Comment - No 3
But it came as an enormous shock to learn that, at the age of only 63, Hampshire's Dave Williams - musician, singer, storyteller, collector, MT contributor and all-round nice man - had died of a sudden heart attack on the same day.
For me, the shock of Dave's death was heightened by the fact that I received a 'draft - for consideration and comment' by post from him the morning after his death. I read it through over breakfast and, about half an hour later, had a phone call from Doc Rowe telling me the news. "But I've only just had a letter from him!" was all I could manage as a first response.
Later, re-reading Dave's piece, it struck me that it so perfectly summed up everything that the man was about, that I would ask permission of his family to publish it 'as is' - a fitting memorial to a man who cared very deeply about what might be seen as the unfashionable end of folk music. You can find 'Working with a Melodeon in the Wider Community' on the Enthusiasms Page.
Obituaries for Belle by Sheila Douglas, and for Dave by Paul Marsh, follow below:
With the passing of Belle Stewart of Blairgowrie, Scotland has lost one of the last great oral tradition bearers of its ballads and folktales, a great lady, loved and admired by many people the world over, who was honoured by the Queen for her services to her country's culture and who will be sorely missed.
Belle was born in 1906, the daughter of Donald (Dan) MacGregor and Martha Stewart, of the travelling people. These were descendants of a caste of nomadic craftsmen who had once made the weapons and ornaments that went with the Highland dress of the ancient clans. In other words, these metal workers had a place and a function in Highland society that was only destroyed by historical change.
Donald MacGregor was a tinsmith, a pearlfisher and reputed to be the best ballad singer in Perthshire among the travellers. Belle had two older brothers, Donald and Andy, who were to be a major influence on her life, as she lost her father when she was only seven months old. Her mother, fearful of having her children taken into care by the authorities, took a house in Blairgowrie, a single-end on the site of what is now the police station. Thus Belle grew up in a house, and it was only when she was a young woman and married her second cousin Alec Stewart that she travelled periodically with him in Ireland.
Belle's childhood was, like Betsy Whyte's, a mixture of rowans and honey, the bitter and the sweet. "School was pure hell" she told me, because traveller children were despised and bullied, and she only had about two years of schooling all told, but was nevertheless quite literate. She was surrounded by love in her family and much of her time was spent accompanying her mother on hawking trips up the Perthshire glens, carried on the top of her pack. She grew up a bonnie, blue-eyed girl, with long fair curls. Once she accompanied her mother to Cortachy Castle, when one of her brothers had been knocked down by the car of a member of the Ogilvy family, who was concerned to know if he had recovered. On that occasion, Belle told me how she heard the swish of silken skirts as the Dowager Countess of Airlie came into the room and stroked her curls, as she talked to her mother, and gave her a box of ribbons and her mother a tablecloth filled with the leftovers of a banquet. The travellers always had a good relationship with the old Perthshire gentry.
Belle first went to Ireland with her two brothers in the 1920s, at the invitation of Alec's family, who were already over there and finding the pearlfishing very much to their liking. She had known Alec as a child, but now they were in their late teens, and very much attracted to each other. They fell in love and were married in Ballymoney in 1925. Alec's family were all pipers, dancers, singers and storytellers and his father was among the best champion pipers in Scotland. Belle, whose family were not pleased about her getting married in Ireland, returned to Blairgowrie for the birth of her first son, John, and tended to go back and forward between the two countries, as her family increased, with a daughter, Cathy, a son, Andy, a daughter Sheila, and an adopted daughter, Rena. Eventually Alec agreed to settle down in Blairgowrie, one of the great fruit-growing areas of Scotland, where they were later to own a berryfield, and thereafter, they were together for a lifetime. One thing Belle did love about Ireland was its songs, many of which found a place in her repertoire.
Belle first came to the notice of the folk world when Hamish Henderson asked local journalist, Maurice Fleming, to look for the composer of a song called 'The Berryfields of Blair', which he had heard sung by a North East singer. Maurice very quickly found Belle and her family, and recorded them for the School of Scottish Studies sound archive. Belle's songwriting originated in her family's tradition of always composing songs or poems for occasions like Hogmanay or family weddings. While many of her songs were comic, she also wrote a very moving lament for her two brothers, who tragically died within a week of each other, leaving her utterly bereft.
Maurice and Hamish soon discovered that she had inherited many of her father's ballads and songs, through her brothers, Donald and Andy, and that she had the travellers' wonderfully emotive Highland was of singing - a quality she called 'the coniach', a word of Gaelic origin translated by Dr John MacInnes as 'an intensity of melody'. Much of Belle's repertoire was recorded for the archives, where it is to be hoped they can be made accessible to singers who want to hear the true voice of tradition. Even on a recording of Belle, you can sense the light in her eye and the warmth in her heart. After that, she and her family became popular on the folk scene, invited everywhere, their fame spreading across the sea to Europe and America.
Belle and I first met about 1963, brought together by a song she sang that mentioned my father's native Dalry in Ayrshire. From her I learned so much: not only songs and how to sing them, stories and how to tell them, but also wisdom handed down through the generations among the travelling people whom I came to respect and love. Visiting her house became one of the greatest pleasures and privileges of my life. Over the years we had many a good ceilidh by her fireside or by ours, and shared many experiences on the folk scene. Belle's humour was always a spice to any occasion and it was something she retained to the end. Her gift for words delighted me. She would never say prosaically that someone was daft or had a hangover or that things in life could change. "He's ae slate loose an anither yin slidin" might be her phrase, or "he was in the doldrums o' the drink" or "the king may come the cadger's road some day". She had a fund of scurrilous but very funny riddles and could deliver a bawdy song with verve and honesty.
Two vivid memories I have of her will serve as example of the wonderful sense of irony she had. The first was at a meeting of Blairgowrie Civic Trust, where she had been invited to talk about her childhood. "I was born in 1906 in a tent on the banks of the Tay at Caputh", she told them. Their eyes glazed over in the attempt to reconcile these words with the elegant lady who stood before them. On another occasion I was invited to a World Congress of University Women at Stirling University, to talk on song tradition and took Belle with me. After my spiel, she stood up, sang, smiled and talked effortlessly for an hour, without notes or any hesitation, and totally charmed that international gathering. Her closing remarks were, "It's a great privilege for an old travelling woman like myself to speak to ladies of your standing. You see, I can't put words together, the way you can!" As an American in the front row expressed it to the rest, "Who is she kidding?" Over and over again I saw her put others in the shade because she shone so brightly. It is hard to think of that light being extinguished.
Belle's importance as a source singer led to her becoming known, not only in Scotland, through Hamish Henderson and the Traditional Music and Song Association, founded by a group of enthusiasts led by Pete Shepheard, who ran their first festival significantly in Blairgowrie, but also in England, where the family was introduced to the folk scene by the late Ewan MacColl, who also involved them in the Radio Ballad on the travellers. Ewan was later to produce a book that dealt with her song repertoire, shared with her daughters, in the context of the family's history, and also included stories riddles, proverbs and cures.
I was particularly close to Belle and her family during the time her husband Alec suffered from the leukaemia from which he died in 1981. It was also the time in which I was recording their family history and story repertoire, which led to the publication of the story collection, The King o' the Black Art, by Aberdeen University Press in 1987. I had been fascinated by their stories since the early 1970s, when I included a storytelling session in the programme of Perth Folk Festival. Belle and Alec had stories both local and international, supernatural and factual, fables, tall tales and Burker stories. Through hearing them, I came to understand why the travellers say "these stories were our education", because they pass on the wisdom, the beliefs, the attitudes and values of their forebears.
In the sleeve notes to the Topic record of 'The Stewarts of Blair' made in 1965, Hamish Henderson wrote, 'collecting on the berryfields was like holding a tin can under the Niagrara Falls. However, when we got back to Auld Reekie and began sizing up what we had collected, it was clear that the really fabulous contribution had been made not so much by the nomadic travellers among whom we had camped as by the Stewart family of Berrybank, the aiders and abettors of the whole operation'. This highlights the fact that even among travellers, the Stewarts stand head and shoulders above the rest, and emphasises that its great strength is that it is a family tradition. Belle has always been generous of spirit, introducing collectors to relatives and friends who had songs to sing and tales to tell. The sleeve notes also make it clear that Belle was singing songs that belonged not to some separate and exotic travellers' tradition, but to the Scottish heritage that too many of us had chosen to neglect, but which the travellers in their wisdom had cherished and kept alive. There is no doubt that in the Folksong Revival, Belle did an enormous amount to attract young people back to the roots of their own culture.
As a singer, Belle performed with a natural grace and ease that concealed great artistry, always singing from the heart. Whether she was singing a muckle sang or a bothy ballad, a sad lament or a comic bawdy song, she always regarded the song as what mattered most of all. I have sat with her on the adjudicator's bench at festivals and heard her say about some technically brilliant singer who nevertheless failed to move the listener, "She has nae got the coniach". I watched her many times face an audience and instinctively decide what to say to them, what to sing for them, and it was always just right. She told me once with a chuckle how she had misjudged an audience in the States, when she was singing a song called Mickey's Warning, about a drunken, violent husband, and jokingly told them that it was about Alec. They took her seriously and would hardly speak to Alec after the concert!
Belle has been feted and honoured in many countries, and was described by folklorist Frank Vallee as 'the most majestic person I have ever seen'. Her ninetieth birthday was marked by a unique celebration in Blairgowrie, where the family was given the finest venue for the event by the town. After a life in which she had seen half the world, been recorded, filmed and featured on radio and television, Belle still loved her 'ain wee toon o Blair', which she had made famous in her song about the berryfields. She loved the Perthshire countryside all around, where she said "you could wander wi nae coo, nae care", and she had many stories from the glens, inherited from her mother, that glinted with sunlight and burn water. She knew other parts of Scotland as well, being particularly fond of the West Highlands, where she and Alec would go every summer. Whenever anyone miscalls the travelling people, I think on this wonderful, perceptive, eloquent and gifted lady it has been my privilege to call friend for so many years. No one who knew her could ever look on another traveller through the eyes of prejudice and this is perhaps what we owe to her most of all.
Belle's family connections stretch to many other parts of Scotland, notably the North East, where many descendants of the James Stewart who went over the Devil's Elbow into Deeside, have become famous as sources, like Lucy Stewart, Jeannie Robertson, her daughter Lizzie Higgins, and her nephew Stanley, Jane Turriff and Elizabeth Stewart. When you trace these lines back, you find that Perthshire seems to be the heartland from where it all began. In the light of this, Belle does seem to be indeed 'The Queen among the Heather'. She is survived by her daughters Sheila and Cathy and three younger generations.
David Arthur Williams was born December 11th 1934 in the hamlet of Pooks Green, near Marchwood on the edge of the New Forest, Hampshire. Music and entertainment was in his blood. His maternal grandfather played viola for theatres and circuses, his maternal great-aunt led a ladies' orchestra and his father, Arthur, is still active as a singer and harmonica player in the community though now in his mid-eighties.
Pooks Green and nearby Marchwood was an area rich in songs, music and traditions. Dr. George Gardiner noted several songs there in the early 1900s during his collecting work. In Dave's formative years he learned a lot from his older neighbours, many of whom were active singers or musicians in the community, and could still remember who lived in which cottage and what instruments and songs they were known for. Surrounded by such inspiration and with his father playing harmonica and singing songs that he remembered from his 'old dad', Dave's musical direction and interests were forged.
Dave was a man of many talents - community entertainer, singer, caller, Compère, musician, broadcaster, mummer, folklore collector, musical instrument and toy maker. Although I think his greatest talent was his ability to encourage others to fulfil a potential that he believed was there but they often didn't recognise in themselves. Perhaps best known for his melodeon playing, Dave also played guitar, banjo, ukulele, concertina and mouth-organ and could pick up almost any instrument and get a tune out of it. He could make flutes out of plastic plumbing pipe or intricate and skilfully crafted musical instruments out of the most beautiful woods, draw cartoons, tell stories - but most of all he was a persuader. Who else would cajole a room full of people, out for the evening, in dinner jackets and evening dresses into joining in the fun while he played and sang The Grand Old Duke of York. 'When they were up', they all stood up, 'when they were down', they all sat down and when they were neither ... there was always at least one, often the chairman or some other official, who got it wrong and this allowed Dave to genially humiliate them, much to the merriment of the others.
He was generous with his talents and his ideas. He was a developer - and after a festival or event he would often write to the organisers saying how much he'd enjoyed it but "enclosed are a few ideas that you might like to consider for next year". With his endless creativity, boundless enthusiasm and his philosophy: "we can do that!" he was an inspiration to many. He submitted articles to 'Musical Traditions' and was a regular contributor to the letters page of several magazines.
Equally at home leading a children's band workshop, being the arena compere at Sidmouth Festival or singing at a local day care centre for the elderly, his ability to communicate and enthuse plus his eclectic and uncompromising view of what comprised 'traditional folk music' gives us many great memories - though his choice of material must sometimes have ruffled a few feathers.
It was in the late fifties and early sixties that he became involved in the burgeoning folk revival. His early influences included Jesse Fuller and Django Reinhardt. With his friend, Vic Wilton, also of Pooks Green, on the banjo and Dave playing guitar, they formed skiffle groups, amongst them 'The Test Valley Skiffle Group' and later 'The Brazos River Ramblers'. They widened their musical horizons playing and singing at pubs and jazz clubs in their area including the popular Haywain events at Cadnam and the Yellow Dog Jazz Club at the Portswood Hotel, where Dave met his future wife, Christine. At that time he was also exposed to the step-dancing and singing of the traveller population of the New Forest, and to Irish music brought into the local pubs by contract workers across from Ireland to work on the building of the Power station at Marchwood. Out of this musical activity came the first of Southampton's folk clubs, the Balladeer, which met at the first Concorde Club in the Bassett Hotel and here Dave and Vic joined Pete Mills to form the first of several folk groups, The Balladeers. Later the trio helped to launch the Fo'c's'le Club at the Bay Tree Inn, which more than three decades later is still going strong at another venue.
Dave believed passionately in people. When local events needed support he could search out the hidden talent within the community and hone it into a performance. He spent huge amounts of time and energy organising, publicising and oft-times running fund-raisings, charity events, musical evenings, carol concerts etc. Entertaining regularly at day centres for the elderly, W.l. meetings and hospices, he especially enjoyed working with children in local schools and encouraged them to form bands, dance groups etc. He saw no cultural barriers and once put together an evening of Indian musicians, Polish dancers, Irish stepdancers and Morris dancers in a shopping mall while people thronged to watch whilst taking a break from shopping. He was a great champion of local talent and there are many nationally known entertainers and bands that have been brought to the fore by Dave.
He used his career in the fields of building, computing and electronics, which sometimes involved world travel, to further his musical interests and once brought back harmonicas from an up-market Tokyo department store that he had 'tested' by playing selections of popular tunes to the delight and astonishment of the staff and shoppers. He enjoyed playing the older tunes that he recalled from the village socials: veletas, quicksteps, St. Bernard's Waltz, Paul Jones and so on. He had a wide taste in music but always loved to hear 'the real thing' be it an old boy squeezing an almost forgotten tune out of a melodeon in a day centre or the top notch playing of the Tex-Mex musicians with whom he played at the Broken Spoke Saloon bar while on a business trip to Texas.
He was for many years a regular and very popular guest on 'Albert's Gang', the live Saturday morning children's programme on BBC Radio Solent. Through this he became well known in the wider community. He was a partner in the local record label 'Forest Tracks', where his wide knowledge of local music and musicians led to the issuing of some great recordings, amongst them the dulcimer player, Jimmy Cooper, and melodeon player, Stan Seaman. He encouraged the formation of the New Forest Mummers and took an active part for many years. Later he was a musician with the somewhat unconventional City Morris in Winchester.
Dave travelled again to Japan in 1995, this time at the invitation of a contact he made during an earlier trip. There he worked with schools, teachers, and community groups across the country. His communication skills coming to the fore when sharing the delights of making his simple home-made toys bird calls, cotton reel tractors, clothes peg dolls or singing One Man Went to Mow, If I Were a Blackbird or Green Grow the Rushes O and the like.
In 1994 he took the 'Banjo Boys' along to the National Festival at Sutton Bonnington and the following year Stan Seaman went with him. Dave was especially pleased that Stan was the subject of an American documentary filmed this summer around Buckler's Hard and the Beaulieu river, where Stan spent his life, and Sidmouth Festival where Stan was a guest. This all went faultlessly thanks to Dave's organising and planning long before the cameras rolled. The film will hopefully be seen in this country at some time in the future. We had a memorable session with Stan in the Volunteer Inn, Sidmouth on the Tuesday lunchtime and Dave was in fine form.
I last saw him in his dungarees aboard his trusty bicycle pedalling of to his next children's workshop. It seems almost unbelievable that such a larger than life and familiar figure has gone from our lives. Dave had a gift for 'discovering' talent wherever he went and was a walking database of information - if he didn't know where you could find it whatever you might be looking for, he knew someone who could tell you. Dave will be greatly missed by the many thousands of people, young and old, whose lives he touched at barn dances, concerts, workshops and charitable events over the last forty years. Our hearts go out to his widow Christine and the other members of his family. Dave Williams will indeed be a very hard act to follow.
The family have set up a memorial fund in Dave's memory and donations can be made to: The David Williams Memorial Fund, c/o H. Powell & Son, Eling Lane, Totton, Nr. Southampton, Hants. (Money donated will be distributed between Charities and Institutions that Dave supported.)
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