Gordeanna McCulloch, who has died aged seventy-three, was one of Scotland’s great folksong and ballad singers, arguably the most important and most influential of her generation, and one who leaves a major legacy among the many younger singers she encouraged.
Gordeanna, who was born in Bellshill, arrived at Rutherglen Academy in 1958 just as the school was about to make an indelible mark on the Scottish folk revival. Norman Buchan taught English at the school on his way to becoming the Labour Member of Parliament for West Renfrewshire in 1964. Before taking his seat at Westminster, Buchan published his priceless collection, 101 Scottish Songs, and he’d also started a Ballads Club at the school whose members included Ray and Archie Fisher, songwriter Ewan MacVicar and singer-guitarist Josh MacRae.
Buchan’s late wife, Janey organised concerts in Glasgow by Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Cisco Houston, Flora MacNeil, Jeannie Robertson and other notable performers, and detecting Gordeanna’s interest, Norman invited her along to the Ballads Club. His instincts were spot-on as Gordeanna was thoroughly enamoured with the songs she heard and when she encountered Jeannie Robertson, a ballad singer from the traveller community who could hold a concert hall audience in thrall, she became passionate about singing the ballad repertoire.
Her friend Anne Neilson, another fine singer, who remained close to Gordeanna from their school days onwards, remembers Norman Buchan being invited onto a BBC Television programme to talk about traditional Scottish songs with legendary broadcaster Magnus Magnusson. She and Gordeanna went along to give examples and Gordeanna, aged around fifteen at the time, sang the graphic Johnny O' Braidislee in the full-blooded, from-the-heart style that would become familiar to audiences internationally in the years to come.
In the early 1960s Gordeanna was invited down to Beckenham in Kent to take part in workshops organised by folk revivalist and songwriter Ewan MacColl. She returned with mix feelings about the experience but she and MacColl’s partner, Peggy Seeger struck up a lasting friendship and not long afterwards, in 1965, Gordeanna’s singing was captured on an album released by leading folk label, Topic Records showcasing new voices from Scotland.
Having sung at school with the Clydesiders folk group, Gordeanna went on to join the Clutha. Named after an ancient word for the river Clyde and featuring musicians, several of whose ‘day jobs’ were as librarians, the Clutha came to define the Scottish folk scene of the 1960s. The librarians in the group – which initially comprised Callum Allan and Erlend Voy (fiddles), John Eaglesham (concertina) and Ronnie Alexander (guitar) before Gordeanna and guitarist Don Martin arrived – found material and Gordeanna, with her formidable stage presence and glorious voice, provided the unerring vocal focal point.
They recorded several albums for the Argo and Topic labels during the 1970s, including Sheath and Knife, which was released under Gordeanna’s name but also credited the group, and toured extensively in the UK and across Europe, particularly Scandinavia. In 1981 they were invited to appear at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a recording of that concert has been remastered and is scheduled for release later this year.
The Clutha have never officially broken up and continued playing for ceilidhs when Gordeanna was otherwise engaged in one of the many singing projects she became involved in over the years. She led the Glasgow women’s choir Eurydice, which sang on a lorry in George Square when Nelson Mandela visited Glasgow in 1993 (he was spotted dancing to their rhythmical singing of an African anthem) and joined the traditional singing group Palaver, with Chris Miles, Maureen Jelks and Aileen Carr. She, Chris Miles and Aileen Carr also merged with the Aberdeen and Fife-based trio Pete Shepheard, Tom Spiers and Arthur Watson in the group Flash Company.
Although her singing often reflected her strength of personality – she was always politically active and passionately believed in equality and animal rights – Gordeanna could deliver every aspect of the human condition in song. Pathos, tenderness, vulnerability, it was all there. She loved passing on her knowledge of traditional songs, teaching and mentoring at the ballad workshops she began in Glasgow with her long-time friend Anne Neilson and at Sangschule in Linlithgow, among other places.
Like her early influence, Jeannie Robertson, Gordeanna could command stages large and small and she was a natural choice for Edinburgh International Festival’s celebration of the Greig-Duncan collection of North-East ballads and songs in 1995 and Celtic Connections’ Scots Women concert in 2001. She also contributed to Linn Records’ 12 volume Complete Songs of Robert Burns CD series as well as releasing a rare solo recording, In Freenship’s Name in 1997.
After she retired from her administrative post with Partick Housing Association, Gordeanna continued to teach on the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama’s Scottish music course. Among those who benefited from her advice and guidance there were the rising generation of Scots singers including Fiona Hunter, Siobhan Miller, the Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year 2014, Robyn Stapleton, and Amy Lord, who carried Gordeanna’s commitment to community singing into her own work.
Gordeanna was inducted into the Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2016 and although she hadn’t performed in public for some time, her voice, spirit and character will be remembered by everyone who heard her. She is survived by her son, folksinger-guitarist Adam McCulloch, and her long-time partner, Jim MacKay.
Gordeanna McCulloch, singer and tradition bearer, born February 2, 1946; died March 5, 2019.
From The Herald, March 9, 2019