The best singer of the Muckle Sangs (classic Scots ballads) I ever heard. She possessed a supreme artistry and what would now be called professionalism with a skill comparable to that of a Shakespearean actor. When she sang, she knew and understood every nuance of the relationships between the characters in the story, their motives and the consequences of their actions - and by the time she'd finished, so did the listener.

The notion of the untrained, primitive unconscious "carrier" of tradition collapses in tatters when confronted by Jeannie. There was nothing of the unconscious song carrier about her. After a performance, every member of the audience would swear that she had been looking straight into their eyes while singing directly to them. The sheer power of her presence on a stage cannot be described - you really had to be there to understand.

One of the greatest misconceptions about Jeannie is that she sang in a simple declamatory, undecorated style. While she didn't use a great deal of ornamentation, she had a mastery of vocal technique and would use subtle shifts in rhythm, melodic variation and decoration wherever she felt them necessary. Above all, she was a story-teller and the telling of the story was primary. Everything she did was calculated to assist that. She would build a hypnotic atmosphere using the repetitive nature of the ballad form but at the crucial points she would break free from the rhythm, slow to almost a stop, elongating notes and words to emphasise what was happening. Or she would increase the tempo imperceptibly to heighten the tension.

Her singing of the Battle of Harlaw is a classic example of these. Nominally the song is in 6/8 and a novice reared in the aesthetics of most other musical traditions ('Pop', 'Classic', 'Rock' etc) would be inclined to try to force the words to fit that rhythm but Jeannie allows the rhythm inherent in the lyric and story to take precedence over any notion of fixed bar lengths and she stretches and contracts as she sees fit.

The idea that this could be done without a very deep understanding is ludicrous. Anyone attempting to do this without really knowing what they were doing would sound idiotic. There are no rules in singing traditional songs but there are strong aesthetic principles and Jeannie had a complete grasp of these and her improvisation was firmly guided by these aesthetics.

Far from the common perception of her as some kind of untrained traveller woman singer, her singing - and that of most travelling people - was the result of a powerful artistic intelligence and knowledge and the accumulated experience and history of generations informed her work.

It is not enough to simply try to imitate the way Jeannie sang in the belief that the style and technique were what made her the singer she was. True, for anyone who wants to sing Scottish ballads, the first step in the apprenticeship has to be a study of what Jeannie did. But the next, and more important, step is to study why Jeannie did it.

Contributions and copyright

©Dick Gaughan February 2001. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, material or electronic, without the written permission of the author.

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