The Scotsman Sessions #115: Suzanne Bonnar

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Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With performing arts activity curtailed for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on, with introductions from our critics. Here, singer and actor Suzanne Bonnar performs Freight Train, written by African-American folk singer Elizabeth Cotten in the early 20th century

Singer and actor Suzanne Bonnar gained notable exposure during lockdown by appearing – virtually, of course – in National Theatre of Scotland’s online Makar To Makar series, curated by the Makar and fellow-mixed-heritage Scot, Jackie Kay, Scotland’s poet laureate.

Bonnar charted her background in two TV documentaries during the Nineties – the splendidly titled Fly Me to Dunoon then the award-winning Blacksburg Connection, in which she met her father, who had been a serviceman at the US Polaris base in the Holy Loch.

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Kay describes Bonnar as her “soul sister” and their working relationship is long established: the poet wrote two theatre shows about classic jazz singers for Bonnar – I Cover the Waterfront (Billie Holiday) and Every Bit of It (Bessie Smith). The singer, who performed before the Queen at last year’s 20th anniversary celebration for the Scottish Parliament, also enjoyed a successful run at the Fringe with her own production, Wild Women Don’t Sing the Blues, which went on to be adapted for Radio 3.

On Makar To Makar, Bonnar interspersed songs between Kay’s discussions with other poets. For her Scotsman Session, she has chosen the well-known Freight Train, written by African-American folk singer Elizabeth Cotten in the early 20th century and since covered by myriad performers, becoming particularly popular on this side of the Atlantic during the 1950s skiffle boom. Cotton was an enricher of the American folk/blues canon and a major influence on many, not least the Seeger family, American folk aristocracy, for whom she worked, passing on her songs.

For Bonnar, too, she is an important link with her paternal heritage in the Carolinas. “Often musicians like Elizabeth Cotten go unnoticed,” she says, “and it is important to me to honour her magnificence as a guitar player, songwriter and woman of remarkable spirit and courage. Anyone who can play a right handed strung guitar upside down as left handed gets my vote.”

For more on Suzanne Bonnar, visit

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