The Monday Book – The People’s Past

Monday book review by Jack Beck – –

The People’s Past (Edward J. Cowan 1980)

I recently reviewed ‘The Folk River’ by Fraser Bruce which describes the Scottish folksong club scene of the 1950s and 60s very accurately. So I thought it would be useful for me to re-visit a book I was given as a present by a friend when it was first published in 1980. Cowan’s book is actually a collection of papers presented at a series of lunch time seminars during the then recent Edinburgh Folk Festival. The idea was to completely turn the usual ‘fringe’ on its head and have a fairly academic event to the side of the much more populist and folk entertainment style main festival.

What’s really interesting is that most of the contributors are specialists in fields not associated with folk arts but have a personal interest in them. There are experts in art history, Scottish history, bagpipe history, and literature. In addition there are a few actual folklore scholars such as Norman Buchan and Hamish Henderson.

If you think it might be a bit dry you’d be wrong. It’s actually very readable and I suspect the various chapters may have been adapted from the original papers by the authors for that very reason.

Hamish Henderson described the vehicle by which folksongs and ballads were carried down the centuries and between different cultures as ‘the carrying stream’ with eddies, boulders and banks, and he appropriately has three different chapters in the book to expand on that.

For anyone interested in how Scottish folk culture unusually intertwined with the more ‘upper class’ or even ‘dumbed down’ strands of the nation’s arts, compared to other European nations, I can thoroughly recommend this book.

The Monday Book – The Last of the Tinsmiths

The Last of the Tinsmiths – Sheila Douglas

Jack gets to do the Monday Book this week –

I should start by saying that I knew both the author and subject of her book. Sheila Douglas was an academic expert on the life of Scottish Travellers and their culture. Her house in Scone was a meeting place where Travellers were frequently brought together with visitors from all over the world.

Willie MacPhee was one of her favorite source singers and interviewees; I met him many times, sometimes at her house, often at traditional music festivals and also at his trailer outside Perth. When he passed away I attended his funeral at a small Church on the banks of Loch Lomond.

The book grew out of Douglas’s research for her PhD, but there’s nothing dry or academic about it. It’s very obviously a labor of love. Willie was a singer, a piper, a tinsmith and a storyteller and closely related to many other notable carriers of those traditions. The author pays due attention to them as well throughout.

Included are a number of his stories. Douglas has been careful to set them out exactly as he told them. She also describes his life in his own words and keeps her observations quite separate.

I first met Willie at the parking place on the road to Fort William where he entertained the tourists dressed in full highland costume and playing his pipes while his wife sold bunches of white heather. Every time I’ve been back, since his passing, I still see him in my mind’s eye.

I enjoyed this book and can recommend it without reservation.