Time goes on ... and time goes on ...
Offspring Recordings OFFCD00101 (2000)
One of the frequent complaints voiced on this site is of the poor sales achieved by the albums that we enthuse about. Traditional song and singers have a hardcore of followers that love their art to the point of obsession, but outside this the market strength of releases of our music is poor. In spite of this, we seem to be in a position where the amount of English language traditional singing available on commercial recording seems to be at an all-time high. Why is this? A lot of it seems to be down to the committed enthusiasm that we see from the likes of John Howson and his Veteran Tapes and now increasingly from Rod Stradling and Musical Traditions. Then there is the fact that Rounder are making so many of the Alan Lomax recordings available. Yes, reviewers on this site have been a bit sniffy about some aspects of the last named, but overall, the series is full of delights. Topic are saying that compilations of traditional song rather than solo albums are the answer, and their Voice of the People series will probably never be bettered. (An interesting question would be 'Is this magnificent series bringing a lot of new converts to traditional song?' My impression would be that it is not, but that the whole project has given confidence to those established converts who would promote the music.) Other companies are now raking through their archives and coming up with releases that follow Topic's lead - recent releases on Folk Legacy and Appleseed, for example. Compilations don't satisfy every taste or need, however; the major singers need broader examples to be put in front of the public for study and enjoyment. Why, then no previous solo album by a woman who many claim as Britain's leading living traditional singer?
Why is she so important? She is important because of who she is and what she is able to do with her heritage. It is sometimes difficult to know just how to pitch these reviews. If this was a small circulation paper journal, I could safely assume that all the specialists reading it would know the story of the Stewarts of Blair inside out. But we are freely available on the web and there could be some tentative toe-dippers reading this. If there are - Hello! Welcome. You have stumbled on something wonderful. Experts, please bear with me whilst I give a short synopsis.
The Scots travelling people, decried and despised as 'tinkers' by many of their country folk, have been found to be the greatest carriers of traditional oral culture in Britain. They have a huge store of songs, stories, tunes, riddles and many associated traditions as well as the 'cant', the supposedly secret traveller language. The recordings of Scots travellers, notably those in Aberdeenshire and Perthshire are amongst the best and most important ever made. Belle and Alex Stewart and their daughters Sheila and Cathie were amongst the finest to come to wider notice. Since 1954 when they first came to be known outside their own community, they have had many folklorists, enthusiasts and younger singers beating the path to their home in Blairgowrie. They themselves spent many years sharing the culture that they inherited in folk clubs, concerts and festivals all over Britain and beyond. The story of the experiences of their lives along with many stories and songs are to be found in the book 'Til Doomsday in the Afternoon by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger (Manchester University Press ISBN 0 7190 1847 1). OK - On with the review.
The last new recordings of Sheila Stewart were on an album released as long ago as 1968 on The Travelling Stewarts on Topic. We've all been waiting for another one to come along since then and suddenly, just like the exasperated crowd at the bus stop, we see two come along at once. Or at least we are about to, for at the time of writing this the album that Topic recorded of Sheila's singing last year has yet to be released [May looks likely - Ed]. Ideally, both albums would need to be considered in tandem for I feel sure that what Doc Rowe has chosen to be released here is intended to compliment the Topic release. I have been shown the track listing for the Topic album and it is made up of the likes of Queen Amang the Heather and the other ballads and songs for which the Stewarts are justly famous. Here we have a representation of another side of the family repertoire; six stories along with five songs.
This is the first time that any of Sheila's stories have been released commercially. She is a magnificent storyteller in any body's book and a true inheritor of the masterly manner of her father's storytelling. When we first got to know the family, I can remember Belle speaking quite severely to me. I was very interested in the songs and the tunes, but not so much in the stories. She wanted me to know that they were all equally important. She was right. In fact, I would say now that the stories are the richest and most vibrant part of their family's heritage. Certainly, The Trampman and Appley and Orangey were favourites of Alex. I have not heard The Parrot before but the way it is told makes it totally part of their rich tradition. The Three Wishes is not the 'Silly Jeck' story that is reproduced in 'Til Doomsday in the Afternoon but something that sounds as it could have a more modern origin. There's a story that has a North American Indian origin that now sounds as if comes from Perthshire and it's all to do with the immediately recognisable style. The stories use the present tense nearly always. The story is advanced through dialogue with "she says" or "he says" frequently but tellingly interjected. (sound clip) There are a few places where Sheila expands the story to explain things to a non-traveller or non-Scots audience or gives the alternative received English word or pronunciation. ("It was a wee doo-doo - a dove") and the drinker who was "relieving himself" amongst the dustbins behind the pub, might have been put in different words in different circumstances. Essentially, however, Sheila delivers her tales in the time-honoured fashion. It is an incredible and dying skill that she has. Appley and Orangey is the climax of the album and it is spellbinding if horrific. (sound clip)
What of Sheila's singing? Doc's sleeve notes say, "Anyone who remembers Belle Stewart singing this (Betsy Belle) - with her knowingly flirtatious style - will hear echoes of her voice in Sheila's delivery." MaColl and Seeger's book says "Sheila takes after her mother; physically and vocally they are extremely alike." I would always have disagreed strongly with these statements in the past. When I first heard Belle, she would have been in her early sixties and was probably past her best as a singer, but I formed the impression that for all her skills, she had never been the singer that her daughter was. Sheila's singing always had and has a passion, power and intensity that is rarely matched anywhere. Yet there are times on this album, when Sheila sings well within her powers, almost taking things easily. At these times, annunciating in that exaggerated way, she really does sound like her mother as at the start of Jock Stewart (sound clip) Now, I am not about to suggest that this means that Sheila's powers are declining as a singer. I managed to hear her a few days after she recorded this for Doc Rowe and she still has the ability to tear this listener into emotional shreds. Even on a slight piece like Cod Liver Oil she still manages to work up quite a head of emotional steam. (sound clip) The songs are fine just as you would expect them to be; Never Wed an Old Man is probably the pick of them. It's just that on this album the stories impress more.
The recording is of a high quality, but the booklet notes turn out to be a disappointment. It was have been good to have had full notes and a 24-or-more-page booklet to tell the family history and to place the material in its historical and academic context. Instead, we have a six page fold-out. The cover picture is of an uncreditted Standing Stone location that, for me, gives quite the wrong impression. Another page has the track listing next to an unflattering picture of Sheila that simply does not look much like her. That leaves four pages for notes on songs. Nothing is said about the singer or her background and the notes are just a brief synopsis of each song or story. Surely, this album is aimed at the real enthusiast for the tradition rather than at the heritage industry? Offspring have come up with an outstanding first release. All credit to them. But as far as the notes are concerned, an opportunity has been missed.
Vic Smith - 28.3.00
Time goes on ... and time goes on ...
Cassette - no label, no number
I first heard of this tape's existence during the Whitby Festival. It was hard to get hold of a copy. Doc Rowe, who recorded and manufactured it, claimed to have some. But they were never on his person when I managed to corner him. When at last it materialised, it looked like an artefact from another culture, something that had been put together by devotees, from whatever minimal materials were available, perhaps in secret in a basement, hidden from the eyes of some repressive regime.
Sheila Stewart herself was at the festival. She looked as exotic as the tape was plain. With her black hair and handsome features she reminded me of one of the mature Spanish dancers in Carlos Saura's documentary Sevillanas; poised, assured, at one with their art after a lifetime of living the dance. When she sang or told a story, the impression was perpetuated. Though we were unquestionably witnessing a performance - a performance of considerable power - there was, at the same time, no sense that we were watching an 'act', something put on for the occasion.
A while ago, a well-known Scottish folklorist is reputed to have pronounced that 'there are no storytellers in England, only out-of-work actors'. Whether or not this was actually said, it makes a nicely provocative starting point for discussion. Scotland too has its actors manques, including one or two who drag up in formal and, in one case, traditional Highland dress. The pulling power of the kilt is considerable, so I'm told. But let's not be too hard on these people. In the late 20th century, storytelling has become a career, a minor but burgeoning facet of showbiz. Ewan MacVicar, the Scottish songwriter and author, told me not so long ago that he was no longer a folk singer, but had "become a storyteller". I don't know whether he meant that he had emerged, butterfly-like, into a new state of being, or that he had realised the opportunities for communication (and for earning extra cash) that would be open to him through a slight reorientation of what as a performer, he had always done.
Which brings us back once again to the question of performance, and of that quality, or that coalescence of qualities, that makes a Sheila Stewart performance so special. I think it comes down her total belief in her material, combined with a personality that, on or off stage, is enormously charismatic. Years ago, when I had never seen Duncan Williamson perform, I asked a friend what he was like. Speaking of his singing - for Duncan has some unique versions of classic songs, as well as his own heartfelt compositions - the friend said "Well, I've heard singers who are technically better, but I've never heard anyone who believed so much in what they they were singing." As a singer, Sheila Stewart has that belief, as well as a voice with a thrilling edge, and the technique to use that voice to its full advantage. As a storyteller she has, like Duncan Williamson, the ability to make the onlooker believe that she has been a witness, a bystander, to the events she is describing. This quality comes over well in the stories on the tape Time goes on ... and time goes on ...
The recordings were made on minidisc in Sheila's home in Rattray, near Blairgowrie. They are intimate, close-miked presentations which speak directly to the listener, and invite a transaction close to the experience of being in the room with the storyteller. What I like about the tape as a whole is that it's representative of Sheila's current performing repertoire, rather than a producer's 'Best of ...' selection. The stories range from one passed down by Sheila's mother, Belle, The Shearer of Glenshee, to an American Indian story she heard a couple of years ago. In tone they encompass Grand Guignol (Appley and Orangey), the cautionary (The Wooden Ball), the humorous anecdote (The Three Wishes), and on into the night! My own favourites are The Shearer, with its fabulous image of the blackening sky, and the totally un-PC Appley, replete with infanticide, dismemberment, cannibalism, and ultimate matricide (quite deserved) by decapitation. Oh, and a final repeat dose of cannibalism.
The songs too tend very much towards narrative. There are none of the grand ballads - I expect that the forthcoming Topic solo CD will feature some of these - but the range is wide nevertheless. The notes to both songs and stories are anecdotal, rather than academic, and are engaging, and sometimes enlightening, on that level: Belle Stewart learned Betsy Bell from a broadsheet when she was twelve; the often-sung Jock Stewart was found in the family's letterbox when they came back from shopping one day, an unsigned tribute (though surely to Alec Stewart's renowned piper father John, rather than, as the notes claims to Alec himself).
Never wed an Auld Man is one of the more explicit versions of this well-travelled song. I heard Sheila sing it a couple of days ago in St Anne's Church, Strathpeffer, in Ross-shire. It was during 'Tales at Martinmas', a four-day celebration of storytelling, singing and music that I had co-organised with my partner Mairi MacArthur. Introducing the song she used it as a kind of marker, a challenge to the non-traveller audience. This, she said, is part of my heritage. I want to sing it, and if anyone is offended I'm sorry; but if you're offended, then you offend me and my culture. It was an audacious move, but she pulled it off. Warm, enthusiastic applause. Maybe because the song tells the truth; maybe because the song is speaking, under the humour, of basic human needs; maybe because we were shamed by Sheila's challenge into accepting its performance in such an unlikely environment; maybe because of the mesmeric power of the performance (even in spite of her forgetting the order of verses).
Which raises the question of the wider cultural context of Sheila Stewart's art. There is no doubt that she sees herself as an ambassador for traveller culture, a culture which, she admits, is now largely of the past. She speaks of the campfire as the only real place to tell stories, sing and play, and in this sentiment she is backed up by Essie Stewart, the Sutherland traveller who was one of the other performers during 'Tales at Martinmas'. Of the thousands from a traveller background living in Scotland, Sheila Stewart is one of a handful whose public performances directly acknowledge their heritage. With Willie MaePhee and Jane Turriff getting on in years, the only others we could think of were Duncan Williamson, his son Jimmy, Stanley Robertson, Essie Stewart, Elizabeth Stewart, and the magnificent bilingual storyteller Alec John Williamson of Edderton in Ross-shire. Many travellers want as little commerce as possible with non-travellers, while others hide their background for fear of prejudice.
So is Sheila Stewart an anomaly in terms of her own people? It's a question I couldn't presume to answer. But I do feel that, when I hear performances by her and the other traveller storyteller/singers mentioned above, I get that sense of their total belief in the truth of the material that I talked about earlier. The quality comes through on this tape. It can't be a substitute for a live performance; but if you've seen Sheila Stewart it can be a reminder of her vibrant presence, and if you have yet to see her, it can give a good taste of the pleasures she has to offer.
Bob Pegg - 23.11.99
(The cassette can probably be obtained from Doc Rowe, Montpellier House, 84 Richmond Road, Bristol BS6 5ER. Tel: 01179 420657. E-mail: ROWEDoc@aol.com - and I think Veteran Tapes have some as well - Ed.)
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