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City pubs were jam packed with folk
Joanna Vallely, The Scotsman, 25th October 2007

THE air grows thick with anticipation as the musicians enter the small bar carrying instruments. They take their places and soon their eyes are closed, their feet are tapping and the murmured chat is muted by the glorious sounds produced by the fiddler's bow.

Since the 1950s, when traditional music in Scotland began to enjoy a revival, musicians have made a beeline for Edinburgh and bars like Sandy Bell's.

"It was folk music central," recalls South Queensferry-based accordionist Phil Cunningham, who has been discovering more about the Capital's folk scene for a new BBC documentary.

"Sandy Bell's was a place to learn and swap tunes - a musical trading post," he enthuses. "And because Edinburgh is visited by so many people, there has always been a lot of experimental music going on."

Stars of the folk world such as fiddler Aly Bain and bands like Jock Tamson's Bairns all honed their art in the Capital's thriving traditional scene.

In the 1960s and 1970s, glamorous vocalist Barbara Dickson and Paddie Bell of the Corries were also well-known faces, as was Billy Connolly, who would visit Sandy Bell's to soak up the atmosphere.

Other musicians, such as the late Martyn Bennett, and bands like the Peatbog Faeries and Shooglenifty fused their love of the traditional with the world music that could be heard in Edinburgh during its festivals.

Phil, 47, recalls serving his "musical apprenticeship" at Sandy Bell's on Forrest Road after following his elder brother - the musician and composer Johnny Cunningham of Silly Wizard fame - into the business.

A talented classical musician, Phil was given his first accordion at the age of three and began attending sessions at Sandy Bell's when he was just 15. "I got kicked out on my 18th birthday when the barman discovered which birthday I was celebrating," he recalls with a chuckle.

Sandy Bell's stalwart Freddie Thomson, a fiddler who has attended the bar most days over the last 40 years, remembers many of the old faces.

"I remember when Phil and his brother Johnny would come in and Aly Bain would knock about," he smiles. "Barbara Dickson and Paddie Bell would also come in as would Finbar Furey. Barbara was pleasant and loved her music. Billy Connolly also used to come in for the atmosphere. He'd occasionally get the banjo out and play a song. They all knew they could get a tune in Sandy Bell's."

Retired policeman Ian Green, 73, who founded Greentrax Recordings almost 20 years ago, says Edinburgh's traditional music scene has influenced the music being composed and played across Scotland.

"Edinburgh's been a melting pot," reflects Ian, who lives in Cockenzie, East Lothian.

"Musicians have drifted into Edinburgh for jazz, traditional or world music and this has caused all sorts of fusions and bands like Shooglenifty to rise up. They came together in The Shore in Leith; when I went to see them I signed them up immediately. It broke new ground and lots of other bands followed, like the Peatbog Faeries and Deaf Shepherd."

For some, folk club opening hours were just not long enough and Phil recalls musicians who wanted to keep playing congregating in a "famous flat" a few doors up from Sandy's.

"It was full of characters and music," says Phil. "I think the flat was at number 47 where the McCalmans and Aly Bain used to live and Barbara Dickson would hang out. It was a real hive."

Freddie also loved the music so much the 58-year-old took up a cleaning job at Sandy Bell's so he could justify his constant presence.

"I'd stay all day if there was any music," he says, eyes glowing. "If not, I'd be back at 9pm and stay till closing at 12.30pm and go on to The Royal Oak in Infirmary Street most nights till 2 or 3am.

"The Shore has a session on a Wednesday and The Hebrides has music most nights. It was always a great bet for people from the north west and the Highlands, singing beautiful Gaelic songs."

In the late 1970s, Ian Green, who set up the Edinburgh Police Folk Club, staged popular Irish band Clannad's Edinburgh debut.

He also set up Sandy Bell's Broadsheet - a magazine for Scotland's traditional music scene. The correspondence address was Sandy Bell's and editors' meetings took place in the pub, while the fortnightly issues were typed up at home.

And many bands were born after the jam sessions at Edinburgh pubs. The Corries were formed by a group of musicians who played in the Waverley Bar, in St Mary's Street, in 1962. And Jock Tamson's Bairns was made up of friends who used to play in Sandy Bell's in the 1970s.

Simon Thoumire of Footstompin' Records, who founded the annual Scots Trad Music Awards at Edinburgh's Queen's Hall in 2003, says the musicians of Edinburgh have been enormously influential.

"Edinburgh has a very big place in Scotland's musical history," he says. "Musicians from all over would congregate here."

But while many are convinced of Edinburgh's status as a leading light in the folk scene in Scotland, some believe the city's influence extends throughout the UK.

"Edinburgh is the best place for folk music in these isles," says Edinburgh Folk Club chairman Paddy Bort. "We have renowned musicians like The Boys of the Lough, The Battlefield Band, Malinky and the Tannahill Weavers living here.

"And you can walk into bars like The Tass, The Royal Oak or Sandy Bell's and find them playing. And we have Greentrax, the major folk music recording company in Scotland, and at least half a dozen pubs in the centre where you can hear live music every night."

Tom Bird, who has been the licensee of Sandy Bell's for the past year, says the sessions are anchored by two or three musicians and others join in spontaneously. "My predecessor Charlie Woolley had been here for over 20 years and it's still as vibrant," he says. "It's a place people always speak of fondly."

In the six months Phil spent making his documentary, he filmed at Sandy Bell's and in Prestonpans and interviewed fellow musicians, including the Corries and The Proclaimers, who tell him they refused when London record bosses asked them to lose their strong Scots accents.

"They have a unique approach to contemporary music because they refuse to go down the mid-Atlantic/American route," adds Phil.

"I've been doing this for 31 years but it's been one big learning curve for me, actually asking questions I wanted to know and learning the whole way."

• Scotland's Music with Phil Cunningham begins on Saturday November 3 on BBC Two Scotland at 8.10pm.

The past comes to life

EDINBURGH has a growing number of folk clubs where people can hear live music.

As well as the Edinburgh Folk Club, which meets on Wednesdays in the Pleasance, others include the Leith Folk Club, which has performances on Tuesdays in The Village on South Fort Street.

Musicians also meet at the Balerno Folk Club on the last Tuesday of the month at the Balerno Bowling Club.

The Penicuik Folk Club, which meets in Craigiebield House Hotel, Bog Road, every Tuesday, is also popular.

Music can also be enjoyed at the Carrying Stream Festival, which begins in Edinburgh on November 3, where tributes will be paid to folk singer Iain MacKintosh who died last year. The festival was set up in 2002 to celebrate the life of the late folklorist and poet Hamish Henderson, renowned as the father of the Scottish folk revival.

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