Tag Archives: Scottish music

Ewan MacColl and the BBC

Ewan MacColl

Many aficionados of Scottish traditional music regard Ewan MacColl as one of the foremost singers of his generation; fewer know of his pioneering radio work.

The ballad of John Axon was recorded and broadcast by the BBC in 1958 as the first of a group of programs known collectively as  Radio Ballads. It tells the story of a railway accident in which the driver John Axon died heroically while attempting to avert disaster.

In the program, four actual ballads carry the narrative, supplemented by several self-contained songs that illustrate the story rather than tell it, sections of recitative that provide insight into the minds of Axton and his fellow railwaymen, and the recorded speech of Axon’s widow and workmates. Although MacColl and Charles Parker are often credited jointly with the authorship of the program, strong evidence suggests that MacColl wrote it in response to an idea suggested by Parker, who served as the producer.

This according to “John Axon: Ewan MacColl’s tragic hero?” by Mick Verrier (English dance and song LXI/3 [fall 1999] pp. 2–4).

MacColl would have been 100 today! Below, one of the songs from the show, with Peggy Seeger on the banjo.

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A rediscovered Scottish folk manuscript

Renovations of Whittaker Library at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2000 involved dismantling a “robust but not particularly beautiful cupboard” and storing its contents—mostly old sheet music—for later inspection.

Entirely by chance, the librarian and scholar Karen McAulay discovered therein three manuscript collections of traditional Scottish flute tunes notated by one James Simpson. Her subsequent research enabled her to establish some details of Simpson’s identity, including his residences, occupation, and birth and death dates (1806–73).

This according to McAulay’s “From Dalfield Walk, Dundee, to Renfrew Street, Glasgow: The James Simpson manuscripts” (Brio XL/1 [spring-summer 2003] pp. 27–37). Above, Simpson’s notation of the Strathspey Maggie Lauder with variations.

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An early Gaelic manuscript

The manuscript Original Highland airs collected at Raasay in 1812 by Elizabeth Jane Ross, which is preserved in the archives of the School of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, is now available for downloading at no cost, both in facsimile and in an extensively annotated typeset edition prepared by Peter Cooke, Morag MacLeod, and Colm Ó Baoill.

The earliest known staff-notated manuscript collection of Scottish Gaelic music, it contains  92 songs,  51 dance tunes, and 6 pibrochs; it probably represents well the musical repertory of Raasay, one of the islands of the Inner Hebrides. A major task for the editors involved locating, documenting, translating, and underlaying song texts which might have been known to Ross; she provided titles or first lines of verses or refrains for her airs, but not the texts themselves.

The Raasay residents James Macleod and his wife Flora were excellent musicians, and their niece Elizabeth Ross, who lived with them, was clearly a competent transcriber. Raasay was also the home of the great piper John MacKay, from whom Ross learned to play several pibrochs.

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The D-Day piper

Bill Millin was a 21-year-old private in Britain’s First Special Service Brigade when his unit landed at the front chosen by the Allies for the invasion on 6 June 1944. He was approached shortly before the landings by the brigade’s commanding officer, who asked him to play on the beachhead to raise morale.

While German troops raked the area with artillery and machine-gun fire, Millin marched and played as his fellow soldiers advanced on the German positions through smoke and flame, or fell on the beach. The scene provided an emotional high point in Darryl F. Zanuck’s film The longest day.

This according to “Bill Millin, Scottish D-Day piper, dies at 88” by John F. Burns (The New York times, 20 August 2010). Above, Millin entertains his colleagues a few days after the momentous battle; below, the sequence from The longest day.

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