Book Reviews: The Folk River: Stories from the Scottish Folk Scene | Auld Lang Syne: a song and its culture

Protesters at Holy Loch, 1962 with Josh Macrae, Morris Blythman, Nigel Denver and Jim McLean.

The 2019 funerals of influential Glasgow singers and teachers Gordeanna McCulloch and Anne Neilson prompted singer and former folk club organizer Fraser Bruce to begin collecting, as a matter of urgency, the memories of those who took part in the early days of the folk revival. Scottish.

By his own admission, Bruce is “not a natural writer”, and he really should have hired a decent editor and proofreader. However, what he has collected is truly priceless if sometimes opinionated, chronicling the early 50s and 60s when folk clubs became a song-centric and rapidly spreading phenomenon.

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Today, as countless young hopefuls gleefully emerge from traditional music lessons, Bruce’s book is a necessary reminder of that time and the legacy of those, still with us or not, who shaped it – such as the influential school ballad clubs led by Norman Buchan. MP and Morris Blythman – aka ‘Thurso Berwick’, the latter’s songwriting collective crafting irreverent songs for the anti-Polaris ‘Glesga Eskimos’.

The Folk River, by Fraser Bruce

Supplemented by excellent archival photography, the book spotlights personalities such as the Corries, singer and broadcaster Jimmie McGregor, Gaelic singer Dolina McLennan and singer-songwriters such as Matt McGinn, Jim McLean, Josh McRae and Nigel Denver as well as “Broomhill Bums” Hamish Imlach, Ewan McVicar and Archie and Rae Fisher. In Fife, the late John Watt left detailed records of the Dunfermline Howff club while Pete Shepheard recalls an uphill struggle to organize Blairgowrie’s first festival. And who remembers the McEwen brothers, Rory and Alex, catalysts in the early 60s?

However, according to Bruce, the unique convergence of influences was paramount – American folk, skiffle, protest, travel singers, traditional Scottish and Irish song, even children’s broadcasting: “No one foresaw it” .

A single song, evolving through centuries through shifting social and cultural contexts, is the subject of musicologist Morag Grant Auld Lang’s forensic research Syne: a Song and Its Culture. Complete with notated and QR-coded audio examples, Grant’s book discusses the 15th-century roots and evolution of a song that, shaped by 19th-century Robert Burns, became internationally ubiquitous, its popularity boosted by Scotland’s impact on European Romanticism. Countless arrangers followed him, from Beethoven and Haydn to Nellie Melba and Jimi Hendrix.

Her explanation of linked arms associated with her community song, she attributes to Freemasonic ritual, while the advent of broadcasting and recording established her New Year’s credentials. The feelings of old acquaintance of the song, she concludes, will gather further “layers of meaning and significance” in the years to come, as it continues to be “a song that we all have in common”.

Auld Lang Syne, by MJ Grant

The Folk River: Tales from the Early Scottish Folk Scene, by Fraser Bruce, Developing Traditional Arts, 354pp, £25

Auld Lang Syne: A Song and Its Culture, by MJ Grant, Open Book Publishers, 335pp, £26.95

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