Obituary: Ray Fisher, folksinger

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n Ray Fisher, folksinger. Born: 26 November, 1940, in Glasgow. Died: 31 August, 2011, in North Shields, Tyne and Wear, aged 70.

ALONG with her elder brother Archie, Ray Fisher was one of the “Glasgow boys and girls” in the vanguard of the UK folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. She became perhaps the best-known Scots folksinger of her generation, not only in her homeland but south of the Border and among the Scots diaspora worldwide.

Having started in a 1950s skiffle group with her brother, she joined him in a folk duo – Ray and Archie Fisher – her bespectacled face becoming well-known on numerous TV programmes including the BBC’s Hootenanny and STV’s Here and Now, presented by Bill Tennent. She was also part of the trio The Wayfarers along with Archie and singer/fiddler Bobby Campbell.

Ray and Archie also recorded as the Fisher Family, along with their parents, their young sister Cilla and later Cilla’s husband Artie Trezise. Cilla and Artie later became part of the popular Singing Kettle group while Ray and Archie each went solo.

It was during a solo gig at the Bridge Folk Club in Newcastle in the early 1960s that Ray met English folk musician Colin Ross, the club’s founder, a fiddler and piper who became one of the creators of the modern Scottish smallpipes, including the breakthrough standardisation of bagpipe hole spacings and reeds.

They married in 1962. Fisher guested with Ross in his group the High Level Ranters, playing the traditional music of the Borders, and she settled in his native North Shields area for the rest of her life. She nevertheless remained a passionate ambassador for Scots’ folk music and the ballad tradition, toured the world, giving gigs from Canada to Hong Kong to New Zealand, wherever there were congregations of homesick Scots.

She also returned regularly to take part in the Edinburgh Festival, where, as early as 1963-64, she had sung on the classic albums Edinburgh Folk Festival volumes one and two, released by Decca, joining Archie in Whiskey in the Jar on the first volume .

Offstage, Fisher was a feisty fighter against nuclear weapons housed in Scotland, angry that Scottish people and her beloved landscape could be the first target of the then Soviet union, or any rogue nuclear state or terrorist group with a grievance against the US. She marched against the presence of American nuclear submarines at the Holy Loch and was a regular at the peace camp outside the Trident base at Faslane on the Gare Loch.

Ray Fisher was born “in the shadow of the Fairfield Crane” by the river Clyde in Glasgow on 26 November, 1940, one of six sisters with one brother, Archie. She was only 15 weeks old when Clydeside was devastated by the Luftwaffe in March 1941.

Her father was a soloist in the City of Glasgow Police Choir while her mother, a Gaelic-speaker from Vatersay, instilled in her a love for traditional ballads and stories handed down by word of mouth.

Along with Archie, Ray became drawn to the new 50s craze, skiffle, headed by her fellow Glaswegian Lonnie Donegan. Archie then “discovered” politically-motivated American singers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, while Ray became highly-influenced by both the powerful voice and the outspoken leftist sympathies of Ronnie Gilbert, who sang with Seeger in one of the huge folk groups of the 1960s, the Weavers. (Years later, one of Ray’s greatest thrills was to back Woody Guthrie’s famous war buddy, soulmate and harmoniser Cisco Houston in a gig at Glasgow’s Berkeley Hall).

When Ray was still in her late teens, Archie took her to what had become known as the Ballads Club, run by a folk music-loving teacher at Rutherglen Academy in Glasgow. His name was Norman Buchan and he would go on to become Labour MP for West Renfrewshire, and later Paisley South, for more than half a century until his death in 1990.

Buchan’s wife Janey, later to become a Scottish Labour MEP, introduced the young Ray to Jeannie Robertson, a former traveller and raspberry-picker. Robertson invited young Ray to her home in Aberdeen, where “I literally sat at her knee,” Fisher recalled, hearing the legendary Robertson sing “muckle sangs” – traditional narrative ballads – about tinkers or other, usually-downtrodden Scots.

Robertson taught the young Glasgow lassie songs such as McCrimmon’s Lament and the Jute Mill Song – “they fairly mak ye work fir yer ten n’ nine”.

Robertson’s influence on Fisher thereafter was clear although it was always going to be difficult if not impossible, despite Fisher’s crisp, clear vocals, to emulate her mentor’s coinneach – the ability to combine words, melody and delivery into a single, moving spirit.

In her late teens, Fisher’s ambition was still to be a teacher. She attended Glasgow’s Jordanhill teacher-training college in the late 1950s, where she started up a folk club. Not only did folk singers and groups such as Pete Seeger, the Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Alex Campbell, Tom Paxton and the young Bert Jansch appear, but they also often ended up at the Fishers’ Glasgow home still shared by Archie, Ray and Cilla.

English folksinger and guitarist Martin Carthy, now a legend, became one of Ray’s biggest fans, describing her as one of the leading folk performers in the UK. Ray went from singing “silly songs” like When I was Single (of the Donald where’s yir Troosers? ilk) to meaning-packed traditional ballads or up-to-date commentaries of the type being recorded by the great Ewan MacColl. Ray’s first album, together with Archie, was titled Far Over the Forth in 1961, which included The Night Visiting Song, a traditional ballad that has been reincarnated in countless forms by artists such as Bob Dylan.

Once she had settled with Ross just south of the Border in the early 60s, Fisher not only sang but also taught folk music, initially at Folkworks, a club which later developed into a folk degree course at Newcastle University.

She went on to record several solo albums, including The Bonny Birdy (1972), featuring two of her favourite titles: Pride of Glencoe and The Shipyard Apprentice (“I was born in the shadow of the Fairfield crane”), written by Archie Fisher, Norman Buchan and Bobby Campbell. Carthy played guitar and co-arranged several of the album’s tracks.

Her album Traditional Songs of Scotland, with Carthy on guitar and her husband Colin on Scottish smallpipes and fiddle, includes her renowned versions of Willie’s Fatal Visit and The Floo’ers o’ the Forest.

One of her other best-known numbers was Come a’ ye Fisher Lassies – needless to say, not about her five sisters but about the women who handled the herring brought in by their husbands. Ray often sang it with Cilla: “We’re awa’ tae gut the herrin’, we’re awa’ tae Yermouth toon.”

Fisher could have recorded many more albums but explained in recent interviews that she still preferred the word-of-mouth, hand-me-down tradition: “I’m not interested in what posterity has to say about my contribution to folk music; I don’t feel the need to put things on tape.”

Ray Fisher died in North Tyneside hospital, North Shields, not far from her home in Monkseaton. She is survived by her husband Colin and their children Fiona, Andrew and Duncan.

PHIL DAVISON