Scotland's Storyteller in Song: Archie Fisher

by Kerry Dexter / Apr 19, 2016 /
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Music from contemporary songwriters, from traditional sources, from his own composing: this is what you will find on Archie Fisher's recording A Silent Song. That is a mix he has been stirring across his career. Now in his mid seventies, Fisher finds that music still draws him on. "It has only occurred to me relatively recently that the incentive to keep doing it is hearing that new song," he says. It might be a song he'd want to learn, he points out, but more often he says it is a case of thinking, "Oh, that's a stepping stone towards something I want to write."

Scotland's Storyteller in Song: Archie Fisher

Fisher grew up in Glasgow, where his father, a police inspector, was also a singer who liked all sorts of music from jazz to show tunes. His mother, from Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides, was a native speaker of Gaelic. Fisher credits both his father's tastes and the poetic cadences of his mother's speech as elements that would come through in his music. 

His choices for the twelve tracks on A Silent Song are "almost the kind of format I use in live performances," he says, in which he draws from tradition, the work of favorite songwriters, and his own work. "It's a fair balance on the album, I suppose," Fisher continues. "The one that goes back furthest for me is Bonnie Annie Laurie, because my dad used to sing that." There's another song, The Gifts, which Fisher says he learned just for the album. It is by contemporary writer Richard Berman "and it's so enigmatic, you know. Just simple images, but it could be set across any period of history. And it's a guy from the Bronx writing a Scottish song!" he says, laughing.

 

Fisher's gentle, relaxed way of singing, his fluent guitar playing, and the flashes of wit and story he often shares with his audiences have made him a favorite across his native Scotland and in his tours in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. These gifts stood him in good stead too as for twenty seven years he was the host of the well known BBC radio program Travelling Folk, where he presented an eclectic mix of folk-based music.

His own travels have fueled his writing, too -- and at times those travels are just as nearby as a walk over to his barn. He often draws on images from the natural world in his writing. "I think that's due to the fact that twenty five or thirty years ago I moved out of the city, moved out of Glasgow, into the borderland. There's a very strong presence of nature in the borderland, a barometer for life, a calendar for life. The Waltz into Winter song came from quite a dramatic experience there. I had walked up to the stables to see the horses. There was this funny silence in the air. They come in the spring, and they are the herald of autumn." It is birds Fisher is speaking of, house martins that nest in the eaves, whose going left a silence which caught his ear. It proved an experience that Fisher took into a gentle and reflective song of loss and seasonal change.

 

Quite a bit of the music on A Silent Song touches on loss and change. In Fisher's hands and voice and guitar the music includes sorrow, to be sure, but also change, reflection and threads of hope and connection as well. The title of the album comes from just such a place - "It's a line from one of the songs on the album, called You Took the Day," he explains. "It was originally written when my mum passed on but it also applied when my younger sister Ray died. She was a very force of nature as a singer, as a person too. She left such a gap. All the lovely ballads and songs as she sang them aren't there any more, so that's why I called it A Silent Song."

It is a quiet album, gentle and reflective as the threads of music and lyric weave in and out of stories of change. In addition to his family background, Fisher credits poets of his native Scotland, especially national bard Robert Burns, as influence on his writing. 

Emily Smith is among those who have recorded Fisher's work. The song she sings here, Final Trawl (it is on her album called Echoes), comes from another of Fisher's travels and offers insight into the way he writes.

 

"There  used to be a festival in the north of Scotland, in Thurso. In the nearby harbor, in Scrabster, there were two rusty old trawlers tied up. They were  decommissioned, as they called it," he says, "they were due to be scrapped. That was kind of an indication of what was happening in the fishing industry at that time." Fisher had gone to sea in Scotland's Merchant Navy as a young man and he understood that "you know, men and boats, they form a very great affinity -- even the old steel trawlers that they kept there for such a time."

"It often happens to me, and I'm sure it's true with other singers," he continues, "that you hold an image, a visual image almost like the picture board thing they have in the cinema -- and then these images, they're the basis of a song. You have to find words that fit them.The song goes from these images." With Final Trawl, the thread of hope and connection makes vivid the passing of these seafaring vessels and, perhaps, the way of life that goes with them. 

Melody, image, and story fill Archie Fisher's work. Other artists including The Clancy Brothers, Garnet Rogers, and Barbara Dickson have called on him to add his talents to their projects. He has been honored by music organizations and by the Queen herself. He had that long career in radio, and  A Silent Song is his seventh solo recording. Archie Fisher's style, by turns lively and reflective, questioning and gentle, is part of the way he shares his thoughts about music. "Songs, whether they be my own or that of my fellow songsmiths or the unknown bards of the tradition, become very dear friends, worthy of respect in their own right," Fisher says. "Once written and sung, they have an existence of their own and will travel through many other performances. I hope that A Silent Song will be heard and find many new voices."

 

 

Kerry Dexter is music editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach her at music at wandering educators dot com.
You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Symphony, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places on line and in print, as well as at her own site Music Road.

Feature photo courtesy and copyright Joy C Bennett

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