“The Scots have the finest folk tradition in the British Isles…. [Their songs are] among the noblest folk tunes of Western Europe.” —Alan Lomax
Why the Speyside Sessions?
Conceived as a “love letter to Scotland,” the more than two-dozen tracks for the Speyside Sessions were recorded in a house on the banks of the River Spey, Scotland’s fastest flowing river. Long synonymous with whisky and song, Speyside is one of Scotland’s most celebrated regions—and for good reason. As the name suggests, Speyside is the the area that surrounds the River Spey, and it is along the river’s 107-mile course that over 50% of all Scotch whisky is produced. Indeed, the waters of the Spey and the grain from the fertile fields that rise from its banks are the primary components of whiskies that have made Speyside the home of the spirit, as well as the spiritual home to whisky-lovers the world over.
For those fortunate enough to hail from the region, names such as Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Aberlour, Tomintoul and many others, were known as the names of castles, river valleys and hamlets well before they graced the labels of fine single malt. It is no coincidence that the long history of craftsmanship and quality of its whisky goes dram-in-hand with that of its music. It is a land of extremes. Sometimes it seems there is nothing to break the silence all day but the buzz of a flyrod reel casting over the river, while at night there is no rest to be found in the explosive, joyous stomps and howls of dancers spinning in a traditional céilidh. It is the breathtaking beauty of the land, the salmon-packed rivers and streams and a stern climate that shapes the hardy souls of Speysiders and it is these things that call them back when they stray too far from its glens and bens.
From Burns to Lomax to Speyside
The Speyside Sessions include a number of songs written by the most famous voice of Scotland, Robert Burns. Now hailed as Scotland’s national poet, Burns wandered throughout the country in the late 1700s collecting the music and oral traditions of various regions. Indeed, many of his most famous works are adaptations of poems and songs found in his travels.
Also on the album are several “bothy ballads,” tunes and tales originally performed by farmhands living in “bothies,” or outbuildings on farms that housed unmarried workers. The often harsh conditions of their lives left them with little outlet for relaxation beyond a bit of whisky, the company of their fellows and songs to ward off the ache of hard labor and nights spent in the bone-chilling mists that rose from the Spey.
Workers of the Speyside region sang of their everyday lives. The songs recount days of toil and hardship and nights spent locked in amorous, if not bawdy, embrace. While many of the songs hilariously catalog wild blowouts and sexual athleticism, they also contain whispered ballads and panegyrics to the land. As such, they constitute not only a musical tradition all their own, but an oral history of the region. It may be said that these workers and their songs shared a kind of kinship with the progenitors of American blues, a fact not overlooked by legendary American ethnomusiclogist, folklorist and archivist Alan Lomax who, like a latter-day Burns, roamed the Highlands in search of its traditional songs.
During his tenure at the United States’ Library of Congress, Lomax scoured the U.S. to create its Archive of American Folk Song, conducting thousands of interviews and creating recordings that gave the American blues a place in music history. It is no exaggeration to say that without his efforts the names of many of the best-known blues artists, whose work went on to inspire virtually all of modern popular music, would have been lost to history.
He brought this same passion and skill to bear when tracking down traditional and folk music in Scotland in the 1950s. In the words of Joan Littlewood , wife of playwright and singer Ewan MacColl (father of The Pogues’ Kristy MacColl), director of the Theatre Workshop and “The Mother of Modern Theater”:
…[T]here is a character wandering around this sceptered isle at the moment yclept Alan Lomax. He is Texan and none the worse for that. He is also just about the most important name in American folk song circles…. He is not interested in trained singers of refined versions of the folk songs. He wants to record traditional style singers doing ballads, work songs, political satires, etc. Introduce him to other Scots folk singers…. You know the kind of thing he wants: bothy songs, street songs, soldier songs, mouth music, the big Gaelic stuff, weavers’ and miners’ songs, etc.
Traveling with Scottish poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson and Gaelic poet Derick Thompson, Lomax met local musicians and residents and interviewed, recorded and gathered songs and voices that otherwise might have escaped preservation. As with his catalog of American blues, his work in Scotland brought greater attention to, and appreciation of, traditional Scottish music as an art form. Its music has long been the very soul of Scotland, and Lomax thoroughly cataloged its heritage and his recordings brought the fiddles and fifes of its people to the modern era.
Speyside Called Us Home
In March 2012, the remains of Europe’s oldest stringed instrument—a piece of wood believed to be the 2,300 year-old string bridge of an ancient lyre—was unearthed just hours away from Speyside in a cave in Skye and it is this long tradition of musical performance that lives on in the Speyside Sessions.
On any given night in Speyside a keen ear can hear the echo of centuries of voices raised in song, bows raised to fiddles and glasses raised in a celebration of the Scots spirit that remains unbroken. What began as a gathering of a group of old friends in an old house on the River Spey over the winter holidays quickly evolved into a project that spanned the history of Scottish music.
This labor of love is given voice in Kevin McKidd’s rendition of the beloved song “For These Are My Mountains.” The lyrics recount the classic tale of a man eager to escape the confines of his small town to seek his fortune in the wider world. After years of travel the protagonist returns to his childhood home with his hard-earned wealth to find, “They’re less than the pleasures I first left behind.” It is clear throughout his performance that the song holds special significance for Kevin and the final lines of the song may as well have been written for him and the Speyside Sessions: “At night by the fireside old songs will be sung,/At last I’ll be hearing in my own mother tongue.”
The participants in the Speyside Sessions are proud to add their voices to the perpetual session that has endured since their beloved Speyside was first filled with song those many millennia ago.
— Matt Markovich, Oakland, CA