Ray Fisher: Singer who established herself as one of the most important figures in the British folk revival
Friday 09 September 2011
Scots, not to be confused with Gaelic, groans with rich and redolent expressions. The best word to describe Ray Fisher, who has died of cancer, was kenspeckle, not in its sense of "conspicuous", but in the sense of "standing out from, or standing apart from the multitude".
She was among the British folk revival's most important singers and interpreters, the drollest of parodists and an all-too-modest authority on our folk traditions. No wonder then that, deep in his Hollywood fame period, Billy Connolly drove hundreds of Californian miles to a distant folk club to see Ray and her sister Cilla sing the family brand of folk-song-and-beyond songs, a repertoire irrigated by their love of language and Scots idioms.
Born in Glasgow in 1940, Fisher was one of six daughters and a token son in a family with catholic musical tastes embracing light operatic and parlour fare, Scots and, through their mother, Gaelic songs. In receptive company, Fisher could unleash an impressively exaggerated Count John McCormack impersonation. Topic's The Fisher Family (1966), long out of print though reissued in Japan in 2002, captures the feistiness of the family singing together. Ray's lead vocal on "Joy of My Heart" and "Come All Ye Fisher Lassies" are defining performances.
For Fisher, like many of her generation, the skiffle movement was a conduit to folk music. Her brother Archie's and Bobby Campbell's skiffle group, The Wayfarers, landed an opening spot for Pete Seeger in their hometown, as well as in Edinburgh and Aberdeen (Archie was a year older than Ray). The group Seeger co-founded, The Weavers, and especially its female vocalist, Ronnie Gilbert, proved monumental inspirations. Of their 1957 LP, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, Fisher admitted, "At one time I could start from the very beginning and go right through. Introductions word-for-word. Everything." Cliff Stanton, a local record shop owner, organiser of Cliff Stanton's Pan Club and under-acknowledged legend of the Glasgow folk scene, lent Fisher's fellow singer Hamish Imlach what were then prohibitively expensive US import LPs by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. It was, Fisher explained, "part of the upgrading of our education."
In her final school year Fisher met the Scottish Traveller Jeannie Robertson, yet to receive her 1968 MBE for services to traditional music. Norman Buchan, then a teacher and, with his wife, Janey, a stalwart of Glasgow's budding folk scene, invited a number of rising young singers to their Partick home. There Fisher sang "Jeannie My Dear, Will You Marry Me?" It was a Robertson morsel. She told Howard Glasser in a 1974 Sing Out! interview: "Jeannie sang the entire song after I'd sung it... talk about upstaging!"
Robertson saw potential, however, and invited Fisher to visit. Ignoring prejudices about the Traveller community, the teenager stayed at Robertson's Aberdeen home for some six weeks during the summer holidays. "She'd say, 'You've got a good voice. I'll give you these songs'. She didnae have to do that," Fisher told me. "She had a daughter of her own, [the superlative traditional singer] Lizzie Higgins."
Ray and Archie Fisher were one of the folk acts to gain greatly from television exposure. Opportunity knocked with Here and Now, the Scottish regional variant of BBC TV's Tonight magazine programme. Following the runaway success of Cy Grant, Rory & Alex McEwen and, especially, Robin Hall & Jimmie Macgregor, television embraced folk, topical song and calypso. Television's voracious appetite for new material schooled them in new disciplines and standards of professionalism. Watching the duo on television provided a steer for the Leith-raised folk singer and guitarist Dick Gaughan to perform professionally.
Her commercial recording debut came in 1961 with the duo's "Far over the Forth" EP, but she also recorded on a non-commercial basis for Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies. The EP's natural expression of regional idioms and identity impressed many, including Gaughan and Anne Briggs.
Further direction for Fisher came through politics, whether singing for Labour Party, pro-CND and anti-Polaris events or attempting to go on Aldermaston marches. "Underneath all of what was going on within Scotland," she told me, "there was a realisation that there was strength in the music as a vehicle for politics. There was a left-wing stream and there was a Scottish nationalist stream. Folk music was just tailor-made for that."
In 1962, the year she married Colin Ross, the fiddler, piper and future mainstay of the High Level Ranters, and settled in Tyneside, she toured England with the Centre 42 project. An outgrowth of the TUC's resolution that unions support the arts and decentralise them from London, the folkies formed ranks alongside Shelagh Delaney, Christopher Logue and Arnold Wesker. Performing on Centre 42 stages led to Fisher contributing to Bert Lloyd's The Iron Muse (1963) and the radio ballads created by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker, On the Edge (1963).
Never fond of the studio, she managed to avoid recording her solo debut until 1972. Produced by Ashley Hutchings, The Bonny Birdy teamed her with accompanists of the calibre of Martin Carthy, Tim Hart, Hutchings and Peter Knight from Steeleye Span, Alistair Anderson and Colin Ross from the High Level Ranters, as well as Liz and Stefan Sobell and Bobby Campbell. They made an album with folk-rock credentials that did not swamp her distinctive singing style.
Better was to come with Willie's Lady (1982) which, in style and delivery, was truer to her live act. The title track is one of the Scots language's finest texts about the ancient belief system, and outwitting malice and witchcraft. Also typical of what made her unique was her interpretation of Alan Rogerson's version of, as she wrote, "one of the great parting songs", "When Fortune Turns the Wheel". Her third solo album, Traditional Songs of Scotland, emerged quietly in 1991.
Fisher was fond of humour and parodies, deconstructing with Cilla the Beverley Sisters' "Sisters" as "Twisters", or refashioning the Scots feminist anthem, "I'm a W.O.M.A.N.". As a writer Fisher contributed to The Singing Kettle, the children's entertainment ensemble fronted by Cilla, Artie Trezise and Gary Coupland; her story "Christmas Holiday Time" is preserved on The Singing Kettle's Christmas Crackers video.
Ray Galbraith Fisher, folk singer: born Glasgow 26 November 1940; married 1962 Colin Ross (two sons, one daughter); died North Shields 31 August 2011.
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