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Tracing Scotland's influence on American music


Phil Cunningham has played accordion in almost as many interesting locations around the world as a television presenter as he has done as a working musician. The cameras have captured him duetting with an erhu (two stringed violin) player by a lake in Beijing’s Black Bamboo Park and dancing out a tune on the world's biggest accordion in the Italian accordion town of Castelfidardo.


How Cunningham came to be playing in the church of country music, the Ryman auditorium, home of the venerable Grand Old Opry, is a story that takes some four hundred years and the three instalments of his latest series, Wayfaring Stranger, to unfold.


Wayfaring Stranger examines in considerable detail Scotland's contribution to, as Cunningham puts it, America's greatest gift to the world: music. It takes its name from an American anthem that began as a 17th century Scottish border ballad, The Dowie Dens of Yarrow. It was carried, first, to Northern Ireland and then gained new words to its melody as the successors of those who moved from one promised land moved on to another one down what’s known as the Wagon Road, the route that travels down the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.


As he accompanied the emerging star of roots music and star of another television series, Nashville, Rhiannon Giddens singing Wayfaring Stranger with her banjo for the first instalment, Cunningham couldn’t help thinking, there and then as players of the music world’s most joked about instruments, that they could form the most unpopular duo in the history of music. His amusement, he points out, however, shouldn’t detract from Giddens’ wonderful rendition of the song and there were plenty of other moments along the way that brought a lump to his throat.


“Every time I go into one of these series about music I discover how little I know,” he says. “I’d heard American people saying how they were Irish Scots or Scots Irish and I just assumed they meant that one parent or grandparent was Irish and the other Scottish, rather than them being descended from the Ulster Scots. Something else that never occurred to me was that hillbillies might be Billies – Protestants - from the hills. That never entered my mind when I was watching the Beverley Hillbillies on TV back in the 1960s.”


As the programme follows the migration of Scots to Ulster in the seventeenth century, we hear of the historical cultural links between Scotland and Ireland and how music was carried as a way of documenting events, as entertainment and as an expression of faith. People of all classes are involved. King James V’s contribution to folklore as the proto singer-songwriter in his guise as the Goodman of Ballangeich was complemented by the Stewarts’ commissioning of higher flown Latinate church music that became superseded by psalms and hymns sung in the people’s own language.


Two hundred years on, as a quarter of a million Ulster Scots left Londonderry for America, ballads, fiddle tunes and a way of singing faith songs with conviction would coalesce and ultimately feed into country music.


“I drove down the Wagon Road,” says Cunningham, “and it’s one thing to get in a car and head down a motorway, as it is now, but it would be another thing entirely to hack your way through forests and whatever else these people faced. It brought home to me that carrying a song or a tune in your head might be the only way of taking something from the old country with you and when these pioneers got together with Scandinavians and African-Americans, who introduced the banjo, the music would change and develop.”  


Among the musical contributors featured are the great Ulster singer Len Graham and his younger countryman Jarlath Henderson, singing his updated take on Courting is A Pleasure. Scots Karine Polwart and Archie Fisher illustrate how a 17th century scandal, when the wife of an Ayrshire lord ran off with king of the gypsies, was first told as the Raggle Taggle Gypsy and emerged in its transatlantic form as a rockbilly hit, Black Jack David, and in the repertoires of the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, who substituted “boss” for “lord”, and Bob Dylan. 


Before we leave Ireland, Altan fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh illustrates the Scottish influence on Irish dance music, both in terms of tune forms the Scots introduced and a fiddle style that’s phrased in the clipped style of their speech, and Cunningham discovers the story of the Kilmarnock-born street singer Jean Glover, who shared songs with Robert Burns, spending her final days in Donegal.


Once in America Cunningham traces all manner of Scots and Ulster Scots connections, from the perhaps not so surprising backgrounds of musicians including dobro master Jerry Douglas and bluegrass stalwarts Ricky Skaggs and Tim O’Brien to the fiddle from Ulster that featured on the first country music hit record and the walking treasure trove that is singer and folklorist Sheila Kay Adams.


“I could have spent any amount of time listening to Sheila,” says Cunningham. “Not only does she have this vast store of ballads, she explained how these songs were passed on, and it’s pretty simple really. You have these big families of children all living in cramped surroundings and needing to be kept entertained and occupied. How else would you do it other than telling them stories, except the stories happen to be songs? The songs all tell of things everyone can relate to, so they are remembered and passed on, and on.”


Just as singing together helped to forge communities, many of them named after the homes that had been left behind, where the church became the centre of life, the fiddles that were either brought from Ireland or acquired in the new settlements brought people from different backgrounds together.


The fiddle’s importance and prevalence are underlined by the establishment of a fiddling contest in Hanover County, Virginia on St Andrew’s Day, 1736, the first such recorded and with a violin from Cremona, no less, as the prize. This drew huge crowds. Within a short time these events were being held all over the Carolinas, Virginia and Kentucky as the precursors to the massive similar events that proliferate today.


As we move into the age of broadcasting and recording, Ulster Scots and their traditions are well to the fore. In 1922 Henry Gilliland, a fiddler of Irish descent, made what is considered to be the first recording of traditional music, Arkansas Traveler and Turkey in the Straw, and the following year, Fiddlin’ John Carson, a seven-times fiddle champion of Georgia, became a million selling artist with You Will Never Miss Your Mother Until She Is Gone, reputedly played on a fiddle brought by his family from Ireland one hundred and fifty years earlier.


Other notable musicians with Ulster Scots backgrounds who forged the music that became the American mainstream included the prolific Charlie Poole, Clayton McMichen of the Skillet Lickers, whose Ida Red was reborn as Chuck Berry’s Maybeline and Dock Boggs, a hero of Pete Seeger who combined his own Scots-Irish tradition with the blues he grew up hearing from black neighbours.


“It’s a fascinating story and one we possibly take for granted,” says Cunningham. “But I suspect the more we keep digging the more we’re likely to find.”


Wayfaring Stranger goes out on BBC Two Scotland from Tuesday, September 26 at 7:00pm.


From The Herald, September 23, 2017



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Guitarist has waited all his life to play Django


Talk about preparation. Martin Taylor can look ahead to this weekend’s concerts with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and say, honestly, that he’s been waiting all his life to play the part of Django Reinhardt.


The Belgian guitarist, the first European to be regarded on a par with America’s jazz masters,  was the first musician Taylor can remember hearing and he’s pretty sure his father would have been playing Reinhardt’s records when Taylor was in his mother’s womb.


“My dad listened to other music,” says Taylor during a break from going over the arrangements SNJO director Tommy Smith has commissioned for the concerts. “He liked Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller but I always remember him and his pals, sitting in the living-room, playing dad’s Django 78s and then getting their guitars out and having a jam session.”


It wouldn’t have been long after these early memories that Taylor himself was able to play along. He was eight when he played the first gig he was paid for, eleven when he started playing in bands regularly and fifteen when he left school to become a full-time professional guitarist, racking up an early experience with one of his dad’s aforementioned favourites, Count Basie, shortly afterwards.


In his early twenties Taylor began an eleven year association with Reinhardt’s partner in the Quintette du Hot Club de France, violinist Stephane Grappelli, although through these years of international touring he was never made to feel as if he was filling the great guitarist’s shoes.


“We didn’t play a lot of the Hot Club repertoire with Stephane,” he says. “We’d play Minor Swing and maybe Nuages occasionally but Stephane’s real interest was in the Great American Songbook and making it swing. He’d played with a lot of other guitarists by the time I joined him, so there was no pressure to play like Django. Stephane wasn’t one for giving directions anyway. The biggest pressure was when he liked something I played and he’d tell me to play it again – ‘to amuse the tourists’ as he always referred to the audience – and I had to try and remember what it was I’d played.”


Still, playing with Grappelli and hearing his stories of the Hot Club’s heyday took Taylor that bit closer to the guitarist whose playing, as he says, “spoke to me.”


“I hear guitarists now who have come to Django’s music after playing heavy rock and they have unbelievable technical ability but Django wasn’t about chops,” says Taylor. “He could play fast but generally his improvisations were melodic variations, more like composing on the spot or telling a story where one phrase followed logically on from another. The thing you have to remember about Django is that his biggest influence was Louis Armstrong and he took his phrasing from Louis’ trumpet style and singing. He often played guitar as if he was singing.”


For the SNJO concerts Taylor will be playing electric guitar as Reinhardt did on his own big band recordings, a transition that Taylor feels liberated Reinhardt.


“The Hot Club quintet with Stephane was a string band and they could all play acoustically because their instruments had a similar dynamic range,” he says. “Even if you added a clarinet it would be in roughly the same range but when you introduce trumpets and trombones, an acoustic guitar would struggle to compete. When Django made his big band records he’d been to New York and played with Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. He was actually getting into more of a bebop style and he cranked up the volume a bit – had his Bob Dylan moment twenty years before Bob had his – and found a different voice, a louder voice.”


Taylor isn’t planning to blare, just soar over the top of the orchestra when need be. The instrumentation of the orchestra in this particular guise has been chosen to recreate the atmosphere of the 1940s. To the reduced orchestral line-up of three trumpets, three trombones, five reeds, bass and drums (there’s no piano) have been added rhythm guitar, accordion and violin.


“We wanted to add the colour that accordion and violin bring,” says Taylor, who worked closely with Tommy Smith in selecting the pieces to be played, drawing from dozens of recordings.


“It’s quite unusual to have Django’s music celebrated by a big band. I’m sure it’s been done before but people tend to focus on the Hot Club or small group era when it comes to tributes,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to playing the concerts but also to hearing the new arrangements of tunes like Manoir de mes rêves and Swing 42. And dare I say it, because it’s seventeen musicians onstage, it’s the sort of idea I’d like to tour further afield.”


Martin Taylor and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra play In the Spirit of Django at Eden Court, Inverness on Friday, September 22; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Saturday 23; City Halls, Glasgow, Sunday 24.


From The Herald, September 20, 2017




Smith rises to the Coltrane challenge 


Tommy Smith is celebrating turning fifty with two challenges. Firstly, this week at Rochester Jazz Festival in New York, the saxophonist is playing his first-ever solo concert.     


Smith has played onstage by himself many times before. In the early noughties he toured his Alone at Last project to over forty venues across Scotland and  further afield, working with soprano and tenor saxophones and samples of his late friend and collaborator Edwin Morgan’s poetry, natural sounds and special effects. He has also recorded alone, on his 2001 album Into the Silence, which saw him working with what was at one time the longest echo in the world in Hamilton Mausoleum. 


The Rochester concert, however, will be his first time “playing with no help”, as he puts it, in front of an audience and it’s something he finds scary but at the same time, exciting.


“I’ve seen some great saxophonists playing completely solo and even someone like Michael Brecker, who used awesome virtuosity and fantastic technique to prolong his compositions in that setting, played too many notes,” he says. “It’s a really big challenge and there’s the temptation to fill the space available because you’re exposed by the silence, but to me space is important. It gives you time to reflect on what you’ve just played and what you’re about to play. It lets the music breathe. If you just play constantly, for the audience it’s like listening to someone talking non-stop, twenty to the dozen, and that can just get annoying.”


 As with everything he does, Smith will have put much thought and preparation into his essentially improvised “naked saxophone” recital and in a way his reliance, in performance,  on his imagination and especially on the pure, unamplified sound of his instrument is related to the second challenge he has taken on.


Back in February, Smith decided that the time was right to face something he’d been putting off almost since he began his career, a tribute to one of his biggest inspirations, John Coltrane. With the fiftieth anniversary of the great saxophonist’s death approaching on July 17 and conscious of his own mortality, Smith put a new quartet together to record an album comprising some of Coltrane’s best loved compositions and a few of his own pieces written in dedication to the master.


“It’s something that saxophonists do on every significant anniversary and I could have done one at any time, I suppose,” he says.  “I actually recorded Coltrane’s classic Giant Steps on my first album, Giant Strides, when I was sixteen, but I’ve never felt ready to do a full-length tribute. I’m not sure I’m ready now, to be honest. Coltrane died when he was forty and here I am at fifty, still not playing at his level, but I felt, if I don’t do it now, I might never get round to it.”


He remembers his first exposure to Coltrane, as a teenage saxophonist in Edinburgh, and it didn’t go well. Up until this point Smith had been listening to Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon, players of an older school to Coltrane. He was inquisitive, though, and was already holding down a residency with his group at La Grenoille in Abercromby Place. So he saved up money from his weekly gig - £5 a time minus expenses such as reeds and bus fares – and went into a record shop in Cockburn Street. There he saw an album cover with Coltrane looking cool on it, sitting holding a soprano saxophone, and he decided to buy it.


When he got the album home and played it, he took it off after two bars.


“It was horrible,” he says. “I skipped through the tracks and just couldn’t get my head round what this guy was doing. So I put it back in the bag, got on the bus – it was a long way from Wester Hailes to Cockburn Street – and took it back to the shop but the guy in the shop refused to give me a refund or exchange it. Eventually, as my ear developed, I got into it – it was called Ascension – but it took some time.”


Someone, it might have been fellow saxophonist and broadcaster Gordon Cruickshank, pointed Smith towards Blue Trane, an earlier Coltrane album that was more conventional than the free jazz-slanted Ascension and showcased the rich sound and passion that Coltrane brought to everything he played without his later full-on intensity. Blue Trane became Smith’s entry point into a player whose music he has returned to constantly over the years.      


Fast forward to February this year and Smith has called together pianist Peter Johnstone and bassist Calum Gourlay, two young musicians he has brought on through his own youth orchestra  and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and drummer Sebastiaan de Krom, an old colleague with whom Smith worked extensively in the early years of this century.


With no preparation – Smith sent  all three their parts ahead of the recording – they went into the Castlesound studio in Pencaitland, just outside Edinburgh, and produced the imminent Embodying the Light over four or five hours.


“We’d never all played together before but I knew they were a group of good spirits with good energy,” he says. “The session was exhausting, because the concentration levels were intense, but it was fun, too, and considering we met in the studio, the album turned out well.”


The new group made its public debut in a short concert before an invited audience for BBC Radio Scotland’s new jazz programme, Jazz Nights at the Quay in early April. Smith, whose diary contains work with Norwegian double bass master Arild Andersen’s trio and pianist Brian Kellock, as well as his commitments with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course, has been itching to show it off in more detail since then.      


He gets his wish at Edinburgh Jazz Festival next month and then has concerts booked throughout Scotland and beyond in the late summer and into the autumn.  As with his solo saxophone concert the new group will feature the natural sound of their instruments only, something that Smith has been very keen on for some time. His duo with Brian Kellock eschews PA systems in favour of a more intimate presentational style and in Arild Andersen’s trio only the bass, which uses sound effects, is generally amplified.  


“A few years ago my quartet at the time was about to start a concert when the PA blew up,” says Smith. “So we just went ahead and played without any amplification and we all listened harder and played better. The audience response was very positive too. It depends on having a drummer who can play really intensely without being too loud and a bass player with a big sound, which the new quartet has. The pianos we use have to be big enough to carry to the back of the hall and finding those can sometimes be difficult. But I much prefer playing acoustically because the audience gets to hear the true sound of the band – we sound the way we are.”

Embodying the Light is released on Spartacus Records.

Tommy Smith Quartet: Embodying the Light tours from September 26.



Tue 26: An Tobar, Tobermory

Wed 27: Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

Thu 28: Blue Lamp, Aberdeen

Fri 29: Paisley Arts Centre



Sun 1: Eden Court, Inverness

Mon 2: Websters Theatre, Glasgow

Mon 23: Ronnie Scott’s, London   

Wed 25: Capstone Theatre, Liverpool

Thu 26: Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh

Fri 27: West Kilbride Village Hall



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