A bitter, wet January wind blows in off the river Clyde. It swirls heavy rain through the illustrious city centre streets and across the doorways of the various historic pubs, theatres and concert halls that serve as the venues for Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections roots music festival.
Of all the great Scottish cities, perhaps only Glasgow could pull this off in the darkest depths of the northern winter. Glasgow has the brassy confidence, the gallus determination, and – let’s face it – the pure and simple insatiable appetite for a party that are required to stage one of the warmest, loudest, and most energetic folk festivals on Earth.
For eighteen days and nights each winter this city rocks – there’s no other word – to the thrilling and exotic sounds of the cream of the world’s roots talent. It’s not unusual for there to be acts representing five different continents at Celtic Connections. And folk’s not what you might think it is. It is crushingly loud, and thrillingly electric. It is raucous song and wild dance. It is lit with vibrant colour washes. Folk is young, and folk is cool.
It wasn’t always this way. Going back thirty years or so, it seemed folk music was played only by stereotypically bearded men in grubby knitted jerseys. It was confined to the smoky back rooms of dingy pubs. Wheezing penny whistles and squeaky fiddles provided the accompaniment for incomprehensible and obscure lyrics about Scotland’s past. Few listened. Folk music itself had become something of a cultural ‘back room’. It was older and it was rural and it was the complete opposite of the mainstream popular culture, the hip rock and cool urban pop music of those times. Folk, in the seventies and eighties, was not the music of the popular set.
But what many failed to realise about the folk players and singers of the seventies and eighties was that these musicians were vital to the continuation of our rich musical and lyric traditions. They were the few remaining living links to the great music of Scotland’s past.
These were the people who knew the tunes of the great Perthshire fiddler and contemporary of Robert Burns, Niel Gow, or the Victorian Strathspey fiddle king, James Scott Skinner. They sang the radical political folk songs of Scotland’s urban industrial age. They understood the virtuosity of twentieth-century accordionist Jimmy Shand. They knew by heart the ancient ballads of the North East or the Borders. They felt in their souls the stirring Nordic fiddle styles of Orkney and Shetland, or the heartbreaking Gaelic songs of the Highlands and Western Isles. In short, these players and singers contained and carried Scotland’s music forward for us today.
One regular act at Celtic Connections that epitomises the way contemporary folk music blends old and new is Orkney folk supergroup The Chair. The Chair’s particular brand of folk is known as ‘stomp’. It’s loud and energetic, and incorporates dub and blues influences against a solid traditional Scottish background. As you can imagine, there’s always plenty of enthusiastic dancing at a Chair gig.
I met up with founder members Gavin Firth and Douglas Montgomery over a pint of real ale in Glasgow’s Clutha Vaults pub to ask them about how The Chair manages to move their music forward without forgetting their roots.
‘One of the tracks on our latest album is a nineteenth-century Orkney ballad called Hammars of Syradale’, says Firth. ‘The song was lost and completely forgotten about, before being rediscovered by a recent local archive project. Our version aims to sound fresh and modern, with a driving backbeat and electric instruments. The lyrics are in Scots, and Brian Cromarty sings them with real passion, in a confident Orkney voice. We’re proud of the restoration job we’ve done on the song.’ Montgomery talks about an old Orkney fiddle tune that has been reinvigorated on the album: ‘The Road to Hammar Chunkie was first recorded in the nineteen seventies. I would never say our version improves on the original – the original’s absolutely fantastic – but modern studio production techniques and electric accompaniments have meant that we’ve been able to enhance the grandeur and grace of the old tune.’
Whatever the magic is that The Chair conjures up, gig-goers old and young alike are loving it. And the combinations of old and young, or old and new, are the key to the future for Scottish folk. Organisers at Celtic Connections invest huge amounts of money and energy in community projects to get everyone connected. 70% of Glasgow schoolchildren have had some exposure to folk music through the festival’s programme of free concerts and workshops. Maybe best of all, the Danny Kyle Open Stage award has become an annual highlight. This free event is a competitive showcase for new talent, featuring young or school-aged musicians from all over Scotland. Winning a Danny Kyle award at Celtic connections is the way to get yourself noticed, to get yourself connected in the ever evolving world of folk. Celtic Connections, it can safely be said, celebrates tradition and creates opportunities in a fair, democratic and visionary way.
This article is an extract from e-Grades: National Five English, a new interactive e-book study guide for the National Five English course. Available from the Kindle Store here: