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Jack Beck - "Half Ower Half Ower tae Aberdour" LTCD1006

The first track of this CD 'Fordell Ball' shows how the hauntingly expressive voice of Jack Beck is unsurpassed in Scotland for conveying the tenderness and passion of a love song. This true lyric quality is also evident in 'The Night Visiting Song' and 'The Band O Shearers'. This is the kind of song for which Jack has been known and admired for many years. The darker depths of horror in the 'Pills of White Mercury' which appears in Vol 7 of the Greig-Duncan Collection as 'Disordered' are also touched on with understated but effective skill. Ballads like 'The Gypsy Laddies, Willies Fatal Visit, Sir Patrick Spens, demand a wider range of dramatic power than Jack can bring to them, but the tragic overtones that colour the story are not lost. He has not quite the right degree of rumbustiousness for bothy songs like 'Dunfermline Feein' Mercat' and 'Tattie Time' and bawdie songs like 'The Plaidie Awa,' but the sly Fife humour he puts into his versions can still make us smile. 'The Donibristle Mosmorran Disaster' is a song very close to Jack's heart, since his own grandfather was a miner and appears as part of a rescue team in a photograph from family archives in the accompanying booklet. This reminds me of some of what Jack said to me, in the late 1980s, when I was recording him for my book, 'The Sang's the Thing'. He remembers the 1960s when he sang with Barbara Dickson and the 1970s when he sang as part of the group Heritage, and as he says "Now I sing almost entirely Lowland Scots tradition, simply because I feel I can't convincingly sing anything else." I think this CD demonstrates just how well he can do this.

One of the best features of the album is the fine backing afforded by Jack's own guitar playing and the excellent musicians he has called on, including Neil Paterson on pipes and whistle, Pete Clark on fiddle and George Haig on concertina and autoharp. So many singers drown themselves out or try to fit the song to the accompaniment, instead of fitting the accompaniment to the song, but these musicians know better and their tasteful, appropriate and musicianly playing enhances and points Jack's songs perfectly. It is also good to hear a clear unhurried unaccompanied singer.

The booklet notes are informative about Jack's sources, but not so much about the background of the songs themselves. For example, while the point is made that 'The Twa Sisters' is a ballad found all over Europe, no mention is made of the fact that it is also a well-known and widespread folktale under the title of 'The Singing Bone'. Traditional singers inevitably sing variants of other versions of their songs, but only collectors collate these: singers by and large work in other ways. It is also a pity that the words of the songs are not provided. But I heartily endorse Jack's wish that "we will all learn to sing them with our own voices."

Sheila Douglas

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This album was reviewed in Issue 46 of The Living Tradition magazine.