In order to fully appreciate the contribution made by Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor and others of their generation of "folksingers", it is probably necessary to be able to remember what the popular presentation of Scottish music was like before they came along.
Native Scottish music was heavily ghettoised and what little occasionally escaped into public presentation was widely regarded as a sorry joke, epitomised by the likes of the White Heather Club. I suppose the closest comparison is with the 19th century American "darkie minstrel shows" which had as much to do with real black American culture as the White Heather Club had to do with Scots. Comedians perpetuating the worst stereotypes, teams of dancers "heughing" and waving their arms around while dressed in an absurd caricature of traditional Highland clothing, songs of the most ghastly puerile sentimentality about "Bonnie Highland Lassies" and "Grannie's Heiland Hame", a Brigadoonesque view of Scotland as populated exclusively by good-humoured Glaswegian drunks, brave soldier laddies and demure, tartan-clad Mary Poppins, all based on the worst romantic excesses of Walter Scott and The Sunday Post.
Into this stewpot of tartan kitsch crept a few people influenced by American folk and blues who hinted at other possibilities. And then there were Robin and Jimmie. Unashamedly urban, unashamedly Scots without a hint of the self-deprecating cringe factor which had characterised Scots music until then. Alongside simpering sopranos screeching about a land of hills and glens, they sang songs which hinted at a real country of real people. To criticise them for making the compromises they were forced to make is silly - they have to be seen in the context of their time and what they actually did achieve.
In my teens, I came across a small EP record called "Glasgow Street Songs" sung by Robin Hall. Perhaps the years between have coloured my view of it, but my memory is that it was wonderful. It had the best rendition of The Bleacher Lassie o Kelvinhaugh I have ever heard.
In later years I got to know Robin and Jimmie quite well and my respect for them and gratitude for the role they've played in opening the door for those coming behind them in restoring a sense of pride in our music remain undiminished.
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©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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