Two Gentlemen of the Road
Alan Lomax Collection
Rounder CD 1793 (Double CD)
Tracklists - Disc 1:The Scottish releases in The Alan Lomax Collection series continue with this double album of these two icons of the Scottish tradition. Both have had solo albums released previously in this series and both have been reviewed on this site. Davie's is Go On, Sing Another Song, Rounder CD1833 and Jimmy's is Tramps & Hawkers, Rounder CD1834. This begs some obvious questions such as 'Why have Rounder returned to Jimmy and Davie when there must be dozens of other Lomax-recorded singers who would deserve a 'Portrait' series album?' and 'Why have these two been bracketed together in this way on a double album?'
DS: The Merchant's Son; DS: Cowpin The Dishes (Interview); JM: Hey Barra Gadgie (A Song In Cant); JM: It was A' Beggin' That We Did (Interview); JM: Kindness From A Policeman (Interview); JM: Grat For Gruel; DS: How To Build A Bender (Interview); JM: Chantin' Griddlin' and Laldyin' (Interview with two song fragments); DS: The Day We Went Tae Rothesay-O; DS: Playing For An All-Night Hooley (Interview); DS: March, Strathspey & Reel (Accordion); JM: Were You Always Alone? (Interview); JM: The Forfar Sodger; DS: They Put Different Turns in Their Tunes / Diddling (Interview); DS: Outside On The Safe Side (Interview); JM: The Ox and The Fox Dug A Hole For Me (Story); DS: It's A Long Drow At The End (Interview); DS: Old Bodies, Five or Six Pounds Each (Berker Story); DS: Did They Kill Children As Well? (Berker Story continued).
JM: My Darling Ploughman Boy; JM: From The Top Of The Deck (Interview); JM: Ah Likit Ma Mither (Interview with Four Song Fragments); JM: He Used To Diddle A Lot of Songs (Interview); DS: We Were Called The Buchan Stewarts (Interview); DS: Dark-Eyed Lover; JM: It Was Slave Drivery (Interview); JM: The Barnyards of Delgety; JM: Singin' Along At Their Plough (Interview); DS: The Laird O' The Dainty Doon-by; JM: The Horseman's Grip And Word (Ritual Initiation Story); JM: It Was Torn, Rippit, Tattered (Song fragment and Interview); JM: The Trooper And The Maid; DS: The Story Lives Forever (A Story of Fairy Abdication).
Disc 1 contains a 53 Page PDF file of expanded liner notes.
Looking at the first question; the answers could be: a) The solo albums were such a commercial success that a follow-up was demanded or b) These two are such colossuses that every word/note they recorded should be considered important. I would be delighted if the answer is a). If it is b) then it's an opinion that I fully subscribe to. The significance of these recordings cannot be stressed too highly and we are truly indebted to Lomax for spending so much time and effort in making them. And yet they make me feel uncomfortable at times in a way that I hope to explain in the course of this review. The phrase, 'Biting the hand that feeds you' comes into my mind as I laud Lomax's pioneering efforts to record the context, the background and the significance as well as the music itself and then occasionally cringe at the way he does it.
Why a shared double-album? It's not as if they ever perform together, or even spent more than brief periods travelling together. Ewan MacVicar observes in his notes, 'They were unable to sing together because their styles differed so. Jimmy had the solid and vigourous farm-worker style. Davie had the fluid, high-drama Traveler way with a song.' It must be as simple as the amounts of material of the two that were available. It certainly feels that the pair are given equal prominence as you play the CDs but look at the timings of Davie's two long stories at the end of each album on the listings above and you will realise that there must be a time imbalance.
Without trying to demean anything that is included on these albums, there is a feeling that the Lomax archives have been 'cherry-picked' for the solo albums and this is what is left. Not that there isn't much to delight here. Let's now consider the various elements that make up the albums, starting with the songs.
Both albums start with absolute beauties, both recorded by Lomax in London. Davie's Merchant's Son is one of his great emotional tours-de-force and this is probably the best of all the recorded versions that he made; a real classic. Jimmy kicks off the second with a very fine rendition of My Darling Ploughman Boy showing all the trademark qualities of rhythmic control and the fine combination of power and sensitivity that mark him out as a master. However, dedicated enthusiasts will have heard these before on earlier releases. What we are listening out for is gems that we have not heard before. We are not to to be disappointed. The richest jewel for me is a song that you might associate more with the English traveller than the Scots. Davie's Dark Eyed Lover is a version of Go And Leave Me If You Wish To. It is Davie at his most compelling on a song that most of us will not have heard him sing and a recording that has not been available previously. This in itself should make these albums a vital purchase.
No to be outdone, Mr MacBeath weighs in with some beauties. I have written elsewhere in reviewing this series, that I think that Jimmy was the best, most charismatic performer in front of a concert audience of all the traditional singers that I have ever seen and there is a recording here to bear this out. All right, so The Barnyards of Dalgety is (or was) a very hackneyed song but listen to the sheer blissful enjoyment on the part of both the singer and the audience. This was recorded at the Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh in 1951 and I would have loved to have been there. (Actually I was in Edinburgh at the time, but was only seven and not going to many gigs!) Elsewhere we hear Jimmy in outstanding form on Grat For Gruel, The Trooper and The Maid, and particularly The Forfar Sodger. All three have been released elsewhere but there is enough in these performances to demonstrate that the man is a complete master of traditional song. Jimmy might be better described as a tramp rather than a traveller. He describes both his father and his grandfather as shipbuilders in one part of the interviews, though in another part he has them describing life in the bothies. Usually, he was on his own and the old-fashioned 'model lodge' for the homeless was where he could most often be found. Yet he associated extensively with the travellers and certainly could sing in the cant. In this example he sings the piece; Lomax sounds astounded and asks him immediately to repeat it. Perhaps he wanted to check that he was not just being given a lot of nonsense!
Now what about this? Elsewhere, on the albums we hear Lomax sketching out the story of Babylon (The Bonnie Banks of Fordie) to see if Jimmy knows the ballad. Jimmy doesn't but it sets him off on a good story about a murder plot that is uncovered before it can take place. But this shows what Lomax was after; the high ballads. Right, so what happens when Jimmy sings this. If you haven't got the RealPlayer or a sound card, Jimmy is singing:
It's haud awa frae me, Willie, haud awa frae meAnd Lomax responds: Smashing. And what about that other, that song you were diddling the other night…
An before I loss ma maidenhead
Ah'll try ma strength wi, thee, wi thee
Ah'll try ma strength wi thee.
He kissed her on the shoulder blades and her shoulders twa
And aye she grat and aye she spat
And turnt tae the wa, the wa
And turnt tae the wa.
Wait a minute, Alan. Never mind 'Smashing'. Never mind the bloody diddling. You've just been offered a fragment of one the high ballads by one of the best informants that you will ever encounter. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to ask him if he remembers any more of it? Are you going to flesh out the story to help him remember it? Are you going to make a strong note for yourself or other later collectors to give him time to think about it? Or was a great opportunity missed? If there had been anything like a halfway full version of Jimmy MacBeath singing Eppie Morrie, surely we would all have heard about it? It would have been one of the major achievements of that era of song collecting. Does anybody know the full circumstances of this?
I didn't mean 'bloody diddling'. Myself and then my younger brother being diddled on my Aberdeen grandmother's knee is one of most pleasant, secure memories of my troubled early life. When a baby was put on to the knee of an adult member of my extended family, it would have a tune diddled to it; normally a well-known Scottish pipe or dance tune, even before it had a two shilling piece put into its hand whilst it was being told which member of the family it most resembled. Then when I started going to the TMSA festivals and attended the diddling competitions - (Vic Smith, 5-star traditional music anorak) - the old competitors would often adopt the practice from the old North-Eastern agricultural shows and have a doll to bounce on their knees whilst they diddled. I'm sure that this was what diddling meant to Jimmy or Davie; much simpler than the Gaelic mouth music or the canntaireachd method of teaching pipes. And yet Lomax frequently asks for 'diddling songs' from them in the interviews, and it's clear from their responses that they do not know what he is after. 'Jimmy is puzzled at Lomax's interest in diddling songs' says MacVicar in his notes. So was Davie. A Scot (Hamish Henderson?) ought to have put Alan straight on diddling and then valuable time and tape would not have been wasted.
In the notes on the performance styles, MacVicar returns to his comments about Davie 'casting around for the tune and the key' before starting an accordion/melodeon accompaniment to a song. I have always disagreed and felt that Davie's otherworldly introductions were more practiced, if inconsistent with musical theory. However, when we come to The Laird o' The Dainty Doonby here, MacVicar must surely be right. Davie spends more than half a minute in an apparently random note search before starting off the piece, and throughout he struggles to make the squeezebox melody match his singing. There are a few pauses where he is not sure how the song continues; this was probably a song he rarely sung. It is a flawed performance but still utterly compelling, mainly for the committed singing. This may be the reason why this recording has not previously seen commercial release before. Or there may be another reason. The song, well-known to Scots travellers, sees the landlord seduce his tenant-farmer's daughter, but waits to make sure that she is pregnant before making any commitment to her. When he is sure that she is, he shows her around his mansion and then, in Jeannie Robertson's version:
He placed the keys all intae her handIn Davie's version, however, it is 'his cock' that is placed into her hand, giving the ballad an entirely different feeling. On a number of occasions we hear Lomax asking for 'blue' songs; well, here he manages to get one!
Saying, 'You're Lady o' the Dainty Doonby.
Davie sounds altogether happier on the other previously unreleased song that we hear from him. The Day We Went To Rothesay-o would seem to be an ideal song for a Scots street busker's repertoire and he relishes delivering it, and rollicks and chuckles his way through what can be a slender piece - again it is a delight.
The two real traditional stories that are included are both from Davie, In his lifetime, he was not generally regarded as one of the great story-tellers. All the acclaim that he got came from his music and singing; and yet here he shows that this another aspect of the rich traveller culture where he was a master . Lomax decides to use his own daughter, Anna, as an audience for the stories and it turns out to be a very wise move. Personal observation of Davie at Blairgowrie leads me to believe that he was very good with children and that they responded well to him; this seems to be the case here. Davie is telling Anna the stories and the tape recorder is almost incidental - brilliant. Davie stumbles a few times in his long story and retraces his steps, but right from the start, we can tell he that he has all the skills associated with his extended family; the slow determined pace, the gaps, the intonation, the totally believeable narrative style (sound clip). The Blairgowrie/Aberdeen inter-related familes of Stewart, Robertson & Higgins are far and away the best traditional story-tellers that I have ever heard and there's enough here to show that Davie is a worthy member of that band. The only thing that rankles with me is at the very beginning:
Davie: Now, is it a wee sort of story about fairies an one thing an another that you would like to hear?What use would a book be to Davie? Once, to my undying embarrasment, I asked Davie to write his address out for me and he ended up dictating it to me.
Davie: Aboot - eh -
Alan: But a real one from the old people, Davie, not from a book.
If someone were to die for every time a Scots traveller told one of their body-snatching stories, then the entire population of the world would have been killed several times over. It is a complete obsession with them and it is not difficult to work out why. In Alias McAlias, Hamish Henderson writes, 'The travellers, being defenceless nomads, whose disappearance organised society would not worry about, felt themselves natural targets for the burkers, and gradually a whole phantasmagoric scenario took place in their minds.' (Incidently, note Hamish's spelling for these predators, which is the usual one, deriving, after all, from Burke & Hare. MacVicar consistently writes 'berkers'.) Davie's story here is one of the most convincing of its type I have ever heard; we can tell that Anna is finding it quite frightening and I can't say that I find it easy to listen to, but once again Davie proved to be a spell-binding story-teller.
The interviews probably take up the majority of the time on the albums. They are attempts to get real insights into the background, beliefs and experiences of the two men and much invaluable and some outstanding background material is gained. It is easy to forget that in adopting this approach, Lomax was pioneering a new and more thorough method of collecting. It is much more healthy approach than that of Cecil Sharp, 'Directly I have caught him and emptied him, I am going across the border into Tennessee …' (from Vic Gammon quoting one of Sharp's letters in his Introduction to Still Growing). The main message, therefore, must be of how well Lomax does. Nevertheless, there are still times when he should have buttoned his lip. He has Jimmy telling him about 'The Horseman's grip and word.' Jimmy is really going well, describing what is clearly a ritual initiation ceremony, perhaps with masonic overtones. "Sounds like witchcraft to me" interjects Alan, stopping Jimmy in his tracks.
Jimmy's deep sometimes mournful voice describes a long tramp through Scotland, starting at Inverness and ending up at the borders. Some of the incidents are described in various sections of the albums, but now Jimmy has reached Hawick at the time of the Common Ridings.
Jimmy: All the mill girls gets paid that day, and they're aa rejoicin and singin and marches.This is included as an example of Lomax's interjections, often of a sexualised nature, putting his informants off their stroke.
Alan: They all get paid that day.
Jimmy: They aa get paid that day.
Alan: They all get spayed that day.
Jimmy: They get…well I mean, I…I mean to say that they would… well…
The section of interview that I am most uncomfortable with has Lomax trying to tease out of Jimmy the method of joint song-making of a bothy ploughman's ditty. Certainly, this is a worthy line of enquiry but something feels wrong. 'Some of the detail of Jimmy's account of group composition is exaggerated, the process was probably less organised than he says' notes MacVicar, but it is more than this. You feel that Jimmy has been somehow cornered by the persistent questioning and is being forced to invent details. Another slightly painful section, though MacVicar feels that it is Lomax who feels uncomfortable this time, sees Davie being asked to elaborate on his comments on the pace of Jeannie Robertson's singing. If it was felt that she was slow in 1957 when this recording took place, what comments would be needed in later years when she really slowed down?
The best section of interview, for me, hears Davie giving a graphic and complete account of where and how to build a bender tent and then to set up camp. There are no interruptions and Davie gives a very full, interesting and articulate account. Is it significant that this is the only interview that was not conducted by Lomax, but by Shirley Collins?
Finally, let's have a look at the booklet notes. There is a great deal of work here. Apart from the 40 page booklet, there is a 53 page PDF file on disc one, containing full transcriptions of all songs, stories and interviews - a mighty task in itself. We have become accustomed to mistakes in this series and there are fewer than usual here. There is one track that is attributed to Davie when it should be Jimmy (Disc 1 # 12) and another where there is no attribution (Disc 2 # 2) and a few typos, but the feeling persists that Ewan MacVicar knows the material and the singers well and that he always augments the recorded material with his comments. He is not averse to criticising the methods used or the outcome where he feels that this is appropriate and he uses great sensitivity in his critical judgement when making comments. Here's an example:- 'This is an example of how difficult interviewing can be. Jimmy seems very uncomfortable and Lomax is working hard to draw him out.' True. It was also the case in some of the interviews with Jeannie Robertson in this series. I would venture that the discomfort was the result of two Scots travellers feeling very much like fish out of water in Lomax's London flat; a more conducive setting could have been found in their own area.
When our heroes - Jimmy, Davie, Jeannie - sound uncomfortable we feel protective towards them; and in my case, and probably MacVicar's as well, it is this feeling that leads to the critical comments of methodology that we have made. It should not prevent us from feeling eternally grateful to Lomax for making these historic recordings and to Rounder for making them available to us.
Vic Smith - 21.10.03
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