The Living Tradition
by Ewan McVicar - Issue 22 July/August '97
"Alex Campbell was the most important and influential folksinger of the folksong revival in Europe, admired, respected and loved by his fellow performers and his audiences. An outrageous, hard drinking, hard travelling, hard living man."
Strong words from Allan Taylor, but the double CD Allan has just issued on his own T Records label, The Alex Campbell Tribute Concert, is a moving evocation in word and song by a rapscallion collection of grizzled folk luminaries, celebrating the man who caught them, taught them and turned them out upon the roads of Europe. Alex had wonderful audience-handling skills, helping them share the story within a song, coaxing or bullying them into enjoyment and participation, gentle or raucous at need and always with respect and love for the songs he sang.
Like many another Glaswegian folkie Alex was seduced and misused by the grape. Mostly he still managed to give a storming show, but now and then was off form. Ian McCalman recalls on the album, "The first time we saw Alex sing he had an off day. He wasn't great, he was bad, and the audience were not with him. Next time was in Germany, we were the stars of the show, and Alex turned up to do a floor spot. We thought 'Oh God, he's going to kill the audience, they'll walk out and miss us.' I have never seen a performance like Alex's that night. He ripped the audience apart. The people were still chanting 'We want more, we want more' as we finished the first of our own songs! After that we made sure we never followed him in the running order."
Alex was The Rambling Scottish Cowboy in ten gallon boots, singing anything from the British or American traditions that took his fancy, American worksongs and spirituals or translations from Scots Gaelic, big ballads or small rude ditties, songs by Guthrie and Dylan and Paxton. He played the big Gibson guitar that he wrote a song for.
Some people they say I don't work,
boys, my life is all pleasure and ease
The first time I met Alex was in 1961 in a North London folk club where I sang a Scots republican ditty called Maggie's Wedding. Alex was much taken with the song, and asked me to come and sing it at his midnight gig that night in the basement of the Partisan Coffee bar in Soho, where one of the residents was a very youthful Long John Baldry.
Alex had just returned from being a busking blind blues singer on the streets of Paris, and had briefly and platonically married Peggy Seeger so she would not be deported from the UK, but Alex's eclectic approach was worlds away from Ewan MacColl's purism.
Alex cast away his white stick and joined up with an Amerindian bluegrass banjo player called Joe to sing American songs. But soon he added songs of his native Scotland, and then taught them to younger musicians. Alex's very loving presentation of songs entranced and entrapped many a budding singer. On the album Dougie MacLean sings the version of Bonny Bessie Logan that Alex taught him in a motorway service station on a German autobahn.
Alex played all around Britain in the 60s, and then took his bulging bag of songs to many new venues and clubs all over the Continent for the folk revival. Allan Taylor says, "He opened up the road for the rest of us to follow."
His best loved composition, one of several sung with more than a little heartache by the assembled superchorus, was Been On The Road So Long.
I've been on the road so long, Been
tired and cold so long
The concert was created by Allan Taylor for the 1994 Skagen Festival in Denmark, where Alex made his home in later years. So a number of Danish musicians pay tribute, but veterans of the revival are to the fore - brass-lunged Johnny Silvo, the McCalmans, Mike Silver. Iain MacKintosh and Hamish Imlach trade new verses written by Alex for the Nigerian Highlife anthem Bobo Waro Fero Satoday. Ian McCalman gives a hilarious illustration of how Alex would when needed bully an audience into participation, Allan Taylor demonstrates how he could milk applause for a simple instrumental chorus on guitar.
Alex himself believed in living the high life whenever he could afford it, going to the opera, living in the best hotels he could afford and drinking the finest wine. "We may not be millionaires," he'd say, "but we can at least live like them - sometimes."
The many albums he recorded of cowboy songs, Scots ballads, blues, blue material and much more, were done quickly for whoever wanted to record him and pay a fee, and would mostly sound unimpressive now, but he was the grand master of live performance, so it is entirely fitting that this loving tribute album is of a live performance.
Iain MacKintosh says, "The concert was a really memorable event. Worthy of Alex. Alex was larger than life. He never ever walked into a room; he always made an entrance. But he could always tell a story against himself. Once he and Hamish Imlach were heading for a gig, and stopped for a drink. In the lounge bar, the barmaid said 'Yes, gentlemen.' Alex said 'Gentlemen? Before you is the cream of Scottish folk music - Alex Campbell and Hamish Imlach. We'll have two pints of your best and twenty Benson & Hedges.' The barmaid went through to the saloon bar for the cigarettes, came back and said 'What was the name again?' Alex said "Alex Campbell.' The barmaid said 'No, no, what cigarettes?'"
Most people never have a song written for them. There are three tribute songs to Alex Campbell on the album. Rab Noakes did not make it to the concert, but his song was there, wishing Alex had slowed down and lasted longer.
Gently does it, what a change, I used
to think you were just like a mountain range
Last time I met Alex was on Glasgow Green in the early 80s - through the pain of throat cancer he could hardly speak, and he could hardly believe that anyone remembered that he used to be able to sing well. He died in Denmark in 1987.
Gone, but never forgotten by generations of older folkies at festivals and clubs on the long singing road.
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