Scotland's Music with Phil Cunningham: PRIDE & PASSION - BBC 2 November 3rd 8 pm
Jim Gilchrist spots the good ..once again!
Around the Pans journalist Jim Gilchrist is best known for having predicted the Twighlight of The Goths and he returned here to enjoy the same. October 24th in The Scotsman he reviewed Phil Cunningham's upcoming series on BBC2 and locals in the Pans will be pleased to know that it includes a visit to the Johnnie Cope Mural painted last year at the Global Murals Conference in just one day under Andrew Crummy's guidance.
Jim's full review is given below but be sure to tune in starting Saturday November 3rd at 8pm on BBC2 [with a repeat the following Tuesday @ 7pm.] The first programme is named PRIDE & PASSION.
THE WIDE FRONTIERS OF FOLK
by Jim Gilchrist
CUE SCOTTISH music: cue Burns songs, fiddles, bagpipes... camels? For his forthcoming six-part series on BBC2, Scotland's Music With Phil Cunningham, the roving accordionist and composer followed the trail of Scottish music to where it took root with the Scots diaspora, in places such as Nova Scotia and Appalachia. But he also found himself in the Omani desert, listening to the Sultan's camel-mounted police playing Highland pipes.
Cunningham has found himself in a few strange situations over his 31-year career as a musician, but the camel-back pipe band (under the instruction of a Scottish pipe major) was possibly the most bizarre. However, the Omanis, who, like some other eastern cultures, have embraced Scottish pipes in a big way - their own bagpipes having been supplanted by the Scottish instrument courtesy of the British Army - had another surprise for him, which underlined the theme of the TV series.
"We were filming the Sultan's Royal Guard, and they took us into this music hall and there were pipers and a full military band, with brass and woodwind. And they started to play, and what they played was Sarah's Song, a tune I'd written years ago. The Royal Guard had been doing it for years in a full pipes-and-orchestra version.
"It just about dropped me like a stone. We're talking about how Scottish music travels, and there it was, on a very personal level for me."
He also discovered that regardless of having become attuned to the sound of the pipes, the camels remained stubbornly antipathetic to the accordion. "There was a plan to get me up on a camel, but I took the accordion out and walked towards them and I was quite insulted because they all did a runner."
He's recounting his desert exploits at his home outside South Queensferry. For BBC2 to devote six hour-long programmes, at peak viewing time, to Scotland's folk music reflects a sea change in attitudes compared to 31 years ago, when a 16-year-old Cunningham quit Portobello High school and hit the road with his fiddle-playing older brother Johnny - sadly deceased these past four years - in the ground-breaking folk group Silly Wizard. Back then, any folk music at all on TV tended to be performed amid hay bales and horse brasses, and with even more carefully regimented country dancers. A guest folk band tended to be the bit of rough in the white heather: "We'd be the novelty band: there would be a soprano, a tenor... and a folk band."
These days, at 47, Cunningham is something of a national institution - as is his most frequent playing partner, the Shetland fiddler Aly Bain (who, naturally, crops up in the series). He has an MBE for services to Scottish music and was presented with an honorary doctorate by Stirling University last year. And it was also last year that he was approached by the BBC about the series.
"I agreed I'd come on board provided I wasn't lecturing to people," he says, "and we agreed this would be a real journey, trying to find out what makes Scottish music what it is.
"It's been a pretty honest journey, too. I've been playing it as a profession for 30-odd years, and you'd imagine you'd know loads about it, but in fact you're blinkered, working away at your own music, and I was amazed at how little I really knew about the rest of the music world round about me. I don't think Scotland has a musical identity, I think it has hundreds of musical identities, and I was trying to find out if there was a common thread."
He followed the music to Ireland, and the strong Scotland-Donegal connection, then to Nova Scotia, meeting with the likes of fiddlers Buddy and Natalie McMaster. "As a wee experiment, I wrote a tune and we took it with us, giving it to all people we met along the road to see what twist they put on it. We got the Nova Scotians to play it their way, then we went to New York and Roseanna Cash wrote words to it and she and I sat on the stage of en empty Carnegie Hall and sang it for the first time, just accordion and voice."
In Appalachia, he and fiddle-singer Bruce Molsky got on a freight train and the American put his slant on the tune, then on to Nashville, where banjo player Alison Brown and others put the tune through bluegrass and country hoops. In Nashville's renowned Studio B, he met stalwarts such as Lloyd Green and Jimmy Capps - "incredible old session men who played with Patsy Cline and people like that... Razor-sharp creases in their denims. That was the old-style country."
Back at home, he explored the different genres and communities which make up this many-faceted entity we lump under the convenience title of Scottish music, from Gaelic waulking songs and Aberdeenshire bothy ballads to Shetland fiddle music and Border ballads and, of course, the ubiquitous Burns canon. The first episode, subtitled Pride and Passion, sees him range from his old session haunt of Sandy Bell's folk pub, to the site of the Battle of Prestonpans, in 1745, celebrated in the song Hey Johnny Cope.
"We look at the bawdy ballads as well," he chuckles, suggesting that some of it had to be judiciously censored so as not to nudge the series over the watershed. "You can't really tell the story without them, so I think they've taken it as close to the bone as they can."
He met singers including Rod Paterson, Flora MacNeil , Dick Gaughan, Eddi Reader and the Corries' Ronnie Browne, speaking to them about their attitudes to music and about the emotional baggage which can come with it. So Gaelic singer Margaret Bennett talked about the intense feeling expressed by Gaelic laments and how they encapsulated her grief at losing her son, the master musician Martyn Bennett; while a similarly emotional encounter was with John Martyn, now wheelchair-borne, and talking frankly about the pain which went into his Grace and Danger album, released in 1980 after his marriage had broken up. "I asked him how you go about writing a song or an album in the middle of such a disaster," recalls Cunningham. "And listening to his response, then him singing one of the most poignant songs on the album, and the difficulty he suddenly found himself in, just singing it... There were tears in his eyes and I was near in tears myself watching the rushes."
Martyn was one of several musicians not normally regarded as traditional whom the series features. "John has a link to traditional music - Hamish Imlach was his big hero." But Cunningham also interviewed Justin Currie of Del Amitri and singer-songwriter James Grant (formerly of Love and Money) about their attitudes to a genre which they once would have regarded as terminally uncool. "It was interesting speaking to them about how, back in those days, they would never touch it... but what they're saying is basically that now they see the value of it much more than they did."
The changes of the past three decades have been massive, "and there's no sign of things slowing down. Some of the younger people we met, like Findlay Napier or bands like Ḍchas and Beolach, have got a totally new take on it. He laughs: "When I was young I had a new take on it and it's still my take but it's dated now. Everything's moving on at an incredible rate."
But, he stresses, there is no room for complacency. "Over the past few years a lot of musicians have spent a great deal of time teaching and sharing their knowledge. Things have to start happening at higher levels now, and I think the Government already knows that. It's become obvious that the music has grown and it's a very valuable commodity. I hate hearkening back to Ireland, but they saw the value of their music years ago, and it has become a commodity over there.
"Of course, music is much more than a commodity; it's part of what we are."
Scotland's Music With Phil Cunningham starts on BBC2 on Saturday 3 November at 8pm (repeated the following Tuesday at 7pm)
Published Date: October 27th 2007