Jo Miller- Hands Up For Trad Hall of Fame Induction 2017
“Interested" is a word that Jo Miller keeps returning to when describing herself. The areas which have interested her have varied hugely: Community music, folklore, formal music education, academia and performing. She’s achieved remarkable things within these areas of interest over the years.
Born in Dumfries and Galloway she was brought up in a musical environment. Her mum sang folksongs, classical, jazz, and played on the piano. Her grandfather was also a pianist. In school, the situation was similarly musical: She took fiddle lessons, her art teacher taught her guitar, and her English teacher introduced her to the ballad tradition of the area. Within the small community, there was all sorts of music making going on, so local concerts were a variety affair- she recalls: “You could go up and play James Scott Skinner, sing folksongs or hymns. It really didn’t matter!”
It’s no wonder that when heading to university she elected to continue her studies of music. She ended up at the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, in the first ever cohort for their music education course. Here the folk music of her youth had little bearing, but she was quick to identify the others on the course with a hidden “folkie” musical identity.
Via a year at Glasgow University studying music performance, she ended up at the School of Scottish Studies. And it was there she felt she’d “come home”. These years really were formative for what would follow. Under the guidance of her mentor Peter Cook her ideas about the relationship between music and community started to form. She says:
"My work has been about starting at the bottom. There is this view of music learning and possibly trad music learning, that somehow you start at the bottom, and there’s this broad base of opportunity. And from there some people will move on, and move on still, and at the top of this pyramid you’ve got the virtuosi and the soloists and all the rest of it. And thats a path that some people take. But to me that paints a picture that this broad base is only worth looking at as a feeder for the next stage. I like to turn that pyramid on its head and say, you know this is open to all of us, because we’re designed for it. We’re programmed to be musical whether we like it or not. It’s in our brains. From that some people filter down and do it more seriously and all the rest of it. But we’re all part of this common musical life. For me that makes sense of what I’ve done. It comes from my experience of coming from a supportive community. It was all accepted. It was who you were musically".
She graduated from the school at a time when a discussion was beginning, about whether Scottish music, tradition, literature and culture could form a bigger part of the school and wider music curriculum. So she stared working to create the resources to support the new curriculum. In 1988, the first year that Scottish music was included in the Secondary education curriculum, she had made many of the resources and delivered many of the workshops that allowed it to happen.
This wasn’t enough though. Music teachers needed to be better educated in Scottish music before they could comfortably teach it themselves. So the then-director of the music department of the RSAMD- Rita MacAllister asked Miller to teach elective courses in Scottish Music to the Music Education students, enabling those with an interest to gain some further knowledge. The most important thing about these courses was to give an insight in to what was at the time, and still i, a performance tradition, with skills and a history that should be respected and understood.
This wasn’t enough either, the wider scene was changing: A growth in uptake amongst young people, inspired by the burgeoning scene, and the subsequent growth of the fèis movement, created the scope and need for a dedicated course, to recognise the tradition as worthy of a place in its own right within an institution such as the RSAMD.
So Miller’s focus became the formation of the BA Traditional Music Degree. She was key part of designing a course that struck a balance between sympathy to a tradition that thrives in an environment very different to a university setting, whilst meeting the academic requirements of such a setting.
Her view of what she hoped the end product would be remained clear: A place where learning and sharing between students with very different traditional backgrounds could take place, with a folio of supporting studies that could be made to suit each individual musician and what they might do upon graduation. It needed to be a place where students could step out of the demands of having to work hard to make a living within traditional music, where they could ask questions, reflect on the music, discover new repertoire and ideas, and practice performing and teaching in different settings.
And what an effect the course has had. At the time it started, it was the only dedicated folk music degree at any of the UK’s performing arts institutions. Between then and now, hundreds of students have benefited, indeed some of the earliest cohorts are now working as tutors and lecturers for current students. It has, and continues to be a space for artists to broaden and deepen their knowledge before going out to enrich the folk scene.
It has also changed the institution, traditional music now taken perfectly seriously by students and staff from other departments in a way quite unimaginable 30 years ago. As well as the undergraduate and masters courses in traditional music on offer at what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, it is also possible to study the education courses as a principal study traditional musician.
Upon leaving her post as course leader, Miller’s focus shifted back towards grassroots work inspired by her youth: Helping to set up the Glasgow Fiddle workshop, and most recently the Riverside Music Project in Stirling, where the focus is on enabling learners, demystifying the learning process and creating a project that is sustainable and intergenerational.
And now she’s gone back to research too, recently completing a PHD examining the intricacies of teaching and learning in these community settings. Her passion is to understand what happens outside of the learning situation- how the experience impacts participants’ wider lives, as well as exploring what traditional music learning and teaching can offer to wider worlds of education.
She says: "For me, Community is the context. There’s a wonderful by poem Tessa Ransford- a Scottish poet who founded the Scottish Poetry Library. In it there’s a line: “Community- the hardest thing”. It’s a poem about religion, but I think living together with other people, in community is a constantly challenging and enriching thing”.
“Now if you think of that musically, how are we together, musically? For me a lot of my experience has been looking at personalities, potential and ability, and thinking how can we shape some sort of collective music making. I suppose that for me this is the crucible for so many other things. And ultimately music has a way of bringing us together. It’s just so good for us”.
Betty Verrill- Hands Up For Trad Hall of Fame Induction 2017
It was a surprise invitation from two youngsters that sparked what would become Betty Verrill’s lifetime interest in folk music. At the time, she was running a youth club in Saltburn-on-Sea, 10 mins away from her home in Guisburough. Two of her attendees invited Betty and her husband Dave to the Redcar folk club. A babysitter was booked, and off they went thinking they’d only attend occasionally. Upon their second visit though, they were confronted with a performance from Aly Bain and Mike Whellans. And as Betty puts it, “that was it!”
By “it” she’s very modestly referring to forty years spent organising, booking, promoting, accommodating and generally looking after folk acts from across the UK, from Scotland in particular. She supported many of the now best-known Scottish folk revival groups, finding them their first breaks on the English folk scene, helping them go on to become the successes we know so well today.
Betty was born in Colington near Edinburgh in 1932. Her mother, an Ayrshire native, sang Burns songs in the house, and her father was a professional musician- an organist and pianist, who once accompanied the ‘Strathspey King’ James Scott Skinner. It was a musical house. With the Redford Barracks just along the road, she recalls the 1930s and 40s: “There was always music: Bands, pipers, buskers. All playing tunes I’d learn to play on the accordion many years later”.
Leaving home, she met her husband Dave and together they settled in Guisburough in 1967, where she’s been ever since.
In Edinburgh in the early seventies, shortly after the Redcar Folk Club gig, Betty met the Battlefield Band. On the newly emerging folk scene, they had an incredible buzz about them, and she knew she could bring this to an audience in England. She duly invited them down.
They arrived in 1975, and played every show she could get them. At first it was her youth club, and her husband Dave’s folk club: The Top House of Merske. They crashed on the floor of her semi-detached house on the outskirts of the village and over the following weeks, they played everywhere possible: Floor spots, local folk clubs and festivals. It was a huge leg up, and with their foot in the door they quickly became a fixture on the English circuit.
The Batties were just the first of many. Word spread quickly, the folk scene much smaller than today, and soon bands were a regular fixture in Betty and Dave’s lives. Over the years, her floor graced by the likes of: Ossian, Silly Wizard, Hom Bru, The McCalmans and The Tannahill Weavers to name but a few.
At the time, these bands were not the global sensations we know them as now. The task at hand for Betty was to find any and all opportunities for these bands to perform. Not straightforward given that many of them were completely unheard of in England when they first arrived. She had to be creative, finding ways for her “house guests”- as she describes them- to air their music, from floor spots, folk clubs and festivals, to local schools and colleges.
In 1977, when Ossian first appeared at Betty’s house, she decided that instead of finding someone else to put them on, she’d promote a gig herself. At a caravan park of all places. It was intended as a one-off, just so that the band would have a gig. But her hard work saw that the gig at Tocketts Mill gig sold out. The shows became a regular fixture, Ossian followed by Silly Wizard, and many others. Over the years it gave a platform to artists from across Europe and as far afield as the United States.
A born record keeper, her photo archive is a priceless, and hilarious glimpse at these bands on the cusp of success: Phil Cunningham’s 18th birthday with Silly Wizard, Simon Thoumire and Ian Carr still in their teens, The Battlefield Band having a session in her beautifully kept back garden. She and Dave would take them for trips: To Saltburn-On-Sea, Whitby. Sheer enjoyment was what drove her. Now though of the hundreds of people she hosted, the late nights, parties, loads of washing and meals made, she says: “I don’t know how I did it!”
It seems inevitable surrounded by all of this music, that Betty would at some point pick up an instrument herself. It wasn't until she was in her fifties though, when Dave bought her an accordion to play at his folk club. Soon though, she was playing regularly, including for her daughter’s clog dance team! A decade later, the accordion becoming too heavy, she went out and got herself a fiddle, which soon enough she was playing at folk clubs, sessions and of course for the dance team.
By the time she reached her seventies, she was trying to take a bit of a back seat. But after some cajoling, she and Dave were persuaded to take on another folk club, this time the one in Saltburn, where the process of booking her favourite performers began all over again. Now in her mid 80s, and finally having managed to retire, she uses her daughter’s words to describe how she was able to do so much for so long: “It was fun!”
Greentrax Records Profile for Hands Up For Trad Landmark Award
1986 was the year of the first release by Greentrax records. Catalogued CDTRAX001, it was Ian Hardie’s: “A Breath of Fresh Airs.” A 30 year project with hundreds of releases and distribution partnerships around the world was far from founder and managing director Ian Green’s intentions when he suggested the record to Hardie as a means of promoting an upcoming tunebook.
Hardie had every reason to go to Green for promotional advice. Recently retired from the police force after 30 years of service, Green had been heavily involved in the burgeoning folk scene in Edinburgh: From his legendary police folk club - affectionately nicknamed “fuzzfolk” - to the Edinburgh Folk Club, the Bells Broadsheet and Discount Folk Records, a mail order record company, Green had a wealth of experience.
Green’s suggestion to Hardie to make an LP to promote his book posed a problem - a lack of organisations to produce, distribute and promote the work of Scottish artists. Taking the matter into his own hands, Green invested some of his police pension and Greentrax was born. CDTRAX001 just the firstof a wealth of releases by the label.
Thirty years later, with a catalogue numbering in the hundreds, an international partnership with Alasdair Fraser’s Cilburnie records and spinoffs including G2, Celtic Connections and Grian Music Publishing, Greentrax has become much bigger than Green could have imagined. Initially the plan was to release three or four albums per year, but due to his connections within the folk scene people kept knocking at his door. After seven years, the business outgrew his and his wife June’s home, and they moved to a dedicated premises in Cockenzie, where they run the business to this day.
Over the years, Greentrax’s releases have come to reflect the variety of the Scottish music scene at the present day. Their catalogue includes releases from pipe bands, ceilidh bands, Gaelic and Scots singers, folk bands, singer songwriters, instrumentalists, international artists, and even School of Scottish Studies archive material.
The label’s all-encompassing attitude towards Scottish music sees this archive material available alongside some of the last 30 years’ most innovative, game-changing albums, such as Shooglenifty’s Venus in Tweeds. In 1994, the album was a shock to some and criticised by purists, but Green’s commitment to promoting the work of Scottish artists saw the release go ahead. This commitment is as strong today, with the continuing innovation of young artists a big part of the ever growing Greentrax catalogue.
It’s impossible to find anything but universal praise for the work of Greentrax. Sheena Wellington, who has had a part in six recordings they’ve released, said: "Ian and June Green's names are a byword for integrity and goodness. I am very proud to be a Greentrax artist, as is everyone who has had the honour of being part of the Greentrax family.”
Far from being the small project that Ian Green had intended, Greentrax has become a leader in its field, its work helping the Scottish Music scene to grow and making a vibrant, varied sea of recordings available internationally. From CDTRAX001 in 1986, the company is now at CDTRAX390, with no plans of stopping any time soon! In the words of Gordon Gunn, another Greentrax artist: “Ian Green’s vision has turned the Greentrax catalogue into a huge, classic collection which will live on for future generations to enjoy”.
Highland Print Studio Profile for Highland Youth Arts Hub Website
The Highland Print Studio sits on Bank street in Inverness, I’ve walked past it countless times with no real idea of what it was, or how many different projects they have going on. It’s a really vibrant creative place which hosts a range of artists in residency, workshops and classes.
It’s an open studio, which means that anyone can learn to use the printmaking facilities and access the sunny, creative space to make their own artwork. The studio provide a range of workshops for all ability levels, in traditional printmaking techniques including screenprinting and wood block carving, as well as cutting edge techniques such as polymer photogravure, which combines photography and adobe photoshop with printmaking. It’s possible to see the stunning results of all of these techniques in the gallery on the Print Studio's website.
One of the studio’s most successful projects has been Wise Guys- with perhaps a slightly unexpected group of participants. Research from organisations like Age UK has shown that older men don’t engage with social activity to the same extent as women, which in certain circumstances increases the risk of loneliness and isolation. Through Wise Guys, a group of older men came together to get involved with the Highland Print Studio: Learning to use the equipment and a range of traditional printmaking techniques. For many, this was the first time they’d engaged with visual arts. Participants included: A retired farmer, anaesthetist, TV engineer, exciseman and Free Church minister.
Alison McMenemy, Director of Highland Print Studio told me: "Research shows that older men have difficulty finding activities that are appealing to them. We now know that printmaking and its emphasis on working with materials, tools and equipment (along with a whole load of biscuits), is the thing that gets their creative juices flowing.”
On completion of the course, many of the Wise Guys have continued to use the studio, one has even gone on to build his own etching press. They’ve given presentations at Luminate Festival receptions, appeared on BBC Radio Scotland’s Culture Café and many have had their work featured and sold at exhibitions.
About the project, one of the Wise Guys- Richard MacKenzie said: “Although I’ve learnt many skills in my life, I didn’t have anything to do with the artistic side and had never made anything that wasn’t purely functional, so to do something in art is entirely different for me. I think people would be surprised at how good the work we produced was. It’s amazing how far we came in only three hours’ tuition a week. The more I do the more I want to learn, so I’ve kept on doing it. I’ve invested in my own printing press and set up space in my artist wife’s studio. I’ve exhibited my prints at several local exhibitions and have another coming up in August. The Wise Guys programme has given me entirely new skills and a whole new direction to follow, making artwork that is completely my own, that I’m proud to see on the wall. There’s a great team at Highland Print Studio and I’ve made many new and valued friends.”
It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on the Print Studio. The range of projects, classes and exhibitions they run is forever being updated, it seems to me like there really is something for everybody!