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SHEILA STEWART - "... and time goes on ... " - Offspring Records OFFCD00101

I first came across these recordings, now reissued on CD by Offspring Records during last Whitby Festival. They were made on minidisc in Sheila Stewart's home in Rattray, near Blairgowrie. The simple, primitive even, cassette package was the labour of love of Doc Rowe who, if you could track him down, would sell you a copy out of his briefcase.

Sheila Stewart herself was at the festival. She looked as exotic as the original tape was plain. With her black hair and handsome features she reminded me of one of the mature Spanish dancers in Carlos Saura's documentary Sevillanas; poised, assured, at one with their art after a lifetime of living the dance. When she sang or told a story, the impression was perpetuated. Though we were unquestionably witnessing a performance - a performance of considerable power - there was, at the same time, no sense that we were watching an 'act', something put on for the occasion.

She has a total belief in her material and a personality that, on or off stage, is enormously charismatic, and it is this quality or coalescence of qualities that make a Sheila Stewart performance so special. Years ago, when I had never seen Duncan Williamson perform, I asked a friend what he was like. Speaking of his singing - for Duncan has some unique versions of classic songs, as well as his own heartfelt compositions - the friend said "Well, I've heard singers who are technically better, but I've never heard anyone who believed so much in what they were singing." As a singer, Sheila Stewart has that belief, as well as a voice with a thrilling edge, and the technique to use that voice to its full advantage. As a storyteller she has, like Duncan Williamson, the ability to make the onlooker believe that she has been a witness, a bystander, to the events she is describing.

The stories - there are songs too - are representative of Sheila's current performing repertoire, rather than being a producer's "Best of" selection. They range from pieces within the Stewart family tradition to an American Indian story heard a couple of years ago. In tone, they encompass Grand Guignol (Appley and Orangey), the cautionary (The Wooden Ball), the humorous anecdote (The Three Wishes), and on into the night! The totally un-PC Appley is one of my favourites, replete as it is with infanticide, dismemberment, cannibalism, and ultimate matricide (hooray!) by decapitation. Oh, and a final repeat dose of cannibalism.

These are intimate, close-miked presentations which speak directly to the listener, and invite a transaction close to the experience of being in the room with the storyteller. A recording can't fully substitute a live performance; but if you've seen Sheila Stewart it can be a reminder of her vibrant presence and, if you have yet to see her, it can give a good taste of the pleasures she has to offer.

The songs too tend very much towards narrative. There are none of the grand ballads - I expect that the forthcoming Topic solo CD will feature some of these - but the range is wide nevertheless. The notes to both songs and stories are anecdotal, rather than academic, and are engaging, and sometimes enlightening, on that level.

Never wed an Auld Man is one of the more explicit versions of this well-travelled song. I once heard Sheila introduce the song. She used it as a kind of marker, a challenge to the non-traveller audience. This, she said, is part of my heritage. I want to sing it, and if anyone is offended I'm sorry; but if you're offended, then you offend me and my culture. It was an audacious move, but she pulled it off.

Which raises the question of the wider cultural context of Sheila Stewart's art. There is no doubt that she sees herself as an ambassador for traveller culture, a culture which, she admits, is now largely of the past. She speaks of the campfire as the only real place to tell stories, sing and play. Of the thousands from a traveller background living in Scotland, Sheila Stewart is one of a handful whose public performances directly acknowledge their heritage. So is Sheila Stewart an anomaly in terms of her own people? It's a question I couldn't presume to answer. But I do feel that, when I hear performances by her, I get that sense of their total belief in the truth of the material that I talked about earlier. The quality comes through on this CD.

Bob Pegg

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This album was reviewed in Issue 37 of The Living Tradition magazine.