Tag Archives: American folk music clubs

Someday—-

Jack’s poignant guest blog reflecting on then, now, and someday

Back in the early 1960s, I was a twentysomething hanging out on the Scottish folk scene. We had a number of dedicated folk-song clubs established in cellars, cycle clubs and all sorts of unlikely venues, and they all had one thing in common: singing in harmony together at the end of the evening We Shall Overcome!

Now we did (and still do) have a certain ‘fellow feeling’ in singing it, Scotland being a country that felt put upon by its bigger neighbor, but we had no real understanding of where the song came from or what it meant to the folk who created it. We just knew it made us feel strong and special.

Overcome has haunted me for years. An African American gospel song, it was brought to the famous Highlander Center in Tennessee in the late 1950s by Lucille Simmons and members of the Food and Tobacco Workers’ Union. There they adapted it, and staff member Guy Carawan passed it on to Pete Seeger. The rest is history, including more re-makes and re-shapes than Kumbiya.

Over the years I learned about Highlander’s work, and the place seemed near-mystical. When a mutual friend introduced me to Guy Carawan himself just a couple of years ago, I was able to shake hands with a man as legendary to me as John Lennon might be to someone else.

Knowing that back in Scotland we had a too-easy enthusiasm for identifying with those who had faced down the color bar, I was overjoyed when just last weekend Wendy and I were invited to join a group of Appalachian writers at Highlander Center – the very same place where We shall Overcome was re-born as a folk anthem for social justice.

Oddly enough, all the participants that weekend were white. I watched the day’s activities unfold, examined pictures on the walls celebrating the triumphs of activism, read news clippings and wandered around, feeling out of place. Was it my being from Scotland that made it feel an exclusive rather than inclusive experience? Was it worship from afar meeting the reality that one group can only do so much?

A friend uses the term ‘folk elite’ to describe people who mean well but who don’t ultimately impact the place in which they have decided to practice charity. Perhaps that is what I was: one of the elite, incapable of grasping the legacy spread before me. But I have to admit, at the end of that weekend I felt no closer to being part of the “We” in We Shall Overcome than I did back in the sixties, in Scotland, holding hands with all my fellow middle-class singing friends. And that saddened me.

 

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Filed under blue funks, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Scotland, small town USA, writing

♪ Old Friends ♪…. (RIP, Jean Redpath)

jean redpathAs I get older more old friends depart this life and this week was no exception. A special one took the trip a few days ago.

Fellow Fifer (as in Fife, Scotland) Jean Redpath and I crossed paths many times over the years as she blazed a trail for singers of genuine Scots ballads and songs here in the States. Her voice and her ‘Coinyach’ were wonderful. She died this week, in hospice care.

When I first started getting interested in Scots ballads and folksongs, Jean was just a little bit older than me. She was a member of the Edinburgh University Folksong Society, led by the famous and influential Hamish Henderson, so had access to the archives of the School of Scottish Studies and had already begun to make recordings that were an inspiration to me.

I eventually began singing in partnership with Barbara Dickson and I tended to be the researcher of potential material. Jean was always a regular ‘go-to’ and we ‘stole’ quite a lot of her stuff. :]

After she moved to the US, she would regularly return to Scotland to tour the folk clubs and festivals, and I always made a point of going to see her. On one of these  nights she said that one of the things she’d kind of forgotten was how polite Scotsmen were. While staying at her mother’s house in Fife she had gotten what she described as a ‘heavy breathing’ phone call. But the gent on the other end of the line started by saying “would you mind if – – -“. So Jean’s great sense of humor also permeated her performances and that taught me a lesson as well.

Many years later, just around the time I was touring the States quite a bit, I found myself sharing the stage with Jean at East Tennessee State University. During the afternoon we appeared live on the local radio station to help promote the concert. I had almost forgotten about that program until it re-surfaced recently; I was stunned when I heard her rendition of Robert Burns’ song ‘O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast’ – absolutely beautiful and a real challenge!

Shortly after that she again toured in Scotland and I was fortunate to interview her for my own radio show Scene Around. We did the interview in her late mother’s beautiful house down near the harbor in Elie, Fife–the same place where the polite heavy breather had phoned.

For someone so well known through regular appearances on Prairie Home Companion and other great venues, I found her completely charming and down to earth, never over the years turning the least bit ‘prima donna-ish’.

My abiding memory of her, though, is of her performing one of Robert Burns’ most explicitly raunchy songs–it’s so bad, I can’t even write the title here–to a typical audience of elderly ladies at that concert at ETSU, and getting away with it through her sheer personality.

Or maybe they just didn’t understand any of the words, given her lovely Fife accent.

Rest in Peace, Jean. You inspired successive generations, and you will be missed.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, Scotland