Tramps and Hawkers, a track from Francy Devine’s recent double album, An Ownerless Corner of Earth, has been chosen by the doyen of Scots folk music, Ewan MacVicar, for a special compilation project to mark one of the folk music and sing collector, Alan Lomax’s significant recording initiatives in Scotland.
Much like his earlier collaboration with Séamus Ennis in Ireland, Lomax’s Scottish project was to play a significant role in providing international validation for local song and musical traditions and in broadening the understanding and appreciation of the intrinsic quality of Scottish traditional arts within the country, itself – leading to the Scottish folk revival in the 1960s which has been sustained up to the present day.
Of the many recordings undertaken by Lomax in Scotland, perhaps the most influential was the 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh, organised by his friend and fellow collector, Hamish Henderson. As well as Henderson, performers at the August ceilidh included the young Aberdeenshire piper John Burgess, Gaelic singers Calum Johnston and Flora MacNeill from Barra; renowned bothy ballad singer, Jimmy MacBeath; Buckie fishwife, Jessie Murray; Aberdeenshire farmer, John Strachan; and Blanche Wood and Mrs. Budge from Edinburgh.
To mark the seventieth anniversary of the ceilidh recording, the acclaimed singer, song-writer, collector and folklorist, Ewan MacVicar has been working with the Lomax Archive in the US to make an ‘exhibit’, where the original recordings have now been supplemented by performances of many of the pieces by present day artists.
Originally from Banffshire in north-eastern Scotland, MacBeath (pronounced MacBeth) released solo albums for Lomax, for Peter Kennedy’s Folktracks label and for Topic Records – each of them featuring him singing Tramps and Hawkers.
Referencing the song on MacBeath’s Topic album, Peter Hall noted: If Jimmy has a signature tune, this is it. A relatively modern song, it is attributed to Besom Jimmy, an Angus hawker at the end of last [nineteenth] century. Our Jimmy learned it from a fellow Gordon Highlander in the trenches during World War I.
It is natural that this song should be popular among singers who have been on the road and quite commonly they identify themselves with it by adding autobiographical verses. However, Jimmy is very conservative in these matters and we may assume, that as he learned it only a decade or two after its composition, his version is close to the original.
For the modern rendition of the song, Francy was joined by musician and producer, Steve Byrne who was acclaimed as Scots Singer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards (‘Na Trads’) in December 2019.
Among the other modern performers selected by McVicar for the commemorative project are Byrne’s band, Malinky, as well as Katherine Campbell, Aileen Carr, The Furrow Collective, Iona Fyfe, Anne Lorne Gilles, Christine Kydd, Ewan MacVicar, Morrigan’s Wake, Alastair Roberts, Dàibhidh Stiùbhard, Tonight At Noon and the late Gordeanna MacCulloch, along with Youtube contributions from Billy Connolly, Barbara Dickson and Archie Fisher.
The 1951 Festival was judged a resounding artistic and cultural success, but suffered “a fairly serious financial loss” of £50. The 1952 Festival, however, ran for three weeks, with the Oddfellows Hall again the grand finale. But the involvement of the Communist Party in the organising of the Festival was its downfall, supporters made nervous by McCarthyism dropped out and the 1954 Festival was the last. The effects of the Ceilidhs, nevertheless, rang out loud and long in Scotland’s Central Belt. Hamish Henderson in Edinburgh began his life-long task of recording and writing about Scotland’s oral culture. In Glasgow Norman and Janey Buchan organised concerts, and he and Morris Blythman edited lyric books and booklets that inspired young singers all across the country.
Remember that this was very much a city-based Revival enthusiasm, in the North East and the Gaeltacht they had never stopped singing and honouring their traditions, not just song but piping, fiddle-playing and country dancing. Alan Lomax up till 1957 continued to mine his Scottish recordings for influential commercial discs and radio and television programmes. Ewan MacColl’s own LP recordings of Scottish songs became another major resource, and the example of his and others’ development of the folk club concept was followed throughout the land.Ewan MacVicar
A full presentation of the original ceilidh recordings along with the counterparts chosen by Ewan MacVicar is available at https://archive.culturalequity.org/1951ceilidh