Greats of the folk revival prepare to sing together again

As Edinburgh effervesces into its annual cultural maelstrom, a Fringe show at the Queen’s Hall on 12 August, The Singing Sixties, will celebrate in grand style the singers and songs who emerged as the Scottish folk revival built up a head of steam. The show, already close to selling out, will highlight the key role played by Sandy Bell’s bar, the Edinburgh howff long renowned as a gathering place for singers, musicians and aficionados.

Dick Gaughan PIC: Kenny Smith

Between 1973 and 1982 Bell’s – or the Forrest Hill Bar, to give it its old Sunday name – was, moreover, the de facto editorial office for the once indispensable Sandy Bell’s Broadsheet, a folk newsletter and forum, sold for a princely 20p and edited by traditional music activists Ian Green, John Barrow and the late Kenny Thomson. A special edition is being printed for the concert.

Notable figures on the bill include Barbara Dickson, Archie Fisher, Siobhan Miller, Karine Polwart, Arthur Johnstone and a host of others – the advance publicity promises a bewildering 40 singers on stage – with broadcaster Iain Anderson hosting.

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The man behind the event, however, singer and producer Ian McCalman, has form in this respect, having produced the widely acclaimed First World War commemorative show, Far, Far from Ypres, which recorded and toured with a large cast. In fact, it was the lull following the intense activity of the Ypres project which prompted the impending show, as he explains: “There was a feeling after Ypres that that was it. Then I thought of the times we had in Bell’s, back in the early days. We were so lucky then to have folk like Barbara Dickson and Hamish Henderson, and all the songs we hammered out. It was a great time and I thought it needed to be celebrated.”

McCalman plans to have the performers seated informally at tables, and with some 20-odd songs planned, he agrees, programming will have to be tight.

A particularly welcome appearance on the night will be from Dick Gaughan, whose passionate, politically-driven singing and guitar virtuosity have been tweaking consciences for the past four decades. Bar occasional appearances (including the Ypres show), Gaughan has been out of action for the past two years owing to a stroke, from which he is recovering. Now, however, a sensational live recording of him in concert in a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while on a US tour in 1982, has been unearthed and is released this month by the Greentrax label, with profits going to the singer during his “enforced rest”.

This is Gaughan in peak performance, delivering what are surely definitive versions of some of his songs such as Westlin Winds, The World Turned Upside Down and Song for Ireland, his voice in turn steely or tender, couched in glittering guitar work. And he is joined in Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye by the late Johnny Cunningham, fiddler extraordinaire, who was then spending a lot of time in the area.

The recording was rediscovered by Boston-based broadcaster and promoter Brian O’Donovan who, after arriving from Ireland as a recording trainee, taped the concert in the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square for Emerson College’s WERS radio. It was, he recalls “a kind of magic night. I remember being quite stunned. The church was absolutely packed. I already knew Dick; I’d interviewed him for the programme we did

then on WERS, but there was something very special going on

that night.”

The tapes were edited for the album (which features ten tracks from the Harvard concert plus an additional three from recent years) by Ian McCalman at his Kevock Studio – although, he says, Gaughan’s performance was so peerless he hardly had to edit at all. It is, he reckons, an “extraordinary” recording.

O’Donovan agrees, observing in his sleeve note: “Powerful voices, powerful messages echoing from a 1982 Harvard Square and down

the decades to us today with increased significance for the times we live in.”

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