You have just finished launching an invaluable online folk song resource at Edinburgh University’s Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, many a ballad has been sung and celebratory glass raised, when a party of culture-seeking Bolivians arrives out of the blue. So what do you do? You do the launch all over again.
And so it was at last month’s launch of the website of videos of eminent Scottish ballad singers performing material from that vast treasury of Scots song, the Greig-Duncan Collection.
“We were finishing the launch when in through the door came this delegation from Bolivia, who’d been trying to find us,” recounts singer and broadcaster Frieda Morrison, the department’s artist-in-residence, who was involved in filming the performances and putting them online.
“So we just sang the Greig-Duncan songs over again, Fraser Fifield played his small pipes and Patsy Seddon sang to them in Gaelic. They were members of the Bolivian parliament on a tour of Britain, and they sang and danced to us. They said it was the highlight of their tour.”
Thanks to the website (www.ed.ac.uk/celtic-scottish-studies/greig-duncan), not just wandering Bolivians, but people all over the world can now access these YouTube videos of peerless renditions by 16 of Scotland’s leading interpreters of traditional song – such as Aileen Carr, Steve Byrne, Scott Gardiner, Mairi Campbell, Alison McMorland and Morrison herself – of 35 songs, ranging from cornkisters to the “muckle sangs”.
All were collected at the beginning of the 20th century by the north-east teacher and folk song collector, Gavin Greig, and the Rev James Duncan, whose 3,000-item Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection was never fully published until the university’s Dr Emily Lyle edited it, with a series of co-editors, into eight volumes between 1981 and 2002.
Choosing 35 songs from such riches must have been a daunting under-taking, but Morrison, who filmed them with the department’s audio-visual technician, Stuart Duncan, says she left the choice to the individual performers: “I wanted to show [the singers] at their best,” she says, “with songs that they’d made their own and are comfortable with.”
At the launch, Morrison took the opportunity to thank Lyle, “on behalf of every ballad singer in the world”, for her tireless editing of the collection.
In the meantime, songs from the collection, performed by some of the artists on the website, can be heard live later in the year – firstly at the Deeside Harvest Folk Festival which Morrison organises on 28 September in Finzean Hall (www.harvestfolkfestival.com) and at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, on St Andrew’s Day, 30 November (www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk).