Scottish Folk

Edinburgh Festival: Folk; GREIG-DUNCAN COLLECTION Edinburgh Festival Theatre
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The Independent Culture
At the turn of the century two Aberdeenshire gentlemen, Gavin Greig and James Bruce Duncan, set out to record the still-living heritage of folk song in their part of Scotland. Their efforts resulted in a collection of some 3,000 songs which reposed at the University of Aberdeen for almost 50 years until the beginning of their publication in eight volumes (two still to come) from the Seventies onwards. The organisers of this year's Edinburgh Festival have had the brilliant idea of bringing the collection to life, with a series of late-night events at the Festival Theatre, featuring some of the leading singers of today.

The night I went, it was the turn of Norman Kennedy, born and bred in Aberdeenshire, but like so many others an emigrant to America, 30 years ago. Even this length of time has not diminished a distinctive North-Eastern accent, or the memory of songs he "soaked up" in his boyhood from local tinkers and others who in those days "carried sangs aboot in their heids". He held a large audience spellbound in one of the glass-fronted theatre bars high above Nicolson Street for a good hour with an unquenchable flow of songs, jokes and reminiscences.

In a nasal but rich voice, unaccompanied except by the audience joining in the choruses. Kennedy regaled us with such favourites as "McPherson's Farewell" (a typical tale of bloodthirsty defiance and revenge) and "The Gypsy Laddie" (a song of considerable antiquity, it seems, but from the point of view of his family, resident in the area since the 13th century, not more than mildly old). "The Plooman Laddie" brought back memories of a slightly exhilarated rendition in the unlikely surroundings of London's Regent Street by Arthur Argo, grandson of Gavin Greig himself, while "Erin go Bragh" celebrated rowdy goings on and assaults on the police in the streets of 19th-century Auld Reekie.

In an interesting sidelight on the survival of tradition in the large areas of the New World settled almost exclusively by Scots, Kennedy, (a weaver himself) reminded us, with a number called "Binnorie", how, as opposed to the songs, the ballads, with their many verses and their narrative structure, were used to while away the time at the looms.

Of course, it is important to remind us that there is still some sort of living tradition of folk song surviving in these islands, and projects like this must be applauded. All the same I couldn't help detecting what seemed an air almost of slight desperation amongst the audience - largely middle-class and middle-aged - in their eagerness to join in heartily in the choruses (or even, rather irritatingly, in the verses) and demonstrate that, yes, they did know the songs and we were all having a jolly good time. And I wonder if an hour in the slightly clinical surroundings of the Scottish Power Gallery at pounds 10 a throw (pounds 5 standing) is quite in tune with a living "folk" tradition? - especially when five minutes walk away in Edinburgh there are places like Whistle Binkies bar where for the price of a pint you can hear traditional music of a less pure but undeniably vigorous kind in a considerably more congenial atmosphere.

Still, as Mr Kennedy put it: "Ye paid yir money, so ye may as well enjoy yersels." They did.

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