Sunday, January 24, 2010

Emily Smith, Jamie McClennan, and Robert Burns

Adoon Winding Nith

“2009 was the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns birth, and the year the year the Scottish government was calling the year of homecoming, inviting people all over the world to celebrate. Jamie and I wanted to do something to contribute, we weren’t quite sure what, “ says Scots Singer of the Year Emily Smith. She and her husband, multi instrumentalist Jamie McClennan, live not far from the eighteenth century Scottish bard’s stomping ground in Dumfries and Galloway in southern Scotland. It’s the area where Smith grew up, learning a number of the poet’s songs along the way.

“My dad said, you could do a concert of all Burns songs, and I thought, yeah, we could get to that. Once we started talking about it, we decided if we were going to learn a whole gig’s worth of material, then we should do a tour -- maybe a tour here in Dumfries and Galloway, where there are little towns and villages that never get to have concerts in them. That might be a sort of quirky way to contribute to the homecoming year, we thought. Then we thought, as long as we’re going to learn all this material, we really should make a recording of it. I wanted it to be a different Burns album, though -- there are so many of them out there coming not only from Scotland, but all over the world.”

The duo has succeeded, offering a lively, upbeat, conversational and very musical take on eleven the bard’s songs, making a direct connection between songs of tradition and the ears and interests of contemporary listeners. “At first, I wanted to have songs that he wrote about this region, or people from this area, and then some other of his songs that folk might not know so well,” Smith says, “ and then there are several on there just because they are ones I’ve always wanted to learn or we just really enjoy playing!”

The title track and first cut on the recording, Adoon Winding Nith, draws listeners in with a driving beat on a traditional tune backing Burns’ words -- Burns often chose traditional melodies to which to set his words, allowing for quite a lot of variation and interpretation in subsequent years. Rather than a song of the beauties of this major river of the southwest, it celebrates the beauties of a young woman of the area. Silver Tassie finds Smith and McClennan in gentle and haunting mood on a song about a man drinking a parting glass and missing his love as he goes off to war. In Soldier Laddie, we meet a woman who is well acquainted with soldiers a vivid portrait by Burns that finds partnership in the musicians’ lively choices. The song itself, part of a cantata Burns wrote called The Jolly Beggars, was suppressed during his lifetime as being socially and politically dangerous. Another political song -- and perhaps an even more dangerous one -- is A Man’s a Man for A’ That, a ringing statement of the brotherhood of all, which the pair give a fine restrained treatment. Then there’s the happy fiddler who finds welcome everywhere with his tunes in Whistle Ower the Lave o It, and the dancing ploughman, who works hard each day and comes home weary, but still delights his wife with his dancing and his bonnie looks, in The Plooman. The other tracks are equally fine. For the most part it’s just Smith on lead vocals, piano, and accordion, with McClennan on backing vocals and fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.

“That was another idea we had for this album,” says Smith. “Jamie and I play with a band, but quite often now we’re working as a duo. Duncan Lyall played bit of bass on the album, but basically it is just the two of us, and that maybe shows people a bit of a different side of Jamie and me.

“We wanted to do something different with the packaging, too,” Smith says, “so we commissioned an artist friend of ours, John Johnstone, to create some paintings of us as though we were hanging out with Burns, maybe having a drink or singing a song. He came up with four fantastic paintings, and the one we chose for the cover is as though we are all sailing down the River Nith.”

If you are new to the work of Robert Burns (and if you are, you’ve still likely sung a song or two of his. -- Auld Lang Syne for example) this is a fine place to start. If you grew up learning about him, Smith and McClennan’s album will add to your understanding of his work, and it’s well worth repeated listening.

side note: Smith and McClennan each have very fine solo albums out as well.
They are heading out for a run of gigs in New Zealand and Australia just now, so if you are reading from there or happen to be in the neighborhood, take the chance to see them live.

another side note: 2010 is Scotland's year of song -- look for more articles ahead along the Music Road featuring fine Scottish voices

You may also want to see

Music Road:: Emily Smith: Too Long Away

Music Road: Eddi Reader sings more of the songs of Robert Burns

tuning up for Burns Night: Jim Malcolm

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


Blogger Alexandra Grabbe said...

Fascinating to learn the poet actually used traditional melodies. Thanks for sharing the background to this recording.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have learned so much about Robert Burns this year. Thanks for adding to it!

4:52 PM  

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