Enthusiasms No 71
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
In August 1967, a motley crew of Tyneside musicians headed north to a traditional music festival which would live long in our memory, and these words are a reflection, 45 years later, of that very influential weekend of music. One of our number, John Lincoln (known as the 'phantom fiddler'), and my sister Kath had, in 1966, been to the first of the five 'festivals o' Blair' and their glowing reports made the rest of us very keen not to miss 1967.
I had been at college in London until 1966, and been seriously impressed by the 'Stewarts of Blair' at Rod and Danny Stradling's excellent traditional folk club at the Fighting Cocks pub in Kingston-on-Thames. The very presence of the Stewarts was, of course, a major influence, but the actual choice of Blairgowrie as a venue must be credited to one Hamish Henderson - the presence of many other travellers and singers in the area for the berry picking being another reason. My sister Kath was a regular at Edinburgh University Folk Club at the time, and had met Blair festival (and TMSA) founders Pete Shepheard, Jimmy Hutchison and 'young' Davey Stewart at the 1966 Keele festival and later at St Andrews Star folk club. This was the start of a link between that club and our own, the Marsden Inn in South Shields which, even if the clubs are no more, has lasted on a personal level until 2012, and still thrives.
So, that is the background to why we headed north that summer weekend, rather than south to Margate in our anoraks or to San Francisco with flowers in our hair, and this is just an outsider's view of what we found there, and not by any means a history of its origins. So, careless of the expense of the 21 shillings for a weekend all-in ticket and petrol at 2/6 a gallon, I started the 200 mile trip on my Lambretta scooter; John Lincoln went on his own (with fiddle strapped on his back), and Jim Irvine (whistle and spoons) and Trevor Sheridan (banjo) went in the luxury of Jim's Mini over the Carter Bar for the weekend. We camped by the river, and survived on scotch pies, fish and chips and chocolate bars (not much pub grub in Scotland in those days, you would be lucky to get a bag of crisps). However, simply to hear the Stewarts on home ground was sufficient compensation and, although we had heard recordings of Willie Scott and Jimmy McBeath, it was still an absolute revelation to hear the cream of the real Scottish tradition, very much at home in their own backyard.
We had heard some of the songs and singers before on LP, but the contrast between the sterility of those recordings and vibrancy of the same songs in their context was so powerful that it has stayed with me all my life, and for me, all the twenty-first century's technology can never match that experience. The fact was that the folk we heard did not really know they were 'folk' singers, had very little to do with the 'folk' revival, and were very much singing and playing for their 'ain folk' in their own community, with no hang-ups about whether the material was 'folk' or not - a valuable lesson.
The very idea of running a festival in a fairly conservative town like Blairgowrie at a time when pubs closed at 10pm is surprising on reflection but, in the words of organiser Pete Shepheard, "the Provost was all for it," and the precedent for a form of late licensing lay in the annual Braemar night shindig held in the town after the famous Highland Games. So, each night the pubs duly closed at 10, then re-opened at 10.30 for some of the most memorable ceilidhs I have ever been to. I well remember Hamish Henderson (glass of Glenmorangie in hand) discussing the weekend with Karl Dallas in the street outside the Victoria pub and, as the years pass, we realise how much we owe to the vision of that generation.
It is hard, 45 years on, to distinguish one year from another, as they were all pretty special, and at this stage I cannot be sure who was there in which year, so the following memories could be anytime in 1967-70. However, the sheer enjoyment of the music, as well as such non-musical gems as the semi-abusive banter between 'old' Davy Stewart and his long term rival Jimmy McBeath is an abiding memory. There were few folk 'performances', it being more of a town-sized ceilidh (in the true Scots Gaelic sense of a gathering) with a real sense of community and fun to go with the tremendous music. It was a revelation to hear the legendary Jeannie Robertson for the first time, while the Stewarts were well to the fore. Alex was often in full Highland dress, to go with the pipes, and some very rude jokes from the elegant Belle went with her wonderful songs, but truly I had never heard any singing to compare with that of Jane Turriff of Fetterangus, while Campbeltown's Mitchell family and their Hame Fareweel fairly bowled us over.
Mary Brooksbank we had heard of via her Jute Mill Song, which was already a folk club favourite (via, I suspect, Ray Fisher?), but its real meaning was all the more incisive when we met this wee Dundee millworker and heard her trenchant Marxist views. I do not know what we expected of the weekend - many folk from south of the border think Scottish music was (and may still be?) mainly bagpipes and Andy Stewart. Now, I think we knew better than that, but the sheer power of this tradition really took us by storm, and when our own music sessions were visited by some of these wonderful people, it was a real bonus. Davy Stewart could never grasp my name and, in the pub sessions, often called on Jimmy Brainbox for a tune, and another abiding memory is of him singing I Am A Miller Tae My Trade in the small room at the Victoria Hotel, while replicating the sound of the mill with his hand and elbow on a formica table, and not realising his hand was bleeding profusely. He could also play jigs with his hand on his cheek - do not ask, I cannot explain, you would need to have been there and seen it.
We played our own music in the small room in the Vic, and occasionally on the stairs if the pub was full, but also in the Plough at Rattray, over the river Ericht, where we camped and were assailed by a billion midges, although we were later rescued and invited to stay in real beds by a hospitable local man called Bert. The Stewarts came into the Plough one day, and after some stunning singing from Belle, Cathie and Sheila in that tiny room, Alex followed on with his wonderful pipe marches, and we realised why the pipes were designed for outdoor use! John 'Hoddan' MacDonald, the Lewis bus driver, was another new experience, with his Gaelic singing, while a young Shetland fiddle player called Alistair Bain was allowed to join in with us. As we would now, we always made room for other musicians, but lest you think I view all this through the proverbial rose-coloured specs, I do recall listening to a great traveller singer (whose name escapes me) singing the Rigs o' Rye beautifully in such a session, and his being drowned out by a loud shanty singer and chorus. He eventually gave up, and we gently asked the chorus why it had happened, only to be told, "Ewan MacColl says he's the best shanty singer in Scotland." Would it happen now? Maybe it would, sadly.
Another memory is that the Northern Ireland Troubles were erupting in that period, and we did not really know what a 'Fenian' tune was, so, innocently playing our music for the Scots-Irish travellers in the Ericht Hotel, our failure to play the 'right tune' in the pub ended in a melee, with ashtrays flying and us beating a puzzled retreat. Having said that, I recall very little trouble of any kind. Our own music was generally better received than it had been in the Ericht, and we played for the dancing at the Wellmeadow stage with the Mona Stewart Ceilidh Band, the late John Mason being her lead fiddle. Mona is still singing and playing piano down in Newton Stewart, incidentally, and John, of course, came to lead the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra with some style. Other memories include Ted Furey, father of the Fureys of Dublin, sitting in the Wellmeadow at 9 a.m after a late night session, waiting with his fiddle for the next tune. It was another revelation that he and Davy Stewart greeted each other as old pals, having busked the fairs and markets of Ireland together many years before.
After the 1967 festival we met, via folk club connections, Finbar and Eddie Furey and Christy Moore, and they went up with us in 1968. Christy still remembers seeing Davy Stewart busking in a shop doorway in Coupar Angus on the way north, but is less clear about the time when he, myself and Trevor Sheridan busked outside Woolworths in Blair and were moved on by the 'polis'. The 'polis' told us we would do better up the street, and he was right.
Davie Glen of Angus, the heavily bearded diddler, kilt wearer and Jew's harp specialist, was a real 'one-off', and to actually meet the great Tom Anderson of Shetland knocked our socks off!
One controversial TMSA decision led to the introduction of competitions in 1968. This was continuing the conscious parallels with the Irish fleadh, the idea being to attract an element of singers and musicians who would not attend a pub session but might go to a competition. I shall leave it to others to judge its success over the years but, personally, I had resolved to stay out of it in 1968. To no avail. I was located and dragged out of the Vic to compete, as there were no entrants for melodeon. I duly won, and missed most of an excellent session - but, as valuable compensation, I now can treasure a winners' certificate, signed by Tom Anderson, even if the competition was a little sparse!
Looking back on those days, a lot of those weekends are a blur, but the whole community feel of it is still the over-riding memory. I think the 'stars' got a pound a day and their keep, and while that basic principle still applies at most TMSA events (I think?) we are all more world-weary now, and the issue of dozens of CDs per week can never be a substitute for a live performance of the Dowie Dens Of Yarrow by a traveller who 'had it from the family'. I know some TMSA committees are well aware of this, and try hard enough to retain the best of the past and the tradition we all experienced, (or even lived?) in those days, while moving with the times, although sometimes, in the latter case, maybe only to please funding sources? However, to be fair, we do all live in a very different world, where there are University degrees in folk music, and people make a living (mostly with difficulty) out of the music. It is hard to reconcile all that with Blair 1967 and the sheer joy of it all but, above all else, we 'Border Lowpers' learned that the community aspect of tradition is crucial - it is not just songs and music, there is a lot more to it than that, and we would all do well to remember that fact, especially those who now have any teaching responsibility.
The Blairgowrie festivals came to an end in 1970 and, at a crucial time for the TMSA, were rescued by the late lamented John Watt, a founder member who proudly carried TMSA card No 2, and who successfully moved the whole shebang to Kinross for several more years in 1971. He later, as the 'Muchty Megastar' with another Blair original, Citty Finlayson, was at the heart of the Auchtermuchty festival, started by Citty's husband Sandy and Pete Shepheard in 1981. This festival was based on the wonderful precedent of the Blairgowrie festivals of 1966-1970, a template followed by Jimmy Hutchison to this day. The crowds may be at big festivals further south, but for me, the heart of the music still beats strongly in the East of Scotland.
We were so lucky to be at those seminal Blairgowrie festivals, and it comes as no surprise that they have acquired legendary status. As you may have gathered, I had a wonderful time. My only regret is that I missed 1966 and cannot remember why!
Jim Bainbridge - 12.3.13
This article is taken from At Hame Wi' Freedom: Essays On Hamish Henderson And The Scottish Folk Revival (including minor corrections as published in Living Tradition magazine Issue 96, March 2013), edited by Eberhard Bort. Grace Note Publications. ISBN: 978-1-907676-17-8. Reproduced here with their kind permission.
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