1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh

Various performers
The Alan Lomax Collection Series

Rounder CD 1786

The Hairst O Rettie - John Strachan; Skippin Barfit Through The Heather - Jessie Murray; The Tay Bridge Disaster - Hamish Henderson (introduction); The Gallant Forty Twa - Jimmy MacBeath; Blue Bonnets Over The Border - John Burgess (Bagpipes) 02:13; Great My Joy - Hamish Henderson (introduction); Oran Eile Don Phrionnsa - Calum Johnson; Mo run geal og (My fair young love) - Flora MacNeill; Failte Rudha Bhatairnis - John Burgess (Bagpipes); The Bonny Lass O Fyvie - John Strachan; Mormond Braes - John Strachan; Not Just Elderly People - Hamish Henderson (introduction); I'm A Young Bonny Lassie - Blanche Wood; The Ale Hoose - Jessie Murray; The Big Stuff - Hamish Henderson (introduction); Barbara Allen - Jessie Murray; Johnnie O Braidislie - John Strachan; Lord Thomas and Fair Ellen - Jessie Murray; Tea and Cakes - Hamish Henderson (introduction); Too Good To Stop At Ten O'Clock - Hamish Henderson (introduction); Donald MacLean/The Irish Washerwoman - John Burgess (Bagpipes); Erin Go Bragh - John Strachan; Portnockie Road - Blanche Wood; The Reid Road - Blanche Wood; The Moss O Burreldale - Jimmy MacBeath; Co Siod Thall Air Sraid Na H-Eala? - Flora MacNeill; Mo Nighean Donn Bhòidheach - Flora MacNeill; Fuirich An Diugh Gus Am Maireach - Calum Johnson; I Don't Think We Should Sing Any More - John Strachan and Hamish Henderson (introduction); Jimmy Raeburn - Jessie Murray; A Great Song At That - Hamish Henderson (introduction); Oran Do Mhacleoid Dhunbheagain - Calum Johnson; Hamish Once Wrote A Song - Mrs Budge; The John MacLean March - Mrs Budge and Hamish Henderson; Scots, Wha Hae - Hamish Henderson et al.
Cover pictureI know that I have read many times about the People's Festival Ceilidhs in Edinburgh and their formative influence in the Scots Folk Revival that began in the 1950s.  The first three books that I pulled out of my shelves provided good illustrations of this.  Firstly, here's what Ailie Munro had to say in The Democratic Muse (1996):
Since the start of the Edinburgh Festival in 1947 various people had felt that traditional Scottish culture should be represented in it, and many informal ceilidhs had sprouted in private houses and flats.  These were very different from the more official 'folk' events which took place under the Festival umbrella.  The official attitude can be assessed by the notes on a play performed in 1947 which included 'folksong arrangements of great felicity... and sung with natural charm by an octet of fine voices' (my italics).  Such well-meaning attempts were soon shown to be travesties of the genuine article as revealed by the late-night ceilidhs, especially those occurring after Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl's Theatre Workshop performances (1948-53).  Many citizens welcomed to their homes not only local enthusiasts but also visiting folk musicians, singers, actors, poets, artists and - a constant ingredient of this mixture - those who were predominantly listeners, all hungrily absorbing this 'new' musical experience.

In 1951 the Edinburgh Labour Festival Committee was set up, with representatives from the Labour Party, the Edinburgh Trades Council, various Trade Unions (especially the Musicians' Union), the Co-operative Movement, and a few Scottish members of the Workers' Music Association including Janey Buchan.  They had two specific ends in view: firstly to try and modify the elitist nature of the Festival, which meant arguing about the high prices of tickets, and secondly to include working-class culture as well as high art under the same Festival aegis.  Norman Buchan recalls how he went round Trade Union branches talking on the importance of cultural activities, and spoke to dockers from the back of a horse-drawn lorry in Leith Docks as well as to workers on a building site.  He found an enthusiastic response from all labour organisations.

Hamish Henderson was asked to arrange a People's Festival Ceilidh; Martin Milligan was the organiser, assisted by Mary Black, wife of the Rev Calum Black from lona.  They booked Theatre Workshop to return, this time with the famous peace play Uranium 235.

The first People's Festival Ceilidh took place in the Oddfellows Hall, on 31 August 1951.  Alan Lomax was there and recorded nearly all the evening's items.  The Ceilidh 'had the explicit aim of entering the lists, as far as the official Festival was concerned, by saying, "Look what we have here in Scotland - and up to now it hasn't received any attention from the big Festival - this fantastic tradition of popular culture, both Gaelic and Scots...and here it is!'"  There were Gaelic singers Flora MacNeil and Calum Johnston from Barra, Jimmy MacBeath from the North-East, piper John Burgess, and prosperous Fyvie farmer John Strachan who knew some of the big ballads, the muckle sangs.

Norman Buchan was one of those for whom this was an entirely new experience, a revelation: 'I was indeed "bowled over", in fact that's an understatement.' His most memorable impression was of Jessie Murray from Buckie: '... a little old lady dressed in black, sang a song I've never forgotten ... it was the most fragile and delicate and beautiful tune I'd ever heard ... Skippin' Barfit Through the Heather ... it seemed to dissolve, to vaporise in the air with an indescribable effect ... marvellous.

When this album arrived, I had no idea (or no recollection) that the People's Ceilidhs had been recorded; I certainly should have done as I am thanked as advisor and proof-reader of Ailie's book in the introduction!  Let's pass on quickly to what Adam MacNaughtan says in The People's Past (1980):
And the hour brought forth the man!  Hamish Henderson.  He worked with Alan Lomax on the collecting tours when so may of the traditional singers who were to become household names were discovered.  With the late Calum McLean he was one of the first apostles of the School of Scottish Studies.  He wrote the revival's finest songs.  And in 1951 and the following years, he arranged the seminal People's Festival Ceilidhs, in which the best of our native traditions, Lowland and Gaelic, were revealed to young city-dwellers.  It was at these ceilidhs that the singing of Jimmy MacBeath and Jeannie Robertson made its impact on the people who were to be responsible for the start of the revival proper, on Ewan MacColl, on Arthur Argo, who was later to start the Aberdeen Folk Club, and on Norman Buchan and Morris Blythman, both of whom actively promoted folk-music in Glasgow schools and were closely involved in the beginnings of the Glasgow Folk Song Club.

The first thing that distinguishes this revival from its predecessors, if we accept the People's Festivals as a starting-point, is the motivation of its begetters; the People's Festivals were conceived as a counterweight to the Edinburgh International Festival with its influx of tourists and culture-vultures when, in the words of Norman Buchan:

Aw Princes Street was in a rout
An' plagued by every kind o" tout.
The rich hae tickets but we're without
They're ower dear at the Festal-o.
Well, having read two accounts of the importance of Hamish Henderson as a prime mover, let's hear what the man himself has to say about this event in Alias Mac Alias (1993):
Soon after the launching of the first Edinburgh International Festival, the idea began to be canvassed of a native popular festival, based on the Scottish working-class movement which would undertake the sort of cultural activity which the 'big' Festival seemed likely to ignore.  In 1951 a committee was formed, on which were represented the Edinburgh City Labour Party, the Trades Council and other bodies.  In many ways this People's Festival Committee was a sort of forerunner of Arnold Wesker's Centre 42.  The organiser was a Communist, Martin Milligan, a man of great brilliance; he had returned a short time before from Oxford, where he had studied philosophy, although his philosophy was hardly of the Establishment kind.  As it turned out, the first folksong ceilidh run by the People's Festival was to be a landmark in the history of the 'folk' revival in Scotland, and its consequences are still with us.

The Barra singers Flora MacNeil and Calum Johnston presented Hebridean folksong, stripped of its Kennedy Fraser mummy-wrappings.  Jimmy MacBeath sang Come A' ye Tramps and Hawkers for the first time on any stage (as opposed to the reeling road, or the booths of Porter Fair).  John Burgess, master piper, played us marches, jigs, strathspeys and reels with all the expertise of Auld Nick at Kirk Alloway.  John Strachan, the Fyvie farmer, and Jessie Murray, the Buckie fishwife, sang versions of classic ballads such as Johnnie o' Breadisley (Child 114) and Lord Thomas and Fair Ellen (Child 73) which convinced even the most sceptical that a noble oral tradition was still with us.  After the Theatre Workshop show was over, Ewan MacColl and Isla Cameron joined us to sing Eppie Morrie and Can Ye Sew Cushions?.  Then the pipes sounded again, and the dancing started.

Later that night - or was it that morning - Jimmy MacBeath stopped in York Place, shook himself loose from the friends who were supporting him home, and lifting his mottled face to the moon, sang The Bleacher Lassie o' Kelvinhaugh.

All over Auld Reekie the ceilidh was continuing.  In a sense, it is continuing still.

I'm sure that I could find more references to it if I looked, but I'm meant to be writing a review, not a thesis so I'll leave it at that.  Anyway, these should be enough to give the flavour of the event and how important they seem in retrospect in precipitating an interest in and respect for the great Scots tradition.

MacColl, Lomax and Henderson were a pretty formidable powerhouse team to have behind any event and there were plenty others wanting to follow the musical and socio-political lead that they were providing.  Given that 1951 was before the likes of Jeannie Robertson, Belle Stewart, Willie Scott and so on has been brought to a wider notice, a really impressive line-up of singers and musicians had been assembled.  Not all of them are heard to their very best advantage; although Lomax manages to get very good results from all the singers, the microphones that he was using were clearly not the best for recording the Highland bagpipes indoors and anyway John Burgess clearly takes the role of providing a bit of light relief between the singers.  If you want to hear this outstanding piper to best effect, his ceol mor and other aspects of his extensive repertoire are available on his solo albums.  To me, hearing him play the likes of The Irish Washerwoman is something of a throwaway.  I would say also that the slightly later Lomax/Henderson recordings of John Strachan find him in better form than he is here.  He sounds very concerned with being entertaining and making his audience laugh and that does impact on his performance.  He starts on The Bonnie Lass O' Fyvie and breaks down saying that he not pitching it right (though it sounds fine to me) and instead he launches into a rollicking version of Mormond Braes (though this does sound pitched too high to me.)

It would be interested to know who chose the items to be sung and played in the concert.  All the pieces are introduced by Hamish as compere and it could be in the case with both Johns that they are not performing their own choice of material.

Having started with some negative comments about two of the performers, I ought quickly to say that there are many inspiring performances here.  play Sound ClipIn the first quotation above, we read how impressed Norman Buchan was by Jessie Murray, the Buckie fishwife.  And in every one of her songs here she reaches the very highest standard; quite unadorned and straightforward but sung with a passionate edge to her voice that is very pleasing.  There has been a smattering of her singing released elsewhere and I think it is this recording of Lord Thomas and Fair Ellen (sound clip) that is heard both on The Muckle Sangs and one of the Child Ballad volumes of The Folk Songs of Great Britain, but the five songs of hers that are included here make glorious listening; a wonderful Barbara Allen and the lovely Skippin' Barfit Through the Heather which had such an impact on Norman.  It's strange to think that by 1971 that song was in the repertoire of virtually every female revival singer in Scotland and certainly became hackneyed and yet it was virtually unknown and made a huge impact twenty years earlier.  Jessie is accompanied at the concert by her niece, Blanche Wood who at 18 was singing beautifully and clearly under the influence of her aunt's style.  The notes inform us that Blanche is still alive and singing though she 'toured working men's clubs in Scotland and England singing "more modern songs".'

Though he had vast experience as a busker and street singer, this was also the first time that the great Jimmy MacBeath sung on the concert stage and apparently it was intended to be the last.  He told Hamish that this was to be his 'swan-song' and ill-health and age were going to prevent him singing in public again.  Fortunately, this was not to be the case and Jimmy sang many more times in the twenty-one years that were left to him.  play Sound ClipIf he had not, I would not have heard the man that I consider to be easily the finest entertainer in front of an audience of all the traditional performers I have ever saw seen; a man with great presence, timing and delivery.  He does sound slightly overawed when he is singing his first song but by the time he has got to The Moss o' Burreldale, he clearly has the audience eating out of his hands (sound clip).  Normally, I find audience reaction on a recording rather irritating, but here I can only smile at the enthusiasm generated by what is clearly a masterful performance.

play Sound ClipThe Gaelic language is well represented here; Calum Johnson is fairly typical of the Island bards that you used to be able to hear in concerts in Edinburgh and his sure tenor delivery of Oran Eile Don Phrionnsa, clearly a very demanding piece show him to be a very fine singer, but inevitably he is overshadowed by one of Gaeldom's very finest.  Flora MacNeill of Barra gives very moving performances here and in Mo run geal og (sound clip) she would also be fitting in with the political thrust of the ceilidh in chiding Bonny Prince Charlie for the ruination that he has brought to the Highlands.  Like Jimmy she is clearly at the height of her powers singing more strongly than in the years when they both delighted audiences at the TMSA festivals.

We don't know what proportion of the concert the 71 minutes of this CD represents, but it does seem a fairly remarkable achievement, given the lack of any precedence.  We get a lot of Hamish's introductions - even telling us where to get tea and cakes in the interval and where all the performers are going to decamp to after the concert.  I suppose these could have been edited out, but they do help the flavour of the whole and he is an excellent compere.  He could be an irritating and obsessive man, but he was a walking encyclopaedia of Scots traditional song and music and his introductions to the songs and singers are reminder of his wonderful way with words and what a sure and compelling speaker he was with that distinctive, soft speaking voice.

It is very pleasing to be able to report that one again, Ewan MacVicar has transcribed the (English) words and prepared the booklet and any criticism that I could make of it would sound like - well, it would be - nit-picking.  It is well researched, succinctly written and very informative.  He tells us of the impact that the initial People's Festival had and how the following year was even more successful but that it fell victim to our own imported version of McCarthyism and that its strong Communist connections started to be condemned by the Scottish TUC so that a withdrawal of financial support meant that the last People's Festival was in 1954.  Nevertheless, many important seeds were sown during these years; the entire vast movement that has become the Edinburgh Festival Fringe had its origins here and nearly all the performers and organisers here were to pioneer approaches and attitudes that were to develop the folk revival and a renewed and broader interest in traditional music.  The album is important as a part of Scotland's social history, but it also makes riveting listening.

I didn't go the 1951 People's Festival Ceilidh though I was living about a mile and a half from the Oddfellows Hall in Edinburgh at that time.  I think it must have been because I was only seven and didn't go to so many gigs in those days.  I wouldn't mind betting that my teacher at the time, a Miss Smith, did.  She used to finish off our infant school day with a story and if the bell had not rung when she had completed it, she would sing us a Scots song.  I can remember thinking that this was not what school singing was about - hymns or Scots patriotic songs shouted out to a bashed piano accompaniment - whereas she sang gently and unaccompanied.  I remember that she sang The Road & The Miles to Dundee and Johnnie Cope but that's all I can recall.

Vic Smith - 23.3.06

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