Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh - the spark


It’s one of the great ‘what ifs’ in Scottish music history: what if the late Hamish Henderson hadn’t organised the 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh?


Given Henderson’s enthusiastic championing of the singers and songs he had already encountered on his travels round Scotland, he would surely have found some other way of turning what was a trickle into the flood that has resulted from the traditional music revival he spearheaded, and of which the 1951 ceilidh is seen as the sparking point.


One alternative, however, says Eberhard ‘Paddy’ Bort of Edinburgh Folk Club, is that our knowledge of the ballad and Gaelic music traditions might have continued to be constrained by the then prevalent gentrified versions of these songs, favoured in douce drawing rooms and radio broadcasts, which were closer to German lieder than an Aberdeenshire bothy singsong or a Hebridean hò-ro-gheallaidh.


Bort has been giving much thought lately to the occasion through which Henderson brought the raw authentic sounds of singers and musicians from rural Scotland to a big city audience for the first time. Not least because the folk club’s Carrying Stream festival, now in its tenth year and held to celebrate Henderson’s contribution to Scotland’s cultural health and wealth, is marking the sixtieth anniversary of the first Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh by returning to the scene, Oddfellows Hall – currently Malone’s Bar – of the original event with a similar cast.


“It was certainly a catalyst,” says Bort. “Phil Cunningham, who is among the performers this time, has already said that he might not be doing what he’s doing now if it hadn’t been for that event. It was well before Phil’s time, of course, but it also opened a lot of people’s eyes and ears at the time.”


Indeed, the sense of an opening being created into another world, even one right on our doorstep, can still be felt from the recording of the original ceilidh that Rounder Records issued back in 2005, as Henderson calls for singing contributions from Jessie Murray, a Buckie fishwife, John Strachan, an Aberdeenshire farmer with a vast repertoire of ballads, the inimitable Jimmy MacBeath, who lives every syllable of The Gallant Forty-Twa, and Flora MacNeil, who was then recently arrived from Barra with her Gaelic song riches and will be a guest of honour at the 2011 version.


It was both fortuitous and coincidental that the American folklorist Alan Lomax was on hand to record these performances. At the time, Lomax was on his way round the world, documenting all the indigenous music he could find (he had assumed, wrongly, that Scotland wouldn’t detain him long but that’s another story), and his promotion of the careers of blues singers such as Big Bill Broonzy actually helped the cause of Scottish folksong. Broonzy’s Usher Hall, Edinburgh concert in 1953 sent local fans of American folk music off in search of what they could find of their own culture that gave them the same thrill – and they found the ballads and singers that Henderson was collecting and promoting.


The former MP and school teacher, Norman Buchan, who would shortly create a kind of folk music hatchery amongst his pupils through his own evangelism, attended the 1951 ceilidh and described it as: “An amazing night. It swept me off my feet completely.” Buchan, whose 101 Scottish Folk Songs book became a Scottish folk scene staple in the 1960s, had never heard anything like Flora MacNeil or her fellow islander, Calum Johnston’s unaccompanied Gaelic singing before and he was astonished to hear Jessie Murray singing what would have been her equivalent of an ice cream van’s chimes as she traipsed through the Buchan countryside with her basket of fish for sale on her back.


We live in different times now but aside from Flora MacNeil, whose daughter Maggie MacInnes will represent the Barra Gaels this time, there are still connections with the original cast who had Oddfellows Hall in uproar. As well as inviting singers Sheila Stewart and Jean Redpath, Bort and Ewan McVicar, who annotated the Rounder recording, have tracked down Blanche Wood, who sang on the original concert and still lives in Edinburgh. The great ballad singer and former Aberdeenshire ploughman Jock Duncan knew John Strachan well in his younger days and will represent the Doric tradition more than ably, and Donald MacKay who trained with the 1951 featured piper, the legendary John Burgess, will represent his mentor.


“We’ve heard that the Mrs Budge who helped Hamish out on the John Maclean March is still living in Edinburgh, although we haven’t been able to contact her,” says Bort, who adds that one other connection remains very much intact and very much still part of the Edinburgh folk scene: Sandy Bell’s pub, a near neighbour of the former Oddfellows Hall.


“Sandy Bell’s was apparently the place where everyone congregated after the People’s Festival events, which were set up to lend a Scottish input alongside the official Edinburgh Festival between 1951 and 1953,” says Bort. “So we have our own ready-made and original fringe club.”


From The Herald, November 2011.

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