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THE MUCKLE SANGS - "Scottish Tradition 5" - Greentrax CDTRAX 9005

The highly acclaimed "Scottish Tradition" series of recordings were prepared from the tape archives of the School of Scottish Studies. The Muckle Sangs is the first of a series of fifteen albums which are being re-released by Greentrax, having been deleted by Tangent and previously released between 1971 and 1988.

The Muckle Sangs, (the big songs or ballads), is a unique album of original source material with much of the pioneering collection work having been done by Hamish Henderson. If you are serious in any way in researching into the ballad tradition, this album is an absolute must. If you sing ballads and you learned them from revival singers, you will be fascinated by this opportunity to go back to their sources. Forget that some of these singers are old and listen through to the style and spirit of their singing.

Recorded on location, often in the singers own homes, on some of the tracks the voices are often raw and shaky but the performances represent the oral tradition as it has been handed down through generations. Among the nineteen tracks, you can hear powerful versions of ballads by the legendary Jeannie Robertson and also the magnificent voice and style of her daughter Lizzie Higgins, altogether about twenty legendary names from the Scottish tradition.

Sometimes a selection of short sections of versions of the same song are grouped together to illustrate the variety of styles within the tradition. I particularly enjoyed a sequence of three versions of "The False Knight on the Road" two with rhythms familiar from modern revival versions and the third, my favourite, sung as a strathspey, a snippet lasting all of fifteen seconds yet in that time something to enjoy and learn from.

This is not a recording to buy for somebody to be introduced to ballads, there are several recordings of revivalist singers which make the ballads more accessible for the new listener, but it really is a record you can derive some special pleasure from. Listen for instance to Dick Gaughan singing "Andrew Lammie", if you have that in your collection (on the first LP from the Boys of the Lough) and contrast it with Jane Turriff's version here. They are both moving and yet quite different. A love of one will probably lead to another. I found one version of "False Knight on the Road" to be similar in style to Maddy Prior's version which introduced this song to so many people. I wonder if this was her source!

The re-issue of "The Muckle Sangs" has been possible with support from the Scottish Arts Council. All credit must go to Ian Green of Greentrax for his commitment to the project which would not seem to have a great commercial potential however, I understand that sales have been surprisingly healthy. This probably reflects the growing interest in ballads and the intrinsic quality of the material. Anything that is passed on in the oral tradition for generations must be something special. "The Muckle Sangs" can rightly be regarded as a "Jewel in the Crown" of this remarkable series.

John Muirhead

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This album was reviewed in Issue 1 of The Living Tradition magazine.