Tony Cuffe

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The Independent Online

Tony Cuffe, folk singer and guitarist: born Greenock, Renfrewshire 6 April 1954; married (three children); died Arlington, Massachusetts 18 December 2001.

Tony Cuffe was one of the pioneers of the Scottish folksong revival, playing a foundation role in at least three significant bands – Jock Tamson's Bairns, Alba and Ossian – as singer and multi-instrumentalist, influenced to a great degree by his brother Tom, a talented piper, and taking some song repertoire from his Irish father.

As a guitarist, he was a pioneer of unorthodox tunings – his own favoured set-up was a D major DADADF# – though this talent did not really come to the fore until his playing on Alba's début album in 1976 made other musicians sit up and take notice.

In addition to guitar, he also played the clarsach (Scottish harp), tiple, various whistles, lyre, tenor guitar, harmonium, and synthesiser, all of which were featured on his 1988 album When First I Went to Caledonia.

Hitherto, he had been known primarily for his vocal work with Jock Tamson's Bairns (whose name derived from a rather scurrilous reference to Scots born "on the wrong side of the blanket"), notably his singing of "Jenny Dang the Weaver" on their first album, released in 1980. The Bairns had been formed out of a group of performers who gathered regularly at Sandy Bell's Bar in Edinburgh, centred on John Croall, Norman Chalmers, and Rod Paterson, recording on the Bells' eponymous album under the name of Chorda.

Though to Sassenachs the country has no more than two traditions, Gaelic and Scots, in fact the two are extremely localised. The Bairns' geographically varied personnel, ranging from Angus to the Borders, meant that they were able to develop a syncretic tradition all their own, bringing together not only their own cultural backgrounds, but also the music of the Highland and Lowland pipers, composers for the fiddle like Neil Gow and Scott Skinner, and not forgetting their own compositions, proving that the tradition was alive and well and taking a wee hawf o' heavy at Sandy Bell's.

Before joining the Bairns, Cuffe had been a member of Alba, another pioneering group, who introduced the use of bagpipes into ensemble music. After he left the Bairns, he worked for a time as a prawn fisherman on the Isle of Mull, but soon achieved greater international recognition after he helped to found Ossian, with whom he recorded four albums, Seal Song (1981), Dove across the Water (1982), Borders (1984) and Light on a Distant Shore (1986).

Though many of his seminal albums are no longer available, two of his Bairns albums – the first on Temple, and the classic The Lasses Fashion originally on Topic – were re- released by Greentrax as a double-CD set, A' Jock Tamson's Bairns, in 1996, on which his performances of "The Birken Tree", "The Skyeman's Jig", "Jenny Dang the Weaver" and "Miss Grace Hay's Delight" demonstrated why he was held in such high esteem by his fellow musicians.

The Bairns were dissolved in 1983, but they re-formed in 1996, though without Tony Cuffe in their line-up, and with a more up-front "traditional" and acoustic sound than their earlier work in his day. Sometimes they even eschewed the use of PA in their public performances, an unusual and dangerous innovation in these times of high-volume music.

He continued to be a much sought-after performer with other artists, and on anthologies, in 1981 performing in a tribute to the 18th-century Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson, Fergusson's Auld Reikie (released last year). He also sang on a monumental 12-CD set of The Complete Songs of Robert Burns on which his version of "When Rosy May Comes on wi' Flowers", backed by John McCusker's fiddle, and "Sweet Afton", with the former Ossian harper William Jackson, and his duets with Rod Paterson on "Wee Willie Gray" and "Willie Brewed a Peck o' Maut" were stand-out tracks.

Since going to live in the United States in 1988, where he was based outside Boston, he became a stalwart of the North American folk scene, and was selected to sing in the St Patrick's Day concert at the White House. In addition to teaching at festival workshops, he was also a member of a predominantly wind band, the Windbags, with John Skelton, Jerry O'Sullivan and Pat O'Gorman.

When his cancer was diagnosed in March, he had been working on a Windbags album, plus a second solo effort, after which he had planned to return to live in Scotland. He was able to attend a Saturday-night benefit concert last month and played whistle on the final number. Two American concerts raised over $30,000 (£21,000) for him and his family; there was also a sell-out ceilidh in Scotland.

By Karl Dallas

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