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Roamin' in the Gloamin'

ALTHOUGH I was a very enthusiastic lover and spent several evenings every week with my bonnie wee Nance I did not neglect my singing. As a matter of fact I was always in great demand for local concerts all round the district. Generally there was a prize to compete for. It seems strange to think that this form of entertainment was once so popular in the towns and villages of Scotland. Nowadays it is as dead as the dodo—whatever that may mean.

But in my time as a boy and young miner in the West of Scotland these singing competitions were all the rage. Remember that this was long before the days of cinemas in little mining towns and villages. An occasional concert in the local hall, or drama in the "geggie" (provided by touring companies) was all the entertainment the people had to keep them from absolute boredom. Even the cheap-jacks that toured the industrial centres and sold their wares by public auction in the squares and at the street corners carried their own singers with them as a special attraction. Generally the vocalist was a low comedian. Whenever trade was dull the auctioneer stepped down from his "rostrum" and announced that his place would now be taken by "the famous London comedian So-and-So who would entertain the public free of all cost whatever!" Of course the people came trooping up to take advantage of this generous invitation.

One of the first comedians I heard perform from a travelling cheap-jack's van was a little man calling himself "Wee Harris." He was certainly very small and very comical in his costume and antics. He had a Glasgow accent that could have been cut with a knife. His songs did not err on the side of delicacy, to say the least of it. His great "hit" was a ditty about the indigestion troubles of the Duke of Argyll and this song never failed to send the audience into fits of hysterical laughter.

The public taste in those days was not nearly so refined as it is now; I have seen the local policemen roar with merriment at Wee Harris's suggestive asides and jests. Today they would probably "take action" in safeguard of public morals and good taste. But Wee Harris was a sure draw at all times and when he had collected a crowd and put them all into good humour the auctioneer would again take up his position and do a roaring trade. Singing contests were frequently arranged by these gentry; the usual thing was to stage a "grand open-air, free-entry contest to finish up a very pleasant and successful week with our old friends in Hamilton." The prizes to be won were shown on the stall for several days beforehand.

I can remember with what admiration and envy I regarded a "magnificent solid-silver butter-cooler" which was to be the premier award in the comic section of an amateur contest arranged by a London auctioneer who had visited this district for many years. I made up my mind to win this gorgeous prize. Win it I did, and my mother was so de lighted when I took it home that she started to polish it right away. In a few minutes she had polished all the silver off it! But she kept it in the house for years. I entered for many of these al fresco contests on the public streets of the town and won dozens of medals and cheap prizes, mostly household ornaments such as vases, clocks, time-pieces, moustachecups—cups with a ridge inside the rim for preventing the whiskers getting into the tea or coffee fendexs, fire-irons and the like. Indeed at one time my mother's kitchen presented the appearance of a cheap-jacks store. She would never throw out anything that "oor Hrry" had won, but when I was married I relieved her of some of the impedimenta and thus gave her room to walk freely about her kitchen! The medals I wore on my watch-chain, much to my own satisfaction and the unbounded admiration of my brothers, sisters, and pals!

My reputation as a comedian had gradually spread. Invitations came rolling in for me to sing at all sorts of functions, soirees, football festivals, Saturday evening concerts, church bazaars. I accepted them all. I was well rewarded by the applause of my hearers, and if I got my train fare paid when I visited outside towns and villages I was de lighted. The first fee I ever received in my life was at Larkhall. This was the modest sum of five shillings; But had it been five pounds I couldn't have been a prouder man. It was the first real step on the ladder of fame! I was now something better than an amateur; people were ready and willing to pay me for my talent! The thought intoxicated me. If the hard-headed folks of Larkhall were prepared to pay, other concert promoters must do the same! They did. Gradually I cut off all the gratuitous engagements. To every correspondent who wrote me asking for my services I replied that I was not now accepting offers without payment of a fee of five shillings, or ten shillings or a pound as the case might be. To my immense delight this did not stop them and engagements started to come in with regularity which delighted me beyond measure.

The songs I had been singing up to this time were mostly ballads, burlesques, and character stuff that had been sung by other singers. I had also bought one or two choruses and single verses from Glasgow song-writers. These did not please me in their original shape and I altered and twisted and re-wrote them until they made fairly presentable numbers, full of grotesque comedy with patter and trimmings to correspond.

Very early I began to appreciate the value of good make-up. I took tremendous pains over every costume I appeared in. The use of grease-paint and pencil and stick I studied as a student studies his books. For hours on end I practised the art of make-up in my mother's parlour and afterwards in my own house when I was married. I have spent an hour and a half making up for one character song before a concert. All my life I have gone on the principle that if a thing is worth doing it is worth doing as well as you know how to. If I saw a weird pair of trousers in a pawnbroker's window, or an old Paisley shawl, or a funny pair of elastic-sided boots, I saved up till I was able to buy the article I wanted. Often I would go into the shop and arrange with the proprietor to hold something over for me against the time I could pay for it.

One of the most important engagements that came my way as a boy of eighteen or nineteen was to sing at a concert in Edinburgh. This show was run by a well-known local comedian, Mr. R. C. McGill, who had evidently heard about my successes in Hamilton and district. He offered me a pound and my train fare—would I care to accept this fee? Would I accept it? I was at the station an hour before the train left for fear I would miss it! All the way through to Edinburgh I was rehearsing my songs, my patter, my facial expressions, trying my voice. As luck would have it I made a big hit that night with the Edinburgh folks. I sang three songs. They were "The Soor Dook Swimming Club," a nonsensical ditty about people bathing in buttermilk, "The Bleacher Lassies' Ball," a fantastic love song extolling the beauties of a girl who worked in a flax bleacher's field and was "so light and airt that she was just like a canary," and "Which of the Two is the Oldest—The Father or the Wean?" a lugubrious song describing the sorrows of a henpecked man left in charge of a precocious child. I could not repeat the words of these songs if you paid me to do it; they have gone, fortunately, completely from my memory. But I know they made the people laugh uproariously and that was all I cared about.

After my "turn" was finished several of the local lyric- writers came round to see me, including Tom Glen, a Leith man who supplied many of the Scottish comedians, amateur and professional, with songs and patter. He and I became very friendly. He said my act was splendid, but my material weak—would I let him supply me with some ideas? "You've got what so few of them have, Harry," he said to me, "and that's personality. You made me laugh, and I haven't laughed at a Scotch comic for ten years! And I have got some notions you can set the heather on fire with!" This was all good hearing to me. Tom Glen was well known as an idea merchant and song writer and to have merited his unstinted praise was a feather in my cap. To cut a long story short, Tom supplied me with the ground-work of many songs thereafter. I bought from him to begin with, a quaint broken-down dude song called "Tooraladdie," which I sang all over the west of Scotland with unvarying success. I forget how the verses went, but the chorus was as follows:

Twig Auld Tooraladdie,
Don't he look immense?
His watch and chain are no his am,
His ciaes (suit) cost eighteenpence.
Wi' cuffs an' collar shabby,
0' mashers he's the daddy
Hats off! Stand aside
An' let past Tooraiaddie.

Awful rubbish, eh? I quite agree. But the verses were really funny and my make-up was enough to draw a smile from a Free Church elder. I set the song to an easy, jingling melody. It caught the public fancy and was hummed and sung by everybody. Another song I got from Glen—for a fee of five shillings, the same price as the first one—was entitled "Wha Died an' Left You the Coat?" This was also a grotesque song about a man whose uncle had died and left him a fortune-25s.—and an old coat, green with age and patched all over. Round about this time I started to write songs for myself, frequently taking an idea, for which I paid a few shillings, and twisting it round into a completely new song. This was what happened in the case of a song entitled "Mary Couldna' Dance The Polka," a feriaale character study into which I introduced some droll dancing, and which always sent the lady members of my audience into fits of merriment.

But in my heart of hearts I was never satisfied with these early songs of mine. They were crude. I knew it. I made up my mind to produce better stuff. I realized that merely to redden one's nose, put on a ridiculous dress and cavort round the stage would never get me anywhere out of the rut of the five or ten shilling-a-night entertainer at purely local functions. And already I was having dreams of wider fields. I felt that if I could get together a repertoire of really good songs I might yet have a chance of making a successful attack upon the stage proper. An opportunity to this end was to present itself sooner than I had imagined or hoped for.

After doing a "turn" at a Saturday evening concert in Motherwell one of the artistes on the bill with me urged that I should send in my name as a competitor for a forthcoming "Great Comic Singing Contest" under the auspices of the Glasgow Harmonic Society. This was an organization of temperance people who ran Saturday evening "soirees," or tea-fights, as they were called, in three of the large public halls in different parts of the city. The main object of the promoters was to keep the working people off the street and out of the public-houses.

These entertainments had an amazingly successful vogue for many years. After the "tea and cookies" had been consumed a long and varied concert programme was put on. Frequently a vaudeville "star" of the first magnitude would be engaged from one or other of the local music-halls or brought up specially from London. On these nights the demand for tickets was tremendous. Another highly popular attraction was when an amateur competition was announced.

It was in connection with one of these contests that I made my first public appearance in Glasgow. I won the second prize, but, far more to the point, my success secured for me a series of engagements for other Harmonic concerts. The fee was one pound, and for this you had to sing at all three halls, free transport being provided by the organization. The audiences at these "Glesca Bursts"—thus the entertainments were vulgarly designated on account of the limitless tea and ample supplies of pastry provided for at a shilling a head—were highly critical. If they liked you they applauded with terrible efficiency; if they didn't they adopted very pointed methods of getting you off the stage as quickly as possible.

I am glad to say they liked me from the first, and I have nothing but pleasant memories of my numerous appearances at a type of concert which has long passed into oblivion. I need recall only one incident which stands out in my mind in connection with these Saturday night entertainments in Glasgow. One of the prominent comedians engaged from the south sported a fine astrachan coat. I saw him hang it up in the dressing-room. It fascinated me beyond any other article of male attire I had ever seen. A man who wore a coat like that, I told myself, must be a great artiste. Some day I might have an astrachan coat myself! But surely there was nothing to prevent me having an astrachan collar on my present coat! So with the fee I earned that night I bought a strip of astrachan and got Nance to sew it on to my coat collar. I felt that now I was a real artiste for the first time! When I walked abroad with that coat in Hamilton I had to suffer much chaff and sarcasm. But I stuck to the astrachan collar. it was to me the trademark of an "artiste."

There, was a famous old music-hall in Glasgow at this tine called the Scotia. It was run by a most competent woman, Mrs. Baylis. She believed in giving local talent a chance. One evening a week several trial "turns" were put on. This was easily the most popular night of the week at the Scotia—the patrons got free rein for their criticisms and for a peculiarly mordant type of humour which I have never come across anywhere else in the world. If a newcomer could "get it across" with the Scotia audiences on a trial night he had the right stuff in him. Several reputations were made in the Scotia on such nights; thousands were blasted irretrievably. Taking advantage of a half-holiday I went up to Glasgow and asked Mrs. Baylis for a trial turn. She looked me up and down and said, "What are ye?" "I'm a comic," I replied. "Well, all I can say is that you don't look like one," was her only comment. Then she turned to her desk and went on working. "I'm really no bad, Mrs. Baylis," I pleaded. "Gie me a chance an' I'll mak' them laugh!" Probably the doleful expression in my words and on my face moved dear old Mrs. Baylis to a reconsideration of my request. At all events she turned around smilingly and remarked, "Laddie, you're makin' me laugh already; come up a fortnight tonight and it let ye loose among them for a minute or two. Ye'll maybe be sorry ye were sae per sistent!"

When the time came for me to go on the stage at the Scotia I was shaking in every limb. The trial turns pre ceding mine had all got short shrift. Most of them were "off" in less than half a minute, and those that didn't willingly retire of their own accord were promptly hauled off by the stage manager by the aid of a long crooked stick which he unceremoniously hooked round their necks. The oaths and blasphemy employed by some of the disappointed would-be stars in the wings were only equalled by the riotous mirth of the audience in front. The Boer War was in progress at the time and one of the amateurs, who had had a particularly villainous reception, stopped after the first line of his song, spat three times right into the auditorium, right, centre, and left, and yelled out "I hope the bloody Boers win!" With that he stalked into the safety of the wings muttering and cursing and gnashing his teeth. As it hap pened, I "got over" pretty well, being allowed to sing two songs with a minimum of interruption and caustic comment. This was really a triumph for any trial run at the Scotia. Before I left Mrs. Baylis came round and congratulated me. "Gang hame an' practise, Harry," she said. "I's gie ye a week's engagement when the winter comes round." I took Mrs. Baylis's advice. I went home and practised harder than ever. And I can truthfully say that I have been practising ever since!


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