The Folk Scene of my Youth
Carol and I are often intrigued by the notion of the exotic. When trekking in the Solu Khumbu in Nepal, for example, we were almost overwhelmed by the intensity and variety of the new impressions to which we were exposed. Socially, culturally, linguistically, visually, we were assailed by novelty. But, we couldn’t help thinking that, while all this was novel and exotic to us, to the people who lived there, it was, presumably, all very run-o’-the-mill and that our lives must have seemed very exotic, not to say desirable, to them.
And as my own youth slips further behind me with every year that passes, it dawns on me, that what seemed quite ordinary and banal at the time, has begun to take on an exotic aura. That life fifty years ago was a different country, with cultural mores and assumptions which are no longer common currency today. Take music. Through 1968 and 69, my mate Jools and I would spend countless hours in his bedroom, listening to LP’s. Ridiculously, pretentiously even, we felt we were engaged upon an act of cultural revolution and that all this fantastic new music was a sort of soundtrack to the wakening of a New Dawn: Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the later Beatles, the later Stones, the Who, Canned Heat, Cream, compilations of traditional Blues material. I was really into Sonny Terry, who inspired me to explore Blues harmonica. I’d spend hours copying Memphis Slim’s boogie technique, to the point that my parents locked the piano on me!
There was a pub in Cheltenham, the sadly now demolished Railway Inn, that was happy to serve under age college boys, where we would congregate to drink cider at ninepence a half (that’s old money) and “crash the ash” with packets of five Park Drive at tenpence ha’penny a go! Much of the time was devoted to finding ourselves and each other infinitely amusing. This was where I learned the skill of joke-telling and developed a total recall of an extensive repertoire, most of which (mercifully perhaps) now escapes me. There were also some genuine wits. There was a Brooke-Taylor, cousin of Tim, who was very droll. A favourite sesh was after Chapel on Sunday, when Jack, as I think the landlord was called, would put on cheese sandwiches – thick, hand-cut slices with great slabs of cheddar. There was a colourfully out-of-tune piano which I would get behind to bang out Rock and Roll and the Blues, but also sing-song classics like Tipperary and Roll out the Barrel etc. A star turn was a “Gloco” Douglas, who had mastered the skill of opening his gullet and downing a pint in one draught. (I heard he opened a pub in Devon and died young.) One Sunday there was a “raid” of prefects who’d got wind of this illegal bacchanalia. But Jack stalled them at the front door, while we all escaped out the window of the snug and down the back lane!
On Friday evenings there was a sort of de facto folk night. There was a little guy with a beard and long hair who would turn up with his four-string banjo and install himself in the corner of the bar with his tin of roll-ups. As the place filled up, he would go through his entire repertoire of the join-in type of folksong. I suspect that this is where I first heard the Wild Rover! I also suspect he’d lifted most of his stuff off the Dubliners, as I can remember the Seven Drunken Nights, Black Velvet Band, Whiskey in the Jar, I’m a Rover Seldom Sober, The Holy Ground etc. What fantastic evenings those were. I learned a lot of songs without even realising. It didn’t strike me at the time as being “folk music” in any self-conscious sort of a way, although it was somehow clearly implied that this too was part of the revolution. Folk was music “of the people” and still had a lot of that left-wing Ewan McColl thing which had carried over from the fifties.
I arrived at University in Newcastle in the autumn of 1970. Lindisfarne, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel etc. were all there or thereabouts in the musical background. Finger-picking guitar was mixed well up in the soundtrack of the era. I joined the University climbing club, which organised weekend trips to Northumberland, the Lake District and the not-too-distant Scotland. Late night Sunday epic drives home in the Ford Transit were enlivened by equally epic raucous singing. I can remember The Bog down in the Valley-o, Maids when you’re Young, I’ll tell me Ma, Wild Mountain Thyme, the Leaving of Liverpool. Between us we’d know most of the words. Geordie things like the Blaydon Races and the Lambton Worm (Whisht lads, haad yor gobs, an aa’ll tell ye all an aaful story..!) A favourite destination was Langdale in the Lakes, where we would forgather in the back bar of the ODG (the Old Dungeon Ghyll). There you would generally find a guitarist and/or banjo player who would accompany us through a sing-song, but also play and sing more accomplished pieces. I’ve forgotten the names now, but would surely recognise them. There were songs rewritten to fit the climbing scene. I can remember “And we Jolly Climber Boys were up, up aloft and the tourists lying down below, below, below!” I passed that way a couple of years ago and stuck my head in at the bar. I spoke of how it used to be a great music venue. “All that finished long ago. The whole climbing scene has changed. Nowadays everybody’s doing their own thing.” Lonely consumers, each pursuing the Fata Morgana of his/her personal goals in which no-one takes the slightest interest as everyone’s too wrapped up in their own fantasies.
During University vacations, from the glorious 12th on, I’d work at the grouse-beating. I was employed on the Farleyer Estate by Aberfeldy for a princely 30 shillings a day in 1970! We were some 20-odd lads, put up in the estate bothy, which was not much of a place to hang around in of an evening. After a full day out on the hill, we would happily walk the 2-3 miles into Aberfeldy for a sesh! I can remember three pubs: The Breadalbane Arms (the Bread), which had a pool table and served a “Rusty Nail” (a cocktail made up of equal measures of Whisky and Drambuie!), The Station Inn, which offered the, for some, irresistible attraction of a quarter-gill dram at a discounted price, and our favourite, The Crown (more properly, the Croon) which had a sort of function room with a stage for musical evenings. My memory of these is a bit fuzzy, for reasons you might well imagine, but I have a distinct recollection of the place being packed, as a couple of guys on guitars took us through a typical song list. I definitely remember the Donovan song, Yellow is the Colour and the strangely eerie, Isn’t it Grand Boys to Be Bloody-well Dead.
As a student of Scandinavian Studies, I spent my third year, 1972-3, at Copenhagen University. Denmark had embraced the hippy aesthetic with open arms and the street scene was a cross between a vision of the beautiful people with flowing blond locks and something off the set of The Last Kingdom. During breaks from Old Icelandic and the study of the political bias in trivial literature, I would drop in at I Mikroskopet (Under the Microscope), a diminutive music bar. By dint of showing off a couple of boogie-woogie tricks on their piano, I became a sort of pet fixture. I dropped in one evening to find the place jammed full. And there they were, the Dubliners, hirsute folk royalty, holding court having just finished a gig! I was a massive fan and there they were in the flesh, quite by accident! They were already paralytic. I remember having a sort of musician-to-musician chat with Luke Kelly (aghhh) and being completely knocked out by a mini concert they improvised on the tiny stage. Barney McKenna did this exhibition thing on tenor banjo where he played the frets top down, rather than from below. Respect!
Good times. Is this just the selective memory of a rose-tinted nostalgia? Maybe. It’s an elusive Zeitgeist thing. It’s just that I find it difficult to believe that young people today (notwithstanding Covid) can really understand the spontaneous and unmediated relationship to music that I enjoyed in my youth. I suspect that they would find the idea of spontaneous group singing a naff manifestation of a pre-technological civilisation. But we know what they don’t, that It’s Just a Fool Who Plays it Cool…
I Came from Something
Joanne recently lent me Billy Connolly’s autobiography, “Made in Scotland”. It’s a tremendous, life-enhancing read and a fantastic tale of the triumph of optimism over adversity. The early part, where he talks of the grim circumstances of his childhood and his experiences as an apprentice shipyard welder, is particularly fascinating. One of the things he objects to is people saying that he “came from nothing”. “I came from something!” he says. In fact, what he came from is a rich and nourishing culture, which created and shaped what he is. And what that is, is something quintessentially Scottish. An irrepressible joie de vivre, a perspicacious eye for pretension, an unfailing wit, an instinctive sense of the decency, not to say genius, of the ‘ordinary man’, a spontaneous love of the natural world, a special sense for the loveliness of the Scottish landscape, a deep-seated egalitarianism. Very like Burns in fact.
Here’s the cover of the book:
Through gritted teeth I have to agree with the Daily Mail!
I’m not Billy Connolly, but, as we all come from something, I thought that my own background and way into folk music might be of interest.
My Scottishness I get from my father. He was born and brought up in Blair Atholl, Perthshire. His father, originally from near Blairgowrie, was the grieve (overseer) of the Atholl Estates Home Farm by Old Blair.
Here he is, posing with the two draft horses with which he won a ploughing competition. We’ve got the medal somewhere, but not sure where!
To escape this class-ridden rural ‘idyll’, my father joined the police in Dundee. When the war came, he joined the RAF, trained as a navigator and flew DC3’s with Transport Command. After the war, he stayed on in the Air Force, transferring to the Provost Branch (RAF police) on the basis of his police experience. Working in the field of security and counter-espionage, he was posted to Copenhagen, where he helped build up civil aviation in Denmark. It was there that he met my Danish mother. They were married in 1951.
My father and mother on their wedding day, Copenhagen 1951. My father always claimed that he couldn’t be sure if he was married or not, as he hadn’t understood a word of the ceremony!
Shortly after, he was posted to Fontainebleau, France, to work in SHAFE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe), now SHAPE in Mons. And so I was born in Fontainebleau in 1952. After Fontainebleau, we were in London, where my father worked at Air Ministry. From 1958 to 1960 we were in Singapore, then back in London. My father retired from the Air Force in 1964, having attained the rank of Wing Commander, and took up a job at GCHQ in Cheltenham. I was a day-boy at Cheltenham College from 1965 to 1969.* In 1969 my father retired from GCHQ and the family, enthusiastic golfers all, went to live in Carnoustie, Angus. I went away to University in Newcastle in 1970, so, although I always went back to Carnoustie, it was never really my home.
[*I both loved and hated school. I loved the window it opened up for me on the world of music and literature and art. I loved messing around cleverly with my clever mates. I loved the extra-curricular opportunities it afforded. I realised later that I loved the architectural beauty of the school and its setting. What I hated, however, was the more-than-just-implicit brain-washing, foisting upon me notions and values which, instinctively, I did not share. To this day, I can over-react badly to anything which smacks of “prefectism”. I cannot recommend too highly Lindsay Anderson’s film “If…”, starring a young Malcolm McDowell. Anderson was an Old Cheltonian, who somehow conned the school into letting him shoot a film there. It is an excoriating attack on the stuffy, self important but essentially neurotic vibration which informed the life of the school and, I imagine, all such schools. Emotionally it is right on the button. Incredibly, we boys were mobilised as extras during the shooting, as a result of which we were invited to London for a pre-release viewing at a plush cinema in Leicester Square. As the final credits went up, we were on our feet applauding wildly. Check it out!]
Below, a view of Cheltenham College. Looking back, it all feels a bit like a weird sociological experiment!
When my brother and I were children, people didn’t go on holidays like today, or at least we didn’t. Every year we would spend two weeks in Denmark with my grandparents and on average twice a year we’d go to Blair Atholl to stay with family for 2 to 3 weeks at a time. Utter bliss as I remember it! This would involve either an epic, ill-tempered, pre-motorway, all-day drive or we boys would be put on the sleeper at Euston to be picked up the other end. During those seemingly endless days, Colin and I were pretty much left to our own devices. I would spend hours listening through my Auntie’s entire collection of 78’s. It was mostly Scottish stuff: the Skye Boat Song, the Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, a vocal version of the Dashing White Sergeant, plenty of Jimmy Shand. There was an old 78 by the Hawthorns, a dance band from Blairgowrie. My father was a big fan. He admired their “oomph”. Their fiddler was Jim Howe, the husband of one of Dad’s cousins. I would occasionally bump into him at family parties. I thought him tremendous fun, although my father had reservations. Jim was partial to a dram while my father was strictly teetotal.
My father played the piano. He played mostly 40’s jazz standards, but he had a decent repertoire of Scottish Country Dance tunes which were my favourites. One of my earliest memories is of being received in the clock-tower of Blair Castle to have tea with the Duchess of Atholl. This was the “Old Duchess”, Katherine Stewart-Murray, Marquess of Tullibardine (1874-1960), who was really too intelligent to be an aristocrat. She was Scotland’s first woman M.P. She was something of a social reformer, acquiring the nickname of ‘The Red Duchess’. Why my father was so close to her I’m not sure, but I’ve seen a photograph of him as a young man, sporting a kilt, while in the service of the Duchess. I suspect she liked having him around to keep her entertained. My father was intelligent and amusing and probably a lot more fun than the blue-blooded bores she would normally have to associate with!
Here’s a picture of her in her First World War nurse’s uniform. Quite the dishy Duchess, although, to me at the time, which must have been in about 1955, she seemed a very old lady, which I suppose she was.
Anyway, I arrived with Mum and Dad at the slightly formal tea party, resplendent in Royal Stewart mini tartan trews and matching bow-tie. (I’ve seen the photos, so I know it’s true. My innocent Danish mother clearly had no inhibition as regards Caledonian Kitsch!) At some stage the Duchess sat down at the piano. She was a concert-standard pianist and presumably sought to entertain us with her exquisite interpretation of Chopin or Liszt or whatever. This, apparently, left me underwhelmed and it seems that I called for some “proper music”, so my father had to take the Duchess’ place on the piano stool in order to knock out some Scottish dance tunes!
Here’s a photograph of Blair Castle from a more recent visit, including my young grandson, Sammy, in a red jumper. The clock tower is behind him on the left. My Aunt was housekeeper at the castle and had her own apartments, where we would stay. Our Uncle Jim once took us on a magical mystery bus trip from nearby Pitlochry, which, idiotically, took us past Blair Castle. As the courier started on about “the celebrated Blair Castle, seat of the Dukes of Atholl…”, my brother shouted out in a proud, happy voice, “I live there!”
When I was 16, my uncle fixed me up with a summer job in the local forestry plantation. This involved cutting back the grass and heather from around the young saplings with the use of a sickle. “Heeukin'” or “Shookin'” in the vernacular. If you didn’t pay proper attention, you would cut through the tree, turning it into a bush (to “snib”, as I remember). This was deemed a heinous crime, bringing down upon us the wrath of the plantation manager, “Black” Bill Brand. One day, in exasperation, he shouted at us: ” Ye’re no’ supposed tae heeuk then leuk (look), ye’re supposed tae leuk then heeuk”! With money I saved up from the job, I went to Perth and bought myself an accordion. A little Hohner 48 bass. It cost what for me then was an enormous 27 pounds, but, then again, I was only earning 3/6d an hour! My uncle had what seemed like a twenty-odd volume book of domestic skills, in which a few pages were devoted to “How to Play the Accordion”. That was enough to get me started. I practiced like mad for days on end until I got reasonably proficient, but neglected it once I was back in Cheltenham, where playing Blues on the piano seemed a lot more hip. I’ve not really progressed much on the accordion since then, in the sense that my style of playing is indelibly stamped with my desire at the time to sound like Jimmy Shand. These days I sometimes think I would like to play more in the Irish style, with a lighter touch and sparing use of the bass. But I’m an old dog now…
Here’s Rouken Glen by Jimmy Shand. Take your partners for the Strathspey! Listening now sends a thrill of joy through me. Just love the “in strict tempo” – nae messin’! The original 78 was part of my Aunt Elizabeth’s record collection. Actually, we must have it somewhere…
Here’s ‘La Divina’, the little 48 bass accordion I bought with my own money in 1968. I still have it, though it needs repairing!
So, dear reader, I hope that now you can understand how an Old Cheltonian, class of 69, can yet have both an authentic pedigree in Scottish music and an unaffected affinity with Scottishness. In the next blog entry, I’ll try and say something about the late 60’s/early 70’s folk scene and its influence on me.
The Enigma of the Album Cover
A number of our fans have timidly suggested that the cover of our album is a trifle enigmatic. They have a point, and a good one, inasmuch as that was kind of the intention. We worked for anguished hours with our photographer and artistic director in residence, Sean Hayes, trying to get it just right. My original idea was to have a blacked out profile of Robert Burns against the background of a loosely-hanging tartan plaid and in elaborate curly-wurly white italics across the whole lot: Laverock, Up in the Morning, a Collection of Burns’ Songs set to New Melodies in an Authentic Scottish Tradition. The genius of that idea was that it would enable us to cock an ironic snook at the twee, shortbread-tin image from which Burns suffers today, while at the same time saying what the songs actually do – on the tin, as it were. This, mercifully, got the thumbs down. Another idea which was floated involved a photograph of a Scottish mountain stream in spate, with some sort of contrived reference to “burns” (geddit?). That one sunk without trace. Another suggestion involved a clan-gathering Fiery Cross type of thing combined with a Burns Unit-style joke. That didn’t set the heather alight either. And so, after agonising hours spent in an escalation of pun-driven artifice, Sean put a stop to the insanity. “What you need is something dead simple. I’m a great believer in simplicity. You know, an iconic statement, something enigmatic which doesn’t pin you down. A bit Pink Floyd, like.” Pink Floyd, eh? I beamed inwardly at the flattering, if ludicrous comparison. Instantly my thoughts started reeling. Rabbie Burns meets Pink Floyd, yeah, maybe he’s got something…
We returned to swiping through my photographs and stopped at a picture I’d taken on the summit of Toll Creagach in April of 2011 on a Munro-bagging trip to Glen Affric. [It’s in Inverness-shire. Visit it. It’s probably the most beautiful place in the world!] I was with my son-in-law, Phil, and his mother Pam. Both are tremendous company, with that Glaswegian wit and garrulousness, which quickens the spirit and sharpens the capacity for enjoyment. Both, however, are Munro-baggers, a category of individual I affect to disdain for no better reason than that I’m unlikely ever to get round to ticking them all off myself!
[For the non-cognoscenti, Munros, named after the person who first listed them, are all the mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet. There are 282 of them and dedicated hikers go to considerable lengths to tick them all off!]
While Phil adopts a (totally spurious) low-key, yeah well, if-there-happens-to-one-nearby-I-don’t-mind-wandering-up-it sort of approach, Pam is pretty no-nonsense about the Munro business . In fact she’s pretty no-nonsense all round. She’s a retired teacher – the sort of teacher you really liked, but you’d never dare to mess around in her class! She recently completed all the Munros in the course of a multi-day camping-trekking expedition to the Fisherfield Forest in wild Wester Ross – in her late sixties!
[The word “Forest” in this context has very little to do with trees. Fisherfield is a vast, roadless expanse of mountain and bog.]
Anyway, me and Phil and Pam, starting from the lower end of Glen Affric, flogged up a couple of Munros. I forget the name of the first, but the second was the mildly expectorant Toll Creagach. I took a photograph of the summit cairn. It was intended, at one level at least, as a study in “rockiness”. [“Your Rockiness”, sounds like the sort of name the late and much lamented Little Richard might have given himself! I loved Little Richard and tried to copy his piano technique – unsuccessfully, but it left a trace.] The other theme I was seeking to illustrate was the whole magnificent pointlessness of Munro-bagging. So many of the tops look exactly like the album cover: a pile of stone surmounted by a cairn. You could be on any of them! It somehow reminds me of those huge Anselm Kiefer paintings of black space with a blur of stars, some gratuitously tagged with an identification number, as though numbering conferred some pretence of control.
Anselm Kiefer, Stardust:
Here’s a pic of Pam and Phil looking across to Toll Creagach, height, 1054m/3458ft :
Here’s an impression of the scene from lower down:
And here the original cairn pic:
And here you have a pic of the album cover with addition of the name LAVEROCK:
What’s all that got to do with the lark? Well, it’s ultimately all bound up with the mythological tradition of the lark being a messenger between heaven and earth. Nesting on the bare ground, it nevertheless soars high into the sky, almost to the point of invisibility. You can often hear its excitable, joyous song before being able to spot it. So, the empty sky in the photograph implies the presence of the invisible lark. The clear division of the picture between half mountain and half sky emphasises the heaven/earth duality. In that context, the cairn becomes, as it were, a mini pyramid, symbolising man’s striving towards heaven, in turn implying its corollary, heaven reaching down to raise man up. This is the symbolism of the star of David, the six point star consisting of two interlocking triangles, one pointing up and the other pointing down. Thus, the song of the lark and, by extension, song generally and Laverock’s songs in this particular case can be interpreted as a message from above, softening our hearts of stone, calling us back to our heavenly aspirations. The name Lave-rock can be understood in the same way. Lave, or Love, comes from above to redeem Rock. The spiritual informs the material.
Is this so far-fetched? Have we not all of us at some time experienced that special frisson induced by the beauty and truth of music? It is something which defies reductionist scientific interpretation. If any of our songs is able, for a brief moment, to induce that mysterious effect, we can be content with our efforts.
Laverock: The Origin of the Name
Hi folks! We’ve been keeping a low profile for a while, in a kind of viral stasis, hoping for that better time when recording and performing are easy. However, as corona time drifts by, we’ve been thinking that we might owe it to our loyal fan-base to manifest some residual twitchings of sentient life.
One avenue of enquiry we thought might be of interest is:
- what’s the name “Laverock” all about?
Laverock is the Scots word for lark (interesting here to note the Dutch equivalent, leeuwerik). It’s a word I first came across in a song on a Corries album, “The Heidless Cross” on “Strings and Things” (1970). It is a beautiful song, written by George Weir, who worked closely with the Corries. He is described on the internet as Peebles’ baker, George Weir. I suppose it has a more authentic ring to it than Cessnock double-glazing salesman, George Weir or Barrhead unemployment benefit recipient, George Weir, but it’s difficult to imagine what the influence of the early shift at Mother’s Pride would have had on his songwriting. Maybe after switching on the kneading machines, the crew would get-together to sing the food industry equivalent of Hebridean Waulking songs? Then again, why not Bearsden IT entrepreneur, George Weir or Dunblane-based hedge fund manager, George Weir? Anyway, with or without the snobbery, inverted or otherwise, “The Heidless Cross” is a wonderful song. I was playing it earlier to remind myself of the lyrics, when my wife came down to my little den. “Play it again,” she said, “I fell in love with you to that tune.” Well, George Weir, Peebles’ baker or no, I owe you an eternal debt of gratitude. Whatever dignity and happiness I may have enjoyed amidst the chaos and contradiction of this earthly sojourn is down to you!
[That must have been 1973, in the good old days of proper album covers. Carrying them around ostentatiously under your arm was a sure-fire way of sending out identity signals, primarily to the opposite sex. As you get older you can’t help wondering about roads not travelled. What if I’d played her, or somebody else for that matter, Deep Purple or Black Sabbath? I could be married to an ageing Goth!]
Returning to “The Heidless Cross” (that’s Headless, for those of you still wrestling with the concept of Umlaut), it is a sad, cruel (gothic?) tale of an honour killing, where the girl’s brothers brutally murder their sister’s unsuitable suitor.
Here’s the song:
Here are the lyrics:
Where yorlins sing sae clearly,
Grey is the cross that’s shorn in twa’,
Where yince we loo’ed sae dearly.
Where martlets sing sae sweetly.
Dark are the men wi’ pinards nine
Where laverocks sing sae dearly.
The pinards flash sae deadly!
They left him lying ‘alow the stars.
The Ninestane Burn rins bloodly.
The Heidless Cross stands coldly.
Yellow the corn the wind will blow
O’er him I loo’ed sae dearly.
She rowed him weel in hodden brown.
The dew fell cold but softly.
The aspen grey wa dare not play.
The mist held her sae gently.
On the morn, she made a bier
Wi’ birch an’ hazel greyly.
The dew did fa’ wi’ many a tear.
The dawn found her sae gently.
She laid him low when sma’ birds sing.
The Heidless Cross stands lonely.
She joined the heather wi’ the green.
The Ninestane Burn rins darkly.
Just love the matching wide-collar orange shirts! What girl could resist?
The instruments are fabulous! Custom-made “Combolins”, the one combining guitar, Spanish bandurria and sitar-like sympathetic strings and the other a combination of guitar and mandolin. The album was created largely to showcase the instruments. Many consider it their finest piece of work.