Obituaries: Robin Hall

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The Independent Culture
AT A time when you could number the folk clubs in the United Kingdom on the fingers of one hand, and still have a digit left to stick in your ear, the nascent London folk scene was nurtured by a group of mainly Scottish singers. Robin Hall was the youngest, and for many years one of the most internationally successful, of these.

A slight, smartly dressed young man, often wearing a tweed cap or Frank Sinatra fedora, his sweet, sometimes plaintive voice and basic but sensitive guitar style helped to wrest the folk revival from the elderly matrons of both sexes who had held it in thrall since the days of Cecil Sharp, and gave the old songs a contemporary relevance.

Born in Edinburgh in 1937, he had studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and even tried his hand at acting for a while. He had that artlessness which is the supreme definition of high art.

His gentle demeanour was perhaps a reflection of the polio he had suffered as a child, though he never allowed it to intrude on his public on-stage persona. But it was when he teamed up with a fellow Scot, Jimmie Macgregor, a veteran of Russell Quaye's City Ramblers skiffle group, that he burst out of the folk niche and became a musical hero to millions.

Like many at the time and some still today, who remember the wee thread of red that runs through people's music, he was uncompromisingly of the Left, and it was at the World Youth Festival in Vienna in 1959, the one blockaded at Innsbruck by American troops, that he and Macgregor first teamed up after being encouraged to do so by Paul Robson. Of the two, Macgregor was probably the superior musician, able to add mandolin melody to the rhythm of their two guitars, but the combination had that elusive charismatic magic from which stars are born. It was not long before they were been hired for Cliff Michelmore's daily Tonight show on BBC TV, and the nine million viewers it attracted were soon being enchanted by such songs as "The Mingulay Boat Song", or Glasgow street ditties, like "Ye Cannae Shove Yer Grannie Aff a Bus".

They even hit the political headlines for a time, when the programme's producers asked Hall to remove his Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge before he went on air. His refusal was not merely a stand on a point of political principle, for he knew that the Scottish roots of his music sprang as much from the gritty parodies of the anti-Polaris protesters as from the glamour of the Celtic twilight. It is significant that one of his last gigs reunited with his old partner was a reunion concert in the early Nineties for all those anti-bomb protesters whose songs had ensured that the Scottish revival was rooted in concerns of the present.

Their television appearances made them a big national attraction, and they headlined concerts where the support act was a then little-known Merseyside rock group by the name of the Beatles. They even topped the bill at the Beatles' own club, the Cavern, in Liverpool, when the band got home from Hamburg.

In fact, Hall and Macgregor were touring Australia at the same time as the Liverpool lads, part of a daunting international schedule which took in North America, the Middle East, New Zealand, and Europe.

They began recording almost immediately after they started singing together. After an initial series of EPs for the tiny Collector label, with sleeve notes by their fellow Scot the folk entrepreneur Bruce Dunnet (responsible for nurturing a wide range of artists, from the Pentangle to Sandy Denny), they made their first LP for Decca in 1961.

As its title, Scottish Choice, implied, it was an eclectic selection of songs from north of the border, and it is noteworthy that many of them are still the bedrock of any Scottish singer's repertory. Then followed a series of 21 other albums, concluded in 1978 by Songs for Scotland, for Decca's Celtic subsidiary, the Beltona label.

Hall's decision to break up the partnership in 1979 came as something of a shock to his partner. When Macgregor speaks of it today he is still pained by its suddenness, though he believes it was their daunting workload of concerts which prompted Hall to leave so precipitately.

They came together again in 1994 for a final appearance, for a 20-minute spot in a Christmas concert at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall, and, Macgregor recalls, "It was as if we'd never been away."

Though he did some radio work after the break-up, Hall had been off the scene for many years. His second marriage had ended, and he had been living alone in Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow, where police found his body on 18 November. He appeared to have been dead for several days.

Robin Hall, folksinger: born Edinburgh 27 June 1937; twice married (two sons); died Glasgow c 18 November 1998.

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