasgow-born harpist and radio and TV presenter Mary-Ann Kennedy, Lewis-born Margaret Stewart, and the late Ishbel MacAskill, who was born in the Isle of Lewis. Alyth McCormack also grew up on Lewis and has toured with the Chieftains and Deaf Shepherd.
Blair Douglas, a founder member of Scotland’s most successful Celtic folk-rock outfit Runrig, is not only a renowned accordion player, but also an accomplished all-round musician, arranger and composer. In 2009, he received an award from the Highland Branch of the Saltire Society for his composition The Gaelic Mass, An Aifreann Ghàidhlig.
The best example for the resurgence of Gaelic culture, part of a new-found confidence in place, language and culture, is the ‘Highland supergroup’ Cliar, a six-piece band with some of the finest singers and instrumentalists – the Mod Gold Medal winner of 1992, Arthur Cormack, piano and clàrsach player Ingrid Henderson, the aforementioned Mary Ann Kennedy, Maggie MacDonald from Skye, a master of the puirt-a-beul or mouth music, Hector Henderson on bagpipes and whistles, and the ubiquitous, dazzling guitarist Ross Martin (Harem Scarem and Dàimh also employ his nimble fretwork). For FolkWorld, on the other hand, “Mackenzie is the most beautiful act of Gaelic song to be found on the folk music scene. Eilidh, Fiona and Gillian Mackenzie are three sisters with bittersweet voices, creating a heavenlike soundsphere – absolutely stunning!”
Huge international popularity for Gaelic song and music has been achieved by Runrig and Capercaillie. Is Karen Matheson or Julie Fowlis the most famous Gaelic singer at present? Born and brought up in North Uist, Julie became a member of the Gaelic group Dòchas, and went on to win the 2008 BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year (the first ever Scottish Gaelic singer to win this prestigious award). In he same year, the Scottish Parliament bestowed on her the inaugural title of Scotland’s Gaelic Ambassador – Tosgaire na Gàidhlig.
The Celtic Neighbour
There are many similarities between Irish and Scottish traditional music, but also notable differences – the Scottish piping tradition is very different from the Irish, the musical styles seem to reflect the landscape: the Scottish Highlands, more dramatic than the more gentle, lilting hills of Ireland. The Scots and the Irish share a lot of songs, and many tunes are known in both areas. As mentioned already, the influence of the Clancys and Dubliners, of the Chieftains, Planxty and the Bothy Band, of the Horslips in folk rock, and of Christy Moore, Paul Brady, Mary Black and Dolores Keane as singers and songwriters has been immense. Moreover, Irish musicians have settled in Scotland and collaborated with Scottish musicians since the early days of the folk revival.
Finbar and Eddie Furey lived in Edinburgh in the 1960s, Paddie Bell sang with the Corries. Cathal McConnell, Irish Traditional Singer of the Year in 2010, was a founder member of the Boys of the Lough, together with Robin Morton, who now runs Temple Records. In latter years, Brendan Begley also joined the band. These days, Cathal, who has just published a collection of 123 of his songs, can most often be heard in a fine duo with Highland fiddler Duncan Wood; the two of them recorded a masterful album, Auld Springs, and are occasionally working with Fairport’s legendary fiddler Dave Swarbrick.
Five Hand Reel had Tony Hickland and Sam Bracken in their midst. Kieran Halpin moved to Edinburgh in the early 1990s, and then made his home in Stow in the Borders. Corner House was very much a project involving the accordion playing of Leo McCann. And Kevin MacLeod used to tour with De Dannan and has recorded with Alec Finn. Tomás Lynch, the piper and guitarist from Dublin with a knack of giving old songs a new lease of life, formerly part of Afterhours, is another Irishman settled in Scotland.
More recently, Malinky, founded by Karine Polwart and Steve Byrne, had Mark Dunlop from Co Antrim in their line-up. Aaron Jones, with a Belfast background, is now the voice of the Old Blind Dogs, one of Scotlands premier touring bands. Ciaran Dorris is a fine singer/songwriter from the North of Ireland who has settled in Glasgow. Glasgow fiddler Jamie Smith moved on from Beneche to not one, but two ‘Irish’ bands, The Long Notes (featuring the Bumblebees’ Colette O’Leary on accordion and the Shane MacGowan-experienced banjo and mandolin dervish Brian Kelly) and SBO (Smith, singer and guitarist Steve Byrnes and Liam O’Sullivan, one of the finest button accordion players on the London-Irish scene). The current incarnation of the Battlefield Band has harnessed the talents of guitarist and singer Seán O’Donnell.
Originally from Dundalk in Co Louth, the flautist and singer Nuala Kennedy first came to prominence here in Scotland through Fine Friday, a band that emerged from the Friday session at Sandy Bell’s (with Anna-Wendy Stevenson and Kris Drever). She has worked with her own band, The New Shoes, and with an impressive list of international artists, including Will Oldham, Norman Blake, Cathal McConnell, Caoimhin O’Raghaillaigh, Filippo Gambetta and the late great Canadian composer and fiddler Oliver Schroer, with whom she recorded Enthralled, a duo album of original compositions.
The Canadian Connection
We have already encountered the impact of American roots music on the Folk Revival, the flirting with pop, rock and jazz from the late 1960s, perhaps as a defence against being crowded out of ‘popular music’. And these influences continue, through the likes of Steve Earle, Bruce Molsky, and the music ‘Down from the Mountain’, given a jolt in the arm by the success of the Coens’ Oh Brother, Where Art Though? In the 1990s, the Scottish diaspora was ‘discovered’. Was it not interesting that in Nova Scotia, particularly in Cape Breton Island and Prince Edward Island, Scots Gaelic was still spoken? Mairi Campbell brought back set dances which had emigrated across the Atlantic, and could now be reintroduced to Scotland where they had been forgotten in the meantime.
The Barra MacNeils from Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia, whose ancestral home was the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, made frequent forays into Scotland, particularly after they won an Album of the Year award in 1992 for Time Frame.
Artists like the Juno Award-winning fiddler Natalie MacMaster (a niece of Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster and cousin of fiddler Ashley MacIsaac) came to play at the Edinburgh Folk Festival and at Celtic Connections. Since 1997, this link with maritime Canada has most definitely become a two-way traffic, as the Celtic Colours Festival attracts a host of Scottish musicians to Cape Breton Island every October.
Of course, the great Canadian songwriters, from Neil Young (with whom Bert Jansch toured in 2010) to Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Leonard Cohen, Stan Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot, Loudon Wainright III, Bruce Cockburn, Jimmy Rankin (of the Rankin Family), James Keelaghan, Leslie Feist, Joel Plaskett, Ron Hynes, Dan McKinnon, Ron Sexsmith, Catherine MacLellan – they all have been popular in Scotland and have had an influence on Scottish songwriters.
Over the past decade, the music of the Nordic countries has made astonishing inroads into Scottish music. There has long been a very fond connection between Scotland and Denmark – Tønder Festival at the end of August has been a popular destination for Scottish folkies since the days of Alex Campbell, Hamish Imlach and Iain MacKintosh. Five Hand Reel even recorded an album, Ebbe, Dagmar, Svend og Alan, with Danish folk singer and radio presenter Alan Kiltgaard. Alex Campbell lived in Denmark for the last years of his life, Mike Whellans lived there for years, and others found love, not just for the country, but for, in Nick Keir’s words, ‘Denmark’s Girls’.
One of those, Bente Kure, was a regular visitor to these shores throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. These days, bands and soloists like Faerd, Habbadam from Bornholm, Väsen from Sweden, Ale Möller from Norway, who introduced Aly Bain to the Hardanger fiddle, and the Finnish accordionist Maria Kalaniemi, are frequent and welcome guests in Scotland. The Swedish Nyckelharpa has, thanks to visits by Väsen, become the instrument of the moment in Scotland – Ruth Morris of Bellevue Rendezvous and Gavin Pennycook (with his Celtic Nyckelhapa Project) are excellent exponents of this bowed string instrument. When Fiddlers’ Bid met Väsen at a Festival in Stockholm, the idea of Foogy was born, an album on which harpist Catriona McKay and Nyckelharpa world champion Olov Johansson collaborated in 2009. Fribo is the product of a Scottish-Norwegian musical encounter.
From Blairgowrie to Celtic Connections
In 1966, the newly-founded Traditional Song and Music Association of Scotland (TMSA) organised the first Folk Festival in Scotland in Blairgowrie. That small Perthshire town was chosen, Hamish Henderson explains,
… because it already hosted a huge informal get-together in the berryfields at the height of summer, when pickers from all over Scotland came to pick raspberries and to have a good time. Also, it was the home of the ‘Stewarts of Blair’ – Alec and Belle Stewart and their daughters Sheila and Cathie – one of Scotland’s foremost folk-singing families. Last but not least, Blair was in berry-time the temporary home of hundreds of gifted traveller musicians and singers from as far away as the northern Highlands and Ireland. Collecting in the berryfields – songs as well as berries – often seemed like holding a tin can under the Niagara Falls.
‘Blairgowrie’ moved to Kinross, and then to Kirriemuir, and other festivals were set up – Keith in the bothy ballad-singing North-East, and Newcastleton in the Borders. “To these festivals,” Hamish continues, “the revival singers came as apprentices; the invited guests were mainly authentic traditional singers such as Jane Turriff, Stanley Robertson, Betsy Whyte and the veteran Border shepherd Willie Scott.” Adam McNaughtan wrote ‘Yellow on the Broom’ as a tribute to Betsy and Scotland’s travelling people – a fine example of Adam’s apprenticeship.
In the meantime, festivals have mushroomed. Some have come and gone, like the Highland Traditional Music Festival, reflected on in this volume by Rob Gibson and Rita Hunter, some are recent additions. Hardly an area of Scotland is without its folk festival, from Girvan in the South-West to the Mull of Kintyre and the Isle of Bute Festivals, the Hebridean Celtic Festival in Stornaway, the Blàs Festival across the Highlands, Blazin’ in Beauly, the ‘First Hairst’ near Banchory on the river Dee, the phenomenal Orkney and Shetland Folk Festivals, and down again to Auchtermuchty and the Lomond Folk Festival, or the Denham and Innerleithen music festivals in the Borders. Towards the end of October, Dougie MacLean’s Perthshire Amber weekend attracts visitors to the ‘Celtic Colours’ of one of Scotland’s most picturesque counties. And in November, the Fiddle Festival beckons in Edinburgh – and in between Edinburgh Folk Club has, over the past decade, established the Carrying Stream Festival.
Edinburgh used to have an international folk festival over the two Easter weekends, but it foundered after two decades in 1999, when the Council refused to bail it out. For the past ten years we have had Ceilidh Culture, not quite a folk festival, but a promotion of the traditional arts in Edinburgh, supported by Edinburgh City Council. Across in the West, Glasgow’s Celtic Connections has developed into one of the biggest Celtic Music festivals on the globe – also paying copious homage to the West of Scotland fancy for Country & Western and Bluegrass music, with a healthy dose of Americana on the January agenda.
Fiddles, Pipes and Harps
The Folk Revival, initially dominated by unaccompanied singing, then by guitars and banjos, increasingly became more diversified in its instrumentation. Via Ireland (Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine), the bouzouki was introduced – and in Aaron Jones, the Scottish folk scene has one of the finest bouzouki accompanist imaginable, while Kevin MacLeod has a whole collection of the Greek beasts, alongside vintage resonator guitars.
Apart from Tony McManus, the finest Celtic guitarist of his generation, and the late Tony Cuffe – and, of course, Bert Jansch, Dick Gaughan and Brian McNeill – other notable Scottish guitar players include Malcolm Jones of Runrig and Kris Drever of Lau, Kevin MacKenzie, Anna Massie, Jenn Butterworth, Frank McLaughlin, Stevie Lawrence, Sandy Stanage, Edinburgh’s guitar teacher Tony Mitchell, Ewan MacPherson, John Carnie and the hugely talented Matheu Watson. There is also the Albanach Guitar Duo (Russell Ballantine and Paul Devery) and Wingin’ It (the guitar and mandolin duo of Adam Bulley and Chas Mackenzie). Seylan Baxter and Wendy Weatherby are noted cello players (as well as singers), and Claire Mann and Calum Stewart excell on flute. The concertina has become rarer since the days of Hamish Bayne in the Macs, but Norman Chalmers’ and Simon Thoumire’s inventiveness on the instrument makes up for it. Even the piano has attracted some fine folk players recently, from Mhairi Hall and Mary McCarthy to Andy Thorburn, Hamish Napier and James Ross.
In the course of the Revival, regional fiddle styles have been rediscovered. In 1968, Arthur Argo met the Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and persuaded him to take part in the Irvine Folk Festival.
It was there that a remarkable musical career was launched. It was there that Aly Bain found, as he puts it, a niche in life. And it was there that a kind of one-man crusade began. The task: to put traditional music, especially fiddle music, back into its rightful place in the public domain., where it could be heard, enjoyed and played. (…) The folk fans at Irvine that summer could hardly have been aware that Aly Bain was a messenger heralding a new era which would ultimately see the singers toppled from their bill-topping perches by a swarm of predominantly instrumental, rather than vocal, groups.
Thus, the fiddle broke away, as it were, from the confines of the Accordion and Fiddle Clubs, which are still a force in the country. The accordion is easily one of the most popular instruments in Scottish music – from the venerable Jimmy Shand to Will Starr and, in the modern folk scene, Phil Cunningham, Freeland Barbour, Emily Smith, Mairearad Green and Sandy Brechin. Come the 1990s, fiddle mania breaks out. Fiddlers’ Bid from Shetland, led by Chris Stout, pioneer the quadruple fiddle frontline – and they set a trend soon to be taken up by bands like Blazin’ Fiddles and Session A9. There is no shortage of great and talented fiddle players, from Kevin Henderson to Jennifer Wrigley, from Aidan O’Rourke to Alasdair Fraser, Bruce MacGregor, John Martin, Pete Clark, Lauren McColl, Rua Macmillan, Eilidh Shaw, Shona Mooney, Mike Vass, Jenna Reid and Paul Anderson. Also fiddle-driven are The Chair from Orkney, even if they feature ‘only’ two of them.
Since 1996, the Scots Fiddle Festival in Edinburgh has put the focus firmly on the instrument, presenting some of the greatest players, from said Aly Bain to Aladair Fraser and Duncan Chisholm and Ireland’s Martin Hayes. But the most heart-warming feature is the Youth Gaitherin for 9-18 year olds over the festival weekend – watching dozens and dozens of youngsters emerging with their fiddle cases from tuition classes and workshops, you never again fear for the future of the music.
Scottish dance music, dominated by fiddles and accordions, is popular, both in the country dance format and in the wilder form of the ceilidh. Robbie Shepherd’s Take the Floor on BBC Radio Scotland features all the great dance bands Scotland has produced, from Sir Jimmy Shand to Tom Orr’s Scottish Dance Band. Some of the great contemporary ceilidh bands are The Occasionals, The Robert Fish Band, Alasdair MacCuish & The Black Rose Ceilidh Band, Skipinish, Skelpaig, Sandy Brechin’s The Jimi Shandrix Experience and – an even finer name – Gavin Marwick’s Ceilidh Minogue.
As Gary West, himself an exquisite piper, points out in his contribution to this volume, John D Burgess’s piping performance at he first Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh signalled the incorporation of the Highland Pipes into the folk revival. Bands like the Tannahill weavers and the Battlefield Band integrated the Highland Pipes into their sound, as, in their footsteps, did Deaf Shepherd, Breabach and Rura. The Whistlebinkies have championed the use of the small or Border pipes, as has pipe maker Hamish Moore, while Allan Macdonald from Glenuig plays them all - Highland, Lowland and Irish!
Every August, Piping Live! in Glasgow highlights how innovative the piping scene in Scotland has become, with the likes of Fred Morrison, Finlay MacDonald and the late Gordon Duncan. I remember when Tony McManus joined me for a late pint in the Royal Oak, coming directly from the studio where he was producing Gordon’s Thunderstruck album, marvelling at the inventiveness of his pipe playing.
Alan Stivell and Derek Bell were early champions of he Celtic harp. The Edinburgh International Harp Festival can by now look back on a thirty-year history. All the great clàrsach players, from Alison Kinnaird and Savourna Stevenson, Patsy Seddon and Mary Macmaster to Phamie Gow, Rachel Hair, and Ailie Robertson of The Outside Track, have performed at he festival, which takes place during Easter Week.
Poetry, Folksong and Politics
Throughout Scottish history,” wrote Hamish Henderson in the foreword to the programme of the second People’s Festival Ceilidh in 1952,
there has been a constant interplay between the folk tradition and the learned literary tradition – an interplay more constant and more fruitful with us than in the literatures of most other European countries.
In 1965, In McDaid’s in DublIn, he jotted in his note book, that “the folk revival in Scotland exists within a particular milieu. It is a unique mixture of poetry, folksong and politics.” That was just after his very public flytings with Hugh MacDiarmid about the very relationship between ‘high’ literature and the folk idiom.
There has always been a strand of politics, satirical comment and protest in the revival, from Burns to the ‘Wee Magic Stane’, from ‘Ding Dong Dollar’ to Alistair Hulett’s songs for the campaign to save the Glasgow Southside baths. Scottish folk singers were part of the artists’ movement that helped the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament to eventually succeed. Thus, Chris Harvie wrote: “It is perhaps apt that the world’s first purpose-built poetry library preceded the parliament building at Edinburgh’s Holyrood.”
I remember a spirited performance by Jim Malcolm on the eve of the 1997 general election of his little ditty ‘Vote a Tory Out’; likewise at the Tron Folk Club, run by Elspeth Cowie and Rob Stokes, Davy Steele helped us while away the waiting time for he result of the 1997 devolution referendum. He had written a new song for the occasion:
Gie noo a thocht to what we hae in this land o’ the leal
The Highland glen, the Doric stream the fertile Lowland field
They seem tae offer different views when looked at from within
Can strangers be the only eyes to see it a’ as yin
The choice will be upon us soon tae set oor destiny
I’ll drink a toast tae Scotland yet whatever yet may be
Oor mither tongue spoke different weys that past tae present ties
Each separate and yet entwined that’s where oor real strength lies
For should one strand unwind itself the others tae forsake
Then a’ would be forever lost fur a’ the strands would break
While we still seek to blame oor woes and pains on someone else
We’ll never have the strength tae solve oor problems for ourselves
In truth we fought each other mair learn this from oor past
Then together we can choose fur oorsells at last
It is to be welcomed that folk and traditional song has been honoured by the new Parliament – Martyn Bennett’s composition, ‘Mackay’s Memoirs’, played by the band of Broughton High School, and Sheena Wellington’s rendering of ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’ at the opening of the Parliament in 1999, Eddie Reader’s ‘Wild Mountain Side’ at the opening ceremony of the new Parliament building in 2004, Brian McNeill’s gig at the Festival of Politics, and Karine Polwart’s participation in this year’s opening celebration have established a fine new tradition. And Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’ was not just the song used in a beer commercial, it was also picked by the Scottish Government as the theme song of Scotland’s Homecoming Festival in 2009.
Back in the early 1970s, John McGrath assembled his Scottish 7:84 theatre company for perhaps the most momentous theatrical event in twentieth-century Scottish drama – The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil (1973), a musical drama in Gaelic, Scots and English telling the Highland story from the Clearances to the oil boom, making the point in dialogue, poetry and song that the Highland Scots have largely been dispossessed, disinherited and disenfranchised; that they do not own their own land and have precious little genuine say in its use. Hamish Henderson was consulted by McGrath on the play, and he was enthusiastic about it, attesting it “satire and song galore.”
Folk singers like Dolina McLellan and Nick Keir were involved in 7:84. Nick was also working with the poet Norman MacCaig. At the Edinburgh International Festival of 1992, the long friendship between MacCaig and Aly Bain resulted in a two-man show at the Traverse Theatre. It was “built on the delightfully simple foundation of a few tunes, some conversation, and poems.”
Dr Fred Freeman, a literary scholar, has produced a ream of CDs of literary and musical import, including: The Complete Songs of Robert Burns (Linn Records, 1996-2003); A’ Adam’s Bairns – a tribute to Hamish Henderson (Greentrax, 2004); The Complete Songs of Robert Tannahill (Brechin-All Records, 2006). And Jock Tamson’s Bairns have collaborated with the writer Billy Kay in Fergusson’s Old Reekie, a show about the ‘elder in the muse’ of Robert Burns, the Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson (1750-1774).
Adam McNaughtan is exploring the poetic connections to the folk revival in this volume, so one more example may here suffice. In 2007, Ballads of the Book was released, an album of collaborations of Scots musicians and Scots writers, curated by Roddy Woomble of Idlewild. On the musical side, there were ‘old’ and ‘new folkies’ like Mike Heron, Karine Polwart and Emma Pollock – the writers included Alasdair Gray, John Burnside, Edwin Morgan, A L Kennedy, Louise Welsh and Ian Rankin, with cover art by Alasdair Gray, bearing the adapted motto ‘Sing as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’
So, how can we sum up this conundrum – a folk revival when folk music was not actually dead? In her piece for this collection, Jean Bechhofer suggests that ‘survival’ may be he more appropriate term.
There was certainly a watershed in the 1950s. The aftermath of the Second World War, which had impacted on even the remotest parts of Europe, the arrival of television – an older way of life was clearly slipping away.
It was largely the middle classes who enjoyed their Scottish country dances in the privacy of their own parlours. The rest of the nation was either at the pictures, in the pub, or on the couch listening to Henry Hall.
Folk song collecting had been seen primarily as an antiquarian undertaking, while the concept of folk-song got mixed with parlour and music hall. The Alexander Brothers, Moira Anderson and Kenneth McKellar, and Andy Stewart, featured on TV in the BBC’s White Heather Club’ (1958-1968):
These singers were in a long and vibrant tradition predating music hall, but have tended to suffer critical neglect… They were also somewhat anomalous for post-war folk revivalists searching out the ‘pure’ tradition and its bearers. Ironically, many ‘tradition’ bearers often had a good smattering of Harry Lauder and parlour ballads in their repertoires…
That is why Alastair McDonald was welcomed at the Dundee Folk Festival with open arms by the Stewarts of Blair – they knew that there were many traditions in Scottish music.
One thing is clear, the manner in which this folk survival unfolded, surprised even its instigator, Hamish Henderson. In 1973, in an interview with the Melody Maker, he said:
I certainly couldn’t dream (….) that it would become so vast. I did certainly foresee that something was going to happen. But I don’t think honestly that anyone could have foreseen the tremendous, exuberant success of the revival.
He also tried to contextualise the Folk Revival, which he called one of the “most interesting psycho-cultural phenomena of the mid-twentieth century”:
It sprang out of the period of the civil war in Spain in my opinion, and out of World War Two, out of the realization to what terrible extent of horror and inhumanity technological progress could lead. It could lead to Auschwitz on the one hand and to Hiroshima on the other. I think personally that this folk revival is part of this human defence against a gross assault on humanity.
And he asserted that, for him, this particular folk revival started in America:
There’s no coincidence in the fact, it seems to me, that it was in the United States, which was itself growing into this tremendous capitalist society, this bloodstained goliath…. that you got the beginnings of the present folksong revival.
Closer to home, the folk revival helped to break the grip of what he called the “old Kirk”:
The folk revival has been a tremendous catalyst…, releasing new energies, giving place for new feelings and creative imagination and everything. In breaking this terrible, hard coarse mould of the old Kirk thing which lays so heavily on Scotland you can’t believe it.
He reiterates his Gramscian view that ”folk music in Scotland right from the time of the Reformation onwards and even before has been a kind of protest movement.” With the fading power of the Kirk, that has certainly changed. Protest, the ‘underground’, the alternative world view, is still an integral part of the folk music scene but, overall, the scene has become more diverse and pluralistic. Whether that has weakened the core is debatable. What seems sure is that the Revival is locked in, has become permanent, a process rather than an event.
Linda Fabiani, then Minister for Culture, Europe and External Affairs, announced at the Scots Trad Awards in 2008 the setting up of a Ministerial Working Group on the Traditional Arts. That group, convened by David Francis, comprised Fiona Dalgetty, Ruth Kirkpatrick, Mary Ann Kennedy, Mats Melin and Stuart Eydmann. They produced their Report in January 2010, and found that over the past years progress had been made, manifested in many successful projects and schemes, but also that “recognition and respect for the traditional arts, and those working in them, is still patchy.” Among the many suggestions the Report makes, there is one that rings with Steve Byrne’s progress report in this volume on the efforts to secure Hamish Henderson’s papers for the nation:
[T]aking a cue from the Irish Traditional Music Archive housed in Georgian Dublin, there might be possibilities for some kind of national traditional arts centre or archive finding a home in an iconic Scottish building, the better to encourage a sense of national ownership of the traditions represented.
Anyway, it is encouraging that the Scottish Government commissioned such a Report. And it can only be hoped that its findings will lead to greater esteem and improved support for the traditional arts. As John Barrow points out in his contribution, there are also positive messages from Creative Scotland.
Scottish traditional music is now anchored better than ever in education, from the efforts of the New Makars’ Trust to put singers and instrumentalists in schools for workshops to the Plockton High School National Centre for Excellence in Traditional Music – which was threatened with closure in 2010 but seems to have weathered the storm (for the time being, at least) – and the School of Scottish Studies and the Scottish Music degree course at the Royal Conservatoire. The fèisean movement is going from strength to strength, and even the Mod seems to enjoy rude health, reporting improvement in the quality of the Gaelic performances, perhaps due to benefits brought by the Scottish parliament’s 2005 Gaelic Act. The Scots Music Group, set up by the Adult Learning Project (ALP) in Edinburgh, has become an internationally renowned community project, with workshops in singing and instrument playing.
The Scots Trad Awards, masterminded by Simon Thoumire and his team and handed out in a glitzy ceremony in December (broadcast on BBC Alba), have doubtlessly raised the public awareness of folk and traditional music in Scotland, as do BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition and, to a more limited degree, the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Greentrax Records have just celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary, and there are a number of other, smaller labels serving folk music in Scotland, from Robin Morton’s Temple Records to Pete Shepheard’s Springthyme and Pete Heywood’s Tradition Bearers Records, as well as Footstompin’ Records and, for Gaelic music, Arthur Cormack’s Macmeanmna label. Unfortunately, the small magazines have all but vanished, but The Living Tradition has survived, and we have, of course, the nigh unlimited resourcefulness of the internet at our fingertips, with forums like Footstompin’ or Mudcat Café.
Folkies – musicians, fans and organisers – will always be disappointed that the media do not take enough notice of them. What – our gig is yet again not listed on the events pages? Again, no review in the papers? And where is folk music on radio and telly? Well, there are programmes like Travelling Folk, there are stations like Celtic Music Radio, and since BBC Alba has become available on Freeview, the amount of traditional music offered on TV has increased significantly. And, in terms of our press, Rob Adams for The Herald, and Sue Wilson and Jim Gilchrist for The Scotsman, as well as Norman Chalmers for The List, and others, do their best to cover the traditional music scene in Scotland at a difficult time for newspapers.
The session scene is thriving, the festival circuit ever widening, and there is plenty of new talent. Undoubtedly, the instrumental side of the music is flourishing. Every now and then, though, somebody anxiously asks: where are the young singers? Well, how about these, for a start: Karine Polwart, Steve Byrne, Mark Dunlop, Fiona Hunter, Emily Smith, Julie Fowlis, Lucy Pringle, Chris Wright, Scott Gardiner, Ewan Henderson, Darcy Da Silva, Alistair Ogilvy, Ewan McLennan, Kris Drever, Siobhan Miller, Ewan Wilkinson, James Graham, Wendy Arrowsmith, Eilidh Grant, Maeve McKinnon, David Ferrard, Kim Edgar, Heidi Talbot, Caroline Scott, Stevie Palmer, Wendy Taylor, Chloe Matharu…. On top of that, young bands are constantly emerging – Corran Raa, Whirlypit, Lurach, Tattie Jam, Rura, Horizontal Sunday…
Yes, folk clubs have seen ups and downs in their fortunes. And the present economic climate is not conducive to healthy turnouts, especially for weekly clubs. Also, the very vibrant session scene means, particularly for urban clubs, lots of free competition. Still run by volunteers, the club scene has seen a degree of professionalisation over the years. Clubs had to invest in state of the art sound equipment. Gone are the days when the proceedings would be dominated by floor singers (except for clubs that have only occasional guests and otherwise meet as an informal singaround). What would have been anathema to the purists of he 1960s has happened – folk clubs do present concerts, albeit that they still have a chance of doing that in a more convivial, club-like atmosphere than that of a concert hall. And, of course, there’s always the raffle….
Even the People’s Festival itself has seen a revival – thanks to the commendable efforts of Colin Fox and his team, it made a comeback in 2002, offering an alternative to the established August fare.
There are concerns, about the levelling intrusion of ‘celtic’ and world music, of too much emphasis on technique, perhaps neglecting context and soul, too much ‘folk celebrity’. But, on the whole, I think we can agree with Hamish Henderson’s optimistic outlook, which he expressed at a conference a decade after the first Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh:
… the manifest vitality of Scots folk-song emboldens me to say with confidence that we will survive the boom – and the doom – and come through singing on the other side. I know that it would be over-sanguine for me to expect every folklorist and musicologist present to take the same optimistic view, but I can assure you that many young Scots folk-singers of today, who have respect for their art, and have taken the trouble to learn something about it, do share this view with ardent enthusiasm. And that, I submit, is what will count in the long run.
If that was true in 1963, it surely rings true nearly half a century later. Reflecting on the first Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh, Hamish wrote:
Later that night – or was it that morning – Jimmy MacBeath stopped in York Place, shook himself loose from the friends who were supporting him home, and lifting his mottled face to the moon, sang The Bleacher Lassie o’ Kelvinhaugh.
All over Auld Reekie the ceilidh was continuing. In a sense, it is continuing still.
Indeed, it is. So, here’s to sixty years of the Scottish Folk Revival – a bit like devolution, not an event, important as the People’s Festival Ceilidhs were, but a process, constantly renewing and reinventing itself – or, in the term coined by Hamish Henderson, Scotland’s carrying stream.
THE BOOK CONTENT - ‘TIS SIXTY YEARS SINCE: THE 1951 EDINBURGH PEOPLE’S FESTIVAL CEILIDH AND THE SCOTTISH FOLK REVIVAL
- Introduction : 1951 and all that Eberhard Bort
The People’s Festival
- The Edinburgh People’s Festival, 1951-1954 Hamish Henderson
- ‘Dunking their Heels in the Corn and Custard’: About Alan Lomax in Scotland Ewan McVicar
- The Singer behind the Song and the Man behind the Microphone Margaret Bennett
- Orain Floraidh: The Songs of Flora MacNeil Peter Urpeth
The Scottish Folk Revival: Reflections and Perspectives
- The Poets and the Folk Revival – A Reflection Adam McNaughtan
- The Survival of Folk Music in Scotland: A Personal Comment Jean Bechhofer
- Corner House Café Alastair McDonald
- Landscape with Fiddles Jim Gilchrist
- Piping and the Folk Revival Gary West
- ‘The Past is a Different Country…’ Nick Keir
- Hold The Arts Page: Personal Reflections on Twenty-odd Years (some of them very odd) Covering Folk Music for the Press Rob Adams
- Quick Jump To Now Norman Chalmers
- Legacies of the Highland Traditional Music Festival 1981 to 2002 Rita Hunter and Rob Gibson
- The Folk Revival – So Far So Good? John Barrow
Hamish Henderson and the Scottish Folk Revival
- Hamish Henderson: The Grand Old Man of Scottish Folk Culture Christopher Harvie
- Hamish of the Songs Maurice Fleming
- Scotland’s Internationale David Stenhouse
- At the Vigil: Hamish Henderson and the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament Ivor Birnie
- ‘Literature must desire to be life, not an idea of life’: Hamish Henderson’s Vision ‘Poetry Becomes People Tessa Ransford
- ‘All Art is Collaboration’ Tom Hubbard
- Working on the Hamish Henderson Papers Steve Byrne
- Coda The 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh Ewan McVicar