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DUNCAN WILLIAMSON "Put Another Log on the Fire" VT128CD

The most potent memory I have of live music melding with place and time to create a vital, unrepeatable experience occurred while travelling through Skye in the company of two storytellers, David Campbell and Duncan Williamson. As the old camper van bounced towards Staffin with the Old Man of Storr punctuating the vastness of mountain, loch, and sky, Duncan simply began to sing, his voice filling the occasion with the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. This proved without question that there is always a song for a place and always time for a story. Landscape is empty without music, and so is a house.

Duncan Williamson's large living-room in Fife provides the location for his latest tape of traditional music and song recorded sympathetically and with warm atmosphere by John Howson of Veteran Tapes.

Born before his grannie in Argyll in 1928, Williamson is one of the few surviving genuine Scots travellers who learned his vast repertoire of stories, ballads, songs and riddles from boyhood in and about caravans and gellies. Although he no longer lives outside, nor tramps the roads, he pedals his traditional wares throughout schools and festivals storytelling and singing to avid ears of all ages. He is a natural performer who regularly holds planned and impromptu ceilidhs in his home.

This tape captures something of the flavour and essence of these home-fire sessions but the general tenor lacks zest as though the singer was looking for an audience to lift his beat. The mood throughout is consistent permitting Williamson to set his own smooth and lyrical pace. A short moothie intro of the country and western classic that gives the tape its title is followed by "A Pretty Fair Maid", a song in which a simple working girl is wooed by a gentile, upper class gentleman of dubious intentions. However, he is none other than her long lost lover; a well-worked theme in traditional folklore. This collection iterates such themes according to custom and familiar tunes are given other words, for example, "The Factory Girl" borrows from "The Road and the Miles Tae Dundee" while titles are altered lending credence to the singer's originality. This habit allows Williamson to make "Lady Margaret" (Tamlin), "Willie's Lost at Sea" (A Cruel Grave) and "The Shepherd Lass" (Queen Among the Heather) his own.

Short, over brief bursts of mouthorgan and jew's harp between tracks prove that there is more to the man than a polished larynx. These spirited solos prevent the mood becoming bogged down and in the case of "Betsy's Welcome Tae Edinburgh",illustrate Williamson's talents as a tunesmith.

Duncan Williamson is a wonderful balladeer whose relaxed, natural style makes the storyline true. His spoken introduction to "Sir Patrick Spens" effortlessly, and without cessation, lilts into the verse in one breath. His version does not plagiarise the epic poem nor does it have the larger-than-life drama of Ewan MacColl's. Instead we are treated to a rendition of purity, timelessness and consummate skill.

Traditionalists would agree when I say that the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens has not be commercially recorded enough, and of course neither has Duncan Williamson. The same traditionalists might be surprised to hear Duncan close Side A by singing "Put Another Log on the Fire" but this lyric is, for him, an anthem. His own large log fire is the focal point for ceilidhs harking back to the campfire, the spirit of the travellers' community.

Marshall Anderson

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This album was reviewed in Issue 15 of The Living Tradition magazine.