It’s the 25th January. If you’re an Ayrshire man or woman, that date is indelibly stamped on you subconscious. It’s a date that’s as easily remembered as Guy Fawkes Day, Christmas Day and your own birthday. The 25th January. Robert Burns’ birthday.
If Rabbie was alive today he’d be 256 years young. His poems and songs are read and recited at Burns Suppers the world over. This weekend alone, an estimated 150,000 Burns Suppers will take place in countries as far afield as Russia, Japan, India and the United States. You might even be attending one yourself.
Not everyone attending those suppers will know exactly what’s taking place – weird rituals involving knives and haggis. The bagpipes, fiddles and occasional kilts – not something worn in Burns’ time, but now seemingly the de-rigueur dress code for the event. People talking in a strange language. People singing while holding hands in an unusual manner – by the way, it’s Auld Land Syne, as in ‘sign‘, not ‘zine‘. Only English folk, Americans in movies and Brian Wilson pronounce it with a zed.
A Burns Supper is a very Scottish thing, yet the content of Burns’ work is universal – he was a nationalist yet is loved internationally. He could paint a picture with the words he wrote. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Moscow, Russia or Moscow, Ayrshire, we all understand the thoughts and feelings in the words he writes; whether it’s the feeling of love for someone dear or the feeling of despair at man’s attack on nature or simply complaining about a bad dose of the toothache. Burns was both a romantic and a realist, something that even the most hardened of Calvinist Scots are at some times in their lives.
His songs can be a strange breed. In the best traditions of folk music, the tunes were passed down from his mother, and once learned, he added his own poetic twists and melodic turns to them. Organic and ever changing, he’d probably be horrified at the more traditional readings of his songs. Burns Suppers can be awfy stuffy affairs. Don’t sing the song in the ‘right’ way, and a thousand sniffy noses turn upwards in disgust.
Two folk who’ve kept the tradition alive while remaining true to themselves are Michael Marra and Eddi Reader.
As is often the way, Michael Marra is probably now more appreciated in death than he was when he was with us. That’s certainly the case in my house. I am ashamed at how little attention I paid to him when he was a jobbing, gigging musician. I now think of him as the Scottish Tom Waits – uncompromising, totally unique and each song a little rough diamond packed full of soul. Why was I wasting my time with the latest Primal Scream album when I coulda been discovering Michael Marra? He’d often turn up to play Irvine Folk Club with an old ironing board taking the place of his keyboard stand. The sparse audience would be warmly welcomed into his Dundonian world sung in that coarse voice of his. Like Burns, Michael Marra could be romantic one minute, unbelievably sad the next and ridiculously funny when you least expected it.
Michael Marra – Hamish
His song Hamish, named after Dundee United’s goalie Hamish McAlpine and written about the time Princess Grace of Monaco turned up to watch a European game at Tannadice between United and Monaco is typical of his work.
Gus Foy pointed to the side of the goal and said
‘There’s Grace Kelly by ‘Taylor Brothers’ Coal’
Michael Marra – Green Grow The Rashes
Green Grow The Rashes is almost standard fare at a Burns Supper. One of Burns’ most popular songs, it’s been sung by many people in many ways. Michael’s version comes from the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow a few years back. Pin-drop quiet, he hammers out the tune on a grand piano and sings it superbly. Not an ironing board in sight. The thunderous applause at the end tells you all you need to know.
One singer one song? Not quite…
Oor ain Eddi Reader, Ayrshire by way of Glasgow, does a terrific version of Green Grow The Rashes.
Eddi Reader – Green Grow The Rashes
Fronting an assembled stellar cast of folkies that includes John McCusker, Phil Cunningham, Heidi Talbot and Mr Eddi Reader, John ‘Trashcans’ Douglas, this live version of Green Grow The Rashes fairly skips along, the band playing the sort of arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on Led Zep III while Eddi’s voice floats above the melody like a bird on a breeze.
A bit like haggis, I know she can be a bit of an acquired taste for some, but give this a listen. Then go and catch yourself one of our wee furry friends and have your own Burns Supper to yourself.