1950 – 1957
Cambusbarron – Stirling - Bannockburn
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Music was a delightfully harmonious thread that I clearly recall as a great blessing as it weaved its way throughout this formative period in my life.
There was piano and song at home and in school. There was choir-singing at church and school. There was dancing and dance music at school, village parties and the winter weekly Scottish Country Dance Club.
Fan a wis jist ‘boot ten years auld i' Cambusbarron syne,
A gaen tae kwintry dincin an' sat me claise the baun,
Hearknin tae dince music a' sich faavrits o' mine.
Frae accordion an' piano thit wur bencape i' the laun,
Playin super reels an' jigs an strathspeys oot thur skin,
Fur loats the veelage folkies an’ the pas-de-bas they din,
Syne skips oar slips oar slides as weil bit nivver did they rin,
A' nicht lang tae bricht-lik tunies thit vampit ‘gin an’ ‘gin, an’ gin.
Thon makit feet a-tappit as Jim McLeod aye a-watchit,
His left haun as it prancit he nivver doonwyes glancit.
Whilst his richt haun ferly twinklit wi' broos thit nivver wrinklit,
Smilin tae thase oant flair bit keepin’ time wi' sich braw care,
Playin reels an' fine wee jigs oar strathspeys an’ loats mair,
Fur a’ the veelage folkies daen thon pas-de-bas,
Tae bricht-lik tunies wi' vampit oompah-pah-pah.
Thit fer fascinated me, fa jist loo'd a’ thon braw choards,
Thit makit ma feet tappit i’ time ipoan the boards.
There were also my weekly pianoforte lessons with Mrs Stocksley in the village. There were the occasional public solo outlets for my sweet boy-soprano voice - even though my debut singing Sir Hugh Roberton’s ‘My Grandpa Has Whiskers’ was not too widely acclaimed - but never, never for my eventual ‘groaning-growling’ bass. There were happy after-match sing-songs in the rear seats of buses hired to take my team-mates and me to various school and club rugby and cricket games.
There were outings to local light opera performances and choral concerts. There were the fairly regular Sunday family visits to my mother’s kin in Falkirk which were seldom without a few pleasant hours, either listening to Uncle John Telfer’s most recent ‘78’ record purchases, or occasionally becoming immersed in the joys of Mum, at the piano, accompanying her younger brother, a highly talented artist, and artiste, Uncle Willie Telfer, playing the violin.
Crucially, however, at home, so that I could again enjoy participating in church singing and choral events at school, there was my Mum so patiently nursing my deepening teenage voice at the piano as she gave me countless hours of practice reading and ‘la-la-ing’ the ‘bass-parts’ of the staff notation in her Scottish Psalter.
Although I lost the quality and promise that my pre-puberty voice had displayed, and subsequently never showed any talent whatsoever for instrumental expression, rhythm and timing, I just loved, and still do today, listening to the ways various voice parts and instruments can be integrated. I also enjoyed experimenting (in private – mainly in my bath!) with my ‘horrible’ voice, and attempting to vamp on the piano - despite having very little ‘ear’ for knowing when to change chords, and thus having to rely on scribbled in D7, G, Cs etc on sheet music.
The discovery that, if I sang fairly quietly, my voice, so lacking in timbre and precision, merged acceptably in choir performances, became a real blessing then, as it did in later years too. Perhaps my pinnacle of participation was reached in 1969, twelve years after my schooling had ended, when I was included in the bass section of the St Cyrus Church Choir’s presentation of selected parts of Handel’s ‘Messiah’. Nowadays, my love affair with most forms of music continues as it is fuelled by the electronic miracles that music midi, wav and mp3 provide via stereo headphones connected to my computer.
Apart from church music, especially gospel songs, my main interest in the 1950s was Dixieland jazz and I still treasure the first 45rpm record that I bought then – The Dutch Swing College with Sidney Bechet playing the soprano saxophone! My favourite instrumentalist in my more mature years became Stefan Grapelli, and, still today, anything played by him that I can get my hands on are sheer delight to my ears! However, in recent times, Sue Keller, with her inimitable interpretations of ragtime standards on the piano, is threatening Stefan’s place in my pecking-order of virtuosi !
My fondness for mixed-voice choral singing was first weaned under the influence of JD Macrae, a talented church organist and Head Music Teacher at the High School of Stirling. This lovable eccentric was, I think, Canadian by birth, but we were certainly fortunate that, for some reason or other, he crossed ‘the pond’, and then, during his stay in Scotland, with his unfailing sincerity and exquisite touch, endeared himself to school pupils and audiences alike.
His successor during my final year at school was the effervescent, and highly ambitious, Bramwell Cook. He was a tiny man who made up for his lack of inches with an enthusiasm that seemed to bubble him up to new heights as he motivated us in his school choir to practise for radio auditions and choral competitions … and then latterly in the summer term of 1957 to perform ‘Dido and Aeneas’ for three nights to sell-out audiences at the Museum Hall, Bridge of Allan. As I think back on that exciting week, I squirm a little at the image I recall of myself and other tough rugby players in the chorus scantily dressed in soldiers’ ‘mini-skirted’ costumes, legs artificially tanned in brown dye, faces plastered in make-up and javelins jittering on the stage on our nervy debut night – especially as the dress rehearsal had been abandoned during the previous evening as an unmitigated disaster! Singing was difficult enough without having to make exhibitions of ourselves to our peers as utterly ‘wooden’ ham-actors!
On the church front from 1957, until I married and left the area in 1963, I really enjoyed the broadminded and exciting contributions to church praise given by our then organist and choir-master, Bill Evans, at the Allan Church, Bannockburn. Bill played a lot by ear and his improvisations on any tune that you cared to hum to him raised my early liking of syncopation to even greater heights.
I cannot possibly end this series of musical memories without giving an extra-special mention to the ‘one and only’ Herbert Christie. As Assistant Teacher of Music at the High School of Stirling in my six years there, ‘Herb’ was the ideal foil to the more classical predilections of JD Macrae and Bramwell Cook. He was steeped in ‘Music Hall’ and, as a part-time theatrical-agent, he smoothed the paths to stardom for a goodly number of Stirling’s budding crooners – the most notable success perhaps being Danny Street. ‘Herb’ was given all the hard-to-control, broken voiced, boisterous, boys’ classes to ‘entertain’! These he handled with great panache and humour, and, mainly due to a diet of negro spirituals, he soon had hordes of recalcitrant schoolboys, not only eating out of his hand, but providing concerts for school funds in their formations as ‘massed choirs’ (never mind the quality … see the width), duettists, close-harmony trios and quartets and the like … marvellous … even us in the conformist academic streams went to great lengths to have our over-laden study time-tables altered to accommodate at least one relaxing period per week of singing with the charismatic ‘Herb’.