Ch 01 – Introduction (Pg 05)
Dance music, generally speaking, is that which transmits its pulse in order that people are motivated to move their bodies to match its tempo. Its appeal is worldwide, transcending even the barriers of creeds, colours and location, beyond the imagination. Thus the comparatively small contribution of our Scottish dance bands echoes and reciprocates the universal bonds created by ordinary people enjoying themselves, an enjoyment shared by listeners more and more in this era of mass communication. As this century nears its completion we find in Scotland a great enthusiasm for our music – happily for me anyway – not confined to the intelligentsia searching for reasons, but amongst the youngsters from, city, town and country alike.
Having been involved in the scene quite deeply for some years I feel privileged to write down some opinions and hope that by doing so I shan’t be precluded from further involvement! I have confined myself to self experience in my comment and deduction as this is not intended to be more than the voicing of opinions and views expressed by a Scottish-based dance musician.
To dance a person may use any part of the body, as for instance in Egypt!
We find it essential to transfer our body weight from one leg to the other, the pulse of the music being the catalyst that sparks us off collectively and sustains the dance. The basic step in nearly all dance efforts is called the “Pas-de-Bas”, a French term sometimes colloquially known as the “Paddybaa”, although I do not think the Irish had anything to do with it. To tell you how to shift your weight musically from leg to leg in a rhythmic way should be easy ; by taking a step with the left foot and bringing the right alongside it, temporarily taking the weight, before going on to the left foot, is the first fundamental, leading to transferring the weight progressively from leg to leg.
It is fair to say that all our dancers employ some form of this step which, incidentally, is the basic step used in Rock-‘n’-roll, Disco, Jive and the like. If you can beat time to music, you can “Pas-de-Bas”.
Chapter 02 – Historicism (Pg 06 - 07)
I have little doubt that the French influence in Scotland heralded, through the Royal Court, the arrival from Europe of figure dancing. The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (R.S.C.D.S.) for example, go to considerable lengths to inform us of the source of their original dances by giving us dates, often adding ‘Danced at such and such’ or ‘Collected at so and so’.
I would certainly not argue about the accuracy of the information, although any enquiring mind would ask itself the question, ‘Who danced so and so at such and such?’
Logic would prompt one to deduce, fairly or not, that it was not the bothy hands, the fisherfolj, the teuchters or even ordinary townsfolk of the period. In turn, by elimination, we are left with the feudal heads, chiefs, dukes, duchesses and all!
The same logic prompts me to add that these very same aristocrats have preserved some of our traditional dances in quite a remarkable manner, as they still dance the ‘reels’ as they call them in quite the most relaxed way, not including, curiously, the more modern Strathspey.
Little imagination is required to picture a large country house, or even a castle, as a venue, with the air of expectancy hovering over the arriving guests as the preparations proceed. The food and drink are laid out, the cloaks are discarded as the bonhomie of the host and hostess permeates right through, while the band tunes up, checking its own detail in preparation. Albeit sometimes in antique finery, the company take the floor chattering as noisily as only the ‘toffs’ can, until the formal chord is struck, when a concentrated silence prevails until the tunes starts signifying that the band is in charge. The colour, contrast and character blend the scene, the ‘beat’ is made secure by the movement, while the musician observes the footwork and timing of the males, he has no doubt about the ladies’ dexterous footwork, even if it is hidden coquettishly.
To imagine the very first events of this type happened a long, long time ago, when dancing of this kind was being introduced, is to picture the reaction of the various house and other servants – quite surely they would wish to emulate the dancing and fun enjoyed by the people they were ‘in service’ to. I can visualise, easily, the kitchenmaid and the ghillie having a wee experimental swing in the pantry. And the mistress catching them at it.
All leading to a ‘teach in’, in turn outing them through an Eightsome, simplifying the ‘chain’ by linking arms and ‘cutting’ the figures by ‘birling’.
Perhaps this is why in the North East the Eightsome can still consist of a series of perversely lengthy ‘birls’ far, far longer than the bars of music cater for!
The wrong way to ‘birl’, incidentally, is to cross hands. Far more solid torque is created if each partner’s right hand is placed on the other’s waist.
The obvious connection between the aristocracy and the military, coupled with some shrewd historic psychology, is responsible for the ‘Highland Dancing’ as we know it. The traditional Sword dance is fundamentally based on the ‘Pas-de’Bas’, with decorative embellishments, high cuts and the like, all calling for perfect balance and skill. The military influences the precise nature of the Foursome and Tulloch, at the same time capturing the imagination of the Highlanders by likening some of the dance movements to the action of the indigenous stag posturising his machismo.
To this day Regimental Teams involve themselves in competition at premier Highland Gatherings, demonstrating in the process the cultural significance of Scotland’s unique international identity.
While world wide participation exists in the competition sense, mostly by the fair sex, no Highland Gathering is complete without it. Commendably the practice of bedecking the wee lassies with medals (sometimes to influence judges, I’m told) has given way to the charmingly simple ‘Aboyne’ outfit which, while being distinctively traditional, still enables these females to look what they really are, poised, attractive and very vivacious.
The thought comes to mind that perhaps, like the stag, males in the distant past performed some kind of dance to impress the females, and in my mind at least, this practice remains unchanged, which in turn leads me to the ballroom scene, leaving at the back of my mind the horrifying thought that dances in two lines could well have been instigated by the ‘Bloody Butcher’ and his Cumberland reel.
Chapter 03 – Speculation (Pg08 - 10)
Did the ‘Lancers’ come from Europe via England? From where did we inherit the ‘Valeta’, the ‘Polka’, the ‘Barn Dance’, the ‘Two Step’, if not through the ballroom? The Quadrilles definitely as a French ring to it, and there are several versions still performed in Scotland from the ‘jig time’ to the ‘D’Albert’, which can still be requested in Aberdeen.
One has to take account of the fact that, prior to gramophones, music traveled either printed or by ear, journeying by either method from Europe to the Americas, Australia – in fact anywhere – in the minds of emigrant musicians, ultimately finding more common ground and embellishment in the process. Fundamentally, however, the idea remains in the shape of melody, rhythm and order as so well illustrated by the Cape Breton Ensemble which visited Scotland in 1983. The character of the modern ballroom may well have been shaped during the period when good manners were regarded as being of prime importance in society generally.
The courtesies displayed at the Hunt Ball, or other prominent social occasions was no doubt passed on to the ballrooms, the patrons of which paid to ‘get in’ at the door. No doubt the Industrial Revolution situation necessitated the activity of social recreation, with the added bonus of a tangible ‘Boy meets Girl’ syndrome.
The actual dancing, I feel, traveled from the south, gathering local nuances on the way through the Midlands, the North of England, and in a very unique way in Northumberland where the traditional ‘Rant’ step (a variation of the ‘Pas-de-Bas’) combined to create a perfect marriage of Old Time and traditional dancing. In a programme danced there the Eightsome Reel is always perfect in that the dancers start and finish together, having correctly done the movements to the music.
The band must be adaptable and versatile in this particular, and pleasant part of the world as it may be required to play for ‘The Moonlight Saunter’ immediately after the Reel, a situation which can be further compounded by the requirement of the right music for ‘The Morpeth Rant’ or ‘Ideal Schottische’. Tempo is most critical here because of the enthusiastic tradition of good dancing.
As one traveled north, especially in the late 1940’s, the Border town of Hawick was a mecca for Old Time ballroom dancing, in whose programmes could be encountered the ‘Circassian Circle’, both forms of which were designed to make the company mix, as a progressive travelling movement was its main feature, rather like the ‘Waltz Country Dance’.
The organization of the Hawick programmes was invariably designed to contrast the tempi and the movement involved, set dances, sometimes called ‘heavy’, being skillfully interspersed to suit the mood and physical stamina of the dancers.
Of course, in my view, the really good dancer could do the full course without too much physical effort, especially if enjoying equitable partners!
Still further north, on the road to Edinburgh, Border towns and villages all cultivated local versions of dances, gradually changing the face of the programmes, the ‘Hulachan’, a combination of Strathspey and Reel sometimes being featured.
Interestingly enough, the ‘Scotch Reel’, an alternative Strathspey and Reel danced in the Highlands, seems to me to form the basis of the sets put together in ‘Kerr’s Merry Melodies’, the Scottish dance bands’ near biblical repository, where, by diligent search one can find any combination of dance tunes.
While deliberately skirting our capital city with its wealth of culture, the central part of Scotland, which combined industrial and agricultural activity with manufacturing, the interest of the mining community in dancing as a recreation and social pursuit, remains notable.
I think that it is significant that the organized brass bands so popular with the miners had such a great influence on the dancing in the area ; not only did the figures of Waltzes, Two Steps and the like become established, even more importantly, native Scottish tunes were harnessed to realise their new potential for figure dancing.
The contributions by my particular favourite, Lady Nairne, coupled with Sir Walter Scott, and of course, Burns himself, were incorporated into the dance band’s repertoire mostly, it must be admitted, in waltzes where the sometimes slight alteration to the written form served to perpetuate popularly songs like ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye’, ‘Jock o’ Hazeldean’ and ‘Rise and Follow Charlie’ to name but a few.
At the same time, compositions like ‘The Original Boston Two Step’ by Luke Cavendish Everett, and purposely written works by Felix Burns, became essentially part of the dance band’s ‘Book’. On reflection at this stage it is prudent to observe that the decorum of the dancers in all variety of vebues had a great deal in common brought about, I know, by the desire to enjoy the company – this could even find comparison with various places of worship, which is a sobering thought – despite the fact that dancing and drink were synonymously linked.
Participation being the keynote, dancing was so popular that, in some areas (and Jimmy Shand himself told me), dancing would start at midnight on a Sunday (which had to be observed) and carry on into the sma’ hours to slake the desire of the people to trip the light fantastic – little wonder that the skill and standards improved the actual performance to such a pitch that the average Scot could be relied on to ‘Pas-de-Bas’ in any company.
Chapter 04 – Conjecture (Pg11 – 13)
In this world of imaginary histrionics, the very building of railway lines must have contributed a great deal to the actual dancing by the workforce alone who must have had fiddlers and melodeonists among their number. It is a fact that dancers used the railway in rural areas to attend functions. Certainly the steamers decanting Glasgow’s populace for a temporary respite on the Clyde resorts, brought their Terpsichorean skills with them, skills, which like Glasgow, still flourish.
Dunoon is a particular example of where an active dance club cultivates a blend of nearly all the influences of Traditional, Old Time and Ballroom dancing.
Speculation on what must have been an explosion in Glasgow makes the mind boggle.
Beautiful, ornate and practical halls were built to allow for large numbers of people to congregate and dance in, by far the best being the ballroom suite situated in the upper part of the St. Andrew’s Hall, since ravaged by fire. Tickets issued for functions there invariably carried the legend ‘Carriages at 3am’, no doubt in continuation of the Old Time ritual. (At ‘county’ affairs they stay for breakfast). These developments were the products of excellent administration in a rapidly growing city of the period, coping with the influx of large ethnic groups and the world of commerce at its doorstep. It can be fairly assumed that during the subsequent ballroom boom, Glasgow was probably the greatest dancing city in the world, even if the impetus for the cult gravitated from the south, right into the ‘Quick Quick Slow’ era.
The Glasgow ballrooms, however, held convention in high esteem with ‘patent’ shoes and ‘dressing up’ being ‘de rigueur’. Admission was monitored by alert, uniformed doormen who ensured that no so-called ‘neds’ intruded into the fantasy world of live music, mirrors, classy dancing, no drink and everybody out by 11.30 on weekdays with Sauchiehall Street devoid of humanity by half past midnight at the latest thanks to a super efficient transport facility.
The Warren Family who ran the Albert Ballroom quite superbly, had among them some notable exponents of the art of Ballroom dancing internationally, while I have been told that the ever-popular Waltz ‘The Pride of Erin’ was actually devised in Glasgow. Logic is not stretched too far by assuming that the Glasgow explosion carried its bang south through Lanarkshire and Galloway, linking up with the tide coming from Cumberland into the Crucible at Moffat, and spreading fernwise over Beattock and up to Peebles.
Certainly the dancing character of the shepherds and townspeople remains in these areas a very pleasant reality in the completion of a spreading circle of the world of dance.
While the major cities such as Dundee had its Caird Hall, privately-operated ‘Palais de Dance’ operated profusely. The municipality in Aberdeen, always progressive, built the magnificent Beach Callroom, augmented during the war by the Diamond Street Palais, a habitat frequented popularly by servicemen, myself included.
The high standard of Archie Alexander and his band sometimes featuring visiting musicians, numbered among its performers the local trumpeter Bobby Pratt, who became a member of the famous Ted Heath band. Even in these wartime days, the ballroom programme, while catering for modern dancing, Jive, etc., nearly always had a ‘Gay Gordons’ or ‘Strip the Willow’ to enliven proceedings.
Approaching the Highland area through Elgin, the main ballroom remains the Caledonian Hotel, Inverness, and the Pavilion at Strathpeffer (for which my own band holds the attendance record) which is the last remaining proper ballroom in the north. Quite phenomenally though, the so-called ‘county’ set retain the Perth Ball, in addition to the Lonach, the Northern Meeting, the Argyllshire and Skye Gatherings, the latter four on premises owned by them, almost exclusively for the purpose of ‘having a ball’. So far as I am aware, Harry Ogilvie supplied the music at Perth while the Edinburgh-based Tom Wright, a real specialist, brought professional skills to a wide area, including Portree in Skye! One outstanding bandleader for this type of function was Cam Robbie who could actually accent the ‘high cuts’ from his place at the drums, guiding the dancers effectively.
Further north and west the dance medium had a communicative ray of light in the fact that economically, young people had to leave home to earn a living, bringing back snippets of the culture periodically, which found favour at home.
For some reason various universities were favoured by different Highland and Island areas, as indeed were hospitals, in the quest for qualifications. For example, Wester Ross and Skye had strong links with Edinburgh, while Lewis and Harris and the north often favoured Aberdeen, as did the Northern Isles, Lochaber, Argyll, Mull and Islay types gravitated to Glasgow. All of them took home a taste of varying culture, fortuitously retaining their own native dance sense.
That conjuncture remains is a fact noted by the assumption that the ‘Pas-de-Bas’ in Old Time dancing, differs from that used in Scottish or Highland dancing in that when doing the ‘hop’ bit, the Old Time dancer remains flat-footed while the remainder get on their toes. Whether or not this can be subscribed to the English influence in Old Time, or in the music demanding a local style in the rest, I cannot say – but the bandleaders concerned, if they travel, must be on their toes to spot this, as the tempo is vitally important.
Outside his music, the bandleader’s most viable asset is to be able to ‘Pas-de-Bas’.
Chapter 05 – Tutoring (Pg 14 – 15)
Gow, Marshall, Petrie, Milne, Volti, Skinner and ‘Dancie’ Reid, are names which conjure up the sounds of music which, with haunting pastoral airs apart, symbolize the Strathspeys, Jigs and Reels which are the backbone of our national dance music. There are no doubts regarding the musical abilities of these great men – what is really important is the fact that they were for the most part, teachers of dancing, patronized to some extent by the ‘county’ set.
While I know of one occasion when the Camerons of Kirriemuir tried on “thur Reid jaickits” to fulfil an engagement of ‘Dancie’ Reid’s, the fact is that the dance orchestra emerged with fiddles carrying the melody plus a conventional rhythm section to play at Highland Balls, unamplified and from the ‘gallery’, with the pipers for the ‘Reels’.
In the south, while Old Time dancing prevailed, large orchestras became conventional using logically European instrumentation, such as Sydney Lipton and Harry Davidson. Modern dance sound generating from London with Carrol Gibbons, came under some American influence producing in turn wonderful bands such as Ambrose, Geraldo, Jack Payne and Henry Hall.
Sometimes at the Highland Balls so-called ‘flat’ dances would be called for, utilizing music from West End Shows, which was one of the reasons for Tim Wright’s popularity, due to his particular band’s versatility.
A Scottish ‘circuit’ was established whereby bands of the caliber of Syd Phillips, Carl Barriteau, Eric Winston, Dr. Crock and the durable Joe Loss, would play a week at Green’s Playhouse, Glasgow and a following week of one night stands at Kirkcaldy, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness, Falkirk and Edinburgh – all of which must have been very wearing on the personnel!
When the music of some of the ensuing bands became so technically orientated (with the advent of ‘bop’) the dancers would stop dancing to clutter round the bandstand to watch or listen, the split between the dancers and the ‘gawkers’ pleased neither, which prompts me to point out the difference between a dance band and a show band.
In the Scottish band’s involvement, by contrast, some patrons can sit all night listening to the band, the dancers can get on with it, and everybody, including the band, is happy.
In nearly all environments and social entities, the ability to dance was passed on through succeeding generations, even at home, with tuition being available in the cities, especially for ballroom dancing. The influence of the R.S.C.D.S. was apparent in some schools and educational establishments, while Highland dancing is still taught by specialists.
Chapter 06 – Styles & Contrasts (Pg 16 – 20)When William Hannah came to Tobermory in the thirties I heard my very first orchestrated ensemble ‘live’, on the occasion of a ball organized by the Territorial Company of the ‘Argylls’. I was only allowed out briefly to listen – arriving back home late, tired, but exhilarated.
Little did I think then that I had heard at first hand the first recording and broadcasting band in Scotland, whose reputation continued until after the war.
Will Hannah used to play regularly at the Falkirk Ice Rink as well as travelling widely into the late forties. While there was the customary rhythm section, the main feature, Will apart, was the use of trumpet, mostly in an obligatory capacity, but very skillfully orchestrated. The fact that there was no amplification made the role of the trumpet important in two distinct ways. One, it blended the ensemble powerfully ; and two, it was capable of beautiful emphasis in the rendering of waltzes, two steps etc. The use of trumpet by Will Hannah, perhaps exemplifies the point made previously, concerning involvement of brass instruments in the mining community, of which Will was very much a part.
Paradoxically, the most famous exponent of the instrument is Will Ogilvie from Kirriemuir, who played trumpet with the Jim Cameron band, also from Kirrie.
Again while was survey the scene, mikes were minus, and the trumpet very plus.
The combination of this band – fiddle, accordion, trumpet with piano and drums – proved to be most successful, touring outwith Scotland and Ireland, where it featured prominently on Radio Eireann, in addition to having numerous BBC and recordings to its credit. The fact that the trumpet was used mostly as a melody instrument illustrates, I think, a basic difference in the thinking of the musicians in relation to what the public required, and I can perhaps imagine why in the case of Jim Cameron.
Kirriemuir is situated on the plain just east of the Grampians, the centre of a very fertile area, where the most diverse of taste in dance had to be catered for, what with highly skilled artisans, lawyers, vets and writers mixing with the farming community – it is little wonder conceivably that this mixture ignited the fires of the latter to kindle the music of the bothy fiddlers, who in turn put their own ‘stamp’ on the tradition of fiddling for dancing. That the Cameron family were a nucleus of this art is an undisputable fact, the enthusiasm, interest, research and application carried out by them is only equaled by the expertise practiced by Jim, aided I think massively by his daughter May, in the field of dance music in Scotland.
The Cameron band’s repertoire was amazing to say the least, including several sets each of the Lancers and Quadrilles. Pipe tunes too were a feature, in fact they could play anything. Jim was very proud of his ‘Skye Collection’, but I put down his band’s greatness to his inbred ability to simply let his tradition flow – believe me that was a river!
What a contrast to the well intentioned BBC Scottish orchestra of the period! There they were – flutes, fiddles, cellos, basses, cymbals, harps, celests and timpani, all bedding themselves down in a morass of sound, in an equally impossible attempt to change the shape of our dance music. Their offerings on the radio, despite the classical standard of musicianship did not, I’m afraid, have a mixed reception – nobody liked it.
Later on, however, the then Scottish Variety Orchestra, with its mellifluous brass, did a much better job, at one period using the accordion skills of Archie Duncan, who was also a member of the Jimmy Blair band.
The task of playing for Scottish country dancing in particular, is one requiring great precision, as the music is published by the Society, who demand that their original is played. One or two early experiences of playing the wrong number of bars, or the Strathspey before the Reel in one case, should be enough to let any bandleader know that he is in a highly specialized situation!
The immaculate performances of Jimmy Blair and his band were more than equal to the task, without a fiddle, mainly because Jimmy was first and foremost a dedicated accordionist. Using two accordions only in the ‘front line’, a very high standard of professionalism on the piano, bass and drums rhythm section complimented an outstandingly thorough inter-accordion pattern which, to my mind, did exactly what the R.S.C.D.S. publication demanded.
Further colour and contrast, still catering for the Scottish Country dancer exclusively, was provided by the John Robertson Country Dance Players, a comparatively large group of excellent style, the violins being reminiscent of those of Time Wright but with a novel embellishment of having two pianos. John Robertson created the music for the dance ‘Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh’ in addition to composing his own ‘Scottish Waltz’. Mind you, this lovely orchestra because of its size, did not go to any but the largest venues, its standard was set, and notably high, in broadcasting for country dancing.
I had the pleasure once, of meeting a very redoubtable lady, called Annie Shand Scott from Aberdeen who was unique in possessing an incredible ability to impose her own personality through her band, this by virtue of her playing the melody line on the piano. Absolutely confident, her renditions of North East Strathspeys and Reels were a revelation, considering that the piano is a percussive instrument really. Her lifelong affinity to the traditional “wey o’ da’en” fairly sparkled through the then contemporary makeup of her band, removing with it any staid image that could have been in the music – definitely.
The fact that melody and rhythm were the main ingredients required was never more aptly illustrated than by Adam Rennie, from Coupar Angus, whose quartet consisted of fiddle, button accordion, bass and piano, gaining a great deal of popularity with the Scottish dance fraternity. Adam Rennie played in a very distinctive style, reveling I think in the very simplicity of his own competitions, of which there are many examples.
But the cheeky, knowledgeable, brilliant ability of Angus Fitchet, the Dundonian, will always be my personal favourite in the arts of playing and composing music for dancing. An artist really, with wide experience musically, he formed his own band, having been with Jimmy Shand for a time, and very promptly demonstrated his ability as an arranger, using his fiddle in a role not previously broadcast, by innovative obligato, seemingly ‘ad lib’ or ‘off the cuff’ with an enthusiasm which he still has. He too would take his band anywhere and play for dancing – a professional to his fingertips.
When I look at what I have just written, I must remind the reader that far from sitting in judgment on the abilities of my colleagues in any capacity, I am trying to illustrate the variety of music which has been part of the scene, and its effect both now and in the future. What is emerging now, as I write, is a pattern proving that in Scotland parochial independence is shown in music in the same way a geography, or even breakfast.
On one trip, returning from the Northern Isles, the band landed at Aberdeen just too early for breakfast. We sorted that out by stopping at Stonehaven where we had a most delicious fare of Findon haddock and poached egg. On another occasion, returning from Stornoway, our breakfast at Mallaig did not include the poached egg, but the local kippers were equally succulent – the same, but different ‘Pas-de-Bas’.
While the musical literacy of Angus Fitchet has a marked influence on the scene, the native wit and environmental passion ofJohn Johnstone and his band from Tranent captures the imagination. Nephew Jim, whose ability is universally acknowledged, assures me that his uncles were not really readers of music, which is remarkable in that they would have to memorise every single note to meet the standards set by the BBC.
The accordions, being the prominent feature of the band, were used to great effect, their sincerity always coming over the air. I can understand that playing for Scottish country dance music, especially for broadcasting, live at that, would have involved a huge amount of preparation and rehearsal, as even the timing of the programme was critical. The achievement of John Johnstone and his band is an outstanding reflection of dance music of that era, being played by dedicated musicians who in their travels entertained thousands of people and whose popularity in their own part of the world was never surpassed. Their studied application in the interpretation of old Scots and Border airs no doubt stirred the call from many of my own patrons – “The Johnstones will no be beat at the Waltzes” – my patrons knew what they were talking about!
The phrase ‘away in the northland’, while conjuring up visions of dark Lochnagar to many, brings my particular focus in line with journeys over the ‘Struy’, en route to the final flat exposed land of the real north, encompassing the towns of Wick and Thurso and the counties of Caithness and Sutherland.
In the south at Invershin, the piping enthusiasts to’ed and fro’ed visiting the great PacPhersons, while in Caithness itself the name Coghill is synonymous with accordion playing, especially the British chromatic variety.
The Wick Scottish Dance Band, while not having a button keyed accordion, came to prominence by broadcasting although they were second to none while playing for dancing in the area. Once again I feel that environment had an influence on their style, with brisk tempo and brightness being a strong feature. To actually broadcast they had to travel over 200 miles to Aberdeen – and for me the round trip of 400 miles was more than worth it because they illustrated very coherently that style and good music were indeed a facet of our culture throughout the land. Addie Harper, their leader, still uses the banjo to great effect, while despite the distances involved, they travel widely, demonstrating lucidly the ability to please the dancers. I do not really know whether or not their remote situation inspires innovation, I really do know that I like the ‘Wickers’.
Even more inaccessible are the Northern Isles, especially Shetland, which has spawned more outstanding musicians than one can count. I greatly respect the authoritative Tom Anderson, whose work on traditional fiddle music is responsible for having it recognised as an art form.
Shetlanders are not merely canny, they are a product of an extremely adventurous race to whom the business of living is almost entirely governed by the ocean, while the land provides the required shelter, its geographical position determines the hours of daylight and darkness, all of which prompts me to expound the following theory regarding the almost precocious character of some of the Shetland musicians in the dance field.
It is practical, I think, to assume that radio would occupy a much more important part in the lives of the islanders than any other communicative device in recent years. Would it be credible to assume, therefore, that when say, in the thirties people on mainland Britain would be quite happy with the old ‘Cossor’ radio, so popular at the time, the Shetlander with his long dark nights, would be having a more sophisticated device enabling him to receive broadcasts from the entire northern hemisphere? Not only do I think that, but I know that the ears in Shetland are remarkably keen and the musical brain was finely tuned. Individuals like Jim Halcrow, a self-taught accordionist, can play most fluently, music from Scandinavia, France, Spain etc., with equal expression, while his jazz facility is exemplary. Peerie Willie Johnson is a genius who can present his music anywhere, in fact he has taken it to London, with nae bother, and in his head at that!
Whence did the enormous musical capacity come that was Ronnie Cooper’s?
While I do know that the old gramophone did play its part, I still think that the radio was more influential to the Shetlander, in his northern haven.
In a catalogue of famous Shetland contributions I would include, firstly, fiddlers Aly Bain and Bobby Tulloch, and that most expressive sympathetic pianist, Violet Tulloch. But the native talent and superlative ability of fiddler Willie Hunter, Junior, personifies the contribution of an island community steeped in tradition of striving towards perfection. He is indeed superb. You don’t have to guess what happens when a group of that calibre get together for a dance session – even the thought makes me run out of adjectives.
In this attempt to analyse some of the factors pertaining to dance music, I have little doubt that some important factors will have been missed, however, I am concerned with recording my own impressions, primarily with the ‘Pas-de-Bas’. I am aware also of the contribution of the Scottish Strathspey and Reel Society whose efforts, while not for dancing, do feature prominently in the life of music.
Chapter 07 – Post War Resurgence (Pg 21 – 22)
That the ‘Reel of the 51st’ was a dance created by prisoners of war in Germany, goes a long way towards confirming the high moral quality of our dancing and music, and its value in our society. Another society, the Scottish Country Dance one, was active long before this time however, with the purpose of collecting and preserving traditional dances, the early books containing Reels and Jigs, to the exclusion of the Strathspey, ‘The Glasgow Highlanders’ being a notable, very traditional exception.
Remarkably, even the rural communities maintained the will to dance during the war, embracing in the process servicemen from many quarters of the world, while in the cities the American Jive and Jitterbug flourished. The ballroom image was kept very much alive by the Victor Sylvester band, led by the great Oscar Grasso in a polished Anglo Saxon style, both on radio and in the cinema. In the R.A.F. I can remember on night duty diddling a wee jig to myself and wondering – this before V.J. Day – if our own music would ever come back!
The credit for the post war resurgence of Scottish country dance goes largely to a Miss Jean Milligan, a lady who very astutely foresaw the potential of S.C.D. in the sphere of physical recreation. How right she was! The movement swept the country, establishing teachers, a Summer School, and a new expansion of national identity. Teams gave demonstrations, the cult spread to far parts of the globe, the B.B.C. avidly promoted it, even an international football match at Hampden Park saw it performed (perhaps with better footwork than the team, I jest). My band played for the very first television show featuring Scottish country dancing, from St. Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow, at a B.B.C. exhibition in the early fifties (which, I jest again, might have been seen as far away as Edinburgh).
Could I dare to venture to suggest that the apparent somnolence of the Society, which has had Royal recognition, may lie in the fact that it has created in itself a somewhat highbrow image, not compatible with the general public’s idea of enjoying itself. With some 30 books and countless leaflets so diverse that the participants carry ‘wee books’ to explain the ‘purl one, knit two’ instructions to explain the intricacies for the dance, I wonder if this is the physical enjoyment it is meant to be, or a mental lybryinth forbye!
In any analysis, Scottish country dancing is an exclusive activity developing its own forms of dance largely by administrative research, sometimes leaving the impression that the end product is psudo-archaic, even if under the aegis of Royal patronage.
No doubt can be voiced against the undoubted success of the R.S.C.D.S. promotion of the ‘Pas-de-Bas’ however, even if some television choreographers get it abysmally wrong and out of context.
Almost simultaneously with the resurgence of Scottish country dancing after the war came the dominant emergence of Jimmy Shand, about whom so much has already been written. Here was a man whose band could handle any dance situation in its field, be it Old Time, Scottish country, Northumbrian or whatever. More pointedly, the band created what the public wanted in locations more varied than could have been imagined. Again, willingness to travel was the key, as Jimmy would bring his band to the smallest hall, or the largest arena, always being consistently good. Very few people indeed have and conception of how much time was spent actually on the road travelling maybe a million miles in bringing its music to the public.
Those of us who do know, respect and love the man, not only for what he did musically, but for the way he did it. There is not doubt at all in my mind that Jimmy Shand’s influence in the actual dancing will go down as one of the governing factors of this century’s development – and will be remembered for the next century.
Chapter 08 – Television (Pg 23 – 24)
I often wonder at the influence of television, in particular ‘The White Heather Club’, on both the public and the bands taking part. Although the show looked simple and straightforward it was most demanding, even by the nature of its urgency. The dance creations, often altered at the last minute by camera or sound adjustments, involved changes in the music which often had to be quickly committed to memory – even cutting a verse from a song created artistic hassle, as the dread of having to ‘take two’ was much worse I think than doing a live transmission. During a run of the show, usually for six weeks, so much time was spent in arranging it meant that other engagements could not be entered into at all.
From the dance point of view ‘The White Heather Club’ could not have engaged better ambassadors than the ones they did because, for a start, a degree of R.S.C.D.S. propriety determined the dress used, in addition to having each dance identified and done ‘according to the book’. The various choreographers, Jack Cooper, Brian Sievewright and the effervescent Dixie Ingram, had to improvise entries and exits in innumerable ways, at the same time trying to show at leats the basics of the particular dance. /this Herculean millstone could only have its weight lessened by only two or three plays – a solo dance (and one remembers Bobby Watson) – a dance in ‘set’ and costume – or an integrated dance to song and music.
It would be well nigh impossible for me to imagine a more dedicated, professional lot than the White Heather dancers, especially the ladies, who always exuded the right amount of natural charm for the cameras. If only to endorse the ‘keep fit’ qualities of dancing, some of these ladies still dance with verve, élan and charm – and look super too!
Sadly though, the dance image projected by the ‘White Heather Club’ was not dancing of the people by a long way, perhaps it conveyed to the public a ‘club’ atmosphere that could not be captured in the local context. It is a surety that a decline took place in any case. With the growing popularity of television itself at that time it possibly created an image in the minds of the young that what they saw on television was the scene no doubt that their parents would reminisce about, inevitably ‘old hat’ to the kids who, as a consequence, were precluded from participation in the art of dancing.
But the old role of the aristocrats who helped preserve the heritage is now absorbed by bureaucrats including, and no bones about it, inept educational authorities, the B.B.C. and Independent Television, etc., and the older generation. While as a musician, I greatly admire all artistes, I am bound to state simply that I do grudge fancy monies being paid to artistic entities whose charms are only available to minority, selective audiences, when a little encouragement on the right lines could help so many people enjoy one of natures gifts.
Chapter 09 – The Powrie Band (Pg 25 – 26)
In this broad picture of development, the evolution of dance bands in the Scottish tradition became increasingly under the influence of amplified sound which brought with it a fresh, challenging dimension to be exploited.
The mantle of greatness descended, and quite naturally too, on Ian Powrie to direct a new energy into the fusion. Inheriting all the expertise from their father, Ian and his brother Bill were born to it, and by living in one of the most richly endowed areas, musically, put their skills to the maximum use. Just before I met them about the time of their first broadcast, Jimmy Shand told me that “That lad Bill Powrie could eat an accordion”. That Ian was able to find a replacement, in the shape of Jimmy Blue, was not only remarkable, maintaining a tremendous ‘band’ sound when Bill went to his National Service, but fortuitous as the band all lived in the same area. I could go into great detail in describing my highest opinions of the members of this very famous band, but I’ll refrain from that as the main ‘plank’ of this book is the influence of arrangement, that is, until I realise that arrangement is only as good as the ability of the musicians. With Pam Brough (now Wilkie), piano, Dave Barclay, bass ; the late Arthur Easson, drums ; Jimmy Blue, melody accordion ; and the polished Micky Ainsworth, accordion, Ian Powrie had a redoubtable team to lead, and he made a job of it!
Prior to television work, the Powrie band played for country dancing at least a week for the local R.S.C.D.S. branch. At weekends they could be miles away doing the same, or at varied functions, broadcasts, etc., until the names of all of them were household. The arrangements were the result of much research and, if IU dare add, experiment. Ian took full advantage of the then comparatively new tape recorders, monitoring the band’s work, making harmonical resolutions to marry the melodies.
He chose his material with, I imagine, the most lavish care, making certain it was right for the job and playing it the same way. He also did more than his share of homework and research to be positive that when the tome came to go full time they were more than ready.
That that has been proved is history, but more than that, these wonderful musicians, with the exception of Arthur Easson, are all still involved with the music, playing, probing, cajoling and guiding enthusiastically by their example. The great thing about this for me at least is the fact that they could produce the same exciting aura should fate put them together.
The intrusion of National Service into our lived deprived Bill Powrie of being in that band, but it must be said that he too was an innovator of the highest order whose death, with tragic coincidence, occurred at Tobermory, my home.
Chapter 10 – Continuity (Pg 27 – 28)
We are, among the dance band fraternity, cognisant of the fact that the public dance type of entertainment went into decline in the sixties, due to outside influences, some unprecedented.
Television, which closed cinemas by the dozen, was one of the causes. Another was the growth of so-called ‘beat’ groups, using electric guitars and keyboards, at once heavily dependent on amplification. Without carping, it could be said that many exponents of this type were copyists in some cases whose musical ability, or lack of it, was disguisable under a cloak of deceptive, and very loud mediocrity.
Most encouraging, however, at about that time came the work of Andrew Rankine from the Carse of Stirling, who instead of that much vaulted ‘Timothy’ Hay, grasped the nettle of knowledge of what the dancers wanted. I do know that my own sister taught Andrew at school and I sometimes wonder if she passed on more than what was on the school curriculum!
With a great deal of energy Andrew formed a band which included Tommy McTague, bass ; Billy Thon, drums ; Robert Campbell, piano ; Bob Christie, violin ; and at different times, two of my best friends, Jim Johnstone and Ian Holmes on accordion. Andrew’s compositions have great public appeal and his music was invariably arranged with élan.
In turn, Ian Holmes, the musician’s musician, continues to delight with his flair for arrangements of the highest taste, combining always a subtlety of thoughts in his work. Ian also innovates in himself, outside the field of arranging, by playing professionally, all three types of accordion.
In Jim Johnstone, we have probably the most complete bandleader, whose skill at ‘getting it together’ illustrates what musical training can do, especially when the trainee has dance background and a teacher like Chrissie Leatham. A decade ago it would have been almost inconceivable to imagine a Scottish dance band providing all the music for a theatrical production. Jim and his band do it regularly. It is at the actual dancing, however, that their expertise is most apparently successful, as with vocals from pianist Bobby Brown and repartee from the rest, patrons are guaranteed, as they say in the Borders ‘a guid nicht’ – which it what it’s all about.
Last time I visited the Hydro at Dunblane, someone told me that my namesake, Jim MacLeod, had been resident there for a quarter of a century. This fact, of course, speaks for itself, as Jim, with Tommy Ford and the late Jimmy MacFarlane have been arranging dance music to cater for all tastes and all types of dance, demonstrating that versatility is a virtue which experience nurtures.
By now it will be realised that the instrumental line up of these bands of the day was similar with amplification being by now an inherent detail. No matter that, and nobody could fail to notice the sterling work done in the van of the era by Lindsay Rossfrom Friockheim, a bandleader whose powers of composition were most inventive. Lindsay was the man to home in on any tune, often transforming it, and always making it sound better. His deep analytical treatment in his brand of dance music will long be fondly, like the man himself, remembered.
More recently, nothing could contrast more vividly with the Lindsay Ross Band than that of Iain MacPhail from the Capital, using the same combination, the element of environmental influence being, in my opinion at least, one of the factors responsible.
Moreover, it is apparent that the fact that musical progression lies in the hands of the bandleader, making him in turn strive to find the favours of both recognition and public esteem.
To this end, our man MacPhail leaves no stone unturned. His dazzling front line, often even bewildering, is made to integrate with a rhythm section to produce a sound which is chockfull of character, busy and bustling, and above all, fresh.
A refreshing peculiarity of our dance music world is brought about by often outspoken criticism – I most assuredly could not comment on Iain and his band, for the very simple reason that I did try to do the same thing myself!
Even more recently a coalition of experienced musicians called ‘The Tayside Sound’ with John Huband at its head is making a particular impact in that the quality of the sound produced matches a very high degree of refined arrangement, consistently played – but there I go again, sounding like a judge, when I am not writing in that capacity. I have been trying to paint a fairly balanced picture of the influences of an equitable selection of personalities involved in the furtherance of one of our national pursuits.
Chapter 11 – Combination (Pg 29 – 30)
The prime consideration for any dance band is, in my view, to communicate. To do this effectively the single most vital element is rhythm, the next element is melody. From my own experience, there are two methods of fusing these together, both of which can achieve success.
The first of these is when the music is not being read, when the musicians have memorized their individual parts and knowexactly what is happening. It is a fact that constant practice, and by that I mean playing together for a long time, can induce a state where sheer familiarity and relaxation in the music can uplift gradually the performance of each member to a very high plane. (I nearly wrote ‘level’ there). That this is not a phenomenon is often borne out by the fact that musicians who have never met before can sit down together and create a rhythmic sound with apparent ridiculous ease, simply by being familiar with the music, and free to use their own skill in the ensemble.
The second method is when the music is being read, the creation of the arranger being left to the ability of the musicians to read, play and interpret the written notes. This is the more exciting method. At the top end of the performing scale, soloists in the classical mould read the music, study the interpretation, memorise it, and practice, practice, practice. Only when a piece can be played automatically will a top class performer be able to give his artistry the freedom it requires. This kind of dedication also distinguishes exponents of our relatively less demanding standards in the dance field.
When weighing the first method against the second, the first has the distinct drawback of cocooning the repertoire which requires a great deal of time to expand, and that in a limited way is governed by the ability, or lack of it, in the least adaptable member.
The advantages of the second, that is, of reading, are by comparison, far and away greater, and can be summed up strikingly by the example of a large number, almost a majority, of our own bands who broadcast regularly using personnel from all over the place, often combining manuscript and tapes in the process.
That is not to say of course that ‘A’s’ band, none of whom is a reader, cannot play a better dance than ‘B’s’ band, who are all excellent readers. There’s much more to it than that!
The natural ear of a very, very few musicians can indeed enable them to fit in although the element of doubt alone precludes them without rehearsal in a studio situation. At which point I would refer to the unparalleled ability of the late A.W. (Pibroch) MacKenzie, who of course, had genius on his side!
Continuing our line of thought by dividing the elements in two, we come to two prime factors in our average band’s make up rhythmwise. The drummer, or percussionist, whose very complex function is to compliment and maintain the rhythm, and the bass, which is really the foundation of the musical structure. The overall single thing controlling those two is the lead, to which, most importantly, they must listen and react to.
Once more applying two ingredients, that is lead, bass and drums on one hand, we are left, on the other, with the chord first and its placing second, which is where the piano keyboard comes in, accompanied, so to speak, with method and taste.
As an aside here to use the guitar, banjo and accordion can all be, for example, applied in this capacity.
For some no doubt musical reason, the B.B.C. used to indicate that the piano ‘left hand’ should always correspond exactly with that of the bass. I personally am of the opinion that the bass should not have its sound duplicated or cluttered by extraneous noises, and to further that particular end, the bass drum tone should not even be heard continuously. I would qualify that assertion by adding that the bass drum should be ‘felt’ rather than heard, except when the music requires an explicit appendage.
The piano on its own is capable of filling the role of the bass by the simple effective means of playing the bass line with the left hand, while the right hand furnishes the chord, usually on the ‘off’ beat. This is commonly known as ‘vamping’ which is virtually the same thing as the ‘oompa’ of the old brass band. While the tonal range of the keyboard is most adaptable its use is almost limitless in forming patterns to resolve the music, accentuate the rhythm, and execute such flights of whimsy, progressions, and the like, as the pianist is usually at liberty to apply. Today’s use of the electronic, portable piano has rid the travelling band of the single, most diabolical curse, the out-of-tune piano.
Now we have constructed four ingredients, rhythm, foundation, melody and harmony, all of which can be augmented, leaving alone the vital fifth one – personality.
Even in the most practiced ensemble playing regularly, with the conglomerate sounds coming together naturally, the exhilarating experience which is at the highest level of togetherness can only come when ambient surroundings and wellbeing go ‘click’ like a piece of fine machinery as the music locks on a razor edged groove. This can happen anywhere and spontaneously – when it does, I reckon we’ve got ‘magic’.
Chapter 12 – Arrangement and Presentation (Pg 31 – 32)
Monotony is created by repetition and while we have been coupling fragments in twos such as melody and rhythm, the main purpose of arranging is to relieve monotony, which leads again to two distinct factors.
I refer particularly to ‘light’ and ‘shade’, the use of which is of paramount importance in dance music. With our four ingredients of melody, foundation, rhythm and harmony, the scope of the arranger is curtailed somewhat, an irritation which can be immediately alleviated by adding more instruments.
Musical notation is made up of all kinds of signs and words for this purpose. Mind you, if the word ‘tacet’ is written, we expect silence, which is at once equal, but if ‘crescendo’ is written, we can expect more from eight musicians than we would get from four! Considering that dance music if graceful and varied, its character cried out for compliment, and to use light and shade effectively is perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of the art.
Particularly at this moment of time, what is commonly called the second accordion is a very popular addition to the band, as its scope, with the use of couplers can enable the treble ‘end’ to sustain single notes or chords, play an obligato, or enhance the rhythm with chords on the ‘off’ beat. This last carries with it the pitfall of doubtful inversion, together with the hazard of the chords being pitched too high on the register, resulting in the dreaded ‘broken glass’ effect.
I offer the opinion too that when a piano copy has to be scored for the band, it is invariably a ‘good thing’ to stay with the established chord because in the main some thought has already gone into the work. Many bands decide to tinker about, perhaps to enhance one members particular skill – I think it is better to turn any inventiveness to analyzing a melody, of which thousands are available, which apart from being creative, gives the arranger a great deal of satisfaction, and the band a fresh challenge.
We are in the hall, the next dance has been announced, the dancers await. The bandleader, on accordion of fiddle plays the introduction, and the rest ‘come in’ like a herd of buffalo. The only and solitary merit for this practice is that the leader has laid down the tempo to the band. The introduction, just like a handshake, should be communicated to the dancers by the band as part of the arrangement.
To opinionate still further, it is worth noting that appearance and behaviour are all part of the discipline, being a part of the arrangement and presentation. It is indeed well worth watching the polished performances on television of some of the great artistes such as Stefan Grappelli, Oscar Peterson, or in the orchestra members so often featured. What the band does to start and finish is just as vital as what it does between the ‘two’.
The contribution of the film industry towards awareness of music tot dance to is a complete entity, although it must be admitted that when the dance is part of the plot, the timing is sometimes appalling, as distinct from when the dance is featured.
From the perfect co-ordination of a Fred Astaire movie to the florid comfort of ‘The Great Waltz’, we travel happily to the hill-billy or country idiom which has so much in common with our own music. This pot-pourri of European influences retains still the melody and rhythm ingredients, sometimes using the most primitive instruments. In the more modern settings however, the use of guitars of all varieties combined with the banjo and swinging fiddles of these masters of dance music, is dominant in the amplified context of film music. Often, and significantly the entire studio orchestra will join in, mostly to segue or continue the film’s credibility. To acknowledge the legitimacy of the arrangers of these creative pieces is to appreciate that the entire gamut of orchestral instrumentation is employed. The piquant trillings of the flute, the clarity of the trumpet, or the most exciting sonority of the trombone are all examples of possible addictives to our own, rather besieged ensembles.
While I use the word besieged, it is because we are that, largely by convention, awaiting perhaps with misgivings, for the time when the need for change, or demand, will prompt some enterprising bandleader to use the electric organ, guitar, or full-bodied bass guitar in the ‘mix’. It can be predicted safely too, that when this does happen, the change will be tastefully executed, so that our traditions will be properly maintained. To qualify this argument we must remember that fiddles didn’t just grow!
IUn this final paragraph, concerning the art of arranging for dance bands, one of the vital conclusions we come to is the fact that overwhelmingly our bands do their own, especially in the Scottish idiom. That they are capable of so doing is one thing, the other is that in so doing they create their own thing, and that can’t be bad.
Chapter 13 – Environmental Influences (Pg 33 – 36)
In my experience, musically and topically, a great deal of contention has been generated by the so-called ‘west coast’ or other ‘sounds’ combined with other utterances regarding ‘pipe style’ and all.
For the sake of argument, I have to concede that not only are there contrasting East/West styles, personal selectivity of material is another factor, which again for the same argument, must be put aside leaving two distinct paths to consider.
To the west of the Grampians mountains the vastness of the area is occupied by mountains and lochs, culminating on the western seaboard by way of tiny crofts with little in the way of arable land to cultivate. This for centuries has been a hard place to live off. From the Beauly First and Black Isle we have by contrast, a very rich agricultural country with the coastal plain round the north eat, which, in turn, merges into the lush plain of Strathmore. The remaining central, border and southern areas are all relatively well-endowed agriculturally, and do not really come in to my argument. My first conclusion is however, that the man in the eastern part could grow oats, barley, hay, potatoes or anything else, secure in the knowledge that if one crop did fail, he could still make something with the others.
What a contrast to our Highland west coaster, who, if his meager crop failed, had to farm the sea which, as any fisherman will tell you, is a very chancy business.
This for a start would account for a difference in character, amplified by the fact that in mountain country the presence of mother nature herself being much more apparent and stark would have, perhaps, a different influence on the artistic side of the inhabitant, who of necessity would have to hunt for the pot.
Once during a tour of Canada I had occasion to stop over at Winnipeg near the middle of the continent. When someone there told me that the water of the river there could be navigated on to the sea via the Mississippi, I became very aware that I was indefinably missing my own environment by the ocean. Environment has a very real influence on everybody, which is not always recognised.
If we can accept the fact that broadly speaking, this influence does affect artistic creation, we are half way there in our East/West comparison, the other half, or path, being simply that your Highlander spoke a completely different language, the sound of which went through his ears from birth.
This latter is a broad though viable assumption, as Gaelic was not so totally confined as in recent times. There is no doubting its musical and poetic qualities as a language. That the Gaelic is a very encient tongue is the fact that prompts me to select two equally ancient instruments, both of which have a direct influence on my particular world of dance music. I refer to the pipes and the fiddle.
Whether early man plucked a piece of gut before or after he blew a reed, is a matter for the anthropologists to argue over – there is no doubt that the great Highland bagpipe is a classical instrument which developed its pentatonic scales and its idiom long before the emergence of the chromatic scale in Europe, with the violin and its family being used by major classical composers such a Wagner.
The violin, or fiddle, by virtue of its incredible scope and range is quite logically assured of a permanent niche for itself in our music.
The great Highland bagpipe, in contrast, carried the emotional, deep and expressive aspirations of its adherents westwards from Italy and the Mediterranean through France and Ireland, spawning on its way variations of its form from the goatherd’s ‘goose’ to the Breton’s ‘bombard’ and on to the more sophisticated Uillean (Irish) and Northumbrian varieties. It is reasonably assumed that the music of the bagpipe is by reason of its unadulterated development over a long period of time, a carrier of the very purest character.
The pitch of the instrument has gotten higher, until we find that what was written on the ‘A’ space in the treble clef is actually a ‘B flat’ (in Brittany the ‘bombard’ is sharpened even more to ‘B’). The sound of the melody in continuous, notes being changed by raising the fingers off the chanter, a different method from woodwind and certainly from the saxophone family. The ‘piece de resistance’ of pipe technique lies in the unique facility to embellish the melody by fingering grace notes, shakes, doublings, grips, etc,. to such an extent that advanced syncopation is readily possible. (This fact is directly responsible for the highly advanced drum corps we hear today).
When we consider the main drawback, it lies in the fact that the extremely accurate notation which is readily available is for one solitary purpose, and that is to be played on the pipes. It is undisputedly impossible for pipe music to be played on any other instrument.
In the film ‘The Glenn Miller Story’, the scene was set where the lead trumpet had to call off due to a damaged lip. On substituting a clarinet the orchestra’s sound was made secure. There can be no such substitutes in a pipe band.
Another form of communication of the most extreme accuracy to the listener is called ‘caintearachd’, being a highly sophisticated form of diddling or teedle-dee. Its results can be uncanny and portray the ‘pointing’ or phrasing of a tune adequately enough for a non-piper to grasp the tune, making it possible to play an interpretation of pipe music for dance purposes on other instruments.
Extreme, diligent and painstaking care is a vital part of this activity, simply because the accuracy of the melody has been memorized by any piper listening, so much so that even a slight deviation can have a mal-dolorous effect on him. This it must be said, is not surprising, as the glorious sound of the great Highland bagpipe, from classical to dance, is the result of a millennium of thought, and to me anyway, one of the few perfections of civilization.
Two contrasting memories stand out in my mind, one, the vision of Pipe Major J.B. Robertson playing for the Reel at the Highland Ball at Cambridge, England, practically telling the dancers what to do next through his authoritative piping. And the second, the contrasting approach by my friend Calum Iain Campbell in the old R.A.F. gym at Benbecula, capturing the large gathering as one, while he sat down, clothed in his tweed ‘plus fours’ and made them dance to his magical pipes. For dancing they’ll take some beating!
The Jacobite period which left the Highlands and Islands divided by the so-called ‘ethnic’ line which split one race into two religions after the ’45 Rebellion, had a profound effect on the music and dance in the area. The dogmatic suppression mostly by so-called ‘holy’ men must have been akin to incarceration. Mind you I can’t really imagine that there was much to dance about in these far off times. Suffice to say that the different approach taken by the Highland Roman Catholic entities is there to this day, quite apparently reflected in the music.
On the Isle of Lewis, for instance, the practice of ‘dancing on the road’ was initiated, often by young people at some natural gathering place, the music by so-called ‘mouth’ or ‘puirt a beul’. This music, as the dancing it was used for, is particularly percussive as if in defiance of ecclesiastical convention, the ‘beat’ being laid on relentlessly. Here, the delicate balance required to perform their beautiful co-ordinated Schottische can only be achieved when the partners are as one in the music, and I can assure you that this is as exhilarating to watch as it is to do.
In the southern part of these outer islands one of the popular Highland dances romantically named ‘Over the Water to Charlie’ is by contrast, much more refined, softer and infinitely more delicate, the music having to take on a completely different mantle, even if the notation is the same.
Happily the entire dancing population can be brought together in the Highland Schottische when the music is played properly by the understanding musician to suit their common requirements.
Regarding the last point, the Highland Schottische really does demand a ‘four in the bar’ rhythm to properly generate the dancers. A ‘two/four’ is absolutely not on.
As far as I am aware the true Highland Schottische has never been noted down, it is a very far off relation to versions favoured in some places which really are bastardised by the Old Time influence, equally far away from what I know to be the proper one. In fact any islander from the west will confirm that the correct version is still very much alive – and kicking!
Chapter 14 – Personalities and the Melodeon (Pg 37 – 39)
The wonderment of the dance music development raises further queries by noting that from then North East came two outstanding contemporary musicians with immense creativity, innovative powers and charisma, the question being, did one influence the other, or was this really an environmental accident?
The works of J. Scott Skinner as violinist, composer and performer, are regarded by many in the highest esteem. He was known as ‘The Strathspey King’, a title which I think overshadowed, in my mind at least, his dedication to other tenets of his life’s work. His brilliant sorties into the intricacies of pure technique are closely paralleled by the equally absorbing explorations of the great piper and composer, George S. McLennan, whose compositions called for, in some cases, virtuistic ability, while at the same time he wrote pieces similar in construction to the ‘Strathspey King’. I wonder if dance was an influence?
What is sure is the dact that J. Scott Skinner was indeed prompted to write fiddle tunes with a bias to capture the natural ‘G’ pipe scale note, with the resultant harmonic consequences, notably marches. In this vein also he used a pipe tune called ‘The Inverness Gathering’ to compliment the composer. What he actually did here was to extemporise the theme to such an extent that he really re-wrote the tune to the embarrassment of the piping fraternity who even now are torn between the original and the fiddle version to such an extent that they avoid playing it.
Pibroch or Ceol Mor, is truly classical, yet I think that some other forms of pipe music which are being used in competition all over the world deserve wider recognition musically, and like many fiddle tunes with the composer presumably having little or no knowledge of harmony, are also classical in the melodic sense. In comparatively modern times in the pipe world, names such as Willie Lawrie, John MacColl, D.C. Mather, Peter MacLeod, and his prolific nephew Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, have produced melodies whose potential harmonies and rhythms are not really fully comprehended, let alone exploited.
Similarly, really great tunes of obscure origin, such as ‘Staten Island’, ‘Bottom of the Punch Bowl’ and many more are so permanently established as being of everlasting merit. I wish I knew more about the circumstances surrounding their creation, the only certain fact being that they are dance tunes.
Some hundreds of years ago that fact that metal could be used to create a constant, tuneable vibration led to various bellows-controlled instruments emerging, the metal forming the reed, vibrated by air.
This wide spectrum musically, led to the introduction of the concertina family, still being produced to a very high standard of hand-crafted workmanship. Using the fingers of both hands the single reed’s vibration is controlled by buttons on either side of the instrument in a push/pull bellows action. The introduction of two reeds in one block of metal led in turn to the harmonica system and the creation of the melodeon treble system.
The bass end of the melodeon was constrictive enough to ensure its rejection by the purist musical profession, a rejection which was rightly rebuffed by the dancing public who recognised its great potential in their own realm.
But what a struggle for the Scottish melodeon player with only a repertoire of fiddle music to play, and that in a key sequence not geared for it, and him with only ten treble buttons! The remarkable perseverance of the early players was personified by the abilities of brothers Peter and Daniel Wyper, Peter Leatham and John MacArthur who played incredibly such fiddle classics as the perverse ‘Miss Lyall’ Strathspey and Reel, demonstrating in the process the amazing dexterity and prowess.
A later era included Ian Powrie’s father William. William Hannah and the master of all, Jimmy Shand, who being the musician he is, helped design a much improved instrument incorporating the ‘Stradella’ bass and chord system, the then vogue in the piano accordion. Not only that, he inspired the design of a three-row chromatic accordion in conjunction with Morino of the ‘Hohner’ company from Bavaria. Now in point of fact all five of our main ingredients, including personality, were put in the hands of one man, leaving only the chronic obstacle of having to interpret and play tunes which were in the main, written for the fiddle.
The Irish with their flair for improvisation have incorporated the old two row accordion into their traditional music scene with what can only be described as astonishingly authentic results.
The story of the piano accordion is sometimes linked with the popularity of the Latin American tango in Europe, when the band pianist could switch to the accordion keyboard with ease, saving thereby, the wages of a proper accordionist! While I do not doubt the economic acumen so illustrated, I place little credibility to the theory.
Truth to tell however, the piano accordion mostly in uninspired hands, came to be regarded as primarily a music hall or beer keller instrument in Britain, portability being its main asset. In our catechism of Scottish music the first melody playing dance band piano accordionists broadcasting in my memory were George McKelvey with Jimmy Shand and the inimitable May Cameron, whose expertise and ability exemplified all that her illustrious father, Jim, represented.
Chapter 15 – About the Author (Pg 40)
A respite is appropriate here in order that I may interpret and clarify my own position, as briefly as possible.
Being born with music in the family I was taught from the age of five years, the chanter, graduating to the pipes, having attained the technique to finger the complexities of pibroch by the time I was twelve years old. My father was my teacher, refinements being constantly added over the years by Pipe Major William McLean, a most authoritative tutor. In the summers just before the war I attended the piping school at Kinlochewe in Ross-shire, coming all to briefly under the guidance of Pipe Major William Ross, of whom I remain a disciple.
About then I became interested in the accordion, my first one was a ten keyed melodeon, from which I graduated to the then ubiquitous two rowed ‘black dot double ray’ accordion, which name still baffles me, although the makers ‘Hohner’ would have a good reason for it. As the early years progressed, I still wanted more musical scope, acquiring a piano accordion in 1942 which I took with me soon after, joining the R.A.F.V.R (Volunteer Reserve) in 1943. I sold this while stationed in Aberdeen, had a brief spell of ‘pocket’ wealth and bought another one in 1944 which I still had at home on demob in 1946.
I did not have formal teaching, in any case my band soon became so busy that there was no time.
We traveled constantly until 1958 with mixed personnel, from whom I learned practically all I know regarding band work and practices. While I went as a solo artiste to Canada and the U.S., the band joined Robert Wilson’s entourage as the ‘Cornkisters’. Being still a bit self conscious of my lack of technical training I briefly experimented with the Continental chromatic type of instrument with which I broadcast and recorded.
I had, however, a drink problem and went back ultimately to the piano keyboard in an effort to improve my playing. It is not for me to say whether that was a success, but it cured my other problems!
Last June I decided to tackle the button accordion again and the challenge and scope is currently most rewarding as I think that the instrument has terrific potential and flexibility.
Back to the main theme, my experience over the years has enabled me to observe changing patterns in our lives, not the least of which is the behaviour of the sexes in the ballroom environment. Up to now I have refrained from using the modern nomenclature of ‘shepersons’ for the ladies, the main reason being the fact that the situation at the dance is a direct contradiction of so-called chauvinism.
Chapter 16 – Dance, Dress and Dames (Pg 41 – 42)
With the possible exception of the masquerade, the international world of dance has a common one conspicuous social ingredient, the males and the females dress differently.
In the chandeliered setting the men are ‘dickey-bowed’, in the village hall, the suit is ‘de rigueur’, while in the cities and towns that extra spot of hair care is expected, this all to portray the wearer in a light of status, whether be it financial, reliable, handsome, romantic or simply desirable.
While the bandspeople sometimes witness the ‘faux pas’ situation of the solitary female in a ball gown while the rest of the ladies are casually attired, this happening is as rare as when, even more disastrously, two females turn up in identical attire! The pleasant fact is that the ladies can don their best finery in practically venue where there is dance, which they also dominate.
Female chicanery, being responsible, albeit behind the scene, for the ‘touch’ aspect of the Viennese Waltz, also sponsored the image of the ‘Flirtation’, a major feature of some figures dances, while at home the first steps of ‘Hamilton House’ portrays a mock ‘kiss and run’ situation. In the dance ‘MacDonald of Sleat’ collected by Mary Isdale MacNab, a full ‘kiss’ is included in the construction.
At a formal ball the business of securing partners was arranged by the use of the card system, both male and female dancers planning their programme by exchanging names. The first inequity of course being the fact that the male was obliged to arrange ‘duty’ dances, certainly not with the lady of his choice, but with the ‘old bat’ variety.
Less formally, and even more unequally, the male would be obliged to ask a lady to dance in a conventional, almost differential, way which, it must be admitted, was quite practical to fill the floor. But should his request be spurned by the lady’s non-acceptance, the male, gentle soul, could not ask another lady because of the simple fact that he would be putting her in the second fiddle category – not ‘on’ at all.
He then, poor chap, would have to ‘sit that one out’, his feeling taking a bruising in the process.
Theoretically, in the manners of the ballroom, the first lady should not subsequently dance with a more favoured suitor, but while the Master of Ceremonies could intervene, I have never witnessed this unpleasantry, in fact any sheperson who did this was no lady anyway.
Many a young blade has had his edge callously blunted by the thoughtlessness of the selective ‘fair sex’.
If, as sometimes happens, men are in short supply, two ladies can take the floor as a couple – but two men???
Men, especially those who fancy themselves on the dance floor, sometimes will browse around the ballroom looking for a suitable partner, in nine out of ten cases, the object of this scrutiny has actually chosen him, and his ego prevents him from even thinking about it. The only thing to match womanly wiles, patience and artfulness in this field of demure posing, is the situation which arises when two or more of them are after the same fella!
This is one of the delights of the observant musician, the resultant complexities sometimes being to his advantage, that is, in the realms of romance.
Socially, one of the accepted purposes of the ballroom is its acceptance by the public as a meeting place, not only to dance, but to become on familiar terms with the patrons. Many a happy couple had their initial flutterings of mutual desire ‘at the dancing’.
On arriving at a strange location, the majority of people can find compatible companionship at the local dance venue, the men of course being put under the microscope of the female denizens, with usually more ultimate motives in mind than they would admit to.
A recent published theory which I subscribe to, goes back to the time when ‘homo sapiens’ discarded his then four legged posture to enable him to carry in his arms food for his child-bearing female companion. In return for this, the theory expounds the dominant role of her ladyship who waited a considerable time before she too could do the ‘Pas-de’Bas’.
In human, and I’m afraid, in political terms, it is possible that the so-called ‘permissive’ era closely coupled with the old-fashioned ‘women’s lib’ movement in western civilization has blemished the relationship between man and woman more than anything since the days of Cleopatra. Life was more interesting, explorative, and certainly more fun, when we mere males were confident in the exclusive gifts our ladies could bestow on us, before they became shepersons.
There again, it takes two to tango, so I imagine that a long time will elapse before the shepersons forgo their mental and physical manipulation in the art of dance.
Chapter 17 – The Contemporary Scene (Pg 43 – 44)
That physical and mental attraction between the sexes is generated by music and dance is a fact which most musicians realise. Subtle, sexual nuances are apparent in the oldest Strathspeys and Reels as musical entities such as to make them a most refined part of western civilization.
Current musical psychology however has carried, in my opinion, this a step further towards mere sexuality, by adding the effects of lights, colours and deep, loud rhythms, some of which have been programmed to match the average heartbeat.
This if further compounded by the mentally regressive process of really extreme volume of noise which by its artificial unnatural spectrum can, in fact, damage the eardrums.
Trend this may be, the fact remains that the B.B.C. with its show ‘Top of the Pops’ has been running for nearly a generation, the format constantly portraying the image of young people on a form of ‘non dance’ which I think id frankly deplorable.
Whether or not the record industry has a commercial interest would probably be libelous to suggest. I cannot accept that our youngsters have been incapable of reacting in a more innovative, creative way than they have over these years of wilderness.
Can it be that with the creation of short-lived cult figures in this field, what with its trappings of wealthy images, the youngsters are looking beyond themselves for the exclusive unattainable?
The actual cost of mounting a rock concert, where the electronic equipment weighs tons, is incredible – nobody dances – and boy doesn’t meet girl.
No fuddy-duddy, moralistic paragon me to voice the opinion that all over the country we can find budding musicians and dancers to do with them who could create a vastly superior strand in our social life style, than the repetitive nonsense portrayed on the television scene.
But, and I am sure in my belief, the tenacious stripling of our tree of traditional dance is gaining its resilience in the hands and heads of our young musicians, whose ability, enthusiasm and dedication I find inspiring.
One of the roots of this tree lies surely in the form of that ebullient wee man from Perth called Bill Wilkie, the progenitor of national competition which coupled with the essential teaching of music generally has consistently nurtured the playing of both accordion and fiddle, creating an atmosphere in which innovation and skill are the healthiest ingredients.
Branching out from the appetite this created has come the formation of the National Association of Accordion and Fiddle Clubs, with the most defiant constitutional purpose of preserving out music. That they have a very progressive Committee, chaired by the dedicated Jimmy Blue, is reflected in the fact that branches of the Association flourish from the Shetlands to Northumbria.
Significantly the organization publishes a newspaper called simply ‘The Box and Fiddle’ which is couched in the most practical, down to earth way, which everybody approves of. The double-edged purpose of the actual Clubs gives the local aspirants the chance to hear and meet visiting performers in a convivial setting, surely one of the most rewarding benefits for all concerned.
Dancing at the so-called ‘local’ level would appear to be becoming more popular, the relaxation of licensing laws having a transitional effect making for couples and their families a new opportunity to enjoy the camaraderie of dancing, the implied social stigma linking dance to drink is gradually waning. Few bands are professional ‘on the road’ with perhaps a few elite specialists carrying their music further afield.
The Musicians Union, being city-based, which at one time took little part in the rural Scottish dance scene has, as would rightly be expected, succeeded in establishing a ‘fair list’ with relation to recording, a fine effort on the part of the officials. This fact reflects a little confusion, in explaining that rates negotiated for the professionals assume that they technically could be expected to read and play to a high standard, which of course to the complete professional, is part of the job.
At the risk of some criticism, I feel that at local level, when rates are being worked out, the musicians should be able to negotiate without having their enthusiasm exploited, which in turn is what the Union is for in the first place. This remains a problem of equity which stringent Union standards will always find difficult to come to grips with administratively, the dividing line being almost impossible to define.
The inevitable hope and idealism prevalent in most peoples’ minds is to get ‘live’ music going for people to dance to, and in my view, the influence of parents and other responsible people, coupled with local authorities who have statutory education and community interests, could play an important part.
The more mature generation most assuredly took part in the dance activity, and no doubt face accusations of being old-fashioned when they reminisce – the fact remains, immovably, that some responsibility must be taken for the brash, anti-social emptiness which is usurping a most cultivated part of our national heritage.
Chapter 18 – Broadcasting (Pg 45 – 49)
Since the inception of broadcasting, many attempts to capture the sound of music have been made, none of which has been completely successful because of the fact that technology has yet to match all the characteristics of the human ear.
While this dictum applies to recordings also, the continuing relentless pursuit of excellence in these fields is at once both commendable and awesome. To add the human eye to the challenge practically doubles the task, while the co-ordination of both is the ultimate in perplexity.
The success of broadcasting in education, sport and entertainment is indeed a tribute to all these multi-talented people, some of whom have spent a lifetime in its furtherance. Prior to independent broadcasting, while the B.B.C. did have a monopoly, they also had a statutory obligation to be cognisant of public demand to which they reacted, especially to organised bodies.
Being regionalized in Scotland, the B.B.C. acquiesced to suggestions from such organizations as the Scottish Football Association, An Comunn Gaidlealach, the Scottish Brass Band Association, Drama and Literary groups, and finally to our own Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. Broadcasting time given to regions for their collective preference was, by circumstance, allocated in a limited way by the London based hierarchy.
It is understandable that pre-war, dance music was thin on the ground, a situation which changed after the war with the resurgence of our music. The influence of the R.S.C.D.S. was paramount in having a secure programme on a weekly basis sandwiched, it may be said, in the best possible slot between the all important ‘Sportsreel’ and the popular ‘MacFlannels’ – Saturday night at 6.35, the strains of ‘The Old Comrades March’ would fade, leaving ‘Kate Dalrymple’ to take her place, followed by ‘The Glasgow Highlanders’ to herald the ‘MacFlannels’. The dedication of the R.S.C.D.S. in preserving their version of our country dancing was really of outstanding merit, particularly as their own movement was progressing simultaneously. At that time the constraint, timewise, on the Scottish region(BBC) was such that it was imperative to combine Scots songs in the programme, always of course, utilizing such outstanding vocalists as Matthew Nisbet, Mina Bell and others, accompanied by the BBC’s gifted pianists Barbara Lane and the pipe smoking Andrew Bryson. ‘Dance of the week’ would feature the intricacy of a new dance as explained by May Brown, the entire programme would be tuned into from the cities to the most remote croft house.
To become a part of this programme each band was required to have a musical integrity of the highest order to enable it to produce above all the authenticity of the Scottish dance. For example, a super alternative tune to the Irish titles dance ‘Rory O’More’ is called ‘Lannigan’s Ball’, which because of its definite Irishness was not allowed to be played. One would cheat, however, by calling it some other obscure name, at one’s peril!
The then Head of Scottish Music, Ronnie Calder, possessed an awareness and indeed an affinity with the bands, coupled with a sincerity that rubbed off, gaining him both admiration and respect.
The coveted accolade of saying that ‘so and so and his broadcasting band’ were to appear would have an equivalent publicity value today if Saatchi and Saatchi were doing the public relations bit, although a band’s success did not come overnight. It only followed when the band took to the road and demonstrated its ability in person to the public who in fact were looking for music in a much wider field and that in stunning variety.
The scarcity of bands of this calibre at the time coupled with the unprecedented demand made it possible for some to go on the road as so-called ‘semi-professionals’ who would adjust their other work activities to incorporate leave of absence. Others were already resident in ballrooms while city based bands had audiences within easy reach. Very full were actually ‘full-time’ and they had to depend on local organizations, hall committees and the like to give them work. During this boom however, some enterprising promoters helped to ease the strain on pro bands by engaging them to play at dances all within easy reach of each other. Duncan McKinnon, particularly, with his ‘Border Dances’ could provide two weeks’ work from Carlisle in the west through to Lauder in the east, patterned in all manner of ways across the country. Bert Ewen from Inverurie, himself a beautiful dancer, would arrange a weeks work in the North East, usually culminating at the village of Mintlaw, where a Saturday night featured two halls, one ballroom and one Old Time with a single ticket for admission to both. Alex Emslie at Lonach, Bob McClintock at Stranraer and Davie Steven at Perth where all great characters who ran dances because they loved the scene and the people in it. Some major ballrooms too catered for the demand. The Astoria, Glasgow ; the Beach, Aberdeen ; the Caledonian Hotel, Inverness, all on Thursdays, which made it easy to fill in the diary for Friday and Saturday not too far away in the surrounding area.
The continuity of broadcasting made it essential to keep the band’s repertoire abreast of the new books being published by the R.S.C.D.S. The word of its competence in the field, while being well earned, had a reward of engagements further afield, especially in England where Scottish Country Dancing has retained its popular appeal. Even now specialists in the field are assured of engagements, although in my opinion the grass roots core of general dancing is still to be counted among the committees, the young farmers, the hall committee, the S.W.R.I., even the police, while the charitable organisations such as the Red Cross, the Lifeboats, etc., with local committees, are able to generate sympathetic involvement and patronage.
The setting up of regional independent radio stations which have the integrity synonymous with their particular locale, feature local and dance music, their commercialistic urgency maintaining an accepted level of participation to suit the public taste. A certain amount of ‘live’ material is included, at the same time recordings play a prominent part in the hands of disc jockeys, whose personalities have a pleasing, informal impact.
Meanwhile the B.B.C. has set up localized units which are ‘sandwiched’ in the main framework using V.H.F. to give a very clear local reception, which in turn caters specifically for local listeners,. A striking example is Radio Highland, from which emanates Gaelic, news, drama and music on a scale of greater magnitude than could have ever been imagined.
In the dance music field, Radio Scotland has loosened the fetters of the Scottish bands by allowing scope to broadcast programmes not completely dominated by the strictures of the R.S.C.D.S. Proper cognizance however should be noted in this latter because there can be no doubt that the disciplined integrity of the R.S.C.D.S. plays a vital part of the picture by its clinical attention to the detail of its own particular segment.
It can fairly be concluded that the B.B.C. are ‘on the ball’ as far as the public are concerned. The current programme has a regular airing in the hands of remarkable, able, knowledgeable people, whose genuine expertise is only exceeded by their equally genuine enthusiasm.
Currently our Scottish programme ‘Take the Floor’ is being produced by Freeland Barbour who is a performer, not only as a solo accordionist, but as a member of the ‘Wallochmor’, a band steeped in tradition. The programme announcer, Robbie Shepherd, ‘The Dunecht Loon’ whose style and handling of the show are exemplary, combines doing his homework and study while enjoying the whole thing, surely nurturing the aspirations of the musicians involved, while giving the listening public a ‘kick of the ball’.
Even then, of course, the dance band is featured once a week, which actually limits the number of broadcasting bands whose standards are still set by auditions.
I did hear of one group setting up their own sound equipment in the audition studio – but that’s by the way.
While the professional band should be able to select broadcasting material from its repertoire, the fact remains that for the remainder there are problems and difficulties. Often the ‘hobbyist’ group with months of preparation will have their broadcast rehearsed until it is immaculate and note perfect. The fact that they are disappointed if they do not ‘set the heather on fire’ can be tempered by the reality that they have actually broadcast and can start preparing for the next one. They can also take on engagements as a broadcasting band, using their own personnel without duplicity.
That duplicity rears its head in other cases is a contentious fact engendered by the practice of using musicians outwith the local scope, sometimes from other established bands to broadcast with, then taking on engagements with different personnel. This, of course, is cheating the public and it is noteworthy that the B.B.C. indeed identify each player in their programmes.
The appendage ‘broadcasting band’ is one which is worked for and should not, in my opinion, be misused, and it’s quite easy for any bandleader to make sure he is not cheating the public by making sure that the billing is right. Which leaves me to record one of the happiest happenings in the field of broadcasting which is of course the getting together of players from diverse environments and different influences to titivate the airwaves.
Perhaps an illustration of established names, and us imagining that they were all in their teens getting together for a broadcast would convey what I’m getting at. Say for instance, Angus Cameron, fiddle from Kirriemuir ; Jim Johnstone, accordion from Tranent ; Ian Holmes, accordion from Dumfries ; Dave Flockhart, piano from Musselburgh ; Fenwick MacDougall, bass from Port Bannatyne : and Billy Thom, drums from Dunblane. The end result with that lot at that age would take a bit of beating and would be certainly on a par with the exciting youngsters who are actually doing that kind of thing today for broadcasting. The only ingredient missing is the experience of playing for dancing, which of course is an apple off another tree. It is more than merely gratifying to know that these youngsters can take a look at the manuscript, go to the studio, sit down, rehearse and broadcast – just like that! More than handy too if your professional band has to find a deputy if the need arises!
In any case, for the ‘Pas-de-Bas’ it’s the music that counts, not who’s playing it.
Still another apple off a completely different tree is the fact that making comparisons only creates disillusion, like wondering what Peter Wyper would do with a Shand Morino, unless there is a purpose behind the comparison. In this case in point, when our imaginary line-up were teenagers, the studio engineer usually put the lot through one microphone. In fact the bands all tried to play and sound as one. While nowadays each instrument is miked individually the end product is in the hands of the fella turning the knobs, and while even he cannot make a lousy sound much worse, he can easily take the refinement out of an excellent one.
That this rarely happens is a tribute to the dedication and expertise of studio engineers all over the country.
Chapter 19 – Magic (Pg 50 – 51)
The very word ‘magic’ conjures up all sorts of images in the mind, from the occult, the black, white, or natural to the ‘carpet’. The word is used nowadays often indiscriminately to describe sporting events and performances, even when these events have a perfectly logical explanation.
The mass hysterias by an evangelist like Billy Graham, or even Adolf Hitler, are phenomena usually motivated by situation and oratory, Latin and equatorial peoples being particularly susceptible due to their volatile temperament.
Having had a study of parapsychology, which is the study of mental phenomena outside the ‘magic’ one, recently set up at Edinburgh University, it is certainly true that there are inexplicable happenings to be experienced in the playing of music for dancing, or even playing as a group without any supernatural desire or intent.
Being a musician forces one to observe things in the course of the work which need answering, for example, while playing a ‘sing along’ selection during a waltz, the dancers having ignored the first two numbers will spontaneously burst into song at the third one. What prompts them?
A month ago while doodling around with the accordion, I had a compulsive urge to play a number called ‘Put Another Nickel In’, which was a really big hit in the 50’s. Three or four days later the singer Teresa Brewer, whose song it was, was being interviewed on radio after her arrival in Britain. Co-incidence?
On construction works up and down the country songs are often composed, becoming popular far and wide. What makes them travel so quickly without the aid of publication?
In a situation when the bandleader has to improvise his tunes he sometimes gets one ‘out of the blue’ which, with surprising effect, can electrify the dancers. What explanation?
Years ago I used to listen to a wee tin whistle player doing the queues outside picture houses in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. He had the cheekiest turn of phrase in his playing which could still be heard above the noise of the tramcars and the bustle at the other end of the street over a quarter of a mile. If that was the fact that he was enjoying his work, fine, but at that distance?
People often theorise about the sound created by the pipes over the water, but the sound of the pipes is constant no matter where they are played. Are we dealing with acoustics, the human ear or ‘magic’?
Fascination in the world of dance music will always attract both performers and participants to an enjoyable part of life.
While I know that the latter can rely on the musicians, I leave the former with a list of one week’s engagements not so long ago.
Monday Duart, Mull Ball
Tuesday Peterhead Warders annual dance
Wednesday Lochcarron Concert and dance
Thursday Rothesay Shinty Club dance
Friday Kyle of Lochalsh Hall dance for Willie Nicholson
Saturday Munlochy Dance for Inverness Thistle F.C.
Perhaps not surprisingly I could attempt to write a few more pages about the musician’s lifestyle when motorways were roads, and bridges were ferries, which of course is not the aim of this little book whose purpose is meant to convey some idea of the significance in society of the harmonious step called ‘Pas-de-Bas’.