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https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10254/anni-donaldson-james-kelman-dirt-road-lafayette

Our Celtic Connections columnist Anni Donaldson goes on a musical journey with Dirt Road author James Kelman

j-kelman

JAMES KELMAN in conversation with Alan Bisset at a packed ‘meet the author’ session at this year’s Celtic Connections festival was full of surprises. 

The ‘connection’ celtic-wise between Kelman’s latest novel, Dirt Road, and Glasgow’s annual music festival is stronger than you might expect from Scotland’s renowned Booker prize winner, known mainly for his dark and gritty urban tales.

Kelman’s latest novel, which began life as a screenplay for the forthcoming film Dirt Road to Lafayette, is long in miles yet existential in spirit. This sojourn from Bute (maybe) to Louisiana via Alabama is a coming-of-age odyssey steeped in grief, west of Scotland male-style.

Read more from Celtic Connections – Anni Donaldson: Is it time Scotland paid a new piper?

It is a masterful portrayal of the inner life of Murdo, a bereaved, helplessly inarticulate 16-year-old accordion wizard, and Tom, his excruciatingly silent and grieving father. The moment when Murdo finally stops flayling around in his scant emotional vocabulary and gets to the point of his life and the book is simply a joy. That point is music.

The life-changing connection between oor Murdo and the Lafayette’s Zydeco culture he encounters on his travels is the core of the book’s journey. The discussion at the event revealed Kelman’s hitherto quiet passion and breadth of knowledge about American traditional music cultures which began when he emigrated to the States as a teenager with his family in the 1960s.

The musical mash-up between Kelman’s youthful musical discoveries and his political views emerged. For Kelman, the music of Appalachian, Zydeco, Cajun, Blue Grass, Hispanic, Scots and Irish cultures were all essentially “black and white working class people’s music which went around the world and moved people”.

They shared a common root in the experience of “poor people with agricultural roots making joy in their lives”. For Kelman, this music links Scots, Irish, African-Americans, Hispanic, Creole, French Canadians, Louisiana settlers and many more besides.

The maritime journeys and the fiddles, whistles, drums, accordions and harmonicas in their baggage created the opportunity for a shared migrant language which set the scene for jazz, blues and modern popular music.

Preston Frank and daughter Jennifer

Before the Beatles, the Everly Brothers had snuck their own rural family and community tradition of music and song into the emergent pop music of the 1950s. Blues hunters like Alan Lomax fed an appetite among the youth of Scotland and the UK for the truth of the African–American experience rendered in music and song and encouraged them to give voice to their own lives.

The forces of commercialism in popular culture in the 1960s tried their best to distance the new generation from its own cultural roots on both sides of the Atlantic while the previous generation hung on despairing that no one would listen.

Fortunately they did not succeed, family and community ties remain strong and Kelman’s pleasure was plain to see as he introduced his ‘Dirt Road Band’. The line up included Zydeco button box wizard Preston Frank and his daughter Jennifer on bass (pictured), Dirk Powell on fiddle and guitar and his daughter Amelia on guitar, and accordion player and singer Neil Sutcliffe (aka Murdo in the film).

Illustrating Kelman’s point perfectly, the set of Zydeco rhythms including Scottish and American versions of the famous MacPherson’s Rant had the audience not quite knowing whether they were in Townhead or Texas.

James Kelman, Dirt Road, Canongate 2016

Celtic Connections finishes on 5 February 2017.

Pictures courtesy of Anni Donaldson

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GRCH entrance

This review first appeared in Common Space 15 January 2016

“GIVE us a song!” Growing up in Glasgow in a large extended family of first and second generation Irish immigrants – all good singers – this was an order, not a request.

I grew to realise the importance of song to those not long removed from their homeland and others for whom, without it, home would have become a distant memory. It holds their history, how they used to live and its meaning.

Songs live in hearts and memories. They are our belongings, a precious part of the load. Peter Shepheard, Tom Spiers and Arthur Watson, the founders of the Traditional Song and Music Association of Scotland, recognised that 50 years ago and the anniversary was celebrated with great brio in The Carrying Stream, the opening concert of Celtic Connections 2016 on Thursday 14 January.

The enduring beauty and fun of traditional song was on full display following the powerful opening by the massed pipes and drums of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland.

The enduring beauty and fun of traditional song was on full display following the powerful opening by the massed pipes and drums of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland. The cast of performers, young and old, offered a highly appreciative and well-versed audience a powerful reminder of the importance of keeping these songs alive.

The musical director of the show, Siobhan Millar, is one of the finest traditional singers in Scotland today. Still in her 20s, Millar has become a worthy tradition bearer herself and, like every other act on the bill, expressed her debt to foremothers and forefathers in the Scots, Gaelic, travelling and Irish and American traditions.

Accompanied by the excellent house band, Millar’s version of ‘False False’ was a fine tribute to Sheila Stewart, the great singer of the travelling tradition, who died recently.

Barbara Dickson, member number two of the Dunfermline TMSA and long time supporter, returned to her folk roots with a poignant rendering of ‘I aince loved a lad’.

Irishman Tommy McCarthy sang ‘Lady Margaret’, a centuries old ballad in the traditional Irish sean-nos style. His highly ornamented, complex, almost liturgical style used the full range of his extraordinary voice and reduced the hall to a deep silence.

Adam McNaughton’s celebration of the ‘Soor milk kairt’, Misha McPherson’s Gaelic waulking song and Shona Donaldson’s tragic 17th century ballad ‘Edam O’ Gordon’ conveyed the mood and meaning of their times.

The cast of performers, young and old, offered a highly appreciative and well-versed audience a powerful reminder of the importance of keeping these songs alive.

However, although Sam Lee’s tribute to Jeannie Robertson – ‘The moon shone on my bed last night’ – was hauntingly arranged with accompanying hammer dulcimer, Lee unfortunately lost the story in his vocal gymnastics.

Traditional songs accompanied the work inside and outside the home, to express the many emotions – love and sadness of daily existence, to record local and other historical events and to often mark the loss of family and friends whether by death or by emigration.

They also rose from the difficult lives and choices facing ordinary people. The political heart of the folk song was not forgotten in the witty and often pointed repartee of compere BBC Radio Scotland presenter Mark Steven, who reminded us of its importance in sustaining a nation’s sense of itself.

The evergreen Arthur Johnston spoke of the importance of song in political struggles, in giving voice to the injustices of the Highland clearances and the troubles in Ireland. His rendition of Northern Irishman Tommy Sands’ ‘Your sons and your daughters’, singing it ‘because he was tellt’ by Siobhan, was a moving tribute to those working people who ‘sowed the seeds of freedom, justice and equality’ in the minds of their children.

North East Bothy Balladeers Jim Taylor, Sandy Morrison and Joe Aiken were on cracking form with ‘The bonny lass o’ Fyvie’ and its irresistible chorus. With the excellent Malinky, the always show-stopping Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, who are fast becoming like a comfy pair of old slippers, the show was drawing to a close when Sheena Wellington reprised her performance of ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’ at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

The show ended with a grand finale performance of Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom come all ye’ with barely a silent voice in the house.

Described by Steven as a ‘defining moment’ in Scotland – the power of its words seemingly lost on the royal party there present – Wellington’s soaring voice electrified an audience living a quite different Scotland from 1999.

The show ended with a grand finale performance of Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom come all ye’ with barely a silent voice in the house.

The value of song is universal. The TMSA was among friends and Millar pulled off what felt like an intimate, rousing house ceilidh within a majestic packed Royal Concert Hall.

Click here to follow Anni Donaldson on Twitter, and click here to visit the Celtic Connections website for more information about the festival.

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