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Freeland Barbour - Tome with a lifetime of tunes

 

It’s not unusual for musicians and bands to play their new releases in their entirety – if not necessarily in sequential order – on gigs around the time of release. If Freeland Barbour was to try and play all the music contained in The Music and the Land at his Celtic Connections concert and dance on January 19, however, it would take a sight longer, possibly days more than the scheduled three and a half hours.

 

The Music and the Land is a collection for which the term “a weighty tome” could have been coined. It contains hundreds of tunes that Barbour, the accordionist from ground-breaking folk band Silly Wizard, wrote as he went on to become a fixture on the Scottish music and dance band scene as musician, radio producer, recording studio owner-manager and other roles. Barbour himself has described it as a coffee table artefact, although it would need a sturdy coffee table to support it.

 

With its superb full colour photography by Cailean Maclean, who will act as narrator at the Old Fruitmarket, and Robin Gillanders, the book could certainly appeal beyond those who can and are likely to read and play Barbour’s tunes. It’s beautifully presented by its publishers, Birlinn, and with written introductions by a small army of contributors adding to the scenery captured and tales behind the photographs, it’s a work that the lay person can get lost in for hours.

 

And yet it’s also functional. Barbour meant for it to be used so that his music could be played, so that the notes can come alive and convey the images of places and people he had in mind when committing them to the stave.

 

“More than once during the process of putting the collection together,” says the Perthshire-born Barbour, “I’ve gone back to the summer evening in the 1970s when I looked out over the hills from Glen Fincastle, where I was brought up, and wrote a tune that, for me, encapsulated that scene. At the time I thought, I know this scene so well and can picture it in my mind any time I like. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a photographic representation of this spot to go with the music.”

 

It took thirty-five years for him to finally set this idea in motion. By this time capturing places, and the people who live in them, in tunes had become almost an occupational hazard. His travels began with Silly Wizard, the band in which his place was taken by Phil Cunningham. In his introduction to the Edinburgh chapter of the Music and the Land, Cunningham notes. “I blame Freeland for everything.” Had Barbour only stayed with Silly Wizard, Cunningham reflects, Cunningham might be a respectable zoologist by now. “Yes, and that gives me ammunition for a response when Phil and I play together on the Celtic Connections gig,” says Barbour.

 

After he left Silly Wizard, Barbour formed the Wallachmor Ceilidh Band then the Ghillies and the Occasionals and their travels took him all over Scotland, to Orkney and Shetland, over the border into Northumberland, where there was a thriving village hall dance calendar, and to Scandinavia.

 

Much of the music he played, although not all of it, was for dancing and on Friday and Saturday nights the bands would be not just the star turn at the local hall, but drawn into the community. Many friendships were made and sealed with a dram and a tune in honour of a nearby spot or a local worthy in the manner of musicians from the great Perthshire fiddler and tunesmith Niel [correct spelling] Gow’s time and before. In the West Highlands and Islands, the Wallachmor gang would often form a double bill with a group destined for hero status, Runrig, but everywhere they went they met fellow musicians and other creative people such as Bobby Tulloch, the Shetland naturalist and photographer, to whom Barbour also dedicated a tune.

 

The melodies kept coming. Many have been picked up by other players and taken into the tradition; others are waiting for discovery in The Music and the Land, which also has a companion CD and a supplementary piping section that runs to 65 tunes.

 

For years Barbour was too busy to work on a book. Then, as the first accordion tutor on the BA Scottish music course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (or RSAMD as it was at the time) in the late 1990s, he was offered a small grant to develop his idea. It still took some years to come to fruition but collecting the photographs, written contributions - some scholarly, others anecdotal – and clearly annotated music together has clearly invigorated him.

 

 “I’m immensely proud that we’ve been able to harness all the talents that have come together to produce a music book in this form,” he says, “And I’m looking forward to the Celtic Connections night because we’ll have a lot of people who were involved in or contributed to the book, including Martin Carthy, on guitar and vocals, Ross Ainslie on pipes, and Jane Gardner, who transcribed the music, on piano. I’m sure it’ll be a great night.”

 

They certainly won’t run out of tunes.

 

From The Herald, December 23, 2015

 

 

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