Tony Cuffe

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Tony Cuffe, folk singer and guitarist

Born: 6 April, 1954, in Greenock Died: 18 December, 2001, in Arlington, Boston, aged 47

TONY Cuffe, who died after a valiant battle with cancer, was one of the most distinctive voices of the past three decades of the Scottish folk revival. He also played with three seminal bands in the instrumental wave of that revival and his playing helped pioneer the transposition of Scots fiddle and pipe music to the guitar.

Cuffe was one of five brothers, born in Greenock, where he attended primary and secondary schools before taking an arts degree in English, planning to teach. He went to study for his diploma at Notre Dame teacher training college, but the burgeoning folk music scene would intervene. Cuffe’s father had arrived with his family in Port Glasgow from Roscommon at the age of seven, and remained a great singer of Irish songs - as Tony’s brother, John, recalled: "We never recognised it as being folk music; they were just all these songs my Dad sang that nobody else ever knew."

In addition, their oldest brother, Tom, was learning the Highland pipes, so that tradition was making itself felt, in no uncertain manner.

Around the time Cuffe went to Glasgow University, he was listening to Scottish and English folk names such as Archie Fisher, Martin Carthy and Pentangle. Also impacting at the time was the Irish instrumental renaissance, with Scots musicians eagerly tuning into the likes of the Chieftains, the Bothy Band and - a particular influence for Cuffe - Planxty.

Teaching went by the board as he took the road with one of the first Scottish groups to reflect what was happening in Ireland, Alba, its combinaton of intricate stringed settings and Scottish pipes earning comparisons with Planxty.

Alba recorded one album in 1977, before Cuffe joined the initial line-up of another influential Scots band, Jock Tamson’s Bairns, with whom he made an album before joining the internationally popular Ossian, with whom he toured widely.

As well as his winsome, instantly recognisable, singing voice, allied to a knack for rooting out little-known but engaging Scots songs, Cuffe developed an accomplished and distinctively syncopated guitar style which he turned, often with alternative tunings, to solo sets of fiddle and particularly Scottish pipe tunes.

He also played whistle, a small Latin American guitar called a tiple, and a clarsach - which he made himself. As well as his band and solo work, other projects included appearances in two 7:84 Theatre productions and contributions to the notable Fergusson’s Auld Reekie album of poetry and song and early volumes of Linn Records’ ongoing Burns songs series.

In 1988, then living in Edinburgh, he found himself faced with a heavy year’s touring, largely in the United States: at the same time his wife, Cath, was looking for ways to advance her nursing career, and an opportunity came up in Boston. The family moved to Arlington, outside Boston. By way of a parting shot, Cuffe recorded a fine solo album of songs and tunes titled, ironically, When First I Went to Caledonia.

Settling into the thriving Celtic music scene in the Boston area, he performed as well as teaching widely. Unsurprisingly, he was well received, and one notable St Patrick’s Day, he found himself enlisted into a group of Irish musicians who played at the White House for Bill Clinton.

This year, the Cuffes were finally going to return to Scotland, but in April, after months of back pain, Tony was diagnosed with cancer. As the malignancy worsened, despite surgery and chemotherapy, Cath took leave from her work to nurse her husband, and the music community rallied. Last month, two major benefit concerts at Boston College’s Gasson Hall generated around $40,000 for the family, stellar folk names rubbing shoulders with Cuffe’s students in the eagerness to contribute.

On both occasions, Tony rallied sufficiently to join them on stage, in a wheelchair, for a brief and emotive set. There was another benefit at Blackstone River Theatre, Rhode Island, while back home, on 7 December, in Edinburgh’s Portobello Town Hal, a ceilidh featuring many of Tony’s old associates, plus allied donations, raised almost 6,000.

One Scots performer who couldn’t make the Edinburgh benefit was the widely acclaimed guitarist Tony McManus, who credits Cuffe as a major influence. Instead, he flew to Boston for the events there. "Tony’s one of my music heroes," he told a Boston interviewer. "No way was I not going to get involved."

Other tributes illustrate the widespread affection for the man as well as the musician. Seamus Connolly, director of the Irish studies programme at Boston College, commended his "enormous contribution" to music in the area: "He found a way to make students understand where the old Scottish music came from."

Boston fiddler Laurel Martin, who played frequently with Cuffe, praised his distinctive singing and phrasing, but most of all, she told the Boston Herald before the concerts, she was impressed by Cuffe himself: "He is gentle, generous and spirited. I’ve never heard him say a bad word about anyone."

His brother, John, told this writer: "I’m biased, but for all his talent, he was utterly devoid of ego."

Tony Cuffe is survived by his wife, Cath, and their three children, Lindsey, Christopher and Adian. He died at home, surrounded by his family.

To the very last, the house in Arlington was full of music, as fellow musicians dropped by to play tunes. At one point, he recovered consciousness and demanded of some fiddlers with whom he had shared many a session: "What was that last tune you played there?"