MANY decades ago, for those of us first starting to sit up and take notice of what we now term the Scottish folk revival, as well as related developments south of the Border and across the Irish Sea, Alastair Clark’s weekly “Sounds Around” column in The Scotsman was essential reading.
At a time when no other newspaper gave regular coverage to traditional music and scant attention to jazz, he was a pioneer.
During the early 1970s when I was just starting to wean myself off 20-minute prog-rock guitar solos to take on board a little of this stuff known as traditional music, the man Hamish Henderson once described as “the chronicler of the revival” played a vital part in my education. Among other things, his review of the Chieftains 4 album prompted me to get hold of it, triggering a magical and near-Damascene moment in my developing music appreciation.
Alastair had undergone his own epiphany years before, when Henderson, folklorist, poet and presiding genius of the Scottish folk revival, had introduced him to the music of the magisterial traveller singer, Jeannie Robertson. Alastair was utterly beguiled and, from reviewing jazz and rock, increasingly concentrated on the burgeoning folk scene. “Here was heart-stirring expression,” he would later recall. “Here was political polemic, here was togetherness, here was the voice of ages past and the voice of tomorrow.”
Alastair didn’t just write about music though; he was a time-served musician who, during the “trad jazz” boom of the 1960s, played trumpet and later alto sax on a semi-professional basis. As a teenager he had known, and been influenced by, the formidable Scottish jazzmen Sandy Brown and Al Fairweather, and had also written entertainingly about engaging close encounters with such visiting jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Stéphane Grappelli. He had been reviewing jazz and popular music for the paper since the early 1960s.
But at a time when Scottish music enjoyed nothing like the profile it maintains today – and concepts such as a degree course in traditional music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, or the glitz of the Scots Trad Music Awards, would have been greeted with incredulity – Alastair was championing such emerging talents as the young Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and the Boys of the Lough, Archie Fisher, the McCalmans and a very nervous, if colourfully dressed, character by the name of Billy Connolly, whom he featured in his weekly spot on Radio Scotland.
During the early Seventies, his programme also introduced a powerful young band by the name of Silly Wizard, whose fiddle-player, the late Johnny Cunningham, couldn’t be named on air as he was truanting from school. Alastair’s sleeve notes for the band’s recently-released Live Again album, first recorded in 1983, vividly evoke both the music and the period.
Later his writing would spotlight such other young (and also, sadly, departed) iconoclasts as Martyn Bennett and Gordon Duncan. He also co-wrote Aly Bain’s autobiography, Fiddler on the Loose, with the Shetlander, the book being launched at a memorably convivial concert.
He wrote from the heart, providing incisive and informative pieces about the music he loved over and above a demanding series of senior posts with the paper.
When he finally bowed out from music writing, in 2007, his farewell article, rich in anecdotes, was headed: “Thank you for the music.” Today, many of us – singers, players, listeners and scribblers – must feel moved to return the sentiment, with gratitude.