When Alan Lomax went to Scotland in 1951, the “Folk Revival” was raging in the U.S., with performers like the Weavers topping the pop charts. The race was on to find “tradition bearers,” the source singers for modern-day “revivalists.”
Like many folk enthusiasts, Lomax assumed that tradition bearers were a dying breed and that he needed to rescue songs for posterity. In just five days spent in Scotland’s remote Outer Hebrides during 1951, he recorded 250 songs. Gaelic Songs Of Scotland samples women’s work songs, especially those linked to milking, shieling (taking sheep to their summer pasture), spinning, and waulking (a hand process of shrinking and softening tweed). These are real work songs, in which we hear the milk hit the bucket, the clack of the spinning wheel, and the sound of wet wool thwacking against table tops, all to rhythms set by singers. It’s a fieldwork collection, complete with Lomax’s questions (many of which betray lack of preparation) and is not for casual listening. That said, it’s well worth investigation if only to hear the glorious voice of Kitty MacLeod and the memories of Annie Johnston and Mary Gillies.
By 1951 Scotland was having its own folk revival, one heard to great effect on Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh. This is the disc to get to hear the source musicians for many contemporary Scots performers. There is no better indicator of how resilient Scottish culture is than a collection that features now-legendary singers such as Hamish Henderson, Flora MacNeil, Jimmy MacBeath and John Strachan. And there’s probably no piper alive who hasn’t scoured recordings of John Burgess and Calum Johnston.
Shortly after these recordings were made, figures such as Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and Lomax himself gained reverence for “reviving” British folk music. Such a thesis presumes, wrongly, that these treasures would have remained buried.