A special show entitled Come Away In will air on Monday 18th January. Inspired by Karine Polwart’s song of the same name that celebrates Scottish hospitality and is partly inspired by The Wren’s Nest by Robert Burns, this song circle show will include performances from some of the best vocalist on the Scottish music scene – Karine Polwart, Eddi Reader, Rab Noakes, Siobhan Miller & Finlay Napier.
This performance will be available to watch for one week after the live date to accommodate different time zones.
This performance is included in the Celtic Connections 2021 festival pass, so you will not need to purchase this event if you have already purchased a pass.
As is so often the case with old songs, the middle verses bear the greater load of meaningful content (and are also, incidentally, the first forgotten.)
As I returned to my favorite holiday traditions over the last couple weeks, I fell again under the spell of “Auld Lang Syne.” It has always seemed to me a perfect song, with words and melody bound together so tightly as to be inextricable, like soul and body.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne?”
The phrase from which the song draws its title, preserved in the lyrics’ original Scots language, is often translated as “long, long ago” or “old long since.” I completely approve of those who left the phrase “auld lang syne” untampered in the modern English version. The wooden translations do violence to the phrase. Even at the phonetic level, the Scots “auld lang syne” seems to carry a vernacular charm, rolling off the tongue like fog from the highlands.
How can we celebrate “picking daisies fine” alongside wearisome wandering, or raise a glass to paddling streams together alongside our estrangement across broad seas?
For anyone who thinks “Auld Lang Syne” was written specifically for the final cathartic minutes of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” however, these translations do provide a helpful entry point for understanding the song’s history and legacy.
Composed by the poet Robert Burns in the second half of the 18th century, the song rapidly gained popularity across the English speaking lands. It eventually took its place among standard New Year’s Eve festivities, encouraging eager party-goers to reflect upon the year coming to a close before celebrating the year to come.
The Incredible String Band was best-known as the vehicle for the otherworldly talents of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. However, two other members, Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, were vital to the communal spirit and D.I.Y. ethic of the group, whose legacy has grown over the ensuing decades. Exiting the band in 1971, Simpson left music altogether, moving to Wales, earning a doctorate and teaching at university. Half a century later, she has published Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band, a heartfelt remembrance of those hippie, utopian days. Richie Unterberger spoke at length with her for PKM.
By: Richie Unterberger
When Rose Simpson joined the Incredible String Band in 1968, she had no professional experience as a musician. She hadn’t even followed folk or rock music closely before starting a relationship a few months earlier with Mike Heron, who with Robin Williamson formed the singing-songwriting duo at the Incredible String Band’s core. The group’s third album had just made the UK Top Five and the band had just completed their first tour of the U.S. In retrospect, adding Simpson and another semipro musician—Williamson’s girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie—to the lineup at such a critical juncture seems, well, incredible.
But as Simpson writes in her new memoir, at the time it seemed a natural evolution of a special group whose music was an outgrowth of their very lifestyle.
“When Licorice decided she wanted to be a stage performer as well as a disembodied voice, my presence redressed the balance,” Simpson notes in Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band. “There were no discussions or arguments, decisions or arrangements made between the four of us—none that I know of, anyway, or that [producer] Joe Boyd remembers. There were no rehearsals, either, beyond the usual casual playing together in the latest rented flats Joe had found us.”
From around mid-1968 to the end of 1970, Simpson performed and recorded with the Incredible String Band as bassist and occasional singer, as well as (like McKechnie) filling in on various instruments as the occasion warranted. The ISB’s idiosyncratic blend of traditional folk with psychedelic whimsy and various strains of world music could only win them a cult following in the U.S., even as subsequent albums nibbled at the lower end of the British charts. It wasn’t for want of trying. Simpson’s stint in the band saw them issue four albums, two of them double LPs. They also gained a slot at Woodstock, even if relatively few remember they played a set at the most famous rock festival of all.
As productive as the foursome were with the Simpson-McKechnie lineup, and as idyllic as their music and romances could be, it was in some ways a volatile period for the Incredible String Band. After the band embraced Scientology, producer Boyd grew less and less impressed with their music. The group tried to stage an ambitious multimedia show, U, that cost them a great deal of money and lost the respect of critics who viewed the show as something of a shambles. Simpson left the ISB at the beginning of 1971 after the others, as she writes, made “it clear that I must join them in their commitment…I walked out of all of it, on my home…on my future with ISB and on my friendships of the moment.”
Simpson never returned to the ISB or indeed the music world. Nor had she dwelled much upon her time with the group for almost half a century before writing her new book. Yet while her preface acknowledges she doesn’t intend to force “reminiscences into a straitjacket of dates and facts,” there are a lot of details about ISB tours, songs, and recording sessions. Crucially, these are balanced by plenty of personal perspectives on the band’s personalities and creativity.
“We were sure that our spiritual and aesthetic path to peace and freedom was better than political solutions,” she affirms in one passage. “Licorice and I knew very well about Women’s Lib, and we were neither of us the protected daughters of aristocratic families, like so many of the pretty girls around us. Our survival technique, to our separate homes, had been to live the words and music of ISB’s songs.”
In November 2020, Simpson spoke to me in depth about her book and the ISB, shortly before the publication of Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band by Strange Attractor Press.
Meeting the Incredible String Band
As a York University student in late 1967, Rose Simpson hadn’t even read the music press or attended a pop concert, and was far more interested in mountaineering than folk songs. Nonetheless, over the next few months she abandoned university life for a romance with Mike Heron, moving in with him in the home he’d just bought in Scotland. She also soon grasped the essence of the Williamson-Heron partnership that powered the Incredible String Band’s wavering, oft-droning, off-kilter take on British folk. Performed on an astonishing assortment of instruments both common and exotic, it also took in elements of Indian, North African, and other world music, long before that term passed into everyday usage. (Clive Palmer had been a third member of the group on their 1966 debut, to which he contributed just one original composition and one arrangement of a traditional folk piece, before the band shrank to a duo.)
Rose agrees, and elaborates at length in her book, that Williamson tended toward the more cosmic and esoteric, while Heron was more earthy and direct, though there was some overlap in their approaches. Robin was perhaps the more renowned songwriter of the pair, as he composed their most popular song, “First Girl I Loved” (brought to a bigger audience when fellow Elektra Records star Judy Collins covered it as “First Boy I Loved”) and “Way Back in the 1960s.” Yet though they were different as musicians and people, their complementary blend brought the music to places they couldn’t have separately reached.
“It’s so easy to seize on the obvious differences and deny the similarities,” she feels. “Mike [Heron] was more straightforward and earthy on the surface, but now I see that he was much more deeply concerned with a spiritual life of some sort than I ever really paid attention to back then. We were all much more vulnerable and delicate than we admitted and all very good at hiding it, even from each other.
“So the earthiness of Mike and the heavenliness of Robin [Williamson] were only part of the story, and I do try to suggest in the memoir that there was much more to both of them than that. I’m only sorry that I also took us at face value often and didn’t always look deeper. But then we were a touring band with a hard schedule, and survival was all we could manage sometimes.
“Because of that ‘overlap,’ I think that they could make the music together and spark off each other in a very wonderful way, musically and generally. I often think of the Noah and the Dove sketch,” a spoken piece performed in concert in colorful costumes, but not included on their records (though footage of a live rendition can be seen in the film Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending). Continue reading →
One Day’, the new album from Glasgow songwriter Robin Adams, proves to be a beguiling addition to his body of work.
It is certainly a marked contrast to his last album ‘The Beggar’, with a much warmer tone, albeit with a few lingering traces of melancholia.
‘A Friend of Mine’ opens the album beautifully with a charming ode to friendship which you could easily imagine sound tracking a Wes Anderson film. It’s followed by two heartfelt love songs, the tenderly romantic ‘Dancer In Your Eyes’, and ‘No Reason Why’, which has a childlike innocence to it. It may well be the album highlight and has an almost Beatles-esque melody.
A snippet of commentary from a nature documentary introduces ‘From A Dream’, a lament for the humble robin (the bird, not the songwriter) which somehow manages to sound both mournful and cheerful at the same time. “Can’t see the starlight/From the streetlight / Can’t tell the gutter from the stream / Can you tell the nightmare from the dream” sings Adams, contrasting pastoral and urban imagery. ‘Signs’ is probably the album’s most subdued and melancholic moment while ‘Market Convent Garden’ is a cover of a brilliant song by his father Chris Adams.