At Glasgow Music City Tours, we thought that lots of Celtic Connections fans would enjoy a guided walk that looked back at the city's folk heritage and explored its contemporary roots scene. The result is our Merchant City Trad Trails tours that run during Celtic Connections.
If you aren’t acquainted with this fantastic music festival yet, read on for a potted history of Glasgow's folk music from the dim and distant past to today.
As Glasgow gears up for the 23rd edition of Celtic Connections, it’s becoming harder to recall a time when the city was not buzzing with music at this time of year. But back in 1994 few fancied the chances of a folk festival in deepest January.
Now Celtic Connections is a vital landmark in the city’s cultural calendar, a truly global celebration of traditional – and not so traditional – musical styles which also nurtures the home-grown talent that keeps the city’s trad and roots scene in rude health year-round.
But Glasgow has been making celtic connections for centuries. As a port, the city has always been well placed to export and import culture as well as commodities, sending Scottish folk music over the Atlantic to influence musicians in the mountains and dustbowls of America, then gladly welcoming the bluegrass and country music inspired by those old celtic melodies and dance tunes.
Our industrial and especially shipbuilding past inspired many romantic paeans to the Clyde and songs in celebration and support of the workforce. Add to this the lighter music hall tradition, kids’ play songs and the time-honoured tradition of the family party sing-song and there was much grassroots music heritage to inspire the great revival in folk music and Scottish song which took place in Glasgow in the 50s and 60s.
There were decades which saw the establishment of a number of weekly folk clubs and the emergence of great musical characters such as Hamish Imlach, Matt McGinn, John Martyn, Mick Broderick of the Whistlebinkies and the biggest yin of them all – Billy Connolly, one of a number of Glasgow folk heroes featured on the mural at The Clutha bar.
Connolly and his friend Tam Harvey formed folk duo The Humblebums – they were later joined by Gerry Rafferty – and presided over the Scotia bar’s raucous singarounds in the 60s. Things could get hairy in there – though that might have been something to do with the biker gang with whom they shared the bar.
Connolly’s humorous introductions were as much a part of the performance as the music, eventually leading to an international career as Scotland’s most famous and best-loved stand-up comedian.
The city’s folk scene prevailed beyond these glory days but didn’t really start to pick up momentum again until the early 90s – at which point Celtic Connections was able to tap into new as well as established names. The most exciting of those new faces was piper Martyn Bennett, who began developing his Celtic/club fusion sound while still a student at the RSAMD (now Royal Conservatoire). He went on to feature regularly on the Celtic Connections stage up until his premature death in 2005. His influence on a fresh generation of young folkies, including those who study on the Conservatoire’s traditional music course and supply much of the talent for Danny Kyle’s Open Stage at Celtic Connections, is enduring and was celebrated last year in one of the festival’s most successful commissions yet – an ambitious orchestral rendition of his final album, Grit, performed by folk, jazz and classical players.
While there are no shortage of musicians ready to uphold and pass on the old traditions, cross-fertilisation and diversity push the scene forward. Whether that be Eddi Reader’s renaissance as a modern interpreter of the songs of Robert Burns; the indie folk sounds of Admiral Fallow; the turbo-charged acoustic rave of the exhilarating Treacherous Orchestra or the various vibrant instrumental and songwriter sessions which take place across the city in bars and clubs such as the Ben Nevis, the Lismore, Bloc, the Flying Duck and the Glad Café. They all keep Glasgow’s folk fraternity firmly rooted and creatively buoyant.