The story of how Scottish song first made its way to America and then flavored the next several centuries of American culture would make for a great subject for a documentary filmmaker such as Ken Burns. But in the limited space available here, we must speed through the distant past and get right to the most action-packed chapter of Scots-American musical history: the past 50 years.
Plenty of academic ink has been spilled relating how Scottish dance and social music came here to stay. In the 18th and 19th centuries, countless Scots arrived in Virginia and the Carolinas and marched up into the mountains with their music, which by the 20th century had evolved into old-time American traditional music. Everywhere, the Scottish and American vernacular repertoires remain inextricably intertwined, to the point that with some tunes, like “The Red-Haired Boy” (a.k.a. “Little Beggar Man”), no one is quite sure on which side of the Atlantic they were first played.
Along with dance tunes, the Scottish emigrants brought centuries of songs and ballads—the sort of historical, semi-historical, and allegoric memories of home that in the 1880s folklorist Francis James Child collected in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads. New Scots-Americans made the songs their own, morphing them, switching out place names, and creating variations until “Mattie Groves,” “Two Sisters,” and “Fennario” were as American as they were Scots.
In the 19th century and up to the First World War, songs were largely passed along around the piano in the parlor, until the advent of radio changed things entirely. Between the wars, Scots songs entered modern America largely as music hall and vaudeville novelties, delivered with consciously stereotypical trappings by singers such as Harry Lauder. And so, for a couple of generations, everybody knew “A Wee Deoch an Doris,” “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and little else Scottish. But aside from self-identified Scottish enclaves, American audiences still tended to receive these songs as artifacts of elsewhere rather than making them their own.
Then came the 1960s, when we started singing the songs ourselves—with a vengeance—as American folk singers and musicologists began mining Scots and other British Isles musical traditions. The songs of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns were rediscovered. British archivists Alan Lomax, A.L. Lloyd, and Ewan McColl delivered a treasure trove of ballads that was leapt on by the likes of Pete Seeger and gained rapid traction in the coffeehouses. McColl himself, partnered with Peggy Seeger, began releasing records in 1959, and music fans who didn’t frequent coffeehouses began finding Scottish songs in record bins.
The day Scots singer Jean Redpath arrived in New York in 1961 was a true red-letter day in the Scots-American musical renaissance. Redpath possessed both a beautiful voice and a vast repertoire including over 400 traditional songs learned from Edinburgh poet and singer Hamish Henderson. And soon everybody was singing them. Whether or not she is the most influential person in this chapter of our tale makes for a lively discussion, but it’s certain that both Bob Dylan and Joan Baez owed a lot to Redpath early on. Young Dylan sang “Lord Randall” and “Parting Glass,” and Baez enjoyed early hits with “Silkie” and “Wild Mountain Thyme.” Happily, Redpath remained on the folk scene for more than another 50 years, teaching, lecturing at universities in both the USA and Scotland, and singing all over before her death in 2014.
America’s appetite for traditional ballads seemed insatiable in the ’60s. More British Isles singers began touring the States. Songbooks abounded. Radio and television spread the songs far and wide, though they still tended to be performed in a style perceived by Americans as folky. Observant musicians on both sides of the Atlantic began noticing how closely linked American and Scottish ballads were. What happened next scattered Scottish songs and songwriters in many directions.
Beginning in the late ’60s, every kind of popular music got turned on its head, and Scottish music was no exception. Whatever had once separated genres—folk, rock, blues, jazz, soul, Celtic, Latin, classical, and all the rest—simply dissolved. While the pure acoustic folk scene continued to flourish, some bands opted to go electric and got louder, and some began to perform their songs in daring new ways and configurations. Suddenly there was no single way to define the music being written and performed by Scots in the ’60s and ’70s.
In one singular development, the realization struck that highland bagpipes were really rock’n’roll instruments. So came the first Scots folk-rock bands, with rock instruments tossed in with fiddles, flutes, and, most important, singers cranked up to match the pipes’ intensity. Traditional Scots pipe tradition and singing tradition, sharply separate for centuries, suddenly came crashing together. Roy Gullane’s Tannahill Weavers and Brian McNeill and Alan Reid’s Battlefield Band were among the folk bands who graduated to larger, more eclectic venues and festivals, capturing new audiences and inviting more to follow. And in the States, bands not perceived by their audiences as Scottish in any way, like the Grateful Dead, took ballads including “Lady of Carlisle” and “Fennario,” rearranged them, mashed them up with other musical influences, and added them back into the mix.
It’s only fair to note here that the Scottish folk invasion paralleled a similar inundation from Ireland, which deserves its own story. But their combined effect on the American folk music scene was unprecedented. By the late ’70s, practically every American city had spawned Celtic folk and rock bands, often cavalierly discarding distinctions between Scots and Irish. Many bands got started covering the songs and arrangements of Battlefield, Steeleye Span, Planxty, and the rest of the first wave of newly crowned Celtic stars. Every folk festival roster found itself packed with Scots and Irish bands and singers.
Apart from the performers, by the 1980s, Scottish song—whether sung by Scots or non-Scots—was everywhere in the American folk repertoire. Dick Gaughan’s “Handful of Earth,” “Witch of the West-Mer-lands” by Archie Fisher, and Burns’ “Parcel of Rogues in a Nation” and “Ye Banks and Braes” were in heavy folk-club rotation. And helping to introduce a new generation of singers and fans to the music was a young radio host, Fiona Ritchie, who in 1981 launched her Thistle and Shamrock radio show on WFAE Charlotte in North Carolina, syndicating it nationally in 1983. For Ritchie, Scottish songs were to be sung, shared, and repurposed in any way one chose. She promoted both UK and American performers, encouraging modern Celtic songwriters as well as interpreters of the oldest traditions. Her program continues to inspire and surprise today.
Scottish-American Song Today
But what of the old Scottish songs that are still widely sung? And what of the new songs born in Scotland, informed by the past but expressing current issues and attitudes? What connects them? Brian McNeill summed it up well at Montgomery College’s Frank Islam Athenaeum Symposia speaker series in 2015: “The importance of Scottish music is the same as the importance of all traditional music. It reminds us who we are. It reminds us what our roots are. It reminds us of the important things in life, because traditional music was never written about casual things. The songs are about protest, about working conditions, about the big absolutes like love and money and jobs and emigration. Sometimes very serious, sometimes a great deal of fun.”
The last couple of generations of Scottish songwriters have brought forth a good number of writers and singers whose work reflects all these ideas—and in many different styles. Indeed, one could make a case that the last 40 years have been as musically productive a time as any similar period of history (save, perhaps, Burns’ lifetime). Just counting Dougie MacLean, Brian McNeill, Dick Gaughan, Robin Williamson, and Jim Malcolm, we have hundreds of songs covering every mood from serious to fun. And then there are the love notes to Scotland—snapshots of happy moments. A good example of these is Brian McNeill’s “Lads of the Fair,” which is now so ubiquitous that it’s considered as legitimately traditional as any Burns song. And while “So Will We Yet” has been sung by happy revelers for centuries, Dougie MacLean’s “Caledonia” is the sort of sing-along anthem that only comes around once in a generation.
One thing that is particularly true about Scottish song is that it has always acknowledged our place in the wider scope of history. There’s a strong vein of antiwar sentiment found as readily in 18th century songs as those written yesterday. You get “Will Ye Go to Flanders,” starting off romanticizing the army, only to drive home that the soldiers will die . . . and for what? Then you get McNeill’s “No Gods and Precious Few Heroes,” which lets loose raw anger in condemning the rich men who keep sending the poor to war.
There’s timeless truth in the Scottish songbook. The love and longing that sparked a ballad in Burns’ time is no different than today’s. Oppression then was no different than oppression now. And hope springs eternal. What better way to sum up than by singing with gentle confidence, “And friends we’ll stay whatever way blind fortune turns the wheel.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.