Painter John Bellany’s life remembered in song

John Bellany. Picture: Ian Rutherford/TSPL
John Bellany. Picture: Ian Rutherford/TSPL
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THE legacy of John Bellany celebrated in song, by the musicians he loved

On a glowing early autumn day at the beginning of this month, singing could be heard drifting from the John Bellany Day Centre in the East Lothian fishing community of Port Seton. Outside, the Firth of Forth drifted in a sublime cerulean wash while sunshine gilded the roof pantiles; inside, the centre’s elderly clients were being led by local singer Alex Hodgson in a lusty rendition of a local anthem The Boatie Rows.

It may not have been the most obvious venue for a CD launch, but the centre was hosting the release of an album of music celebrating the life and work of the artist whose name it bears – the late John Bellany, the internationally renowned painter who grew up in Port Seton and whose creative imagination would never cease to be informed by its seafaring community.

How do you use music to celebrate the life of a man so associated with vivid and sometimes darkly surreal visual art? One can’t help thinking of the uncanny, gannet-headed accordionist of his painting Bêche-de-Mer, one of four of his canvases which adorned album covers of the Whistlebinkies folk group, for Bellany – whose determinedly life-affirming artistic drive steered him through alcoholism and near-terminal illness – loved Scottish music, played accordion and piano and led his own Scottish dance band, the Blue Bonnets.

Two members of the Whistlebinkies, Eddie McGuire and Stuart Eydmann, contribute a plaintive air and reel to A Tribute in Music and Song to John Bellany, compiled by Greentrax Recordings, based just down the road in Cockenzie.

Combining some of Bellany’s favourite music with tribute pieces and local songs adds up to a sometimes oddly assorted selection, but one which affectionately reflects Bellany the man and the artist, as well as the community which so shaped him.

Songs which the artist loved range from Moon River, fondly sung here by Siobhan Miller, to rare old chestnuts such as the Corries singing The Road and the Miles to Dundee and Calum Kennedy’s stratospherically soaring Dark Lochnagar. Other tracks range from instrumentals to Paul Bellany’s Pogues-like delivery of Rage Against the Dying of the Light, his salute to his father’s indomitable life-force, even at his darkest hour. Other tracks include the late Davy Steele’s powerfully elegiac Farewell tae the Haven, and an instrumental by Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, of whom Bellany was a big fan.

At the launch, the pawky lyrics of Alex Hodgson’s The Reel John Bellany – “there’s fish ‘n’ tails ‘n’ whales ‘n’ scales” – evoked the fishing boats and quays which figured in so many Bellany canvases (Hodgson pointing out that, within the local community, Bellany is pronounced to rhyme with “Delaney”). Iain McCalman, who helped produce the album, wrote the song His Brush Across the Canvas, delicately voiced by Simon Kempston, which manages to fit the titles of 30 Bellany paintings into the lyrics.

Piper Hamish Moore, who got to know John in the Tuscan hill town of Barga, where Bellany had a house and Moore spent a year as resident musician, played a plangent salute to the departed artist.

On the album is another composition of his, Le Campane di Barga, recorded live, with local and visiting Scots choirs joining in as the pipes echo the chiming of the town’s bells.

The album ends with the hymn Will Your Anchor Hold, so redolent of the community which shaped the painter. As his wife, Helen, points out in the sleeve notes, “The centre of all that [John] had become by the end of his life was essentially the same as that of the small boy who had walked down the harbour holding his father’s hand... sometimes concealed, many times buried under the detritus of a damaged life but always there as it had been formed in the beginning, steadfast and indomitable in his love and admiration for his place of birth, its way of life and the warmth of its people.”