Peter Sullivan: Scottish Connections

Peter and Maureen Sullivan joined the club as beginners in 2013. Peter brought his happy presence to the dance floor until ill health (and 128 steps at home) meant he had to stop dancing.

Peter continues as a non-dancing member, and has been a generous contributor of ceilidh items during his time with the club. He played and sang Scottish folk songs for us at our inaugural summer ceilidh, and for some years after.

Peter sharing his love of music at the Johnsonville Club ceilidh in 2015. As he says; ‘when you play … it feels like you are touching something almost palpable.’

Co-incidentally Peter also renewed an old friendship through Scottish Country Dancing. He and fiddler Don McKay met at Victoria University in the late 1970s, both studying Classical Greek at the time. Both were also musicians, but never played music together. It wasn’t until Don started playing for Scottish Country Dancing that Peter got to hear him play.

Don McKay catching up with Peter at the Johnsonville 50 Golden Years celebration in 2016

Peter’s journey through Scottish music in the UK and New Zealand brings back so much of the folk music scene and singers of the 60s and 70s. Enjoy what he has to say below.

Scottish music and me

It’s quite weird to look back and see how much Scottish music and culture has been a part of my life although most of the time I did not realise it. I suppose my earliest memories are from the late 50’s when as an English schoolchild of six or so I started listening to the radio.

Of course we had singing classes in school both with the piano and the radio, even English Country dancing but my sole contribution to the latter was to muck up the maypole dances on a regular basis – could never get the dance paths in my head and so we’d usually spend about half an hour untangling my mistakes. After a few months I was eventually relegated to dancing with the littlies in my primary school.

However shortly afterwards my parents moved up north to Hull for my father’s job and about the same time they bought a television. Despite warnings about getting ‘square eyes’ from my parents I loved watching it and flicking through the channels up there.

Scottish border TV reached down to Hull and you could see things like Scottish Country dancing on the White Heather Club as well as hear Scots songs and variety turns. They even had some film of Harry Lauder’s favourite songs such as Ye’ll take the high road (Loch Lomond) and I recall the whole programme fascinated me – the (to me) peculiar costumes, weird English, and haunting melodies like the Skye boat song.

Fast forward a couple of years and we were living near Birmingham in the Midlands and by dint of much pleading, grovelling and begging I’d persuaded my parents to buy me a guitar having heard it on the radio so often – by then I’d inherited the old family valve radio and used to listen to BBC light programme’s ‘Folk on a Friday’.

A mighty 3 UK pounds plywood classical guitar with nylon strings, it became the love of my life despite my father’s happy comment ‘Oh God I hope I don’t come across you busking for money with it by the roadside in future’. While classical and flamenco music was the initial aim, I suddenly realised, ‘hey, I can play the music I hear on the folk programme on it!’.

Naturally it was all downhill from then on. Things like taking a girlfriend to the Ian Campbell Folk Group in concert at my high school one night where I heard Carlton weaver for the first time, hearing the Corries doing The braes O KIllikrankie O on the radio folk programme and getting a copy of an Alex Campbell LP.

Listening to these people, and the Irish singers, made the English and American folkies of the time seem so anaemic – these Scottish song spoke of life, love, and reality in a way the others did not. You only had to see big burly Ian Campbell belting out Here come the navvies in person to realise these were more than just songs to him.

Shortly afterwards, in the late 60’s a group called Pentangle burst on the scene and the Scottish guitar player/singer in it, Bert Jansch, was like no one I’d ever heard before. Along with John Renbourn he played intricate and modal figures on his guitar while singing traditional songs as well as some modern material.

However, the real eye opener was after I’d moved to New Zealand about 1970 and started going to the folk club in Christchurch on Friday and Saturday nights with some aspirations to become a performer. The three-pound guitar by then had been replaced by one with twelve metal strings at a far higher price – much to my poor mother’s dismay; ‘you’d sell your very soul for a guitar’ was her comment and she was right.

Peter in 1970 or 1971, shortly after he and his family moved to Christchurch. He’s playing a 5 string banjo, the type used for Bluegrass music, that he bought in Hulston’s Auction Room. At that time he was still at school and used to play with some school friends.

In the folk club I got to meet many wonderful people for whom it was never too much trouble to show you something or help you learn. Phil Garland for one, a colossus of Kiwi Folk music, Eric McEachen was another – known as twelve string Eric we could only marvel at his technical ability on the 12 and collapse in fits of laughter at his witty insertions in popular songs.

One of the people there, though, was a young man by the name of Alistair Hullet and his songs were electrifyingly good. He’d come from Scotland a few years earlier and was a fully formed talent with the quirkiness that Bert Jansch had on the guitar together with an immense stock of traditional and contemporary material – phenomenal for an 18-year-old. From him I learned I will go and several other songs, although we only met for a short time on a casual basis at club nights.

Alistair, of course, went on to move to Australia and form the very successful group Roaring Jack whose videos you can still see today on YouTube, then he moved back to Scotland with equal musical success over there. Sadly, he died far too young only a few years ago now.

A few years later I’d left home and was trying to study at University plus get some musical career going – no longer in the folk club, as I’d become interested in electric guitar and rock music. I still played the older folk songs on my 12 string for fun and it slowly became clear to me the commercial side of music in New Zealand – the pub gigs, the cover bands and similar – were very poorly paid and had few prospects unless you wanted to move overseas.

‘Starving in a garret for your art’ was a very real possibility in New Zealand it seemed. Not for me! By then I’d met the Scots woman who became my wife and while I may not have thought it out as clearly as I should, the musical performance side aspirations dropped away and I became more interested in a ‘normal’ office job – the labouring, sheet metal and other summer jobs I did in the Uni holidays were in a word ‘orrible’ as a lifelong prospect.

Of course, I still kept playing the songs for fun and another source joined in – the Scots emigres to places like Nova Scotia with their music started to be available. People like Gordon Lightfoot whose songs Fare thee well Nova Scotia and Canadian Railroad Trilogy seem to come from the same Scottish wellsprings of transmitting emotion and experience directly.

In those years it was still expensive and difficult to obtain LPs and radio that were the main source but gradually things got cheaper and better – the quantum leap was first CDs where a lot of the older material was reissued, then the internet and you tube where you can find people like Stan Roger singing ‘Northwest passage’ or Mary Black.

A few years back now, I found the Johnsonville Scottish Country Dance introductory classes advertised in the local paper and Maureen my wife was keen so we went to them and, in my case, tried to learn the steps, in her case learnt them rather well.

Peter in the set on the right dancing Sugar Candie at the Johnsonville 50 Golden Years celebration in 2016. Maureen is dancing at the far left.

Sadly after 3 or 4 years of this my legs decided to pack up badly and since we have 128 steps down to our place from the road (never buy a house in a sellers’ market folks!) it started to become real agony to go down them after classes. In the end I had to stop going so at least I could keep some mobility at home for the things that need to be done there. Sadly, while things have stabilised with my legs, they have never improved to the extent I could return.

To this day I still play the 12 string, 6 string guitar and 5 string banjo having acquired a collection of them over the years that would have both parents spinning like tops in their graves if they only knew.

It’s a fun thing to do, very emotionally satisfying and when you play Fair flow’r O Northumberland, Wild Mountain Thyme or Mairi’s Wedding it feels like you are touching something almost palpable. To quote a folk song ‘it levels out my mind and evens out my thinking’, although strictly speaking the Irish song said that about drinking, not playing music.

from Peter Sullivan
20 May 2020

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