The Jimmy Shand Story (book)

Ian Cameron, with a foreword by Robbie Shepherd

Scottish Cultural Press, Edinburgh, 1998

Jimmy Shand Jimmy Shand, that most famous of Scottish button box players, turned ninety years old in January this year.  What better way to celebrate a life immersed in music than the publication of a fresh biography, drawing on extensive oral interviews with the man himself, his musical cohorts and some of his legion of admirers?

Context first.  With the advent of cheap 78rpm discs, Scottish Dance music underwent something of both a renaissance and a transformation during the first two decades of the century.  As literally hundreds of records by instrumentalists of every persuasion - from bagpipers to English and Duet concertina players (though curiously not Anglos) - flooded the market, a standard of technical excellence was rapidly established as the norm.  No rough and ready bothy fiddlers, for example, ever reached a recording studio.  It was all the classical intonation of Mackenzie Murdoch and his ilk.  On the melodeon front (more elaborate button accordions came later), it was acknowledged championship winners such as the Wypers, James Brown and George 'Pamby' Dick, performing material ranging from out-and-out dance music to Coon Songs, who carried the musical torch.  This extensive corpus of commercial material served to inspire the generation of musicians which followed, including Jimmy Shand himself.  Over the years he has readily acknowledged his debt to these early players, and here we learn something of the context for both hearing and absorbing that repertory .  A neighbour living downstairs from the Shands, for example, owned a gramophone and a stack of melodeon discs, and young Jimmy would spend hours listening outside the window (page 12).  We learn also of how, as 'a young pit boy', he used to sit near the band in which Jock Thompson played the accordion in order to hear and absorb the music (page 123).

In fact, this volume contains numerous nuggets regarding the cultural context in which music was played and heard, but unfortunately the author consistently fails to mine more than the surface facets.  Shand's shyness and reluctance to speak about his achievements is well known, but one could have wished that Cameron had teased out just a little more information.  Shand's father Erskine, who died in 1933, just as the son's recording career was starting, played melodeon, but Cameron misses the opportunity to elaborate on repertory, style, context, or what influence he had on his son.  The sole tantalising glimpse we get is of 'happy nights in the bothies when the entertainment was provided by fiddle and melodeon' (page 25).  Most anecdotes, in fact, end just as they are getting interesting, leaving this reader, at least, in an almost permanent state of frustration.  On page 10, for instance, we learn that young Shand played in an ad hoc mouth organ band, but in what context (did they busk for money?), how many of them there were (what were their names?), or of what tunes they played (did they perform popular hits of the day?), we hear nothing.  It is good, though, to learn the names of several local melodeon players who would otherwise pass out of history unremembered (page 10).  One such was Tam Nicolson, a 'master of the ten-key box', who was, apparently, 'a source of inspiration and encouragement' to Shand.  But in what manner we are not told.  Was his technique superior to others thereabouts?  Did he teach tunes or playing technique to the young aspirants?

This may be an appropriate point at which to state some of my personal preferences (and prejudices) regarding Scottish dancing and dance music.  Some of these have previously been outlined in the notes accompanying the CD reissue of Melodeon Greats (Topic TSCD 601), which is reviewed elsewhere on this site.

To my mind, Shand's very first recording session, for Regal Zonophone in 1933, features him playing at his best.  The discographer in me is grateful to learn Shand's own story of that visit to London, and in particular of the problems he faced trying to educate the studio pianist in the required accompaniment (page 29).  This casts fresh light on similar situations elsewhere, especially the experiences of expatriate Irish musicians in America.  Shand's next appearance on disc was for the Beltona label, a productive relationship which lasted for the best part of a decade.  The actual dates of recording have not yet been firmly established, although the initial session is likely to have occurred early in 1935, and the last in late 1942 or early 1943.  Much of the resultant output, whether accompanied simply by a sympathetic pianist, in duet with fiddler Jim Cameron, or as leader of a trio, is musically very fine.  At times there were lapses in taste, as for example with the Rocky Mountain or Blue Ridge medleys, but the greatest proportion was relatively high powered, high quality Scottish dance music.

Around the end of the war he became an exclusive recording artist for EMI, with a succession of well received releases under their Parlophone imprint.  By this date, however, his playing had become more measured, less intense, and (for me) infinitely less interesting, with the 'Scottish Country Dances in Strict Tempo' series finally sounding the musical death knell.  But popular they certainly were.  By 1949, we learn (page 74), each of Shand's new 78s was selling in excess of 50,000 copies.  Championship winner James Brown had recorded The Bluebell Polka, under the title Little Pet Polka, nearly half a century earlier, but it was Shand's more restrained and emaciated version that had sold 100,000 copies by early 1956 (page 99), eventually, it has been claimed, selling ten times that amount.  This was only achieved, however, by radically shifting musical gear into a mode which was more acceptable to the middle classes.  Or, in Shand's own words, "learning tae play Scots music right" (page 53).  In perhaps the most revealing quote in the entire volume he aptly sums up the opposing mindsets that separate traditional performances from those of art music:

"... Although I'd been playing Scots dances lang enough, it was'na disciplined playin [sic].  Ye see, there had been nae set length for a dance.  Ye played until the dancers began tae get tired, but a' Scots country dances have a set length - sae many bars tae each figure ... "  (page 53).
Who says they do?  Why, dance instructors and institutions influenced by the formal quadrilles and Lancers which evolved in the ballroom during the nineteenth century, of course.  The Scottish Country Dance Society, the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and the Gaelic League in Ireland.  They prize restraint and control in performance, and award (or at least used to award) certificates of proficiency when an acceptable standard had been reached.  Any evidence of uninhibited enjoyment, or of dancing until your energy flags (much less any appearance of perspiration), is frowned upon.  Cameron, in fact, inadvertently makes an apt analogy with Shand's accordion technique when he observes, 'there was nothing flashy or flourishing about his style' (page 80).

So, when Robbie Shepherd, in romantic Scots mode (page viii), claims in his introduction that Shand 'introduced the sound of the bothy ...' (introduced it where and to whom is unclear), he is being misleading.  I would be willing to bet that bothy players never sounded like Shand.  In part, at least, it boils down to the availability of a decent instrument.  By the age of eighteen Shand had acquired a melodeon with 19 treble keys and spoon basses (page 15).  Eight years later he had upgraded to a 34 treble key British Chromatic with 80 basses (page 34).  The cover photo shows him cradling an instrument with 46 treble and 120 bass buttons.  There can be no denying Shand's considerable innate talent and dedication to practise.  But you cannot play more than a rudimentary outline of a tune like, say, The High Level on a ten-key melodeon with spoon basses - which my research indicates was the norm in the bothies, if for no reason other than expense.  Not for the last time, Cameron displays a certain degree of naivety on page 11, where he reveals himself clearly to be unaware of the limitations of this most primitive of button boxes, on which it is impossible to play the complex and invariably modulating variations of violin virtuoso James Scott Skinner.

Criticisms apart, there is a lot of very useful raw source maternal here, albeit insuficiently processed.  We near something about the 'Go-as-you-please' amateur contests (page 22), in which earlier Scottish Melodeon Champion and recording artist James Brown had also participated before the first war.  There is a good passage concerning more formalised fiddling, diddling (mouth music) and melodeon contests held in the Dundee region during the Autumn of 1933 (pate 28).  Shand entered one at Aylth, placing second, with Will Powrie, who also subsequently recorded for Beltona Records, third.  Conversely, the paragraph on buskers (page 23) is pure rhetoric with merely a kernel of historical fact; and, in fact, Cameron exhibits a pronounced tendency towards a rather florid writing style, which I found to be a bit annoying.  And he is not always clear about which passages come directly from his interviewed sources and which from own imagination.  Take the section on playing with a 'gird' (metal hoop) and stick on page 8 as an example: how much of this actually paraphrases any narrative spoken by Shand himself?  Did Shand really say, even in his Lowland brogue, "the sweep of the handlebars resembled the ears of a faithful stallion urgently waiting its master's command"  (page 9)?

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book is the woefully inadequate attempt at creating a discography.  Perhaps for most readers the 'Recordings' section will prove sufficient, but as it flaunts even the most basic tenets of discography, I find it little more than a joke - if not downright insulting to Shand's achievement in the field.  Don't get me started...

In the final assessment, though, Cameron's book is what it is: an affectionate and reverential tribute to a man who has come to epitomise Scottish dance music in its most virtuoso form.  On that basic level it works well enough, and ultimately I would be churlish to criticise it simply for failing to live up to my expectations.  But using even the most superficial of criteria no one could deny that, like David Phillips' earlier biography, it is a seriously flawed work.  I began this review by asking, 'What better way to celebrate a life in music - than the publication of a fresh biography?'  Answer: the publication of a good fresh biography.  This isn't it, and a comprehensive critical assessment of Jimmy Shand's life and recorded output remains to be written.  But when it is produced this volume will, if only for its extensive, though superficial, interviews with its subject, act as an indispensable source. If you enjoy the post-war strict tempo recordings, and the governing philosophy behind them, this is the book for you.  If, however, the pair of Regal Zonophones and earliest Beltonas are more to your taste, wait until someone writes a more worthwhile biography.

Keith Chandler - 9.4.98

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