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Interview with Robin Morton in Living Tradition 2006

This article with Temple Records founder Robin Morton was written by Rob Adams and appeared in issue 66 of The Living Tradition Magazine in 2006. Copyright, used with permission.



Robin Morton is reminiscing about Tommy Gunn, the pint-sized dynamo who spearheaded Boys of the Lough through the group's prototype stage.

"Tommy was amazing," says Morton, who assigns himself a supporting role as singer, concertinist and bodhran player behind Gunn and the inimitable Cathal McConnell in the Boys back then. "Tommy could play fiddle, sing, tell a story, dance, play the bones. You just had to switch him on and away he'd go." Those who know him will doubtless recognise a similar character trait in Morton, although they might also question the presence of an on/off switch.

Engage him in conversation - no, hang on, let's get this right, he'll engage you - and he becomes rantin', rovin' Robin. He is, he freely concedes, a man with opinions. He thinks as he speaks and often comes up with his best ideas that way. More importantly, though, from a musical point of view especially, he's a man of formidable energy and enthusiasm - a pioneer and visionary - and one without whom the traditional music scene would be much the poorer.

As the group's "player-manager" Robin steered Boys of the Lough, arguably pioneering the whole idea of a professional folk band: the Dubliners and Clancy Brothers were on a different, almost showbusiness path; the Chieftains had yet to give up their day jobs; and Planxty had still to appear on the scene then.

"Those were great times," he says. "Boys of the Lough played Cambridge Folk Festival and went down a storm. Then we went to America, played to 20,000 people at one festival and even got reviewed in Rolling Stone. We were ahead of our time, playing music they'd never heard before, and all playing the tune. Altan do something similar now. But you didn't hear it then. I remember Fred Woods interviewed us after that Cambridge gig and he thought we'd already been together for twenty years because of the way we played so tightly together. But jeez, it was hard work too."

There were compensations for the thousands of miles travelled, particularly on their American treks, however, and Morton has a fund of stories from this era, including the priceless image of him singing Ray Charles songs at a party in Los Angeles with The Persuasions - possibly the greatest a cappella group ever - as his backing singers. There was also the time on BBC Television's lunchtime programme Pebble Mill at One when the Boys had been talking about their latest trip to the U.S. and were asked to play something Cajun, resulting in an impromptu version of Jolie Blon with Morton singing in DIY French. The more business-slanted experiences have, of course, been put to more pragmatic use.

As manager and, in effect, non-playing member of Battlefield Band , Morton has guided one of Scottish music's most enduring attractions and ambassadors over much of their thirty-five-years-and-counting career, offering an early platform for major talents such as multi-instrumentalist and now hot record producer John McCusker and singer-songwriter Karine Polwart along the way.

Morton met Battlefield Band when they played opposite Boys of the Lough in Durham in 1972 and he offered to make an album with them, thinking - correctly - that Topic Records would be interested as he'd already proved himself a capable producer for the label. The relationship blossomed and the Batties would presently be followed by an impressive series of Temple productions including Dick Gaughan 's career-defining A Handful of Earth , Jock Tamson's Bairns' early work, and well before their Singing Kettle successes, Cilla Fisher & Artie Tresize's award-winning Cilla & Artie album.

Morton's visionary notions have often been shot down in flames at birth, only to prove doubters wrong in hindsight. When he wanted to make a record by the great Gaelic tradition bearer Flora MacNeil after being gobsmacked by her singing shortly after his arrival in Scotland in the late 1960s, people in the know thought he was nuts. The result was a timeless recording that still sells and has been reclaimed for Morton's Temple Records catalogue from its original label, Tangent.

Similarly with Christine Primrose in the early 1980s, a time when the idea of recording a young woman singing Gaelic songs was, Morton was told, preposterous. It would be far from preposterous now. Then there was the hoo-hah over the aptly named Controversy of Pipers album: a meeting of so-called kitchen pipers (pipers who played with folk bands) and, says Morton, he got it in the neck from the piping establishment for doing so. And we all know how scarce pipers in folk bands are today.

Fiddlers Five - doing exactly what it said on the tin: a bunch of fiddlers playing tunes together - attracted more opprobrium and puzzlement along the lines of "why do you want to release an album featuring a fiddle orchestra?" These days the concept's fairly commonplace. And by no means incidental to this whole story, there was Morton's championing of Alison Kinnaird, whom he had married after they met in Aly Bain's parents' house in Shetland and whose work returned the harp to its rightful place in the Scottish tradition. In fact, it was the rejection by Topic - which Morton regards more benignly these days – of Kinnaird's ground-breaking first album, The Harp Key, that led to Morton becoming proprietor of Temple Records - another pioneering move.

Morton's interests are by no means restricted to traditional music. He can easily get sidetracked onto Psychiatry, which was his field of study for much of the 1960s and remains very much an interest, and the range of people who have come into his orbit is remarkable, ranging from intellectuals such as T.C. Smout and E.P. Thompson to - not to suggest they're thick – broadcasters including Gloria Hunniford and Nick Ross. Hunniford and Morton went to the same school - they made their concert debuts together there, singing All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, and later met when Boys of the Lough appeared as Pebble Mill at One regulars - and Ross took over Morton's role as television news anchorman in Belfast.

So how did this son of Portadown come to traditional music? The answer is, through a door marked "jazz". "I wasn't - not many people were, I don't think - born into a traditional music family," says Morton. "That was more of a rural thing, whereas the music that first attracted me was urban. I got interested in jazz, particularly traditional jazz, as a kid because my father introduced me to Bunny Berigan, Miff Mole and Red Nichols. I used to write articles for the school magazine, arguing that jazz wasn't jungle music as it got called, and I'd listen to Voice of America's jazz hour on the radio. I ended up playing cornet in the school brass band, simply because I wanted to be Bunk Johnson."

The young Robin was also convinced that Jelly Roll Morton had to be a relative - Morton was a Scots-Irish name after all - and he was, he says, "really pissed off" to discover that Jelly Roll's real name was Ferdinand Lemott. Inevitably, his interest in jazz trumpet led him to Louis Armstrong, whom he still considers to be the king, although his appreciation of jazz extended to more modern styles as he became exposed to them.

Opportunities to play jazz in Portadown were non-existent and Morton refused to join local dance bands just to get a gig, a point of principle not without significance even now. "I'd nothing against dance music. I don't have anything against any music really. I mean, do what you want," he says. "But music for me had then and still has to be authentic. It doesn't matter what style of music - I love opera, but only if it's authentic opera - as long as it's the real thing, and jazz was it, as far as I was concerned."

Portadown didn't have a jazz specialist record shop either, so Morton would travel into Belfast, an hour's trip on the train with his saved pocket money, to buy 78s, which he still has, in Solly Lipsitz's shop. Solly's was a beacon for music enthusiasts whose numbers included a Belfast blues buff by the name of Van Morrison.

The step from traditional jazz to blues was logical and fairly easily taken at a time when British jazz musicians such as Chris Barber were bringing in real deal blues players like Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters to tour the UK. "You'd listen to blues singers and they'd lead you into the Appalachian folk singers," says Morton. "And then you'd find that many of the songs these singers sang were originally from the British Isles, and that link through the blues gave them a certain credibility, I suppose."

It would be some time before Morton began to concentrate on songs from his own native heath, however. There was a Woody Guthrie phase when he learned to play guitar and thrilled himself by singing Guthrie's Jesus Christ at Queen's University in Belfast and causing a mass walk-out by the audience. Later, on one of Boys of the Lough's American tours, he met Woody's travelling companion, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who offered to take Morton to meet Guthrie. Before Morton could say anything, Elliott added that Guthrie, then in failing health through Huntington's Chorea, didn't even recognise him any more. So Morton told him to forget it, a decision he has regretted ever since.

Ewan MacColl was a more readily accessible folk hero when Morton was in Manchester in the late 1950s, training as a teacher of the mentally handicapped, and used to spend most of his time either listening to the Liverpool Spinners, as the Spinners were then known, or down in London, where there were all-night jazz sessions with Tubby Hayes and MacColl's Singers Club to attend. Bob Davenport's more relaxed off-shoot from MacColl's club was another regular London haunt.

"Ewan was a lovely man, very interesting. Later, when I was studying at the London School of Economics, I used to get invited to his house whenever Irish musicians came over," says Morton. "Ewan, although he didn't always stick to this ideal himself, would always preach that you should sing songs from your own country and he sent me to the English Folk Dance and Song Society, who had a collection of songs from Ulster. I went along, thinking I might be able to record some of them, but they weren't having that. The School of Scottish Studies were a bit tight-arsed about that sort of thing at one time too. But it turned out that Ewan had the same songs - he'd got them out somehow and had the whole collection at home, and he gave me free access to them."

Morton had already begun to collect songs before MacColl's promptings. "My uncle said he knew singers and he told me about a pub away out in the middle of Armagh somewhere, where there were always great sessions, and we'd go out there. There was one man I remember who sang everything ve-ry de-lib-erate-ly and in these long, drawn out phrases. When he finished singing, people would say, 'Well done, John, that'll shorten the winter.' But before that, I'd got a kickin' playing rugby and ended up in Dungannon Hospital with these older men, and they said they had songs. One wouldn't sing to me because I had a tape recorder, but when the nurse came to give him the bed pan one day, he started singing from behind the screen. It must have looked ridiculous, me lying flat on my back holding a out microphone and him singing away as nature took its course…"

To hear it told now, life in the 1960s for Morton was a bit like being a pinball, bouncing between work as a teacher and psychiatric social worker, making field trips, getting into radio and record production, preparing two books of song collections for publication, and working towards a Ph.D.

At Queen's University while studying for his social work qualification, he fell in with Phil Coulter, composer, record producer and talent spotter, who was already working with Van Morrison in Them and ran the university's Entertainment Club, whose guests included Doc Watson. Morton also founded the folk club, which met in the anatomy museum - cue tales of singers singing murder ballads surrounded by heads, limbs, and testicles in jars - and started the Ulster Folk Music Society with a group of fellow enthusiasts, John Moulden, Dave Scott, Terry Brown, and the Shannons.

Based in an illegal office in Donegal Street which Morton - already the enthusiastic auction-goer who now leaves Alison biting her finger nails every time he goes off on a bargain hunt - furnished from sale rooms, this grandly titled organisation ran art classes and instrument classes and promoted concerts. "I was already arguing that traditional music was more than a communal music and that there were people who do it really well who deserve to be heard," he says. "You know, I once went to an arts council meeting and someone explained the difference between classical music and traditional music by saying that, in classical music, the amateurs learn from the professionals and in traditional music, it's the other way round.

"At first I thought this was quite clever. Then I realised it's wrong. Jeannie Robertson was a professional. Jimmy MacBeath could milk an audience with the nous and ability of Frank Sinatra. They may not have earned a proper living from the music but they were great, great artists. Young people today should know about these artists - and Robert Cinnamond, Fred Jordan, Michael Coleman, Paddy Canny and the great pipers of the past. I'm not suggesting that you always have to look backwards, but I believe young people should be made aware of these masters. They miss out on so much if they don't listen to them."

Somewhere around the mid 1960s Morton made his first stab at record production, gathering together Tommy Gunn, flautist Cathal McConnell, Irish piper Sean McAloon and a hammer dulcimer player, John Rae. He tried to interest Topic Records, who had been issuing folk revival recordings, in this new recording of traditional music. But he didn't get a response and didn't get the tape back either. It was the only copy of the tape, too, so this historic recording has probably been lost forever.

Gunn and McConnell were also enlisted to help with a radio ballad about unemployment that Morton had written for BBC Belfast. This was the beginning of both Morton the broadcaster and Boys of the Lough in earnest. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger were the catalysts in the latter enterprise, putting together a British tour that was to end up at MacColl's Singers Club, although not before Tommy Gunn encountered for the very first time the wonders of the modern tea bag - and thought that someone had put a mouse in his cup.

Booked to play at Aberdeen Folk Festival during this tour, the boys - who'd been going out under their three names - were told they needed a group name Boys of the Lough was one of the tunes they played, so Boys of the Lough they became.

It may have been at this very festival that Morton happened upon a young chap in winkle picker shoes and a teddy boy suit, lying against a wall playing a fiddle. Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick were on the same bill, so Morton told Swarb to go out and have a listen. Swarb returned ashen faced. Thus Aly Bain's arrival from Shetland was announced.

When Tommy Gunn decided that the rigours of touring - to say nothing of unsolicited visits from Danger Mouse - were no longer for him, Morton contacted Bain and Mike Whellans, who were then working as a duo, and proposed that they do a concert with two duos, Bain & Whellans and McConnell & Morton, and finish with a quartet set. They agreed, as did McConnell, which was just as well as Morton had already told the promoter that that's what was going to happen.

Meanwhile, to the relief of his interviewees who bristled under his forthright questioning, Morton had handed his television news anchoring reins over to Nick Ross and was preparing to complete his Ph.D in Edinburgh. Just to keep some money coming in, he kept doing radio interviews for the BBC and would rework them slightly for RTE in Dublin, under the name of "Robert Martin." This subtlety was lost on Cathal McConnell, who told Morton that he had a soundalike on RTE and still may not know - well, he will now - the truth of the matter.

Just after the Boys recorded their first album, Mike Whellans decided to go off to Denmark to be a one-man blues band. So Dick Gaughan came in, the album was rerecorded and the Boys were in business. Morton's Ph.D - which was to have compared the different kinds of madness found in Scotland and Ireland - never got completed, although he did give some characteristically unconventional tutorials at Edinburgh University before finally committing to the Boys full-time.

"Over the years up to 1980, when I came off the road, my role in the group changed and my musical instrument became, without wishing to sound manipulative, the other musicians around me," he says. "So I didn't know what I was going to do when I left. I spent six months trying to sort myself out. Then one day I walked into a shop in Bonnyrigg, picked up this magazine, Home Recording, and saw a recording machine and desk advertised for £5000. I thought, I've done quite a lot of album production for Topic between Battlefield Band and so forth now, I'll start a studio in the house, here in Temple."

Money was borrowed from the bank. The recording equipment was duly delivered and set up by the company rep, who then left, and ... er, nothing happened. Morton couldn't find the on/off switch (quiet at the back, please) because there wasn't one.

Temple Records has long since moved on from the "Faulty Studios" days, as Morton describes them. There have been some hairy moments, not least when fifteen hundred vinyl copies of The Harp Key arrived, pressed off-centre, and it took several further test pressings to produce a batch that didn't sound out of tune. There was also an experiment with stereo recording that resulted in Cilla Fisher's lead vocal being inaudible when a certain track from Cilla & Artie was played on radio.

"I've had panics, too, when I've realised that I haven't released anything new in over a year and thought, am I a record company or not? But I've never got into releasing something for the sake of maintaining a catalogue," Morton says. "It goes back to authenticity. I realised that what was important about Christine Primrose, for example, is that she's always used her personality to promote the music, not the music to promote her personality. The musicians I work with all tend to be that way. I don't mind people using the music to promote themselves, because it's hard to make a living in this business, but there's a danger that you end up doing stuff that you don't want to do just to try and keep doing what it is that you do want to do."

After forty-plus years of fighting traditional music's corner, Morton might be excused if he should decide to retreat behind the door of the home he and Alison have turned into a kind of domestic arts centre in this peaceful part of Midlothian, and concentrate quietly on his shelves full of books. But he remains as hands-on with Temple Records and Battlefield Band as ever and is a staunch advocate for traditional music and for the arts in general. Although he acknowledges that the Scottish Arts Council is doing a good job now, that hasn't always been the case and he's vented tirades against them when he's felt that traditional music hasn't been getting the support and recognition the SAC should be giving. As chairman of the Scottish Record Industry Association, he also told the SAC that they should be funding rock and pop music long before the idea was taken up - and he'll argue passionately that it's been artists across the broad spectrum of creative pursuits, not politicians, who have made Scotland an exciting place to be.

His fiercest scorn, however, is reserved for the lack of appreciation for traditional music in the media, especially those who continue to put forward the tired, ill-informed 'woolly jumpers' image of the folk scene.

"When I came to Scotland and I heard Flora MacNeil, Jeannie Robertson, Jimmy MacBeath, all these great singers and musicians who were being ignored at worst and paid lip service at best, I thought, people don't realise what riches they have here - and attitudes haven't changed that much really," he says. "There are commentators who think that, if you play a fiddle with just guitar accompaniment, then you're some kind of hillbilly, a noble savage or something. Unless you have a backbeat or African drums with a bagpiper, it can't be new. Nonsense. The real masters make it new - and alive - every time they play a tune or sing a song. Don't get me wrong: there's some wonderful music being played on African drums and bagpipes, but there's an awful lot of rubbish being called great folk music and a lot of great music being rubbished because the commentators don't understand it."

Television, he feels, is the worst offender, being fifteen years behind the times and having missed out on the chance to show the viewing public the tradition's riches. To illustrate this, he tells one last story about a television programme made in Belfast in the 1960s, when assembled on-site were the Dubliners, the Johnstons, a gang of technicians, set workers, camera operators, sound engineers and people looking important with clipboards, Morton and his friend John Maguire.

"It was a big production in the King's Hall. There were four or five stages, and there were all these people banging, putting up sets and what not, and the other bands tuning up," he recalls. "Amongst this racket, John Maguire started singing The Bonnie Wee Lassie Who Never Said No and everyone stopped what they were doing. John was a genius and everyone there was captivated by his singing and wanted to hear what happened at the end of the song. And when John finished the song, everyone applauded. "Now that should have told the TV people what traditional music could do, but John never appeared on TV again. He should have had his own programme, and that lack of appreciation hasn't really changed. We get TV programmes but they never do them very well; the music's always watered down or there are half a dozen verses cut out of a song. We live in different times now, I know, but the power of a traditional song to stop people in their tracks remains intact – as long as it gets the chance."

As a former Edinburgh Folk Festival director - he took over running the event from John Barrow for three years during its heyday - as well as all his other involvement with the music, Morton knows only too well the amount of hard work that goes into promoting traditional music and is largely unseen and unrecognised.

"All in all, it's been a privilege being an Irishman in Scotland over all these years," he says. "A lot of talented and committed people have done so much to support and push forward Scottish music into the mainstream. Most of them - the club and festival organisers, musicians, collectors, concert promoters, agents, record companies, (folk music magazines!!!) volunteers who help with goodness knows how many different tasks - never get a mention. But the music is where it is because of them. I'm sure they'll all tell you that it's been at times frustrating and thankless, and the job isn't finished yet. But they're still coming forward – and in the end the music is the winner."


Posted Wednesday 02nd of May 2007 at 04:01:00 PM