Grit: Track by Track

The stories behind the songs

This is my story about triumph in the face of struggle. It is a story of the people and songs I grew up with, and most importantly, it is their voices, traditions and the inspiration they have given to be passed on to the next generation.

Split between the songs of travelling people (Roma) and the Gaelteachd traditions of the Hebrides it brings together by far the strongest links to the ‘real’ folk culture in Scotland. Virtually all the songs and narrative were sampled from vinyl records or from original quarter-inch tape recordings, the sources of which were mostly recorded from 1950 onwards.

The title means many things to me personally. However, it is tied up in my ideas of where my culture lies – a word seen by the roadside, it travels like an expression of determination; onomatopoeic, it reflects the contrasts of this music and topography and has an old intonation which, far from being ‘out-of-tune’, is the real flavour of these traditions.

Rhythmically and sonically I have gone to great effort in this recording. In recent years so many representations of Scotland have been misty-lensed and fanciful to the point that the word ‘Celtic’ has really become a cloudy pigeon-hole. This album was a chance for me to present a truthful picture, yet face my own reflection in the great mirror of all cultures. I hope it challenges your perceptions.

Grit is dedicated to Hamish Henderson, 1919-2002.

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1. Move

Contains fragments from ‘Moving On Song’ written by Ewan MacColl sung by Sheila Stewart of Rattray (courtesy of Lismor Recordings). Also a sample of ney flute played by Amir Shahzar from the track ‘Bandari’ on the album ‘Imaginary Ritual’ by East-West Ensemble (courtesy of Magda Records).

“The big twelve wheeler shook my bed…the farmer said your work’s all done…the local people said to me…move, shift.”

Sheila’s voice is a rare find. I’ve known her since I was a youngster and her voice has always enthralled everyone who hears it. A powerful and passionate singer, she comes from a family of travelers famous for their music and songs, who are best known as “The Stewarts of Blair”. She would refer to herself as Romany, the oldest race of nomadic people in Europe (they have certainly been in Scotland for well over a thousand years). The origins of Roma are thought to be Indian which might explain their striking eyes and jet-black hair.

 

2. Blackbird

Contains part of ‘What A Voice, What A Voice’ sung by Lizzie Higgins (courtesy of Lismor Recordings), and a sample of Gregorian Chants.

Lizzie, who is unfortunately no longer with us, is a national treasure who learned most of her ballads from her mother, Jeannie Robertson. I will never forget the first time I heard her sing this song. I was about 12 years of age and couldn’t believe that a person could make such an amazing sound.

This song concerns a young girl who gets pregnant only to find that her lover takes no more to do with her.

“When my apron, it hung low,
my true love followed through the ice and snow,
Now my apron it hangs tae my shin,
he passes by and ne’er looks in.”

 
Sheila Stewart. Still image courtesy of ArtWorks Scotland

3. Chanter

Contains a fragment of ‘Mrs MacLeod Of Raasay’ sung by Mairi Morrison (courtesy of The Alan Lomax Archive. Also contains a fragment of a narrative on bagpipes by David Munrow (courtesy of Gillian Munrow).

The basis of this dance track is the popular pipe tune ‘Mrs MacLeoad of Raasay’ sung in the ‘puirt ceantaireachd’ or ‘piping song’ style of the Outer Hebrides.

 

4. Nae Regrets

A medley comprising ‘No Regrets’ (courtesy of EMI Records France) sung by Edith Piaf, ‘I’ll Awa Hame’ sung by Annie Watkins (courtesy of Springthyme Records) and original music by Martyn Bennett.

Annie, from Dundee, was about 4 feet 10 inches in height with a voice not of angel, but with the power of a small PA system. I would often hear her singing at the folk festivals in Fife in the 1980s, singing above perhaps fifteen to twenty musicians and she could still drown them out! She was a well known character in the folk world and reminded me very much of a Dundonian version of Edith Piaf.

Martyn Bennett and Michael Mara. Photo credit: BJ Stewart.

5. Liberation

Contains part of Psalm 118 to the tune ‘Coleshill’, sung in Gaelic by Murdina and Effie MacDonald, and recorded by Thorkild Knudsen in 1964 (courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives/Greentrax Recordings). The English translation of the psalm is recited by Michael Marra.

The singing of Psalms in Gaelic is sadly a dying art in the Highlands these days, although as a boy I remember hearing it at the Free Church in Uig, Skye where my Grandmother’s family were from. It is exclusively Protestant, or to be more precise, a phenomenon of the Gaelic Presbyterian Churches, where the sound of any instrument except the human voice is forbidden. It is more usually sung by a congregation, with “guidance” from an elder who is known as the Precenter. He will start each strain of the Psalm from the “Psalter” (a book with the words and the basic melody such as Barton’s Psalms published in 1706) and will be joined by the rest of the congregation after the first line. It is the most spine-tingling experience to hear this music in the flesh as the Psalm can often rise to great emotional heights.

“The voice of rejoicing and salvation is
in the tabernacle of the righteous: the
right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.

I shall not die, but live, and
declare the works of the Lord.
The Lord hath chastened me sore: but
he hath not given me over to death.”

I was initially very worried about my setting of this Psalm, as I was sure it would be offensive or misunderstood, so I decided to visit Murdina at her home in Balantrushal on the Isle of Lewis. Although now in her late eighties, Murdina is a most impressive woman. She reassured me that back in 1964 she too had been very apprehensive about recording religious material for inclusion with what she termed ‘the vain songs’. It had given her many sleepless nights but she was resolved by something that came to mind from the scriptures: “I will cast your bread upon the waters…”

This piece ‘wrote itself’ at the beginning and end of a most traumatic and life changing experience. I could not find any other way to express the profound feeling of losing faith, and the determination to find it again. Out of respect for Murdina’s and Effie’s wishes, proceeds from this recording will go to raise money for the Stornoway Bethesda Hospice in Lewis.

 

6. Why

Contains fragments of a narrative from ‘The Old Home’, a conversation with the great Skye bard Calum ‘Ruadh’ Nicholson, recorded by Thorkild Knudsen (courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives/Greentrax Recordings). Also contains fragments of ‘Mo Ruin Geal Og’ sung by Flora MacNeil (courtesy of The Alan Lomax Archives).

For the Gael, the subject of war and loss has produced more beautiful songs than any other. The fragments of this elegy, sung by the wonderful Flora MacNeil, come from the words of Christina Fergusson written for her love William Chissholm, killed at Culloden in 1746. The Jacobite Cause has had more effect on the Gael than perhaps even the Great Wars of which Calum Ruadh is referring to.

Calum, who is apparently a relative of mine, although I never met him, is reminiscing as he looks at the ruin of his family home near Braes in Skye. He wonders why he survived the Great Wars when so many of his brothers and family members did not.

“In the war of your cause
you took all that I possessed and loved”

Flora is perhaps my favourite Gaelic singer. The above song was recorded when she was a young woman, however even in her seventies, her voice possesses great power and majesty.

L-R: Kirsten Bennett, Martyn Bennett, Deirdre Morrison. Photo credit: BJ Stewart.

7. Ale House

Contains the song ‘ The Bonnie Wee Lassie Who Never Says No” sung by the late, great Jeannie Robertson (courtesy of Topic Records).

Jeannie was ‘discovered’ in the early 1950s by Hamish Henderson. Recorded many times over the last twenty years of her life, her heavy, passionate voice and huge repertoire of ballads made her an underground cult figure during the 1960s folk revival. Awarded the MBE in 1968, her singing style influenced a whole generation of singer songwriters including Ewan MacColl and Bob Dylan.

This particular song is unusual for Jeannie, being very much a male party piece. The subject matter is fairly obvious; it’s basically getting “blind drunk”, getting laid, and not paying the bill.

 

8. Wedding

Improvisation on piano (Kirsten Bennett) and viola (Martyn Bennett). Contains extracts from the Gaelic Teachers Course compiled by Major Calum Iain McLeod. Also contains fragments of ‘An Treisamh’ by Miss Russell-Fergusson.

This abstract ‘tone-poem’ describes a fictitious but ‘typical’ Highland wedding. Kirsten and I made the improvisation shortly after our wedding.

Photo credit: BJ Stewart.

9. Rant

Contains fragments of ‘MacPherson’s Lament’ sung by the traveller Jimmie McBeath of Portsoy, from a private archive recorded in 1959 by Hamish Henderson.

MacPherson of Kingussie was an infamous ‘freebooter’ (whisky smuggler/illicit distiller) condemned to death at Banff in 1700 for robbing the rich and giving to the poor —a local Robin of Sherwood, I guess. He was found at Keith after running away and was caught when a local resident threw from an upstairs window, a blanket to restrain him.  The local inhabitants raised a petition for his reprieve but when the pardon was on its way, Macpherson’s arch-enemy, Lord Braco, the Sheriff of Banff, put the clock forward an hour to make sure he would hang.

The story goes that MacPherson was a very fine fiddle player and that before he was hanged he broke his fiddle over the gallows and threw it into the crowd. The fiddle is now kept in the MacPherson Museum in Newtonmore.

 

10. Storyteller

Contains the story “Daughter Doris” told by Davie Stewart, recorded in Edinburgh in 1955 by Hamish Henderson (courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives/Greentrax Recordings). It also contains a fragment from ‘Al-ward Al-froll’ from the album Charcoal Gypsies by Musicians of The Nile (courtesy of Real World Records/Long Distance) and a fragment of “Invocation” from The Kilmartin Sessions (courtesy of Kilmartin House Trust).

The story is an allegory about deceit, brutality, complicit victimisation and petty power struggles that go on in most families. The King (a control freak) throws out his daughter, Doris, for breaking his milk-pitcher, which is actually the fault of a deceitful jealous stepmother. He then proceeds to remove her limbs and ability to feed her baby using his sword (an allegory for complicit victimisation and cowardly brutality). He leaves her in a state of depression (she’s bleeding to death), but before he goes the daughter curses him, saying that he will be sick one day and the only person that will cure him is her son (guilt).

The daughter then meets an “auld wise man” (I guess he would be a psychotherapist today) who points out that she is actually quite capable of managing on her own and she goes on her way. Of course she gets word many years later that the King is dying (of remorse I think) and she goes to see him with her now grown up son.

The son uses the very same sword to chop off the King’s “poisoned foot” (he confronts him with what he has done to his mother Doris) and this cures him (of remorse and reconciles the King with his daughter). There is perhaps a twist here, in that the son takes the King’s place —I take this to mean that all our faults and grievances are passed on from one generation to the next no matter who hard we try and forgive them.”

Featured Release

  • Grit

    Martyn Bennett

    Released 12 October 2003

    Grit —the late Martyn Bennett’s most extraordinary work and his final project— is a deeply emotional collection of traditional singers showcased via an avalanche of sounds and beats, rooted in the past but glorying in modern dance culture.

By Martyn Bennett

Martyn Bennett was a Scottish folk musician and producer who is best remembered for his final album 'Grit', which blended traditional Scottish and travelling songs with electronic dance music.

Main photo credit: BJ Stewart

Published on Wed, 08 October 03

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