26th September 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Unlikely pair created a fascinating musical item

Debbie Scott & Willie Johnson, The Selkies’ Song. Attic Records.

I WAS pleasantly surprised to find fiddler Debbie Scott standing by my desk the other day clutching a factory-fresh CD copy of her classic 1985 album Selkies’ Song. The last time I heard it was on LP about 15 years ago, a cherished copy of which always sat ready in the BBC Radio Shetland studio because Mary Blance loved any excuse to air it on her pro­grammes.

Its reissue on CD is less about giving us another chance to hear the beginning of Debbie’s teenage evolution into a Shetland fiddle great than showcasing perhaps the best example of the late Peerie Willie’s art as guitar accompanist extraordinaire. After playing to­gether on and off for several years the old master and the Papa Stour girl wonder were performing at the Orkney Folk Festival when they so impressed Orcadian music maestro Owen Tierney he coaxed them into recording for him.

To the outsider they made an odd couple – Debbie, a raw, fresh-faced unknown, punkish yet vaguely hippyesque at the same time, versus the grizzled shock-haired jazz Methuselah. They certainly shared interesting hairstyles but they also gelled on fiddle and guitar, creating what at the time was a ground-breaking album for the rather staid world of Shetland fiddle.

Debbie arrived among the early waves from Tom Anderson’s young fiddler factory but she possessed an easily recognisable sound and style which, sadly, has scarcely been heard live in public for many years due to her dislike of performing. For those not familiar with her playing and writing talent it is essential you hunt down her 1999 self-titled masterpiece recorded with John o’ da Burns on which she oozes confidence and greatness on her gorgeous tunes like Klink Hamar, David’s Waltz, the delightful Fiddle or the exhilarating Kaela’s Jig and Pionersk.

As I said before I got carried away, the re-release of Selkies’ Song by Mr Tierney is largely in tribute to Willie, who also has an exhibition dedicated to his life due shortly at the Shetland Museum. He never made a record in which he starred and for many years it was obvious this album was going to be an important part of his slim archive. His guitar gets more prominence in the remix for CD and the bass has been removed, leaving more space to hear the great man at work. Students of his world-renowned style now have the perfect vehicle to help in the tricky task of pinning down and emulating his fast-flowing jazzy clipped chords, fills and runs. Lots of “dum-chuck” to get to grips with and on occasion he almost seems to be feeling his way along the tune. But would he ever have played a tune the same twice? There is one particularly preposterous chord to listen out for on As I Went Down by Fiddichside, a gem of a tune which draws out beautiful tone from Debbie.

There has not been time to give this varied album saturation listening but she seems very at home on her own compositions like Naomi Jane’s Reel, covers including Cotton Patch Rag and New Fashioned Habit and on jazz numbers like Lady Be Good which no doubt Willie had coaxed her in the direction of.

Some fiddlers don’t do mournful very well but Debbie has it on tap, as on the title track Selkies’ Song, which was much played in its day and on re-acquainting myself with it now remains a very odd and disconcerting tune. There are others that are perhaps not easy on the modern ear, for instance the ultra-traditional and unaccompanied Papa trio of Cradle Hymn, Sandy Ower da Lea and Minnie’s Coo.

Through the crystal clear coldness of digital sound you can detect Debbie was none too confident in the studio, possibly even a bit wobbly and I’ll bet she winces a bit on listening again to her brave stab at bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements’ challenging Stumble. The old reel-to-reel recording also captured rich tones and atmosphere which are there for us to enjoy on the CD but I fancy would not survive today’s more clinical recording process if the album was only being made now.

You can also hear Willie laughing and various other noises off, adding warmth and intimacy to the listening experience. The new edition retains the distinctive gold-brown cover of the original with its super pencil drawing of Debbie by Joe Buggy.

In short, the album is not the smoothest or easiest listen but it is a fascinating document of an unlikely chapter in Shetland music history when the learner and the legend shared an Orkney fortnight shooting pool, sharing tunes and creating, as the sleevenotes declare, something special.

John Robertson