Roamin' in the Gloamin' CHAPTER VIII - COAL-FACE OR FOOTLIGHTS
So FIRM was my resolution to remain a miner that
I actually refused several small concert jobs that were offered to me in
places round about Hamilton but I did accept a special engagement or two
at the Glasgow Harmonics—the bursts, as they were called. In writing about
these unique entertainments earlier in my memoirs I think I said that this
name was given to them on account of the prodigious swill ings of tea and
the capacious bagfuls of pastry with which the audience were regaled.
There was, however, another reason for the name and
probably a more likely one. It was the custom of the men, women, and
children who made up the audience to retain the paper bags after they had
consumed their contents and use them as explosives when they wanted to
demonstrate their special approval of the work of any of the artistes. If
a singer or a comedian or a juggler or a paper-tearer did not just "get
over" the front of the house applauded by hand- clapping, or refrained
altogether from appreciation of any kind. On the other hand, any other
artiste who appealed to them very much was not only cheered vociferously
but the paper bags were blown up and burst with cannon-like effect.
I have heard gun-fire on the Western Front during
the war which could not compare for genuine ear-splitting with the din
made by the bursting of a thousand paper "pokies" at a Glasgow
Saturday-Night tea-fight. For myself I must say I was one of the most
popular performers at these functions and it was after a most enthusiastic
reception on a December Saturday---every paper bag in the hall
went off bang! in my honour as I left the stage—that I felt the old lure
of the stage again taking possession of my soul. On the
way home I tried to fight against it, telling myself that only
disappointment, failure and misery would result.
But a letter which
awaited me on my return to Hamilton completely wrecked my balance. It was
from the late J. C. MacDonald, then the leading comedian in Scotland and a
tremendously popular personage throughout the length and breadth of the
land. Here I think I must say a few words about J. C. MacDonald and the
prominent part he played in shaping my whole future career from this
period onwards. I had heard him frequently on the stage and the concert
platform. He was a fine type of Scotsman, with a good voice and an
altogether remarkable insight into Caledonian char- acter and customs
which he made splendid use of in his comic songs and patter. His stage
presence, either in costume or in ordinary clothes, was most impressive.
He had personality. Added to it he had the unusual faculty of dominating
an audience the moment he stepped from the wings. How I used to admire his
entrance and his exits. The former were airily defiant; the latter left an
atmosphere of graciousness and good humour all over the house. At the time
of which I write J. C. MacDonald must have been a comparatively well-off
man. He had been King of the Scots comics for many years. He had toured
his own companies under the name of MacDonald's Merrymakers every summer
visiting only the large cities and towns. The advent of MacDonald's
Merrymakers was a red-letter day at the seaside resorts in particular,
Everywhere he went he was certain of a full house and a tremendous
reception for himself and his company.
Two songs sung by "J.C." stand
out specially in my memory. One was entitled "Sandy Saft a Wee," the story
of a Scotch "Natural" who was not so daft as he was cabbage- looking. It
has often been said in Scotland that I got the idea for my famous, song
"The Saftest o' the Family" from this character-study by MacDonald. That
is not so. My "Saftest o' the Family" was inspired by a little Glasgow
ragamuffin and the whole treatment of my study is on quite different lines
to those of my old friend and patron. I'll tell you later the full story
of how I came to write "The Saftest o' the Family."
The other MacDonald effort I
refer to was a character song about a Glasgow Irishman who was the
champion "cairter" (drayman) of his district. MacDonald made a real work
of art out of the character. Complete with whip, "bunnet," sleeved
waistcoat, and trousers tucked up with string below the knee he was the
Glasgow lorryinan to the life. The chorus of the song had a fine swinging
lilt to it and I have not the slightest doubt that I have only to recall
the words for thousands of elderly Scots to remember the pleasure
MacDonald gave them with his rendering of the song. Here they are:
Woa! Vain. Hand aff Ye! That's
Cahoon, The buttons on his waistcoat are as big as haul-a-croon; He
gets mair pey than a' the ither men An' the horse he drives can run awa'
wi' fower ton ten!
I have heard great audiences yell this chorus with
immense gusto. Like many other comic songs the chorus words of this one
seem pretty limp and "fushionless" but I can assure you that MacDonald
made a tremendous hit with it. Even today, forty years after, you can hear
staid, respectable old men in Scotland humming the tune about the Glesca
was from no less a personage than J. C. MacDonald himself that the letter
came which was waiting for me that Saturday night. It was a kindly letter,
setting forth that the writer had never had the pleasure of hearing me but
that he had had many good reports of my ability. Would I care to deputise
for him during the forthcoming New Year week at Greenock Town Hall? He was
not feeling very well but if he could not find a good deputy he would have
to turn up and do his best. Ten performances; Salary three pounds. What
did I say? Nance and I read the letter several times. She could see I was
"ettling" to accept the offer.
"Just please yoursel', Harry," was again her only
observation. So then and there I wrote off thanking the famous comedian
for his kindness and gladly accepting the engagement.
That week at Greenock is a
nightmare to me even yet. The Greenock and Port Glasgow rivetters and
engineers rolled up in their hundreds to the Town Hall at every
performance but they came more to make entertainment than be entertained.
Some of the artistes, myself included, had an exceedingly stormy passage.
On the last night of the week they literally gave us hell; the hissing was
so insistent that I swore a steam-pipe must have burst in the hail. I have
been back in Greenock more than once. But I can't say I really like the
place—when I remember that New Year week!
At the end of it I crept up to
the station with my Gladstone bag and fell into the train limp,
broken-hearted and cursing myself for working instead of having a jolly
good holiday, with my family and friends. The only consolation was that I
had over two pounds in my pocket whereas a holiday would have cost me
fully as much—four pounds of a difference "on a division" as the
politicians say. Considering this aspect of the situation I soon cheered
up. Besides, it was worth being away from Nance for a whole week just to
see the light kindle in her bonnie blue e'en when I took her in my arms
once more. Oh, but she was wonderful in these days—just as she has always
it was back to the pit again after Greenock. And there I honestly meant to
remain. The stage life, I told myself, was too uncertain and the rewards
not sufficient to tempt a man from the mines where he was always sure of a
living wage. But how easily I fell from these resolves whenever the stage
beckoned. I hadn't been back at work more than a month when, through the
influence of J. C. Mac Donald, I was offered a month's tour of the Moss
and Thornton halls in the north of England finishing up with a couple of
weeks at the Scotia and Gaiety, Glasgow.
"Nance," said I, "this is the
last chance. If I don't make good now I never will. In any case I can't
carry on as I'm doing—a week or two in the pits and a week or two on the
stage. It has got to be one or the other. The mine managers won't stand
for it. I'm finished as a miner; if I can't be a success as a comic singer
I'll find another job above ground and never sing another song as long as
I was as
good as my word. I said farewell to the mines forever. Tom, my
brother-in-law, brought up my "graith"my working tools, lamp, etc.—some
weeks after I had gone on a tour and he has them to this day. A year or
two ago I donned the old clothes and implements to take part in a big
charity performance in Manchester on behalf of a mining disaster fund. I
was so overcome with emotion at all the circumstances that the tears
rolled down nay face as I stood in the wings and Tom had to thump me on
the back and shake me before I was fit to go on and appeal for money for
the wives and bairns of the dead miners. But for the accident of fate, I
realized, I might myself have ended my days in one of the tragic
happenings that are always part and parcel of the poor miner's existence.
That first music-hall tour was
splendid experience for me. It knocked the rough corners off my acting and
the very first night or two—I opened at Newcastle by the way— demonstrated
one thing to me in most emphatic fashion. I might be a Scotch comedian,
and an exceedingly good one in my own estimation, but it was utterly
hopeless to break into England with purely Scottish dialect and words and
idioms which nobody over the border understood. This important
consideration had certainly been weighed up in my mind before coming
south. How was it possible, I asked myself, for English people to
comprehend Glasgow slang and idiom when other people, in other districts
of Scotland, could not make head or tail of it?
Scottish dialect is a most
extraordinary thing. I have met Aberdeenshire men and women who spoke a
language which was absolutely unintelligible to the stranger from four
counties further south. In Dundee the purely local dialect has words,
intonations, and meanings which are, for all practical purposes,
double-Dutch to the fine clear-speaking folks of Inverness and further
north. The Fife man and woman employs words and phrases, and does so in a
high head-tone, quite impossible of interpretation by the people of any
other district in Scotland. This mixture of dialects prevails in all
countries of the world, I suppose, but nowhere is it so pronounced as in
anybody the world over—never mind whether lowland Scot or Laplander—this
question and see what answer you will get other than a puzzled stare—"Fa
fuppit the fite fulpie?" Yet it is perfectly understandable in Aberdeen
as, "Who had the cruelty to whip the little white dog?" Or again, "Seenafellafaaffalarrie"
easily stands in Dundee for "I have just seen a man fall off a cart," but
it is gibber ish to any other person than a certain type of quick-speaking
Dundonian. Speak about "agin th' waa" outside of Glasgow, or "wabbit"
outside of Fifeshire, and you will be using words that are unknown and
convey not the glimmerings of a meaning, but which are in daily use in the
I swear that I myself in the old days have heard
Aberdeenians speaking together for long intervals and have been absolutely
unable to follow the gist of their conversation. There is a classic story
told about an Aberdeen man who came up to London for a holiday and found
himself in Piccadilly about eleven o'clock at night. He was amazed at the
coloured advertisements in electric light (Broadway would probably have
stopped his breath for good!) and inquired of a newsboy the following:—"
Hey loonie, fat's a them reed and fite an blue lichties bobbin oat an in
ower 'ere see?" The gamin, polite to start with, begged pawdon, sir, and
asked him what he had said the first time. The Aberdonian repeated his
question in the same dialect but a bit quicker. Again the newsboy
confessed that he was unable to "follow" and would the gentleman repeat
his question, speaking "a bit slower, guvnor?" Once more the northern
visitor demanded to know "fat's a them reed and file and blue lichties
bobbinootaninowereresee?" but his temper was becoming shorter by this time
and he hurried the last words all together. The newsboy gave him one look
of supreme contempt, ejaculated, "Get aht, ye b—y Portugee!" and passed on
his way rejoicing.
Remembering all these idiosyncrasies of Scottish
dialect I decided that if ever I got a footing in England I would not use
words or idioms which would only befog my audience. I would sing my songs
in English I determined but with a Scottish accent. The result was that I
was more successful my first week in Newcastle than any other Scottish
artiste who had appeared there. The local manager told me on the Saturday
night that a few weeks previously they had had a Scot on the bill and
nobody could understand a single word of what he said. Of course he "got
the bird" badly. Two or three years later I met the little comedian he had
referred to and I turned the conversation to Newcastle, asking him how he
had done there. "Terrible!" he admitted. "They yelled me off the stage
every nicht, Harry. They canna unnerstan' plain English there—naething but
broad Geordie!" He went on to explain that he had tried to trans- late
comic Scotch songs into English. This statement intrigued me immensely and
I asked him to sing a verse of one of his songs "translated." He was quite
willing to do so and at once warbled out:
"My led's a pollisman A
thumping Highuing pollisman He gone and join'd the pollis fors He
was so charmed with work. He came from the Highlings With a load
of potato pilings And I'm going to merry him On Hogmanay night!"
I almost died laughing at this
outlandish nonsense and to this day when I want to amuse my friends all
over the world I tell them the story of the wee comic who tried to
translate his songs for the benefit of the Tynesiders. From Newcastle I
went on to South Shields and then to the Hartlepools and Sunderland, etc.
My salary for this tour was three pounds ten shillings. The place on the
bill I occupied was a very humble one; I was either first turn or last and
many a night I played to empty seats.
But those people who did hear me
were generous in their applause. And I made certain that they understood
every word of what I was singing or talking about. That I held, and still
hold, to be the very first aim and object of an artiste anywhere. The last
two weeks of the tour were in my own city of Glasgow and I was delighted
with the receptions given me there. There was a warmth and spontaniety in
the applause of my Glasgow admirers which meant much in the way of
encouragement and determined me to go right ahead with some new songs and
character stuff. I had been planning while on tour.
I was thoroughly displeased with
the material I was using. My songs were poor even if they were funny.
Frankly, they would have been considered trash had any other person tried
to sing and act them, but I must say, in honesty to myself, that I
presented them with all the power, "pawkiness," or dash that I could put
into them. I had almost forgotten that in these days, too, I was a
sentimental singer. I had one ballad which I bought from a Trongate "poet"
and it never failed to get over with the "gods." It was entitled "You
Can't Put an Old Head on the Shoulders of a Child!" I forget—I don't want
to remember—how the verses went but the chorus, sung to a slow, dirge-like
wail, was as follows:
Treat them with kindness, don't
cause them pain Let not passion master you but always play the game
For children will be children and remember though they're wild You
cannot put an old head on the shoulders of a che-ild.
The admirable sentiment contained
in this last brilliant line was emphasised and underlined by my throwing
out both hands in an appealing attitude to the audience and getting a
pathetic "break" into my voice. I have no doubt it was a masterly
performance of its type and for its time but I would not go on any stage
in the world today and sing that awful song for a thousand pounds a night!
And I would do a lot for that amount of money, mind I'm tellin' ye!
Another song I was singing round
about this period was entitled "The Bonnie Wee Man." It was founded on an
old Scottish air—as I am free and ready to confess that many of my songs
were founded—of a very rollicking nature. Here is a verse and chorus:
There was a wee man cam' coortin'
me A bonnie wee man ca'd Tammy McPhee And oh but he was a treat to
see The chappie that cam' to court me.
And oh but he was a fly wee man A shy wee man an' a
sly wee map A regular greasy, citrate magnesie Chappie that cam'
to woo me.
He lookit sae
handsome what dae ye think His e'en were blue an' black an' pink
I'm tellin' ye he was nae sma' drink Was the callint that cam' tae
quite well that such songs as these, while they passed muster as the
stock-in-trade of a three or four pounds a week comedian would never get
me anywhere. The first of my real song successes was "Tobermory." This was
inspired by my seeing a boatload of holiday-makers leave the Greenock pier
one night for the West Highlands. There were two working-men from Glasgow
on board and one of them kept constantly shouting to his friends ashore
what "he and Mackay would do in Tobermory 1" The idea was a good one for a
song and I worked hard on it while "the iron was hot." The song was a
success from the outset but it was a year or two before I had it perfect
down to the laughter which consumes me as I try to lay off the patter.
This laugh I practised for months until I got it natural and effervescent
enough. From the very first night I sang "Tobermory" at a concert near
Hamilton it had to remain in my repertoire for years. And I have sung that
song ten thousand times in every part of the globe.
The next good song I got was "The
Lass o' Killiecrankie." For the germ of the idea and some of the lines I
had to thank Sandy Melville, an old Glasgow song-writer who in his time
sold hundreds of songs to comedians and straight singers visiting the
Music Halls in the West Country. Poor Sandy Melville! He was his own worst
enemy. Had he not been so fond of a dram he might have been a successful
man in any walk of life. As it was, all he asked of life was to be able to
sell an occasional song, recitation, or idea and spend his hours in a wee
public-house in the Stockwell of Glasgow. Often and often he came to me
either at my home or in the dressing-rooms of the theatres when I became
better known. From the depths of a tattered pocket he would produce odd
dirty pieces of paper on which he had scribbled a line or two of a song or
an idea for a comic situation, or a joke or a story. "Help yersel',
Harry," he would say. Nine times out of ten there would be nothing I could
use but the tenth time there would be a couplet or a verse which I could
work up into something good. Many a sovereign dear old Sandy had from me
but I always got good value from him. Sandy Melville was the author of a
song which achieved widespread popularity in Scotland and all over the
world twenty years ago. At the moment I forget the title of the song but
it was an emigrant song and the first verse was:
They're far, far awa' But
their hearts are ever true. The auld hoose at hame is constant in their
view. The bonnie bloomin' heather and the hill-taps clad wi' snaw
Their hearts are eye in Scotland tho' they're far, far awa'.
Every great contralto vocalist in
the land had the song on her list and I myself have heard men and women
sing it in all parts of the globe. Poor Sandy Melville!
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