Norman Kennedy - weaving in the tradition


Norman Kennedy wouldn’t be the first schoolboy to be diverted on the way home and lose all sense of time.


Twenty years later, though, the Friday lunchtime when Kennedy went AWOL back in 1945 proved to be the seed of a new life as folk music audiences in America embraced this exotic character from Aberdeen with the vast store of traditional ballads and stories.


Kennedy, who despite almost forty years as an American citizen still retains his broad Doric brogue, well remembers the scene in Castlegate market that waylaid him.


"Davie Stewart had a pitch there and he was singing MacPherson’s Rant," he says. "Now, Davie was well known for substituting the real words with some right risqué stuff and the women would pay him to do it - until the bobbies came along and he had to revert to the original words. But that song just hit me and as I soon discovered, all these ballads had great stories behind them, and that’s what made them so interesting to me."


In his later teens, Kennedy befriended another singer he’d first met when he was a nipper, the late, great Jeannie Robertson. Robertson, a veritable repository of traditional song and storytelling who is soon to be inducted into the Traditional Music Awards’ Hall of Fame, passed almost everything she knew on to Kennedy.


It wasn’t just the old songs that appealed to the teenaged Kennedy. It was the old rural way of life in its entirety. He learned to weave on a handloom from a Shetland woman living in Aberdeen at the time, picked up old farming skills, and he made wine, brandy and – much to his father’s delight - rum.


In the winter of 1964 when Mike Seeger – the younger brother of Pete, who was recently celebrated by Bruce Springsteen – visited Aberdeen, he heard Kennedy singing and swiftly invited him to represent Scotland at Newport Folk Festival in a concert showcasing the roots of the American ballad tradition.


The next year, Kennedy stepped out at Newport Bay and smelled freedom. With innumerable folk festivals and audiences hungry for authentic ballads and stories from their ancestors’ home, this was the land of opportunity.


Kennedy posted his resignation to his employers of fifteen years, the Collector of Taxes office in Aberdeen, gave up his pension rights and his council flat and eventually settled in New England. Before long he was helping to organise events at the Smithsonian in Washington, where he went on to sing several times.


"It was scary at times, cutting myself off from Scotland so abruptly" he says. "But I liken my experience to repotting a plant. If you put it in a small pot, it’ll grow okay but if you give it a much larger pot, its roots’ll start to spread and you’ll end up with a different plant altogether."  


He has returned to Scotland from time to time to sing, memorably taking part in Edinburgh International Festival’s first series of Scottish ballad concerts in 1996, and to pass on his spinning and weaving skills. In America he has waulked the cloth, the practice of making tweed airtight and ready for wear, to groups as large as three hundred. Yet he has never performed this process in public here in Scotland – until now.


"Singing – the waulking songs - plays a great part in the process because it helps you to work," he says. "But I’ve always regarded singing, spinning, weaving and working on the land as part of the same thing, because at one time they were. So you could say that I’m living the life they lived in times gone by but I never think of it as that. This is just what I do."


From The Herald, November 23, 2006.


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