January-February 2010

By Linda Dewar

Even though I live in Scotland and am involved primarily in various forms of British folk music, I usually try to cover all genres in this column. Not so this time... there will be a definite Scottish flavor to this one because we're at the time of the year when the biggest events have been happening. Next time, I promise to return to a more eclectic mix.


The second week in October is always reserved for the Royal National Mod. A mod is a gathering that includes competitions in singing, instrumental playing and spoken word, all in the Gaelic language and tradition. Regional mods are held throughout the year in Scotland, but the National is the big one, where a career can be made with the awarding of a gold medal. Competitors may work for a year to perfect one or two songs, and during the day the competitions are serious business. In the evening, the "mod fringe" takes over, with parties, ceilidhs, and impromptu sessions all over town. The participants put as much effort into the parties as they do the competition, which may explain why the fringe has come to be known as the "Whisky Olympics.

The 2009 Mod was held in Oban, on the west coast. And would you believe that the most talked-about performers were a group of Californians?

Donnie Macdonald (Men of Worth) lives in the Sacramento area, but he came originally from the Hebridean island of Lewis and is a native Gaelic speaker. He got the idea that it might be fun to organize a group of Californians who might like to come with him to the Mod for the fun and experience, but the idea soon grew (as Donnie's ideas often do), and ended up with the formation of two bands, called Ceol California Gorm and Ceol California Geal (California Music Blue and White).

Both bands were entered in the Folk Groups competition, and two of us were entered as soloists in the Self-Accompanied Folk Singing competition. It was only to be for fun, but would you believe that Ceol California Gorm took first prize, and Geal took third? And Elizabeth Townsend from Sacramento came second in the solo competition, accompanying herself on a mountain dulcimer-something the adjudicators had never seen before.


A banjo player, sick of all the banjo jokes, decides to change his instrument. After some thought, he decides on the accordion. So, he goes to the music store and says to the owner, "I'd like to look at the accordions, please." The owner gestures toward a shelf in the corner and says, "All our accordions are over there." After browsing, the banjo player says, "I think I'd like the big red one in the corner." The store owner looks at him and says, "You're a banjo player, aren't you?" The guy, amazed, says, "How did you know?" The store owner says, "That ‘big red accordion' is the radiator."


Liam Clancy has passed away. Liam was the last of the original Clancy Brothers. During his lifetime he performed with his brothers, with his nephew Robbie O'Connell, and with the great Tommy Makem. Though he lived most of his adult life in America, he had recently returned to Ireland where he continued to be an important figure in the world of traditional music and song.


Last week, hubby Ron and I had the pleasure of attending the annual Scottish Traditional Music Awards, or as they call it, "The Trads." We were guests of the Traditional Music and Song Association (TMSA), which meant that we got to sit at a table on the floor among the nominees and presenters. How I wish there could be something like this in America, but perhaps it's because we're such a small country that we're able to make it work.

The awards are organized by Hands Up For Trad, an organization which supports Scottish traditional music. Each year, the public is invited to suggest nominees via a web site. A panel of judges then chooses four nominees in each category, and the public are again asked to visit the site and vote. The awards and ceremony are co-sponsored by the BBC and various industry organizations such as Foot-Stompin Music, Greentrax Records, and TMSA.

Categories include the expected-Best Singer, Best Band, Best Album, and so on, but also extend to some that are unique to traditional music, like Best Folk Club, Best Community Project, and Best Pipe Band. A complete listing of the categories and winners is online. The entertainment at the awards ceremony was amazing, and included acts like The Treacherous Orchestra, Deaf Shepherd, Donnie Munro, Ross Ainslie, Fred Morrison, Margaret Bennett, and others. Afterward, there was a huge party with more music from The Treacherous Orchestra that lasted well into the wee hours of the morning.

The best moment of the ceremony came with the award for Trad Music in the Media. Those of you who listen to BBC Radio Scotland's folk music programming on the internet will know that the legendary presenter Robbie Shepherd, MBE recently had his show "The Reel Blend" cancelled in spite of thousands of letters and emails of protest from the public. So, when the winner was announced as "The Reel Blend," there was a huge surge of applause, followed by one of the longest standing ovations I've ever experienced.


Music is the medicine of the breaking heart. Leigh Hunt

Music is love in search of a word. Sidney Lanier

Music is moonlight in the gloomy night of life. Jean Paul Richter

Music is the shorthand of emotion. Leo Tolstoy

Music is what life sounds like. Eric Olson

An American now living in Scotland, Linda Dewar is a singer and a player of various instruments with strings and keys. She can be found performing Scottish and American folk music at gatherings on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as singing In the Aberfeldy and District Gaelic Choir. Visit her web site at www.lindadewar.com.


All Columns by Linda Dewar