In Rab Noakes' opinion John Watt is, as to many, a totally unique character and is arguably Fife's foremost contemporary chronicler in song. His songs have been enjoyed by many over the years but remain fresh and new each time they are aired. They were written over a period of nearly 40 years although the timescale covered in the subject matter is much longer than that.
John Watt is a charismatic character - as zany as many of the characters he writes about - and a prolific writer. In the tradition of the 'people's poets' his subject matter is wide-ranging, taking in all kinds of issues but always with a local flavour and with a streetwise perspective. John is a natural wordsmith and most of the time he has chosen song as the vehicle to bear his words.
Traditional song has had a great influence on John and he has had a greater influence on the Scottish folksong revival than most people would appreciate. The overriding image of John is of fun, but below the surface lies some sharp political observation and social comment. His subject matter might mitigate against his name being mentioned alongside such luminaries as Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig and even Robert Burns, but it would be a grave misjudgement of his talent if he was not recognised at this level.
John Watt is a native of Dunfermline, Fife, and now lives in Milnathort. He has been involved in the Scottish folksong movement for over thirty years. A past Chairman of The Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland, he has presented numerous documentaries on radio, including 'Fife Connection', 'Howe of Fife Connection' and 'The Fifty-Fifty Ball'. He has also presented 'Celtic Horizons' for BBC radio and 'Fife's Got Everything' for the Odyssey series produced by Billy Kay. He has lectured for the Association of Scottish Literary Studies on Fife Poets and Song-writers, tutored for The Workers Educational Association in Creative Writing and Musical Appreciation and is Chairman of the Milnathort based Love and Liberty Theatre Company.
John is a member of Milnathort Folk Festival Committee. The festival is not a high profile affair; rather, it is a local festival firmly rooted in the community. This is typical of John. The festival raises funds with activities such as Duck Races and engage the local children with a Girr & Cleek championship, and have a 'no stars' policy with all the performers working the sessions in the local pubs on a rotation basis?
A singer, raconteur and composer, his work has been recorded by artists in Scotland, Ireland, Denmark and Canada. Prior to this year he had recorded only one album, 'Shores of the Forth' along with Davey Stewart, and although many others had recorded his songs, even on this album he steered clear of his own songs leaving them to Davey. The fact that there had not been many recordings of John singing his own songs was appreciated by Rab Noakes who was determined to put matters right. Rab is a talented writer himself and his respect for John is immense. He has shown the extent of that respect in the approach he took recording John's latest album, 'Heroes'. No shortcuts were taken; he assembled a group of talented musicians who were totally sympathetic to John's songs, giving them the time to do the job and making no attempt to overcome any of the limitations of John's voice.
His grandfather, David Watt, originally hailed from Leith, and came across to Fife in 1882 working as a Commercial Traveller for the firm of John Dickinson & Co Ltd, manufacturers of stationery, and in 1881 he founded the printing firm of David Watt & Sons in Dunfermline. He was to influence John from a very early age. At the age of 6, John received 6d from his grandfather for learning the 23rd Psalm 'The Lord's My Shepherd' by heart and has remembered it ever since.
His Grandfather was described in his church obituary as 'A lover of good music and literature, who evinced a poetic view and a gift of imagination, coupled with a touch of the mystic'. He was, according to John's father, "a pretty mediocre violin player and prodigious writer of flowery Victorian verse" and used to advise his customers of commercial visits in rhyme! John recalls that his grandfather would take his violin with him on his commercial journeys and timed his visits to play with various amateur orchestras up and down the country, venturing as far as Carlisle. He used to bring various artefacts home and once outraged John's grandmother when a stuffed polar bear arrived by carrier. It had obviously taken his fancy but was told in no uncertain terms to 'get rid o' the beast'.
Clearly John's family was a musical one and also one with more than it's share of eccentricity. John's father Gordon and his uncle, Miller, both played in the Dunfermline amateur orchestra (there is a sepia-coloured photograph of them both in the Dunfermline museum c1908) whilst his aunt Phyllis trained in Leipzig as a concert pianist. Phyllis was dissuaded from pursuing this as a career as his grandfather 'did not consider it a ladylike occupation'! This caused a great deal of bitterness although his father later told John "She would never have made it, she was technically perfect but had no soul or feeling". John's father wasn't the greatest at encouraging others but, in the land where "it's no bad" is considered high praise, perhaps this is not surprising.
John's other aunt, Frankie, married an Englishman who according to John's father was "some kind of crook who slept with a gun underneath his pillow". The women in this family did not fare too well as the husband of Phyllis, an English doctor, died of drug addiction. Another family member who was to have a great influence upon John's early life was his Uncle Mac. As a late child Mac Watt was 16 years younger than the rest of the family, and had all the love and attention of the 'old man' showered upon him which the others did not enjoy. In a conversation with Swinton the Ironmonger in East Port Street, Dunfermline, John's Grandfather said 'I have 3 sons, two of them are boors and one is a rogue'.
John remembers Mac as a very fat man who told many stories, laughed a lot, lived in London and could, and often did, drink a bottle of gin at a sitting. He was always borrowing (and spending) money lavishly. John's father wryly remarked that 'he was good at that, it was never his own'. After a disastrous trial in the printing works and being expelled from Agricultural College in Ayr, he found his true vocation as a thespian and trained at the Old Vic acting school. Naturally, being Mac, he knew far more than they did and left, 'treading the boards' with various dubious repertory companies travelling round various parts of Britain and Ireland. His father was mortified at his apparent lack of success and opened various 'secret' bank accounts in Alloa, Stirling etc to 'bail him out' so that the rest of the family would not know about it. Mac, full name David MacKane Watt, was named after John McKane, a well known millionaire from Dunfermline. David MacKane Watt, in true proverbial fashion, died in 1953 at the age of 49 in a gas filled room in Pimlico leaving £10 and a gold watch. Neither of his brothers went to the funeral. His only epitaphs, now in John's possession, are a video of a black and white film 'The Gorbals Story' for which he wrote the screenplay and directed under his stage name David MacKane. The film was made for Eros Films Ltd, using the Glasgow Unity Players, in 1950. Among the actors are a very youthful Roddie Macmillan and Russell Hunter. The other memento is a fading theatre programme from the Globe Theatre, Deal, in the late 20's with Mac as 'Christian Brent' in 'Peg O' My Heart' by J Hartley Manners.