Queen's Hall Autumn 2017
In Phil Cunningham’s latest television series, Wayfaring Stranger, there is a scene where Phil, on accordion, joins the American singer and star of another TV series, Nashville, Rhiannon Giddens in a version of the song from which Wayfaring Stranger takes its name.
Ms Giddens, a graduate from Oberlin University’s opera course who is also a violinist, plays banjo on the clip and with typical self-deprecation, given their respective instruments and the apparently endless supply of derogatory accordion and banjo jokes, Phil has suggested that he and Ms Giddens could form the most unpopular band in the history of music.
They might also be seen, in the nicest possible way, as a couple of bookends. The wonderfully talented Ms Giddens gave one of the Queen’s Hall’s first roots music concerts of this year, with a stunning performance that might even make those present look back on it in a way similar to those who witnessed Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Odetta in their pomp remembered that experience. Phil , of course, brings the Hall’s programme almost to a close for the year with his Christmas Songbook.
Wayfaring Stranger could actually be seen as the Queen’s Hall’s roots music programme in microcosm and if, as well as the title song, Ms Giddens had sung a Gaelic waulking song, as she’s shown herself entirely capable of doing in her concerts, the case for that claim would have been strengthened further.
In addition to Phil, whose Christmas concerts in the Hall have become as regular a fixture as his late summer duo concerts with his long-time partner, fiddler Aly Bain, Wayfaring Stranger features other singers and musicians who know the venue well.
Banknock’s own Karine Polwart, Irish troubadour and songwriter to the stars Paul Brady, scion of country music’s greatest dynasty Rosanne Cash, bluegrass master Tim O’Brien, Altan’s fiddling dynamo Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, and demon piper-turned-charm the birds from the trees singer Jarlath Henderson are among those whom Phil calls upon to tell the story of the people who left Scotland to settle in the north of Ireland in the Plantation era and how their descendants then migrated to another promised land, America.
Songs and music, being the most easily transported of possessions, went with them and not just the actual songs, but the way they were sung, fed into American vernacular music and ultimately into the mainstream. A big part of the lives of those early Scottish settlers moving to seventeenth century Ireland – the Ulster Scots – was their faith. And having been given hymns and psalms to sing in their own tongue, as opposed to listening to services conducted in Latin as was the case before the Reformation, they sang these songs with gusto, passion and soulfulness. In other words, they sang like they meant it.
The Queen’s Hall having been built as a church as recently as 1823, it might be a stretch to suggest that the hymn-singing of Ulster Scots that became part of country music comes home when a singer such as Rosanne Cash appears on its stage. There will, however, be versions from more recent traditional music concerts of The Dowie Dens of Yarrow seeping into the Hall’s stonework and mingling there with the song that this Border ballad’s melody also now carries, Wayfaring Stanger itself.
Folk-blues singer-guitarist Eric Bibb, also a popular visitor, has sung Wayfaring Stranger from the Queen’s Hall stage and always acknowledges its origins, and both Karine Polwart, who recorded it on her Fairest Floo'er album, and Emily Smith, the Dumfries-shire-born winner of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year title back in 2002 who appears in another folk musician’s Christmas celebration on Friday, December 8, know its original context well.
Border ballads and indeed all the music that Wayfaring Stranger discusses have been essential ingredients in the Queen’s Hall programme virtually since it opened as a venue in 1979, and continue to make it one of the crucial venues for such music in the UK. Those versions of The Dowie Dens of Yarrow and Wayfaring Stranger that have seeped into the stonework have the company of music from illustrious concert programmes during Edinburgh Folk Festival, of legendary gigs by Moving Hearts and a revived Jock Tamson’s Bairns, and of the Hall’s own initiative, which thrived all too briefly in the early noughties, the Across the North Sea celebrations of the Shetland and Scandinavian traditions.
Two contributors to Across the North Sea, Dundee-born harper Catriona McKay and Shetland fiddler Chris Stout return to the Hall on Friday, November 24 to launch their new album, Bare Knuckle. As awards such as the Herald Angel they won for their Fringe concert in 2014 have confirmed, this is a world class duo and their performances at the Hall consistently show the compatibility of artists and venue. They clearly feel at home performing here and their ability to take traditional music to the very edge, where spontaneous creativity, daring risk taking and the truest of true tone production make for genuinely exciting listening, is enhanced by the acoustics and intimacy the Hall affords.
Fiddle music generally gives Wayfaring Stranger and the Queen’s Hall much in common. The reels that Scots took with them to Ulster and into Donegal in the Republic of Ireland were often carried on fiddles and as a reasonably portable instrument the fiddle then made its way across the Atlantic into a central role in Appalachian society. Before long someone in Hanover County, Virginia had the idea of celebrating St Andrew’s Day with a fiddling contest. Huge crowds gathered and within a short time similar events were being held all over Virginia, Kentucky and the Carolinas.
Fiddle gatherings still proliferate in North America and for the past few years the Queen’s Hall has been the concert focal point for Scotland’s own fiddle gathering, the Scots Fiddle Festival. This year’s Scots Fiddle Festival concerts take place on Friday, November 17 and Saturday, November 18 and feature the current BBC Radio Scotland Young Musician of the Year, Charlie Stewart and his band, Snuffbox, Inverness fiddle maestro Graham Mackenzie, Perth-based fiddler-violist Patsy Reid and Michigan-born master of many styles, Jeremy Kittel and his trio.
Looking further ahead, the fiddle features prominently in the music of multi-award winning trio Lau, who return to the Hall on Thursday, December 7 and although he is primarily a jazz and classical violinist, Tim Kliphuis is well capable of including Scottish fiddle tunes when his trio plays the Hall again on Friday, March 30.
Arguably Scotland’s leading fiddler and a musician affiliated to Phil Cunningham, Duncan Chisholm also returns to the Hall, on Saturday, April 28. Phil played on parts 1 and 3 of Duncan’s marvellous Strathglass trilogy of recordings which perfectly showcase Duncan’s soulful expressiveness. Duncan is a Highlander and a player whose music very often evokes the landscape of his forebears, a landscape that many were forced to leave in order to seek a new life over the Atlantic, to become, like the Ulster Scots in the television series, wayfaring strangers.