Davie Stewart

Davie Stewart

Greentrax CDTRAX 9052

The 1978 vinyl album of recordings of Davie Stewart has now been reissued by Greentrax in their 'Classics from Scotland' series.  The booklet notes on this re-issue are an exact reproduction of the original sleeve notes.  Cover pictureHamish Henderson gives very full and interesting notes on all the songs, but there is no word of biography on this very important figure, so let me first try and correct this omission.

Davie Stewart was born in 1901, the son and grandson of two Robert Stewarts, both travelling tinsmiths and hawkers, in the Buchan area ... nobody seems to be exactly sure where.  He followed the classic Aberdeenshire pattern of winters in towns, Aberdeen and Frazerburgh, where he went to school in the winter (completing his formal education at the age of nine!) and spending the spring and summers travelling "up the Dee and doon the Don" and following the traditional traveller occupations of horse-trading, pearl fishing, casual farm work, rag and scrap iron collecting.  As early as the age of seven he would spend some times separated from his own family, and surviving by begging and hawking.  Music soon suggested itself as a source of income and by the age of ten he was making some of his living as a busking street singer.

He was only thirteen when World War I broke out and he enlisted twice at that age before being sought out and brought home by his father.  However as a sixteen year old he did manage to join the Gordon Highlanders.  He was wounded in action three times before he was transferred to a pipe band, where he had tuition to supplement the knowledge of the pipes that he had learned by ear from other travellers.

He was demobbed at the age of 20 and went back to the travelling and busking life with accordion and pipes now supplementing the singing.  A couple of years later he met up with another of the great traveller singers, Jimmy MacBeath and they formed a friendship that would last the rest of their lives.  Sometimes, they travelled together, the one 'bottling' as the other performed, sometimes going their separate ways.

By the early 1930's with the Great Depression at its height and the changes that were to make the travelling life in Scotland much more difficult already underway, Davie followed many of his friends and relations to the Scots travellers' great Nirvana.....

"I think I'll go to Paddy's land, I'm making up my mind,
For Scotland's fairly altered noo, I can hardly raise the wind."
He travelled and sang all over Ireland and found the crowds that were flocking to the Gaelic football and hurling games on Sundays a lucrative audience for his busking.  He married Molly from the Cork area and did not return to Scotland until 1950 and settled at first in Dundee.  He was living there when he first came into contact with the folk song collectors.

You don't need a lot of contact with Scottish travellers before you discover that all their talk is full of bynames.  Their already rich speech patterns are very much enhanced by all their vivid nicknames; 'Pipe Empty', 'Half a Sark', 'The Iron Man', 'Burnt Bonnet'.  etc.  Hamish Henderson was collecting from Jeannie Robertson and her circle of friends and relatives in Aberdeen around 1953.  When he asked for names of good singers, musicians and story tellers that would be worth recording, 'The Galoot' was a name that cropped up all the time.  It was Jeannie's husband that was able to supply Davie's real name and Dundee address in Peddie Street as a result of Hamish's enquiry.  (This is one of Hamish's stories of how he first came in contact with Davie Stewart - elsewhere he writes that he first encountered him busking with his pipes outside a pub in the Canongate in Edinburgh.)

Davie was universally known as 'the Galoot' amongst Scots travellers.  I think I also heard him called 'Shooting Hill Davie' unless I am getting him confused with another 'auld Davie Stewart'.  'Galoot' or 'cooloot' seems to imply 'fool' or 'simpleton' in traveller cant so this name was not used to his face; I'll return to this byname later.

In 1962 Davie moved to Glasgow living in Maryhill and Possil Park, busking cinema and football queues and he was increasingly taken up by the folk revival.  He was regular at the TMSA festivals from their inception at Blairgowrie and he became a member of The Great Fife Roadshow with the likes of Jimmy Hutchison, Pete Shepheard, John Watt and the young Davie Stewart (no relation) playing folk clubs, village halls and that sort of thing.  He was enticed down to London to record for the BBC for a radio series produced by René Cutforth.  Unfortunately, his decision to take his melodeon out busking meant that his night was less comfortable than it might have been, in a police cell rather than a West End hotel room.  However, the generosity of the London crowds to buskers attracted him and he did return.  My favourite Davie Stewart story (and I do hope it's true!) is of him busking outside one of those wonderful record stalls that use to blast out Ska, Rock-Steady and early Reggae on Jamaican imports in the mid-sixties in Electric Avenue in Brixton.  The sound systems were closed now as the Rastas clustered in amazement around this wonder.

Davie died in 1972 in St Andrews where he had gone to sing at the folk club.  The last part of an obituary by Hamish Henderson is a fine tribute to him.  "The very large attendance at his funeral in Dundee bore witness to the real love and affection in which Davie was held, not only by hundreds of his own folk, but also by the entire Scottish folk-song revival."

In a form of music that is mainly about continuity and convention, it is a rarity to come across an innovator, a rule-breaker; Davie Stewart was just such a character.  He deserves the overused word, 'unique'; they made Davie and then they broke the mould.  Yet even all these years, it seems difficult to describe just why I consider this pivotal figure so important.  Let's start off with what he isn't.  To some ears, he isn't going to be the world's best singer; I am listening to this album many times after listening many times to the Lomax/Jeannie Robertson recordings.  Compared with her beauty, Davie sounds as though his singing is being wrenched and tortured out of him, but for all that, there is a compulsive force in way he delivers the story of his ballads.  He isn't the greatest melodeon player.  When he is playing tunes, he drives the melody as powerfully as any but his timing is a bit jumpy, and the bass end is not following the conventional harmony rules.  He repeats the dominant chord even when the structure of the tune has obviously changed; perhaps he was primarily a piper who would have been happier with the constant drone of the pipes.  His song accompaniments on melodeon or piano accordion have a peculiar otherworldly effect.  It is weird and wonderful stuff.  The real question is whether it is mostly the former or the latter.

One of the most heated arguments I ever remember having was about Davie with one of Ewan MacColl's Critics Group.  The discussion had been about songs being accompanied in the tradition and the impression that my protagonist was giving was that he had rather that Margaret Barry, The McPeakes, etc. hadn't happened, because this soured the true picture of an unaccompanied tradition.  I introduced Davie's name into the discussion and was told that Davie Stewart was "irrelevant" as he was "technically inept".  Why do I remember these words so clearly after 25 years?  Why do they still hurt like a knife wound?

Something about this man's music is so important to me that I wouldn't, as a young man, play Sound Clipbe able to admit to the faults as I have done in the previous paragraph.  Let's listen to the 'weird and wonderful' singing of The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.  (sound clip)  In delivering the story, the singer is using a wide range of effects that have a profound emotional effect.  You could put no time signature to this.  Each note, each vowel and consonant sound is accorded is own length and power.  If the words needs to change to heighten the effect then so be it, so it sounds like "Go home, gaa hum ..." on this verse.  The melodeon swirls below the voice, generally with long held notes but occasionally punching a single note effect as at the end of the first line of this clip, not following strict musical rules, but following Davie's rules and wonderfully adding to the effect.  Whilst the voice breathes at the end of the verse, the effect is carried on in the haunting link phrases on the melodeon; they are never the same twice.

For those of us who wanted to believe passionately in an oral tradition, here was the best living example.  Davie was fully of the tradition and yet he created within it and that's how the new versions developed.  I remember once at Kinross hearing him delivering another of his truly passionate pieces, Bogie's Bonny Belle.  His knowledgeable audience was hearing that Belle and her tinker partner were selling "pots and pans and paraffin lamps" so they knew they were on the last verse, but Davie was enjoying himself too much to stop, so we had three more verses speculating about what else they might have been selling; pegs, paper flowers, and expanding on the tinker's ware to augment the tilly pans and ladles.  The electric atmosphere, the look on those listening faces is something that I'll never forget.  I feel sure that there's another example on this album.  He is singing The Jolly Beggar in Hamish's kitchen.  play Sound ClipNow, I'll wager that some folklorist has told Davie that there is speculation that the central character in this ballad is King James IV, 'the Gaberlunzie King'.  Is that the case?  Let's put that in.  (sound clip)  I may be wrong, but I don't think any version actually puts the king's name in.  Just to top this off, this version ends with a final verse to suggest that it might be a good point to break off the recording session and have a cup of tea.

It wasn't just that extra verses appeared within songs, the position of the words against the melody changed with every performance and if extra words or phrases appear, then the melody will just have to do what it can to fit in.  play Sound ClipHis version of The Overgate was similar in structure to Belle Stewart's, but Belle's usually came out about the same.  With Davie you knew it was going to be different each time.  (sound clip)

At those TMSA festival concerts, Davie was a star where no star system was meant to exist.  He was simply so good in front of an audience that people responded accordingly.  The delivery of his comic pieces like The Daft Piper invariably brought the house down.  And yet we were always on the edge.  Davy left us in doubt.  Was he for real?  Was he fully in control or was he the 'galoot' he sometimes appeared to be?  At times I can remember thinking that this was an image that he was putting on and that I felt uncomfortable with it.  At this distance my thoughts are different.  His life as a street performer in urban Scotland could not have been an easy one.  There must have been many potentially dangerous situations.  Perhaps it was best to appear a bit 'saft-heided'.  His musical talent would then be less of a threat to potentially violent men; his apparent vulnerability may just have enticed a few more pennies out of the purses of sympathetic women.

His canntaireachd, as included here, was as good as any I've heard.  As well as those, Boolavogue and The Merchant's Son sound stunning listening to them again here.  I can remember feeling slightly disappointed in this album when it first appeared.  Davie was such an overpowering vibrant singer to be in the presence of that any mere recording was bound to be a disappointment.  Thank goodness that these and other recordings exist to give us an inkling of that incredible vigour.

Vic Smith - 3.11.99

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