Lizzie Higgins

In Memory Of ... 1929-1993

Musical Traditions Records MTCD337-8

CD 1: Three Gypsies; Johnny My Man; Bonny Udny; Banks of Red Roses; Proud Lady Margaret; Tammie Toddle; Beggarman ; Adieu to Bogieside; College Boy (Young Craigston); Sandy is a Sailor; Twa Brithers; Dottered Auld Carle; Deein Plooboy (The Term); Maid of Glenshee; Forester; She's Only My Old Shoes (The False Bride).

CD2: Alison Gross; Auld Roguie Grey; Lassie Gatherin Nuts; Lord Lovat; Macaphee Turn the Cattle; MacCrimmon's Lament; Cruel Mother; Soo Sewin Silk; What a Voice (I Wish, I Wish); Muir o Culloden; Up and Awa wi the Laverock; Butcher Boy; London Lights; Son David; Betsy Bell; MacDonald of Glencoe; Johnny Sangster; Young Emslie.

Cover pictureRod Stradling has asked me to provide this review in the knowledge that Ray Fisher, a lifelong friend of Lizzie Higgins, will also be supplying a review.  I expect that Ray's review will dwell more on Lizzie as a person and so my review will be rather limited to the songs, ballads and notes that can be found on these two CDs, rather than trying to give too much background information about the singer herself.  But, having said that, let me say at once that this is a great set of songs and ballads sung by one of Scotland's greatest, and best loved, singers.  Lizzie lived so long under the shadow of her mother, Jeannie Robertson, that we often overlooked her own considerable contribution to the folk scene.  This set of CDs should certainly help set the record straight.

Let's begin with Ian Olson's introductory notes.  Ian, as expected, deals with Lizzie's singing relationship with her mother and points out that 'Initially, audiences expected both a similar performance and repertoire and drew comparisons between mother and daughter.'  He then goes on to mention an article in Scottish Studies that was 'also along the lines of 'how did the daughter compare with the mother?''  This article, by Ailie Munroe, is actually an extremely important piece of work.  At the end Ailie concluded that, 'Lizzie's singing undoubtedly bears the hall-mark of her mother's words and tunes, plus that indefinable something which suggests that if one were to hear them both separately and with no knowledge of their relationship, a likeness would be immediately discernable.  But she is very, very far from being a carbon copy.  In some respects each singer is sui generis in style and temperament.  Lizzie inherits so much of her mother's superb artistry and adds her own unique contribution in the finest tradition of Scottish unaccompanied singing.' (Scottish Studies Volume 14: 1970 pp.155 – 188.)  It has been suggested that Lizzie tried to break away from her mother, by singing songs that she had learnt from her father and other family members, but, as Ian Olson rightly points out, she did, of course, sing many of the songs that were associated with her mother.  Then there is the question of Lizzie's extreme use of ornamentation.  Again, it has been suggested that this was something that Lizzie picked up at home by listening to her father's piping.  Lizzie certainly believed this to be the case, although nameless 'Academic critics were dismissive, considering it 'impossible to imitate vocally the complex ornaments of pipe music' and suggesting 'the ornamentation of eighteenth century art music as a more likely source''  I don't know who these academics were, but Ailie Munroe was having nothing of this.  'Lizzie shows very much less change (than her mother) in dynamics, uses the slide sparingly and has no vibrato; these three differences, plus her greater reliance of all types of ornament, may stem from the strong influence of pipe-music which she was exposed to from earliest childhood.' (Scottish Studies ibid.)  Ian also considers where Lizzie sang, the way Lizzie 'meant' her songs (by this Ian means: 'When singing a version of…Johnny Cock (Johnny the Brine), for example, she would recall the very spot – shown to here by her father – where its hero had been slain')1 - This is an interesting point, because, although all of the recently collected sets of this ballad are set in the North-East of Scotland, it has been suggested by various writers that the ballad actually originates in the Scottish Borders and not the North-east. 1 and also, the language that Lizzie used – especially her regional use of f instead of wh.  This reminded me of a comment made by Ian Rankin in his novel Black & Blue, where Aberdeen, Lizzie's home town, is referred to as 'Furry Boot Town' because, when asking where you came from, the locals would seem to say 'Furry boot ye frae?'

So, what of the songs and ballads heard here?  Well, for a start there are a number of pieces that Jeannie used to sing and, yes, it is very difficult not to compare their respected singing styles.  But, as Ailie Munroe said, both singers were sui generic, that is 'of their own kind/unique', and listening to Lizzie all these years after her tragic, early death, it is a fact that she was a superb singer in her own right.  Two of her mother's well-known big ballads are here, the superb Son David and The Three Gypsies.  If Jeannie had never been recorded, then Lizzie would now be receiving all the praise that was heaped upon her mother!  Likewise with Lord Lovat and The Twa Brothers, two more ballads that Jeannie sang.  Ian Olson suggests that there may be a connection between Lord Lovat and the Scottish Lovat family, Chiefs of Clan Fraser.  But, as versions of the ballad have turned up in several other European countries, this seems unlikely.  (Having said that, I suppose that Ian will now produce a paper proving his point!)  According to James Porter and Hershel Gower2 - Jeannie Robertson  Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1995, p.254.2 both Jeannie and Lizzie probably had The Twa Brothers from Jeannie's husband, Donald.  And it was Donald who taught Lizzie the rare ballad Proud Lady Margaret – all 14 minutes of it!  This is quite a find, though I have to say that Lizzie seems to find the ballad a bit of a challenge at times.  (Here voice is also distorted in some places due to faulty recording levels.)  Another ballad, the equally rare Allison Gross, is thought to have been learnt from print as Lizzie only began singing it late in life.  But, somewhere in the back of my mind is the fact that she told me that this was another ballad that came from her father.  True, parts of Lizzie's version do suggest a connection with the Jamieson text that Professor Child printed.  So, maybe Donald gave the splendid tune and some of the words to Lizzie, who later filled the text out from Child.  Sadly, it is now too late to follow this up.  And there are also three other family ballads, The Beggarman, The Forester and The Cruel Mother, and all are beautifully sung.  According to Ian Olson, the song Tammie Toddle 'may well be derived from Child 38 The Wee, Wee Man', although, again, I think that this may be wishful thinking.  The text has no direct connection to any text of The Wee, Wee Man that I know of, nor is the tune similar to the one that I have previously heard being used by Scottish Travellers for this ballad.3 - See, for example, the fragment of The Wee, Wee Man sung by Lizzie's cousin Stanley Robertson (Kyloe CD 101  track 1).3

If Lizzie was a splendid ballad singer (which she certainly was) then we may say that she was an even better singer of shorter Scottish songs.  Just listen to her soaring away on songs such as Sandy is a Sailor, Up an Awa wi the Laverock or else Johnny Sangster.  There is a lightness and gentleness about Lizzie's singing here and I am sure that this is how many people will remember her.  Up an Awa wi the Laverock is sung to a sprightly pipe-tune, The Jig o Slurs.  Other pipe tunes can be found being used for Macaphee Turn the Cattle as well as the statelier MacCrimmon's Lament.  If you want to check up that point about Lizzie being influenced by her father's piping, then these are the tracks to hear.  Other short songs include Johnny My Man, the notes to which fail to mention another piece by Ailie Munroe which discusses and compares Lizzie's version of this song with versions sung by Stanley Robertson, Cy Laurie and Duncan Williamson4 - Ailie Munroe The Democratic Muse  Folk Music Revival in Scotland,1984. Revised edition, Aberdeen, 1996. pp.218  229. The book also includes other passages about Lizzie Higgins. 4, The Banks of Red Roses, Soo Sewin Silk - one of those lovely nonsense songs where drink brings about confusion - What a Voice, yet another version of the widespread I Wish, I Wish, London Lights, a sentimental song that was also known to the Gypsy singer May Bradley, and Betsy Bell, a song long popularised by Belle Stewart.  There are also two short(ish) pieces of bawdry, Auld Roguie Grey and The Lassie Gathering Nuts.  It is said that both pieces are now rare in tradition.  My own feeling is that this may be case for the latter song, but I do believe that versions of the first are still quite well-known in England today.  It's probably one of those songs that many collectors have simply failed to note down.  Interestingly, Ian Olson mentions that The Lassie Gathering Nuts is 'possibly a rewriting of the pre-1750 French traditional song of a girl collecting rushes, Fillarette'.  In fact, that doyen of bawdry studies, Gershom Legman, was quite certain that the two songs were clearly related.  'The Lassie Gath'rin Nits (Nuts) is a rewriting – it is impossible to call it a 'parallel inspiration' – of a traditional French students' and children's song 'Fillarette', beginning nowadays, 'Un beau jour, Fillarette (larirete, laritet-te); Un beau jour, Fillarette, s'en allait couper les joncs.''5 - G Legman The Horn Book New York, 1964, p.219.5  It is also of interest to note that The Lassie Gathering Nuts is not the only Scots bawdy song to be related to an identical French song.  The same also applies to the song Supper is Nae Ready which, like The Lassie Gathering Nuts, was included in the Robert Burns' collection The Merry Muses of Caledonia (c.1800, reprinted 1965.)

And this leaves us with the final group of songs, namely a set of longer broadside ballads that Lizzie treated with great reverence.  Bonny Udny and The Deein Plooboy are well-known bothy ballads, though the notes overlook Jock Duncan's fine version of the former.6 - Jock Duncan sings Bonny Udny on the CD Ye Shine Whar Ye Stan! Springthyme Records SPRCD 1039. Jock also sings his version of The Cruel Mother on this CD and, again, there is no mention of this version in the Lizzie Higgins CD booklet.6  The Butcher Boy, on the other hand, is not the well-known song that usually accompanies this title, but is actually a version of the old black-letter broadside The Oxford Girl, which is apparently seldom sung in Scotland.  On the other hand The Maid of Glenshee, The Muir o Culloden and MacDonald of Glencoe should, as their names suggest, be far better known in Scotland than elsewhere.  But, this is not always the case, and at least two of these pieces, The Maid of Glenshee and MacDonald of Glencoe, have surfaced more often in Canada and North America than in Scotland itself.  The Muir o Culloden is, however, a rarity that has only been sighted twice before in Scotland.  Lizzie sings it to another tune, Brae Lochiel, that her father played on the pipes and she has supplemented her text with verses from the set that Gavin Greig collected.  Adieu to Bogieside is, again, local to the North-East and its 'flowery' language (it begins Assist me all ye Muses/Your downcast spirits raise) suggests it to be the work of a local poet.  The College Boy is a fine version of the song that is equally well-known under the title The Trees they do Grown High, although the reference to a version sung by Duncan Williamson on the CD Travellers' Tales (Kyloe CD101) is actually incorrect, as Duncan is singing another song, albeit one with the same title.  The Dottered Auld Carle is Lizzie's (and her mother's) version of the song His Old Grey Beard Newly Shaven, an American version of which can be heard on the Smithsonian/Folkways Anthology of Folk Music (as sung by Uncle Eck Dunford of Galax, VA).  She's Only My Old Shoes is a Scots version of the song The False Bride, which is characterised by the lines She's only my auld shoes / And you've got her.  John Strachan's version was even more explicit (Hold your tongue, by gum, I'll tell ye a guise / I've lie'n wi yer bonny lass aye aftener than thrice / And she darna deny it there where she is / So yer weerin my aul sheen when you've gotten her) but, John did explain to Hamish Henderson that such verses would only be sung in selected company.7 - See Hamish Henderson Collects Kyloe Records CD107  track 3.7  And, finally, we have Lizzie's beautiful song Young Emslie, which she had from her grandmother.  It's a song that has spread out all over the English speaking world and I will never forget seeing the Appalachian singer Doug Wallin singing it to my wife, tears falling down both their faces.

All in all, In Memory of Lizzie Higgins is quite a stunning set of CDs.  Occasionally some of the tapes show sign of wear and mikes were not always placed where they should have been.  But these are minor quibbles which should not detract in any way from the fact that here is a wonderful tribute to a truly great singer.  My only regret about this project is that Rod Stradling has chosen to make a slight slur against the School of Scottish Studies.  'Things move slowly at the School of Scottish Studies Archive and it was over a year after my visit there that the last few tracks arrived here in Gloucestershire'.  Yes, it did take some months to get the tapes from the School, but the School is a University Department that is there firstly for the benefit of its students.  It also now happens to house what is almost certainly the most important archive of Scottish traditional music and lore in the world.  And it is an understaffed department.  Had Rod been able to spend more time in the Archive, then I'm sure that his request to copy certain of Lizzie's songs would have been acted upon more quickly.  As it is, there is only one person who is responsible for all of the School's technical needs, including copying recordings, and he, like the rest of the staff, must prioritise his work.  The students come first and the rest of us must follow.  Rod, don't knock the School, it is not their fault that they are understaffed.  This is Britain, not America!  So why not, instead, praise and acknowledge the work that the School actually does?  That way, the bodies that now run Scotland might just begin to realise the true value and worth of this unique Department.  Who knows, they might even give the School the support that it so obviously deserves.

Mike Yates - 20.11.06


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