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"Folk Songs of North-East Scotland" - CDTRAX 5003

This recording grows on you: it needs several playings, right through, before its merits are fully appreciated.

First: the accompanying booklet, by Peter Hall, is excellent. Notes on the words are scholarly but clear, about half the tunes are commented on, and there are notes on each singer. A general introduction covers the story of the G-D collection, later collections, and the present state of play in the folk song world. Most important: all the words of the songs are printed, with the meaning of Scots words as they appear; there is even a more general glossary at the end.

Second: this recording is truly broad-based, showing different aspects of the North-East psyche, with a wide variety of songs and singing styles carefully ordered to provide contrast throughout. The gamut of styles ranges from the objective, straightforward rendering with little variation in dynamics (until recently considered the only traditional way), to full-blown, free expressiveness. The first song, "The Forfar Sodger", with Aileen Carr's superbly rich voice, is at the objective end of this spectrum, and the last, "In London Town", at the expressive end, with Liz Stewart's subtle ornamentation, freer timing, and heart-breaking pianissimo word-painting at the thrice-repeated "float/floating". In between, there's a glorious mixture of different styles and song-types: two bothy ballads, with Jock Duncan's "Drumdelgie" giving a heartfelt account of farm work hardship (ploughing in icy weather) and a bluntly emphatic final adieu to "a maist unceevil crew"; songs where you feel the excitement of the story, as in Gordeanna MacCull - och's driving "Lord William and Lady Margaret", and Norman Kennedy's "The Gaberlunzie Man"; the vitality of Peter Hall's roughish voice, accompanied by squeezebox and whistle, putting over the fortitude of "The Diamond Ship" sailors' the tight-lipped Adam MacNaughtan making a comedy out of rejected love, set to dance tunes in "Pirn-taed Jockie", followed immediately by Jane Turriff's "Bonny Udny" where the same theme is dealt with in a strikingly contrasting romantic style; the instrumental playing of Stramash group's really splendid "The Banks O Skene", also in Arthur Watson's genial bothy-type ballad "Mulnabeeny". Fifteen out of the eighteen songs are unaccompanied.

Most performances lean more to the straightforward, plain type, but expressiveness keeps breaking in. Elaine Petrie in "The Rue and the Thyme", a splendid song with a somewhat boring tune, electrifies us with a dramatic ending: a decorated and emphasised "I'll" - followed by a rest - "keep the rue!"; and Palaver group, singing a nice arrangement of "The Brisk Young Lad", forcefully but with unvarying and (thankfully) less volume than usual. The most unashamedly passionate singing, and to me the most inspiring, comes from the three travellers: Sheila Stewart's achingly beautiful "Lass Among the Heather", Jane Turriff's poignant "Bonny Udny", and Elizabeth Stewart's magical final song. And Isla St. Clair firmly brings variation of volume into her "Johnny My Man", almost whispering at times; like the three travellers, she is free from the tyranny of the beat which holds sway over so much present day traditional folk music.

The only song without any Greig-Duncan connection is Hamish Henderson's "The Ballad of the Speaking Heart", his own free translation - and sung to his own cheerful tune - of a French poem by Jean Richepin (1849-1926), called "La Chanson de Marie-des-Anges", in the Oxford Book of French Verse, 1926. Hard pressed to justify its inclusion, Peter Hall falls back on the Auld Alliance, claiming that the poem "shows something of the same economy [as Scots ballads] in dealing with heightened emotion". "Economy" seems a strange word in this context. I find it hard to understand how Hamish - a truly kind man with a distinguished record in songwriting - can be so fond of this ghastly, blood-boltered chanson. (Every time I hear him sing "He Cut Oot Her Hairt and Awa He Ran", I get a mental picture of the disembowelling scene in the film "Braveheart"). The translation into Scots is excellent, but I just feel the whole thing is a bit too bloody much. (Tho' I'm still pondering it). The refrain is good and does its best to make up for the rest.

This CD is otherwise brilliant, well worthwhile to buy, and to play often. It is a fitting tribute to a landmark in the story of Scots folk song.

Ailie Edmunds Munro

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This album was reviewed in Issue 14 of The Living Tradition magazine.