The Force behind Greentrax
by Rob Adams
Ian Green is glad he was on his best behaviour when the phone call came through from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama a few weeks ago. As he listened to the reason for the call, he was sorely tempted, as would be his natural response, to tell whoever it was to “go away and get raffled,” hang up and curse whichever of his friends had set up this daft hoax.
Instead, he heard out the caller and learned that he was indeed to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Music from this august seat of learning as a tribute to his work in Scottish traditional music over the past forty years. He’s in good company, because, also being presented with an honorary degree at the ceremony on July 4th was Billy Connolly - one of the many artists to whom Ian has given a leg-up over the years in various organisational roles and especially as the driving force behind Scotland’s leading folk music label, Greentrax Recordings.
“Coming on top of the Hamish Henderson Award for services to Scottish traditional music at the Scots Trad Music Awards last year, this is a tremendous honour. I’m very, very proud. It shows that they recognise that people at the bottom of the pile are doing things as well as artists and musicians,” says Ian, adding that next on the list will be … the roof falling in.
Let’s hope not, although Ian may have gone on to tempt providence by revealing that his first response to the Scottish music he has become so passionately devoted to was far from enthusiastic.
“My father and my uncle Bill were both pipers and they used to march up and down the garden, playing with great gusto, and I hate to say this but my brother and I used to run away in terror when they started up,” he recalls. “But my dad also played the chanter in the house and people would come round, maybe with a moothie or a set of spoons, and there’d be sessions and songs sung round the fire which really gave me my introduction to the music.”
Growing up in Morayshire, where his father worked as a head gardener on various estates, Ian was in the midst of a great song heritage and the songs he heard on these evening get-togethers would later re-enter his life. “We led quite an itinerant existence because my father often found it difficult to get work as the big estates economised and were affected by death duties and that sort of thing, and eventually we moved to Edinburgh. My father stopped playing the pipes and I just became involved with whatever the popular music of the day was, I suppose.”
After leaving school, Ian became, he says modestly, “a man of many talents and master of none.” He followed his father’s example by serving his apprenticeship as a gardener, decided this wasn’t what he wanted to do and then joined the army where he trained as a motor mechanic and served in Korea. With marriage to June, his constant supporter, impending, he then joined the police, which is where his interest in folk music became rekindled and developed into a passion.
“I was watching TV one night in the mid 1960s, back in the old black and white days, and this programme came on called Hootenanny,” he says, remembering The Corries and Gaelic singer Dolina McLennan among the participants with relish. “I immediately related to a couple of the songs because I’d heard them sung back in our house in Morayshire and I went into a record shop the next day and lo and behold there was an LP called Hootenanny Volume 1. So I bought that and started buying whatever folk albums were available, the Corries, the Dubliners, the Clancy Brothers. I couldn’t get enough of them.”
When, towards the end of the 1960s, the police social club in York Place, Edinburgh was being set up, colleagues aware of Ian’s interest in folk music suggested that he organise a folk night to raise funds for the Angling Section. The idea proved so popular that a regular folk club, fortnightly on Sundays, followed. Dubbed “Fuzzfolk” by Hamish Imlach, one of its most popular guests, the club quickly began to thrive - too quickly for the organisers. “There were two of us, Davie Scougall and myself, and we used to go round the folk pubs to see who was worth booking,” says Ian. “There weren’t that many professional artists around in those days. We’d had the McCalmans, who I got hold of through Ian McCalman’s dad because I used to do deliveries for him when he had a gardening shop on the Mound. And we’d had The Bitter Withy but we needed more acts to keep the club going.”
Any singer or musician who has ever joked about not being able to get arrested in the pursuit of work may wish to look away at this point. Because being arrested was exactly what Fuzzfolk’s next targeted guests thought was happening to them.
In his travels around Edinburgh Ian had spotted a poster for a duo called The Cotters. Thinking he might be on to something he bought their album and decided they’d be the kind of entertaining act that would do well at the club. By sheer coincidence, shortly afterwards he was driving along in a patrol car when he noticed a sticker on the car in front’s rear window, saying “We are the Cotters.” There were guitars sticking up in the back seat. What further evidence was required? The cop car chase was about to enter the folk tradition.
“I followed this car, thinking, There’s bound to be a point soon where I can flag it down. But there was always another corner coming up, and another, and we ended up following this perfectly innocent motorist for a mile or more,” says Ian. “Eventually we got on to a quiet, straight stretch of road and I overtook and flagged this car down and got out. The driver got out, ashen faced, and said ‘What have I done?’ I said, ‘Nothing, I want to book you for the Police Folk Club,’ Poor Ally Watson, it was, he nearly had a heart attack. But he got a gig, so he was able to see the funny side of it, I hope.”
Whether the police powers that be would have been amused with this use of police time and property is another matter, adds Ian. But if getting booked for Fuzzfolk could damage a folksinger’s health – at least temporarily – running the club also turned out not to be the best career move Ian made.
“In those days, folk music was seen as very much part of the political left wing and there was quite a lot of resistance to the club within the police hierarchy. I was told later that my promotion had been turned down several times because of my involvement with the music and although I was an inspector when I retired, my boss told me I would have made another rung or two if it hadn’t been for the folk club.”
Billy Connolly was one artist whose appearance at the club caused a minor controversy. Connolly’s then infamous Last Supper sketch had offended one officer who wrote an indignant letter to the Police Welfare Committee, suggesting that Connolly be banned. Ian, who sat on the committee, was able to explain that this was just a bit of fun, not a dig at religion, and Connolly’s return booking went ahead.
“We’d booked Billy very early on in his solo career, right after he left the Humblebums. I remember Davie and me going down to a pub in Dalkeith to see him and we offered him a booking on the spot. So he was a friend of the club and it was just this one idiotic character who was outraged. When Billy came back, he said, ‘I’d better be careful tonight.’ So I told him, ‘No, just go ahead and do your usual performance.’ He was quiet in the first half but he relaxed after that and was just his normal, hilarious self in the second half.
“Incidents like this annoyed me because I wasn’t alone in believing that the folk club had been great PR for the police. There were several Folk on Two recordings made there. The Rankin File, who were a popular Edinburgh group at the time, recorded part of an album there and there was Bill Barclay’s brilliant live album, which included his take on The Twelve Days of Christmas, a top ten single – that was recorded at the Edinburgh Police Folk Club.”
One Saturday lunchtime, as was their habit, Ian and John Barrow, now best known as the proprietor of the Stoneyport Agency, were having a pint in Sandy Bell’s, then as now the hub of Edinburgh’s folk scene. Talk turned to the lack of co-ordination on the folk club scene. Artists were coming up from England to play a one-off club gig, only to return a few weeks later to do another one-off gig. Nobody seemed to know what was going on.
By this time, Ian and John had been involved in starting Edinburgh Folk Club and had put on concerts by Clannad, Planxty and the Bothy Band. The pair would later join forces in running Edinburgh Folk Festival, with Ian stage- managing concerts and getting a real grounding in the whole folk music business.
This particular Saturday, though, was to see the birth of their next moneymaking venture, as John described it. None of their moneymaking ventures had ever actually made any money, as Ian reminded him, and Sandy Bell’s Broadsheet would be no different. But this, they decided, was what the folk scene needed to pull it closer together.
How right – and, occasionally, wrong – they were. Starting off as a single sheet with basic gig news, Sandy Bell’s Broadsheet quickly became required reading for everyone involved in the scene and soon expanded to include articles and record reviews. Ian, John and Ken Thompson, who was the professional journalist of the trio, would get together on press night with three portable typewriters, two bottles of liquid paper (Ken, thanks to his day job, was able to put ideas straight onto paper), and some other liquid sustenance. Thus provisioned, they’d work into the early hours to produce the latest issue.
“The response was amazing,” recalls Ian. “We had this huge mailing list - all on card indexes, none of your computer-stored information in those days – and we wrote all the envelopes by hand. So it was a home-made effort in lots of ways. But we got great feedback. I remember Karl Dallas, who was then writing for Melody Maker, which itself was a prestigious paper at the time, getting in touch to say, ‘What you guys are doing is great.’ He liked the fact that we were quite hard hitting in our opinions, although later, towards the end of the Broadsheet’s ten year run, he came back to say that we were maybe getting a bit soft.”
Some of the hard-hitting opinions weren’t appreciated and Ian remembers a right old to-do breaking out after one well-known Scottish singer-songwriter’s latest work was afforded rather less reverence than he and his followers thought was his due. “There were some incredible exchanges,” says Ian. “We ran letters for two or three issues and then we had to say, Enough! But it was invigorating and the whole enterprise was great fun. When I think back to us putting it together, cut and paste meant literally that. Sometimes we’d cut out one word and replace it before sending the copy off to the printers.”
Somewhere along the way – he can’t remember when or how it began – Ian started taking a box of LPs along to sell at Edinburgh Folk Club and at a few festivals. These were mostly on the Topic and Leader labels, and other labels whose releases weren’t readily available in shops. One box became two. Two became a car load and before anything as sophisticated as a business plan was drawn up, Ian had developed a thriving sideline.
“By the time my retirement from the police was coming up, we were sending stuff by mail order all over the world and I was having difficulty coping with the record business as well as the day job,” Ian says. “You were allowed to prepare for an occupation outside the force but I already had one, so when I finally retired in 1985 it was a simple transition from the station to the stock room I had in the house at the time.”
The move from record retailer to running his own record company wasn’t planned either and came as a result of a casual conversation with fiddler Ian Hardie of Jock Tamson’s Bairns.
“Ian was about to issue a book of tunes and he asked if I might be able to give him any help with promotion. I immediately said that the best way to promote the book would be to issue an LP of the tunes. Of course, the next question was what label should we take this to.
“From my experience selling records, I was aware that the big companies, RCA and CBS particularly, had shown an interest in folk music but it had never lasted. The albums would be deleted after a couple of years and on top of that there was a lot of talent that wasn’t being given any chance to record at all. There were one or two labels in Scotland – Robin Morton had set up Temple by this time – so I decided to invest some of my pension into forming my own label.”
The name Greentrax Recordings wasn’t Ian’s idea. This came from a competition run on BBC Radio Scotland’s Travelling Folk programme which offered a pair of LPs for the best name. Greentrax Recordings won, although Ian was rather taken with a late entry which missed the deadline: Cop Out Records.
“It was never intended to be as intensive as it’s become,” says Ian. “The original plan was to release three or four albums a year, at most, but because I was so widely known, between the mail order business, selling records at festivals and my involvement in folk clubs and the Scottish Traditional Music and Song Association, people kept knocking on the door.”
The McCalmans were early supporters of the new label, offering Ian a leg-up in return for the gigs he’d put their way over the years, and have stayed with Greentrax ever since. The planned three or four albums a year turned into eight or ten and with the mail order business beginning to decline, within two years the tail was beginning to wag the dog.
“It fairly quickly reached the stage where I had to decide to run one part of the business or the other, and the label was by far the bigger challenge, which meant that it won hands down! I gave the mail order list to The Living Tradition, because they were looking at running a similar operation, and concentrated on Greentrax.”
Breaks such as being offered the chance to select an album from the Aly Bain & Friends television series – a break that multiplied in significance when the series was immediately re-transmitted with an unheard of free commercial for the album at the end of each programme – didn’t hinder progress. That album has gone on to pass the 25,000 sales mark, one of Greentrax’s best performances. With the volume of business increasing and the release schedule rising to one or more a month, the Greens decided to find proper business premises, sell their Edinburgh home and move to Cockenzie in East Lothian, where the company is also based.
“For the first seven years I did everything myself, with June’s help, and with the business beginning to take over the house, it was becoming too much. I took on staff which meant that we had to keep the turnover coming in but it also allowed me to get out to events like Midem, the record industry jamboree in the south of France.”
When first confronted with this assembly of music biz big wigs, Ian was overawed. But it was here that the owner of Australian label Larrakin Records approached him, informed him that Eric Bogle had a ‘Best of’ album coming out and asked if Greentrax wanted the UK rights. With a handshake, the deal was done.
“I’d encountered Eric years before when he was in Scotland on holiday. June Tabor had just recorded one of his songs and I thought he was a star. I suggested that he make an album then, but he said he didn’t have enough songs. Six months later, he brought out Now I’m Easy with all these great songs on it, No Man’s Land, Waltzing Matilda, Leaving Nancy. Now I was getting effectively a greatest hits and we’ve continued to release his stuff, which is great because for me he’s one of the best songwriters around.”
Other success stories, including the strange tale of MacUmba – whose album sold a miraculous one thousand copies in one shop in Austin, Texas alone after a local university radio station played it – have been balanced by a few disappointments and the occasional bit of stick.
“I got terrible criticism from other people in the business for issuing Shooglenifty’s Venus in Tweeds album,” says Ian. “They were saying things like, ‘That’s not the way the music should be going.’ Well, I’m sorry but it was the way this band were taking it and I thought it was a really exciting, fresh sound. The upshot was, Folk Roots, as it then was, went nuts over them, put them on the front cover and within a few months the band was booked onto every festival going.”
The Peatbog Faeries were another controversial signing who went on to prove Greentrax’s judgement correct and as he surveys the complete set of the label’s CD covers on the office wall, Ian opines that he’s proud of every one of the 350 or so items in the catalogue.
“One or two may not have sold as many as we hoped they would – we’ve had difficulty shifting traditional singers over the past few years, for example – but that’s just the nature of the business. I look at the catalogue and we’ve covered the tradition, from the School of Scottish Studies Muckle Sangs series we inherited from Tangent and which I was delighted to re-issue, through piping, country dance bands and into the young generation with GiveWay and Bodega.
“There are so many talented young musicians around these days and I keep saying I’m going to slow down and release fewer albums, but then something else new and exciting turns up, and I can’t say no.”
Choosing the tracklist for the 3CD set, Scotland: The Music & The Song which celebrates Greentrax’s first twenty years and is reviewed elsewhere in this issue, may have been a difficult task - because it meant leaving some artists out - but it wasn’t a chore, Ian says. Which might well sum up his involvement in the company itself.
“The work I do here is a job, I know, but I don’t see it as that. Music has been my hobby all my life and I think everyone’s ideal is to get paid for doing their hobby,” he says. “I remember when the first batch of the first LP we issued arrived, I pulled out a copy and examined it, and it gave me immense pleasure just to have been part of the process. And you know, I still go into the stock room when the new releases are delivered and take out a copy of each of them, and I get the same buzz as I did from that first one. Just knowing that I’ve played a wee part in making this music available keeps me going.”
WEBSITE: Link to Greentrax website