writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: music and writing

Robert Burns and the Black Keys: or, The Clerk’s Revenge

Scottish Icons: Robert BurnsWarning: if you’re a big fan of Robert Burns, look away now

I’ve never really quite got Burns the way I think I should, as a Scotsman. It’s a bit like me and whisky (the two, of course, often go hand in hand): I understand the attraction in theory, and I’m really happy about the contribution to the Scottish export industry they make, but still. I don’t know.

I have tried to like Robert Burns  – and whisky for that matter. When I was in fourth year at secondary school I won a Latin speaking competition (I know! Rock and Roll!) and used my prize, a book token, to buy my own copy of  his Poems and Songs. I still have it: it’s a nice edition, in a kind of faux-leather binding.

Anyhoo, for the non-Scots and/or non-Burns fans amongst you, Rabbie (as he’s often called by his adherents) lived from 1759 – 1796, and packed a lot of stuff into those 36 and a bit years. He was, variously, labourer, farmer, father of several illegitimate children, exciseman (a kind of tax collector) Freemason, proto-socialist, proto-nationalist, and darling of Edinburgh society. He also found time to scribble down a few poems and songs. Ok, ok, a lot of them, some of which are classics. His birthday on 25th January is celebrated worldwide by Scots, Scots expats, and others (the Russians, in particular, are fans) by eating lots of haggis, drinking lots of whisky, and doing lots of speechifying about him.

No, I do like Burns. Honestly. Some of his stuff, anyway, like the long narrative poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter,’ which, when recited by the right performer, is simply stunning. I’ve always wanted to do a punk version of ‘Parcel of Rogues.’ Some of the rest of his work, frankly, I find over-sentimental, personally. I suppose the date I got Poems and Songs – 1978 – is significant: if you had to choose a year when the best of Old Rock was still around, locked in hand to hand combat with Punk and New Wave, it might well be that one. Burns’s poetry and music, by comparison, seemed to be the stuff of old men crying into their pint in the pub I wasn’t – technically at least – old enough to get into then.

All that said, there was one of his tunes – variously called ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ and ‘Banks o’ Doon’ that I always thought was just a great melody. Burns’s words,  a woman’s lament for a false lover set in agreeable scenery, not so much. Recently, though, the tune resurfaced in my subconscious, broke the surface of my conscious, and I wrote some alternative words to it, of which more presently. But then, doing a bit of research for this article, I came across something of a revelation. Robert Burns didn’t write the melody!

I suppose I’d always wondered whether the tune was a Burns original. Not unusually for the time, Rabbie used traditional ‘Scotch’ airs to set his words to; indeed, some of his songs’ lyrics are ‘trad, arr. Burns,’ as he took old sets of words, often cleaning them up for polite society in the same way that a lot of old blues songs had the sexual element toned down for wider publication. Nothing wrong with that. Looking at the text in my copy of Poems and Songs, I see that it says, ‘Tune: Caledonian Hunt’s Delight,‘ which probably gave me the idea that it was a traditional tune, perhaps hummed by be-kilted warriors to their tiny warrior children in the shieling as Edward I’s forces marched past to certain defeat at Bannockburn just down the road.

The truth, as so often, is a bit more complicated. The melody first came to general notice when it featured in Niel Gow’s collection of Reels. Gow, a contemporary of Burns (1727 – 1807) was  – and still is – considered one of the greatest folk music violinists, or fiddlers, of all time. But Gow didn’t write it either. In his collection, it’s attributed to ‘Mr Miller of Edinburgh.’ So who was he, then?

According to, he was James Miller, a ‘writer’ (in this historical context a lawyer specialising in property law) who was clerk in the Teind (obscure Scots property thing – don’t ask for more detail) Office in Edinburgh. Not a be-kilted warrior, or even a Mrs be-kilted warrior. Except maybe on the weekends.

Here’s where Burns steps in. History may be written by the victors, but musical history is, often, written by the celebs. Here’s Burns in a letter to his publisher, Thomson, as quoted on tunearch:

Do you know the history of the air—It is curious enough.—A good many yeas ago a Mr. Jas. Miller,… was in company with our friend, [the organist Stephen] Clarke; & talking of Scots music, Miller expressed an ardent ambition to be able to compose a Scots air.-Mr. Clarke, partly by way of joke, told him, to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, & preserve some kind of rhythm; & he would infallibly compose a Scots air.-Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr. Miller produced the rudiments of a air, which Mr. Clarke, with some touches and corrections, fashioned into the tune in question… [quoted in The Life and Works of Robert Burns, 1896, by Robert Burns].

Now, maybe it’s just my being a fellow property lawyer – and clerk, for that matter, although we did away with teinds, finally, a few years ago. But I smell snobbery here: the inverse snobbery of the rock and roll lifestyler for the humble plodder; and, worse still, musical snobbery. The sub-text seems to be: ‘here was this bozo, wanting to write a Scots tune, so my old mucker Clarkey tells him to use the black keys of the harpsichord! What a joker! Wouldn’t you know, kind of monkeys-with-typewriters thing happens, and this poor booby comes up with something half decent? Of course, the Clarkester needs to do quite a bit of tidying up, and there we go…’

Is it just me? Probably. But it’s significant that, from Miller getting sole authorship credits in Gow’s musical collection, a modern day site like tunearch credits the tune to ‘James Miller and Stephen Clarke.’

Well, I say, sod that. Miller’s my kind of bloke, and I reckon he should get the credit he deserves. Black keys, indeed! If it’s as I think it is, the black keys on the harpsichord correspond to those on the piano, and the only tune you could get out of them is the one for the Flake advert (try it out on a keyboard near you, if you don’t believe me). Jimmy Miller did it all by himself, and Burns and his organ-playing monkey can go and get raffled.

Which brings me to my lyrics, which, frankly, owe far more in inspiration to Mr L. Cohen, of Montreal, than Mr R. Burns, of Alloway. It may upset some traditionallists, so if I’m found, my innards carved up like a haggis, bearing the bruises of a blunt instrument like a faux-leather volume of poems, you know where to start looking.

But even if you don’t like the words, you can at least appreciate the violin playing of Ms J Kerr, of Kirkcaldy, my colleague, friend, and contemporary. Niel Gow, at least, would be pleased.
















Adverts down here. Bet Burnsy didn’t have to put up with that on his blog.


Discovering your inner Plant, and other musical journeys

Image result for meredith belbin

Meredith Belbin. Bit of a rocker, apparently.

Anyone who, like me, has a day job featuring the pleasures of middle management, or even just belongs to an organisation that had cash to splash on an away day in the last thirty years, will have probably heard of the Belbin Team Roles. Invented by the eponymous management theorist, the general sketch is that we all fit into one (or more usually) of nine moulds in terms of our role within a teamwork environment.

This isn’t the same as a set of personality types: instead, it focuses on what our approach to team work is. Grossly oversimplifying, the best type of team contains a spread of people with different attributes: having a whole bunch of, for example, Monitor Evaluators and nothing else in your team, would generally be a Bad Thing.

The nine roles are set out here, if you’re interested. However, the only reason I’ve brought it up is that the Redoubtable Mrs F was asked to complete a Belbin questionnaire recently; it made me look up the old stuff out of curiosity again; and it reminded me that, to my great disappointment, when I did the test about ten years ago, I wasn’t a Plant.

To be honest, I can’t remember what I was; a mixture of things, I think, with a vague tint of vegetation; but what self-styled writer and musician doesn’t want to fit into the definition of a Plant? ‘Tends to be highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways.’ Nope. Not me. Not in a work context, anyways, it seems.

Well, when working on the latest of the tracks – or reworking it, I should say – for my next solo effort, I’d like to think I was a bit bit more of a Plant than, say, a Co-ordinator (‘Needed to focus on the team’s objectives, draw out team members and delegate work appropriately.’)

In fact, a bit more of a Robert Plant.

Image result for robert plant

Robert Plant. Not big on management theory, apparently.

Now, this is in no way to compare my vocal talents to the Golden-Maned One, currently drawing plaudits for his new album, Carry Fire. I’m no more him than I’m Jimmy Page on guitar. However, having completed the stripped down version of the track in question back in the autumn, as previously blogged about, I had put it aside to see how it developed. And then, quite recently, as I woke up one weekend morning, a melody came to me that fitted not just over the verse, but the chorus as well.

I tried really hard not to make it a flute part. Honestly. It just seemed too … well, too Led Zeppelin-era, really, what with all the lyrics about the Ninth Legion, an acoustic guitar in double-drop D, all that reverb on the singy bits… but try as I might with other synth voicings, I couldn’t make it work any other way.

So I decided to embrace my inner Plant, and hope you can too.  Imagine you can time travel, and transport yourself back to, oh, let’s say, 1973. In Glenrothes, Fife, the 11 year old me is reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth. In Fife, it’s probably raining. Meanwhile, in a sunny late summer field in Sussex, a hirsute young rock god is tuning down both E strings, while a willowy girl in a paisley pattern dress is mucking about on a wind instrument. The bearded one finishes his tuning, cocks an ear, and starts to improvise. Overhead, thunder begins to build a static charge around them, like a psychic crucible.

(The other track I’ve put up with it isn’t quite so epic in scale, but I’m reasonably pleased with it. It just happened to reach the same stage of completion around the same time. Usual rules apply – free to download if you like it, but think of giving something to a refugee charity if you do).























Advertising below here is put up by WordPress, not me. Stick it to The Man and ignore it…


Musical Advent Calendar Day 24: Bruce Springsteen – Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town/Mariah Carey – All I want for Christmas

I’m not a great fan of the modern, non-geographical, use – or over-use – of the word ‘journey,’ to describe a period of personal development of some kind. So I’m going to call this month’s musical advent calendar a trip instead.

It’s not been without its dilemmas (and one discovery has been how to spell that word). Each piece of music carries with it some sort of freight: I haven’t consciously tried to be unduly ‘cool’ in my choices, but, for example, there’s not been any Abba, when there clearly could have been.

Beyond that, though, the songs and the act of choosing them have stirred up memories, almost all good, of various things: events and periods in my life I associate them with; gigs I’ve been to; but most of all, the familial and other relationships they evoke.

Frozen Spider’s Web in Fife, earlier this year

I write this morning from our flat in Edinburgh, where we’re spending Christmas with Daughter and Heiress. It’s the first time we’ve done that: and yet, even though we still live full time in Fife, coming here still feels like coming home. Who knows, this could be the start of a new Christmas tradition for us…

…and as daylight slowly breaks over stormy, red-edged skies, I know that the rest of my small but perfectly formed family are gathering together elsewhere. In Canberra, my brother and his wife will be preparing for their two sons coming round, along with my younger nephew’s girlfriend; my sister’s in London with her Son Number 2 and his girlfriend; my older nephew will be with his wife, his own daughter and heiress, and his in-laws near Stirling. And wherever we are, I know two things: we’ll be raising a glass to those missing, and there will be music of some kind going on.

I’ve always considered myself the least musical of my siblings: I mean, they’ve both got Grade 107 or whatever in proper instruments like piano, violin and viola, and sing in choirs. I’ll never be much more than an average guitar player, and my singing’s not really up to much. But music, this month has taught me if I hadn’t known before, is a part of me. It’s been the soundtrack to my happiest moments; it’s kept me going through the most laborious of workaday chores; and in my darkest times, it’s been my salvation.

Grandpa Anderson’s Christmas Rose Pics: Alison Ferguson

So of whatever religion or none, celebrating the winter solstice or the longest summer day south of the Equator, I hope Bruce, Clarence and the rest of the band soundtrack a great day for you all, and thanks for listening!

I could have left it there. But Mariah Carey is a guilty pleasure. Yeah I know it’s cheesy, and she’s a total diva etc etc, but that joy in her voice when she hits the final top note: you can’t tell me that was a chore for her. You can act all cool and say, huffily, ‘well, I was going to give him Springsteen, but Mariah Carey! ‘ sake…’ all you like. I bet you click on the vid when no-one’s watching.

Last chance to donate to the Myanmar Red Cross Appeal




























They’ll be selling you stuff down here. Why not wait and see what’s under the tree for you

Musical Advent Calendar Day 21: Randy Newman – Political Science

Image result for winterval

Winterval in Waterford.

As we inch (so it seems this year) ever closer to the Big Day, I keep thinking, I should really start doing something a bit more festive. And I have done – well, sort of. There was the Prince track last Friday to get you gee’d up for your office parties. And … errr … Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ had the word ‘red’ in it, and that’s a Christmas colour?

Anyway, here’s a song I’ve loved for decades about the US blowing up the rest of the world, so suck it up!

Seriously, Randy Newman is an under-appreciated songwriter. I don’t think he minds too much, as he has a side line scoring major Hollywood movies, which presumably keeps the wolf from the door: since you ask, Wikipedia tells me –

“His film scores include Ragtime, Awakenings, The Natural, Leatherheads, Cats Don’t Dance, Meet the Parents, Cold Turkey, and Seabiscuit. He has scored eight DisneyPixar animated films: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Cars, Toy Story 3, Monsters University, and Cars 3, as well as Disney’s The Princess and the Frog and James and the Giant Peach.

Newman has received twenty Academy Award nominations in the Best Original Score and Best Original Song categories and has won twice in the latter category. He has also won three Emmys, six Grammy Awards, and the Governor’s Award from the Recording Academy.[3]”

He wrote this, by the way, in 1972. Thank goodness it’s lost its topicality.

What? Oh really? Still a thing? Sorry, American chums. I know you’re on the side of the angels.


Yeah, I know, I say this every time. But really, these guys the military regime have kicked out of Myanmar who are living in refugee camps could use some help.



































































Adverts below here. Buy stuff before America drops the big one!


Musical Advent Calendar Day 20: Nick Cave – Red Right Hand

Image result for red hair

Another Nick Cave song? How can I justify it? Well, Daughter and Heiress decided the other night to add a touch of ginger to her blonde locks. There was hair dye all over the bathroom, although to be fair she cleaned most of it up. You know what though? Just as well she wore gloves, because by the end she had a Red Right Hand.




Still time to give to the Red Cross Myanmar Appeal and help those Rohingya refugees out.
































































Rampant commercialism below here. Possibly.

Musical Advent Calendar Day 19: LCD Soundsystem – How Do You Sleep

Roland SH-2000 Image Bonetech3D Conceptart Scifi ConceptsBonetech3D Conceptart Scifi Concepts

I do like to confound Daughter and Heiress’s expectations of my musical tastes. As young folks will know, LCD Soundsystem were big in the early years of this century, then disbanded, then came back together with everyone expecting they would just do, like, a greatest hits package. However, instead they produced the critically acclaimed ‘American Dream,’ which has just topped Uncut’s list of albums of the year.

My nephew Jonny, who’s in his thirties (is that Generation X, as opposed to D & H’s Millenial? Who knows… or cares…) sent me as my birthday present in September Mogwai’s latest, and ‘American Dream.’ I didn’t expect to like it. I mean, synths?

However, I did and I do. This is one of my favourites, with an insistent, vaguely Celtic, drumbeat starting things off, and then things slowly building and building until, several minutes in, there’s this big slab of synth kicks in…

Probably back to something guitar-based tomorrow.



Think of giving to the Myanmar refugees. You’ll sleep easier. See what I did there?

















The American Dream couldn’t exist without commercials. But you can.

Musical Advent Calendar Day 18: Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah

Ok, so I said I wouldn’t put this one in. I changed my mind. So, what can I say that’s new about the song that spawned a thousand cover versions and a million open-mic night travesties?

  • The origin of the word ‘hallelujah’: from Hebrew hallalu-yah “praise ye Jehovah,” from hallalu, plural imperative of hallel “to praise” also “song of praise,” from hillel “he praised,” of imitative origin, with primary sense being “to trill.” Second element is yah, shortened form of Yahweh, name of God. Other Abrahamic faiths are also available.
  • In Cohen’s native Montreal, the street sign for Marie-Anne Street got a makeover on his death (see above).
  • According to the same article in El Pais I nicked the photo from (yes, I’ve been doing my Spanish homework) Leonard used to buy his bagels at Bagel Etc (Saint-Laurent, 4320). There’s a whole walking tour industry around his old haunts now.
  • One of the writing sessions for the original 80 verses of the song took place at the Royalton hotel in New York, where he was reduced to sitting in his underwear, banging his head on the floor. The dent on the floor in room 113 is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Okay, so I made that second bit up.

…and yeah, I know all about the Buckley vs Burke version yada yada, but I’m sticking with Lenny. There’s a fine version on his late-period live album from London, but I’m going with this one which shows him giving it everything but the kitchen sink in San Sebastian in 1988. Vaya con los angeles, Leonard!

I‘ve finally got around after 18 days of preaching at the rest of you about it, to donating to the Red Cross Appeal for Myanmar. It only took a second. Here’s the link.

PS if you want a female singer’s version, kd lang can sing it a bit – an interview I saw with LC quoted this particular performance with approval:






































































Rampant commercialisation may happen below here. If so, boo!







Musical Advent Calendar Day 17: Lucinda Williams – Everything But the Truth

I reviewed the album this comes from, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, back when it came out a couple of years ago, so I won’t chunter on. However, this particular track is probably my favourite – it’s just straight-down-the-line stuff, with lyrics that get the message through on channel one and a fantastic backing band. I particularly liked the electric guitar sounds on this album, and the way the guitarists blend in different textures and riffs without necessarily anything flashy.

Instead of the entire video showing the album cover, I decided to go for this Youtube hyperlapse thing. If it gets too dizzying, you can always switch back to the album cover!


I hoped you enjoyed stopping by today. If I’ve put you in a charitable mood, my favoured cause at the moment is the Red Cross Appeal for the Myanmar refugees.























Below this line, people may try to sell you things. But you look like you’ve got your head screwed on.

Musical Advent Calendar Day 15: Prince – Kiss

Image result for prince

Although the music in this advent calendar is fairly resolutely not Christmassy, it’s impossible not to notice certain events in the lead up to the big day. And whether today is Christmas Jumper Day, or Dark Grey Friday, or whatever, one thing’s for sure – the way the days fall around the weekends, tonight will see one whole lot of works nights out. Including ours.

So, in the incredibly unlikely event of anyone wanting me to ‘bust some moves’ on the dance floor tonight (aka Dad Dancing), here’s a track that will get me up there every time. Also a karaoke favourite of mine, so be warned!

What a great video, incidentally. Not a lot of stars that size would send themselves up that way, now or then. Sadly missed.

I don’t do hard sell, but if I did I’d push the idea of giving money to the Rohingya refugees as hard as I could.




















Down here are WordPress adverts camping out on my page. You know what they can kiss?

Musical Advent Calendar Day 14 – Camille O’Sullivan: Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

I got up today with every intention of giving you more Nick Cave, in the shape of ‘Red Right Hand,’ or maybe ‘God is in the House,’ but as covered by Camille. Then I fired up Youtube and came across her version of Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and thought, that’s going in. I’ve seen her do it live, although that was a couple of times ago. It starts conventionally enough, just her and the guitar, and then it builds. And builds…

I didn’t realise, until I started doing this advent calendar, how many gigs I’ve been to this year, and that includes seeing Camille at the Fringe. The venue and sound wasn’t great, but she still was. If you’re looking for someone that can interpret Cave, Cohen, Dylan, Brel and Bowie, and make them her own, then she’s your woman.

I must admit to having a huge crush on Camille. Well, who wouldn’t? She’s half-French, half-Irish, and she sings like a fallen angel.

I have heard on reliable authority she’s a bit of a diva off-stage. Well, I should damned well hope so.



This blog isn’t sponsored by anyone, but you might want to sponsor some of the refugees living in camps on the Bangladeshi border, driven from their homes by ethnic and religious cleansing. If so, go here for the Red Cross Appeal.























Adverts down here for fuck knows what. I don’t.