Singer, Poet, and Scotland: Eddi Reader and Robert Burns

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Being part of a punk band, acting the part of a country singer in a television series, and scoring a number one UK pop chart hit: those are all part of singer and songwriter Eddi Reader’s resume. She’s also brought the music of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns to the symphony and to stages at folk festivals and clubs. She’s played for passers by on Sauchiehall Street in her native Glasgow, as well, which is how Reader began her performing career.

Singer, Poet, and Scotland: Eddi Reader and Robert Burns

“I never really left the folk world,” she says. “I’d always go to folk clubs, no matter if I’d been playing for the queen, or Prince Charles, or Princess Diana at those charity things they used to do, I’d still be goin’ down to the folk club to have a bit of a jam, you know.” Reader grew up in Glasgow and in Ayr, the oldest of seven in a family where she heard her mother singing jazz and pop standards and her grandmother singing traditional songs of Ireland and Scotland. Those songs, as well as chart hits of the day, formed Reader's repertoire as she busked along Sauchiehall Street and later in other countries of Europe. Living in London, she sang background for pop musicians and did a variety of band gigs before scoring the hit song Perfect with Fairground Attraction, all the while still jamming at folk sessions and missing her native Scotland.

 

 

fiddle on both videos - John McCusker

 

So she moved back to Glasgow and began a solo career with several well-received albums which brought together her interests in folk and pop music, and her growing maturity as a writer and a singer. Then there was Robert Burns.

“I’d often thought I’d like to do a traditional album, songs from my own culture and my own background, songs I’d heard as I was growing up,” Reader says. “I’d decided I would do that, and then I met John McCusker, an amazing fiddle player. He’d been raised with the traditional music of Scotland, so I asked him if he would help me gather a band. I had this little tape of all the songs I wanted to do. Some Robert Burns songs, and a few others, like The Lowlands of Holland, which I’d done on an album with Donal Lunny, and Jock o’ Hazeldine, which I did with Fairground Attraction. I had this bunch of songs....” then the Royal Scottish National Orchestra called “out of the blue, and said that they wanted to do a celebration of Burns music with the orchestra, and would I come and sing, and did I have any arrangements?” Reader thought it sounded like a great gig and said yes to it. There turned out to be a catch. “I had nothing in my musical experience that led me to know what you had to supply to an orchestra,” she recalls. The orchestra put her in touch with cellist and arranger Kevin McCrae, “and I sang songs over the phone to him, and then played my guitar and made a tape, and he did the arrangements. He’s sadly passed on since, but I think wherever he is, he’s looking down and smiling whenever we play his arrangements.”

Then Reader was asked to do a Burns concert at the Celtic Connections Festival as well. But...she only had a handful of songs, and arrangements for just a few of those. The breadth and depth of Robert Burns’s writing surprised even native Scot Reader, once she got looking into it. Auld Lang Syne is a classic of remembrance and farewell, Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn/Scot Wa hae is a call of history and patriotism, love and loss inform Ae Fond Kiss, there’s a lively tribute to a friend in Willie Stewart, rowdy and bawdy doubled meanings of Brose and Butter, funny dialogue in The Shepherd’s Wife, and a quiet plea for an end to war in Ye Jacobites, and all of that is just a bit of poet’s work.

Reader’s idea was to make the music something Burns himself might have enjoyed sitting in on. “I wanted it to be a bit of a rough diamond, so I asked John McCusker to form a band that was a wee bit rough and ready, so that it wasn’t all fully orchestrated. It’d sort of have that band in bar sound, circa 1787. I wanted a bit of that in there. I needed that live, passionate sense behind the music just to make it real for me. keeping it an alive music, rather than a music that was presented to you as you’d present a bunch of flowers,” she says. “I wanted it to be that you feel that you’re experiencing the songs as though they’d just been written.”

That comes across on the recording Eddi Reader Sings Robert Burns as well as it did in the concert. “As I read more and more about him,” Reader says, “I get the sense that he was the same as the rest of us, a spokesman for the glorious in the ordinary, the sublime in the mundane. I have met many, I guess, who might be like him, in that county of Ayrshire, and in the rest of Scotland. We are all Robert Burns’s babies.”

As much as she is a fine interpreter of Robert Burns, Reader is also a gifted songwriter in her own right. You may hear this on her solo albums including Peacetime and Love Is the Way, and in this video below where Reader and Emily Smith sing Leezie Lindsay, which is a writing collaboration of sortsbetween Eddi Reader and Robert Burns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kerry Dexter is Music Editor for Wandering Educators.  You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com

You may find more of Kerry’s work at Music Road, Journey to Scotland, Perceptive Travel, Strings, National Geographic Traveler, and other places in print and on line.

 

Photo courtesy and copyright Eddi Reader

 

 

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