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Jock Tamson’s Bairns
- by Pete Heywood
Issue 42 March/April '01




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The phrase 'We're a' Jock Tamson's Bairns' is well known in Scotland. It roughly means 'we're all the same - we're all equal', a sentiment that is echoed in many a folk song. But when it comes to musical talent, these Bairns were handed down more than their fair share of musical genes. The roots of the band, though, are firmly in the voice of the people, the group emerging from the scene centred on Edinburgh's legendary 'Sandy Bells' of the late 70s.

Unlike today's pub sessions, which tend to be dominated by instrumentalists, Sandy Bells was a melting pot of writers, poets, artists, singers and musicians, and its proximity to the University and the School of Scottish Studies meant that it was a regular stomping ground for the likes of Hamish Henderson - so it should come as no surprise that the music there would take a decidedly Scottish view. Though the dominant musical influences at that time were very definitely Irish, with early Chieftains LPs providing the core repertoire for emerging young players, behind the scenes a Scottish renaissance was underway.

John Croall, Norman Chalmers, Rod Paterson and various fiddlers had for some time been taking wholly Scots music to Europe and Scandinavia in the Edinburgh-based band Chorda. Chorda recorded with Dick Gaughan and Aly Bain on the 70s Sandy Bell's album and when they decided to stop playing full-time, the Bairns gradually formed, becoming a home for like-minded musicians and a seedbed for a number of bands that were to have a huge influence on the folk revival in Scotland. Guitarist and singer Tony Cuffe came from the bagpipe-led Alba, fiddler Ian Hardie had already played in a group with John Croall and Derek Hoy, guitarist Jack Evans arrived in Edinburgh from Wales, while singer and fiddler Adam Jack was another ex-member of Chorda. This was the line-up of Jock Tamson's Bairns' first album, brought out on what was then Robin Morton's new Temple Records label.

For a while The Bairns played all over Scotland, and even, very occasionally, in England, before Tony Cuffe decided he wanted to become a full-time musician, joining Ossian, and Adam Jack left - to be replaced by Derek Hoy (another ex-Chorda fiddler) - and the distinctive Bairns' sound emerged. The Bairns came from a variety of musical backgrounds and geographically from as far apart as Angus and the Borders. The band draws its music from a variety of sources, the ballad and song collections, the Highland Pipe music tradition, the great fiddle music composers including Gow, Marshall and Skinner and their own compositions.

'The Lasses Fashion' - the band's second album - introduced the Bairns to the wider world - and has become a classic. A few years ago Richard Thompson, in an interview with Q magazine, picked it as one of his 'Top Ten All-Time Albums' (the only 'folk' album) alongside Elvis Presley, The Platters, The Smiths and others.

The output from the band was to be much more than the input and despite a 'resting time' between 1983 and 1996, continues to this day. Rod Paterson, Jack Evans and Norman Chalmers went on to form The Easy Club, leading on to the avant-garde Cauld Blast Orchestra for Norman and Jack, and while Jack no longer plays in the Bairns line-up, he is busy producing computer-based/acoustic/sequenced recordings like Keltik Elektrik, and playing live in a new all-frets trio. Norman continues to perform regularly in theatre, is a respected music journalist, and also teaches on the Scottish Music Course at Glasgow's RSAMD and Skye's Gaelic College. Rod has always been in demand as a soloist, (producing two albums just released on a Greentrax compilation), and more recently has added his unique vocal qualities to Ceolbeg. Derek spends a lot of time teaching fiddle and plays in the Bella McNab dance band, while Ian Hardie is a respected - and prolific - fiddle composer. Ian performs with Freeland Barbour in the The Occasionals dance band, and busies himself in a range of projects, including the editorship of 'The 90s Collection' a book of new tunes written 'in the tradition'.

Taking the break in the mid-80s has been good for the band. It was in 1996 that the Bairns started gigging again, heeding the inevitable demands that they get back together, and if anything, their various involvements with contemporary Scottish music has reinforced their belief in the strength and depth of their own music.

I asked Norman why they had come back to this core 'traditional' line-up? "We really enjoy it. It's that simple. And I think that's why the audience enjoys it. It's pretty drab listening to people sing and play when their hearts are not in it. What we are doing is playing and singing the music that's at the root of our sense of who we are, what we are. And because we already had a shared sense of that at the beginning, an empathy that brought us together, then after all those years we have developed a tremendous way of projecting the songs and tunes, and have great fun doing it!"

Knowing that many of the Bairns had been, or still were, involved in musical projects that would be classified as 'progressive', an obvious question to ask was if they felt that they were being as creative in their approach to music when playing in the Bairns as they were with some of their other projects. "I think we're inventive, but within parameters. It ultimately is a matter of taste. We used to wangle ourselves into the Post Grad Union at the University - it was the only place you could get a late drink way back in the 70s - and sit and play with Dick Lee on sax and other guys back from gigs. Folk/jazz goes way back in Edinburgh - but that's not what we would do in the Bairns. Some sounds we wouldn't use. We try to make the arrangements out of the form, texture, lyrical meaning of the songs or tunes themselves, to bring out their unique character and avoid the clichés. But we do play about with 'modernist' musical approaches and harmony. We sound 'traditional' but we aren't, not really."

The return to playing acoustic gigs must feel like coming back full circle and I wondered how the musicians felt about this - Norman again provided the answer. "Well, Rod would say the same about playing with the full drum kit, pipes and keyboards in Ceolbeg, or me in the Cauld Blast with seven others and 30 instruments - sometimes you have to have a big PA system, and when you've had a good sound-check in a good theatre it is very exciting, and the music is at a different level - sheer volume is part of it. But the Bairns have played two concerts in the last year where we deliberately played without amplification - pulling back the accompaniment under the songs, sitting and standing close together - and they were lovely, in a delicate sort of way. Real sounds from real instruments and voices. You can really hear things. But actually, most of the time you play acoustically but through a PA, and make the best of it."

The Bairns have never been a full-time touring band, so outside of Scotland there are many people with a keen interest in Scottish music who have not had an opportunity to see and hear them live - something the band is determined to remedy. Last year, as well as playing Scottish festivals, appearing on Radio and TV, reprising the 18th century poetry-and-music performances of Fergusson's Auld Reikie with Billy Kay, and visiting Ireland and the USA - Rod, John, Ian, Derek and Norman finally went back into Castle Sound Studios to record their third album 'May You Never Lack A Scone'.

But all the while Jock Tamson's Bairns have remained an underground force in Scotland's music - even when they weren't playing gigs - and have exerted an influence upon umpteen Scottish musicians and bands - from septuagenarian bothy ballad champion Jock Duncan - "Mon, I could listen tae them a' night", to Shooglenifty's Iain MacLeod "You don't get many bands that, when you hear them, you can tell immediately who it is. They're like that.. I always loved the Bairns." Younger bands like Keep It Up have said that they want to play in a Bairns style - and let the music be heard in an unforced way - while mature exponents like Alasdair Fraser or Brian McNeill come to concerts and sing the band's praises. Some, like Scots and Gaelic singers Nancy Nicolson and Ishbel MacAskill at Glasgow's recent Celtic Connections, even dance in the aisles!

The band's first two LPs, originally on Topic and Temple records were reissued by Greentrax as a double CD called - A' Jock Tamsons Bairns - as a tribute to 'one of the most influential Scottish Folk Bands of the 70s and 80s'. At the time of the re-issue it appeared as if the music of the Bairns was in the past. Now in 2001 and with the release of 'May You Never Lack A Scone', it looks as if the Bairns may once again be setting the standards.

 

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