Scots poet William Soutar to get musical makeover courtesy of Debra Salem & friends

Debra SalemDebra Salem
Debra Salem
Following his death in 1943, the poet William Soutar was mostly remembered for his work for children. Thanks to a new musical project headed by Debra Salem, however, his poems should now reach a wider audience. Jim Gilchrist reports

“I thocht the hale o the world was there / Sae sma in a sma room.” So wrote William Soutar, who died in 1943 aged just 45, a poet whose muse ranged widely and lyrically despite the crippling ankylosing spondylitis which left him bed-bound for the last 13 years of his life.

Following his death, Soutar tended to be remembered more for his whimsical bairnrhymes rather for his deeper output in Scots and English. Broader critical appreciation of his genius has since grown, however, and now his poetry is likely to reach an even wider audience with the release of In a Sma Room, a strikingly realised CD and associated songbook, featuring jazz and folk settings of his work.

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The song settings are the work of Perth based jazz singer and arranger Debra Salem, along with two well-known Scottish jazz instrumentalists, pianist Paul Harrison and guitarist Kevin MacKenzie. The project has its origins in 2011, Salem explains, when she was approached by the Friends of William Soutar, resulting in a music-theatre collaboration scripted by author Ajay Close. Originally from Belfast, Salem had never heard of Soutar: “His poetry was a revelation to me. It was so beautiful and it was also in Scots which wasn’t something I knew a lot about.”

Salem had worked with Harrison and McKenzie before. She was also aware that Soutar songs had been arranged in the past by the likes of Benjamin Britten and James MacMillan. She, Harrison and Mackenzie chose six songs each for setting: “For me it was incredibly important that the words were front and centre. Kevin and Paul are wonderful to work with, and I was really interested to see what, as musicians, they would bring to that understanding as well.”

A fourth player, Perth fiddler, Patsy Reid, brought a potent additional strand to the song settings, while bassist Andrew Robb and percussionist Signy Jakobsdóttir also play on the album. While Salem’s vocals tend to be jazz-inflected, the arrangements shift between jazz and folk in emphasis. And while MacKenzie is known for straddling both folk and jazz, some of his arrangements were the most contemporary, says pianist Harrison who found himself edging towards folkier ideas – “although there’s still jazz in them. And Debra’s got one foot in Scottish music as well as all the other stuff.”

Among the songs chosen by Harrison was The Tryst, evoking a ghostly erotic encounter to which his keyboard brings an ethereal quality. “That arrangement came very quickly,” he says. “I like my gothic horror, and although it’s nothing like that, there’s a certain vibe in this ghostly reminiscence.”

He also arranged The Crocus, which flowers over his lustrous-sounding Fender Rhodes, and with a languid guitar break from MacKenzie. Elsewhere, Salem gives a slow-blues delivery to poems such as The Moment and the picaresque Parable, while Reid’s fiddle brings fresh dramatic tension to the ultimately tragic riddle of Auld Sang.

When they first embarked on the project, Salem recalls, Ajay Close brought them to Soutar’s former home, now preserved in Perth’s Wilson Street. “They were in the process of renovating it so it was still as it was. Paul and Kevin and I just stood in that room. There was such a sense… I would love to sing some of these songs in that room.”

Bryan Angus’s linocut on the album sleeve suggests wonderfully the way in which Soutar’s questing imagination ranged beyond his trapped self: the window is empty, the curtains seem to billow back for the bed-bound poet’s triumphantly escaping spirit.

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As the poet and academic Alexander Scott wrote in his biography of Soutar, Still Life: “Death defeated him in the end, but in the struggle with despair he was victorious; and even of his conquest by death he made a triumph, for in that last battle he expressed such fortitude and magnanimity as to make one proud of humankind.”

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