Songs, ballads and a story from the School of Scottish Studies Archives
1. Willie Mitchell - Nancy's Whiskey. 2. Jimmy Whyte - The Swan Swims so Bonnie. 3. Annie Arnott - Hubhihabhi & Iain Mor Fada Gobhlach. 4. Donald MacMartin - The Gardener's Bride. 5. 'Chattie' - Hey Barra Manishee. 6. Willie Mitchell - Glen Breakerie. 7. Rab Morrison - The Starlaw Disaster. 8. Rab Morrison - O My Love is but a Miner. 9. Margaret Birnie - Heather Jock. 10. Donald MacMartin - Fareweel tae Glasgow Green. 11. Ali Dall - Am Bron Binn. 12. John MacDonald - Jimmy Rose. 13. Martha Stewart - Child Norris. 14. Annie Arnott- lomaraibh Eutrom. 15. Andrew Stewart- The Daemon Lover 16. Willie Mitchell - Donal McLean's Coo. 17. Martha Reid - Falkirk Fair. 18. John MacDonald - Blervie Mains. 19. William Sharp Lonie - The Laird o the Drum. 20. Donald MacMartin - Feeing for a Maid. 21. Hamish Henderson - The Rambling Beauty. 22. Willie Johnson - The White Milk Deer.During one of the bleakest of the Thatcherite years, 1983, at a time when all the news seemed to be depressing and Britain was undergoing dramatic socio-political change, one small incident provided a small ray of light during some very dark days. Somehow, Hamish Henderson's name managed to get on to one of the Honours List. Hamish refused an OBE in protest at the government's nuclear arms policy. It caused quite a media stir for a while and I still treasure my yellowing copy of The Scotsman with - unusually for that newspaper - a front-page banner headline:
Total Playing Time: 72mins 01secs
It is the single action of his that gives me greatest pleasure. The Wikipedia entry for him begins in this way:
HAMISH HENDERSON - NO B.E.
Hamish Scott Henderson, 11 November 1919 - March 8 2002 was a Scottish poet, songwriter, atheist, socialist, humanist, soldier, intellectual, and living contradiction.'Living contradiction' eh? Please tell us more! Well, unfortunately the entry does not really elaborate much beyond adding that 'Hamish's complexities make his work hard study.' However, talking to people who worked with him, the consensus seemed to be that he was an unpredictable and sometimes baffling character.
In the early days of my interest in traditional song, I spent many hours listening to Isabel Sutherland talking on the subject. She had worked extensively with the man who was known to Gaelic speakers as Seamus Mor and she had many stories to tell about him. They had collected together in the Blairgowrie berryfields and worked closely on quite a number of other projects. This was followed by a massive, unresolved falling out between them so that most of the many things that Isabel wanted to tell me about him put Hamish in a very negative light and I must admit that sometimes these have made it difficult for me to form my own unbiased opinion of the man.
Two things that Isabel accused Hamish of were that he never finished anything off and that he didn't want to share the material that he had collected (or even the songs that Isabel had recorded and then handed over to him.) Let's have a quick look at both these ideas:
If one considers Hamish alongside two of his contemporaries and colleagues, Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy, it can be seen that the other two did much more to disseminate the songs that they had collected in books and on commercial recordings. One might have thought that Hamish was the person to be in a position to produce the definitive collection of Scottish songs in a book, something with the same status as Kennedy's Folksongs of Britain and Ireland or Lomax's The Folk Songs of North America. Well, he didn't; there were articles on songs and singers in small circulation School of Scottish Studies publications like Tochar or Scottish Studies. Neither did he write a major commentary on his work to compare with Lomax's The Land Where The Blues Began.
It was left to another, Alex Finlay, to gather together many of Hamish's essays for a great variety of (mainly) magazines in a book under the title Alias MacAlias. There is enough evidence in this to show that Hamish is a very fine writer. There are some wonderful descriptive passages and some excellent detailed analysis as well. There is also enough of a inconsistent nature, both opinion and detail, to make one realise why words like complexities and living contradiction would be used in describing him.
Did Hamish want his recordings to be made generally available? Well, some of his recordings are amongst my most prized possessions including the Davie Stewart album on Topic and an early Prestige International album of his 'Berryfields of Blair' recordings, but I don't get the feeling that he was entirely pro-active in getting the material he recorded released. I think that it is significant that Mike Yates uses the following quotation on the cover of this CD:
'It would be a great irony if your readers assumed that I did not want my recordings of Scots folksongs to be broadcast. On the contrary, I believe that the broadcasting of them would be an event of great cultural significance in Scotland.'What was the reason for Hamish writing this latter? I have no idea of the circumstances, but it does at least sound as though he is responding to some challenge to his attitude.
(Hamish Henderson, in a letter to The Scotsman in 1953)
Whatever one might think of Kennedy and Folktrax, the material is at least made available and from as soon as he made them, Lomax was seeking opportunities to compile and release his recordings. What about the vast archive of the School of Scottish Studies? Well, a small percentage of it has become available under the great on-going Scottish Tradition series that was started with vinyl LPs on the Tangent label between 1971 and 1988 and subsequently continued on cassette and CD by Greentrax.1 Though he was working at the School of Scottish Studies (1955 to 1987) throughout the years when the majority of these wonderful, indispensable releases were going on, Hamish apparently had very little to do with them. In fact I remember talking to the main mover as far as the School was concerned, Peter Cooke, about the series and Peter telling me that it was very difficult to get Hamish to commit himself to writing short notes for the items that he had recorded that were to be included with the releases. If it is the case that there was some reluctance on Hamish's part to see these recordings made available, then the fact that they are now being released becomes all the more important.
Hamish left a very wide-ranging and important legacy; I feel that his full importance as a poet has yet to be recognised. In the field of traditional music it is this vast array of recordings from which this album is a second selection; the first was released in 2005 and was reviewed on this site by Danny Stradling. That album included tracks by Jeannie Robertson and John Strachan, two singers that have already been well-represented on commercially released albums. Apart from the rattling single contribution from John MacDonald, none of the singers on this second album come into that category of 'weel-kent faces' on record or at Scottish traditional festivals; all the better for that in my opinion, because it would be too easy to believe that the Scots singing tradition is represented by a handful of excellent practitioners. These may not be the Premier League players but that does not mean that there are not some superb performances here.2
It will not come as a surprise to learn that my favourite tracks here are sung by travellers. The one that really stands out for me is this fragment of Child Norris. (Sound Clip) The singing is quite exceptional and all the better for just being sung in that straightforward work-a-day style, not the "performance-to-an-audience" that the travellers who had connections with the folk revival developed. It is a pity that we only hear the first few verses before the singer pauses and Hamish jumps in with his usual great enthusiasm saying what a wonderful old ballad it is and where did she learn it. He might have done better just to have encouraged her to continue or even just paused to allow her the space to provide more. One can certainly understand why he found it so exciting. It was recorded in Blairgowrie by a traveller, Martha Stewart, or at least it is believed to be her as there is no name given on the tape. Another Blairgowrie singer here is just identified as "Chattie", presumably her traveller by-name. These recordings - 1956 and 1953 respectively - were from the times in Blair when trying to collect in and around the berryfields was, as Hamish famously wrote, "like holding a tin-can under the Niagara Falls."3 It is hardly surprising that not all the original tapes are fully notated.
Another ballad recorded in 1953 is in a much more complete form. The Swan Swims Sae Bonnie (Sound Clip) was heard quite often sung in Scots traveller families, but usually by women singers, but John Whyte4 delivers it a superb manner. His version has a fiddle being fashioned from the drowned woman's breast bone which some of the versions recorded in Scotland around this time omit. Another gem from Blairgowrie is the snatch of The Deamon Lover - very rare in Scotland in the 1950s. Other contribution from a traveller finishes the album, a superb telling of a long 'Jack' story by Willie Johnson.
It is as a storyteller - in Gaelic - that Ali Dall, a blind travelling tinsmith, was best known, but here he is represented by a remarkable song (Sound Clip - Am Bhron Binn), which has Arthurian legends being recounted in the Old Tongue. Everything about it gives the impression of a very archaic piece that has somehow survived down the ages and he gives an utterly gripping performance. The other Gaelic singing is from concert performances with Hamish as compere and the microphone at some distance from the singer. One of these is Iomaraibh Eutrom and if I were not reminded of Isabel Sutherland by the very mention of Hamish's name, I would have been by this song, as it was one that Isabel performed most frequently. Checking with the sleeve notes of Isabel's album it transpires that this singer was the source of Isabel's version.
Other songs come, as one might expect, from miners and farm workers and there are three from the Campbeltown butcher, Willie Mitchell. He has that deliberate, rhythmic delivery that characterises some singers from the south of Scotland. He does not sound like Willie Scott, but you can hear that they approach a song in the same way. (Sound Clip - Glen Breakerie)
Willie Mitchell was a singer that Hamish wrote and spoke about a lot and we can hear from the conversation associated with the songs that they are relaxed in one another's company and have a good relationship. There are quite a number of snatches of conversation included, usually with Hamish praising the singer and asking about the source or history of the song. From all these it is possible to detect that Hamish had that vital song collector's skill of being able to put his informants at their ease. The relaxed atmosphere extends to the performances; there is never the feeling that you sometimes get with recordings of traditional singers where they sound as though they are on their best behaviour because they are singing for a Very Important Person. If there is a chorus, Hamish will usually join in with gusto. Sometimes, his enthusiasm gets the better of him and we can hear a rattle on the hand-held microphone that he favoured, but surely allowances can be made for this; better these vibrant recordings with a few extraneous noises on the microphone than something perfect but sterile. Hamish and Bob Copper both wrote and spoke about the importance of putting their singers at their ease before recording took place and they both advocated singing a song or two themselves to get things going. The results for both these men were that their informants sound as though they really like the person who is recording them and they are really trying to please him.
One certainty is that all these are important and well chosen recordings and we can only hope that the series does not stop with Volume 2
One slight surprise, for me, is that the person behind these releases is Mike Yates. He has made such a vast body of important field recordings himself and there must be many of these worthy of release that have not seen the light of day. The preparation of these to bring out on record has occupied much of his time, both for the various traditional music specialists and for his own Kyloe label. However, asked to choose a person to evaluate, edit and compile Henderson's recordings for release, many people would have chosen Mike. As one would expect, the 20 page booklet is full of careful detail on both singer and song. The Kyloe website (www.kyloerecords.co.uk) also provides extra photographs and full transcription of all the English language songs. Imagine the vast number of hours that he must have spent in meticulous work preparing an album such as this and there is nothing in it for him financially. He says in the notes, 'All royalties from the sale of this CD will be donated to the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh'. Mike Yates must either be a fool or a great lover of traditional song! I, for one, am very glad that we have got him.
Vic Smith - 1.12.06
2) I decided that I would finish writing this review before looking at Danny's review of Vol. 1. She seems to reach a similar conclusion to me about the singers included in this series when she writes, 'That Mike Yates has chosen not to make a bigger deal of Jeannie Robertson, nor to exclude her, is witness to his understanding of the value of all the singers on this record.'
3) He used this simile several times in his writings about collecting in Blairgowrie but this is quoted from the sleeve notes of the Prestige/International album no, 25016. I have been in traveller houses in Blairgowrie and Aberdeen when singing started and people just came and went all the time and you hardly ever knew whom they were. Who was the wonderful singer who sang that lovely version of The Devil's Nine Questions in Yeaman St, Old Rattray, some 35 years ago? I'll probably never know.
4) The singer is called John Whyte in the booklet, but becomes Jimmy Whyte in the tray text on the back on the CD.
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