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THOMAS FRASER - Treasure Untold

THOMAS FRASER - Treasure Untold
Nel Music DADA 3

World music is supposed to bring to our attention the best artists from small countries, loved by local populations with good reason, but normally lacking the means to get out into the big wide global world. That must make Shetland country singer Thomas Fraser the most minimalist example of world music ever. Basically he lived by himself in a remote part of Scotland in the 1950s and 1960s with an audience of himself, and sang to his tape recorder.

It sounds odd, but is actually very enjoyable. This is the third archive release of the man who couldn't become a recording artist until electricity was introduced to his home island, but it is good quality and all very enjoyable. Fraser, whose inspiration was the country music records of 'Singing Brakeman' Jimmy Rodgers, was not such a recluse as he sounds, though there were not many people around on his home island of Burra. He seems to have been involved in 'sessions' with visiting musicians, including a classical violinist who came to Shetland on tour, and he farmed out tapes of his singing to family and friends. There was even a record, though that came from an advert in 'Exchange and Mart' rather than through the normal phalanx of A & R men.

It is a very enjoyable singalong, with 25 songs, starting off with Mississippi River Blues and including Rambling Cowboy, Mississippi Moon, Melancholy Blues and even some yodelling on the likes of Blue Yodel No.4. These are interspersed with some tunes from Fraser's more likely role as a Shetland fiddler, with The Mason's Apron; Irish Hornpipes, which are actually reels, and The Atholl Highlanders. He sings with a slightly American lilt, having learnt most of the songs from the records, but it is a testament to his success that Jimmy Rodgers' family have embraced this homage wholeheartedly.

In many ways this is very similar to those old forgotten soul singers that Andy Kershaw used to search out in backwoods U.S.A. And you cannot argue against it being folk music; albeit folk music of the electronic age, learned at the knee of mum's gramaphone, but still used foremost to entertain the house and extended family. Many of our traditional songs are really no more than the pop songs of the 17th and 18th centuries, after all There's a nice little eighteen-page booklet which explains where these tapes were found, and a nifty bit of design on the CD itself, which is a pastiche of the middle of an old Regal Zonophone 78. A more literal take than usual on having the lonesome blues.

Bob Harragan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 66 of The Living Tradition magazine.