Folk, jazz, etc: Celebrating 60 years since Hamish turned a trickle into a flood

Hamish Henderson, left, at Sandy Bell's pub in Edinburgh in 1981. Picture: Alan Macdonald
Hamish Henderson, left, at Sandy Bell's pub in Edinburgh in 1981. Picture: Alan Macdonald
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A PIVOTAL event in the Scottish folk revival that took place 60 years ago will be commemorated in Edinburgh next month.

In August 1951, the first Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh was held in Edinburgh’s Oddfellows Hall, part of a politically driven alternative to the early Edinburgh Festival, and for many people it was a revelation, giving them a first taste of the sometimes raw but wonderfully life-affirming glories of authentic Highland and Lowland music and song.

The late Norman Buchan, MP and folk music activist, later described what was for him a moment of epiphany: “Flora MacNeil was singing The Silver Whistle (Có Sheinneas an Fhideag Airgid) – beautiful! I’d never heard anything like this. John Strachan was singing about 40 verses of a ballad… It swept me off my feet completely.”

On 10 November an anniversary concert will be held in the Oddfellows Hall, currently Malone’s Bar, headlined by accordionist and broadcaster Phil Cunningham and featuring such traditional music luminaries as Jean Redpath, Margaret Bennett, Sheila Stewart, Jock Duncan and Scott Gardiner. The event is part of this year’s Carrying Stream Festival, which annually celebrates the life and legacy of the man who masterminded and compered that original 1951 event, the poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson.

The Carrying Stream is in fact marking more than one anniversary – this year is its own tenth, while it is also the 60th anniversary of Edinburgh University’s founding of the School of Scottish Studies, with which Henderson was an early researcher.

Eberhard “Paddy” Bort, chairman of Edinburgh Folk Club, which organises the festival, agrees that there were other elements generating interest in folk music in 1951, from the transatlantic influences of the skiffle boom and American singers such as Woody Guthrie, to the emerging protest song movement and a degree of cultural ferment around incidents like the Stone of Destiny, briefly “repatriated” to Scotland at the beginning of that same year.

In a book being published in association with the festival, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (the alternative title of Walter Scott’s Waverley), Bort has titled his introduction “1951 and All That”. Clearly there was a lot going on, he agrees: “But that ceilidh was a pivotal moment, which changed a lot of people’s minds. It was a catalyst for the folk revival, which then took on its own dynamic.”

And he points out that there had been waves of folk song collecting well before then – as far back as Robert Burns, in fact, but with songs being collected and published under elegiac titles like Last Leaves or The Scots Music Museum, with the implicit presumption that the music was on its last legs.

“What is different about this present revival,” continues Bort, “is that the music is alive and kicking,” and he cites Henderson’s analogy of traditional music as a “carrying stream”, from which the festival takes its name.

Certainly the event’s tenth anniversary programme combines retrospection with celebration of the current, vigorous folk scene. Book-ended by Edinburgh Folk Club appearances by the two great Martins of British folk, Carthy and Simpson, the programme also includes Will Kaufman’s show Hard Times and Hard Travellin’: The Songs of Woody Guthrie and Ewan MacVicar giving a talk (with songs from Alasdair Roberts) about the leading American folk music collector Alan Lomax’s fruitful visits to Scotland during the 1950s.

Bringing things bang up to date, a Gala Concert will showcase tutors and students from the School of Scottish Studies and the newly re-christened Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (formerly the RSAMD), with Adam McNaughtan, Gordeanna McCulloch, Rod Paterson, Jean Redpath and others, and the annual Hamish Henderson lecture will be delivered by historian Owen Dudley Edwards, under the title Sectarian Songs: Hamish Henderson and Ireland.

A timely topic indeed – but will anyone be arrested for singing out of turn?

• The Carrying Stream Festival runs 9-13 November, see carryingstreamfestival.co.uk