Alison McMorland - Biography & Notes (Courtesy of the Artistís site, 2007)
Reproduced with permission from Cloudberry Day sleeve notes. Living Tradition Series.
Alison McMorland came to wider public notice in the early 1970's and since then has been active as a collector, performer, teacher editor and publisher. Not least has been her single-minded commitment to developing the traditional arts within the community both in England and in the last decade in Scotland. This wider concern and perspective has embraced pioneering and innovative work in; oral history and reminiscence, children's folklore, as well as voice workshops and Arts for Health.
Songs and singing have been and remain at the heart of what she is about. Here we have a selection of songs, of weight, carried by a singer of substance who, in the words of the late Hamish Henderson "stands out as one of the principal modern interpreters of an ancestral ballad singing tradition, breathing new life into ancient memorials by uniting scrupulous traditional fidelity with versatile and resourceful creative artistry." Dick Gaughan said of her "She is, in her field, one of the greatest singers to emerge and her importance cannot be too greatly stressed."
During the 70's and early 80's Alison recorded her solo album 'Belt Wi Colours Three' and the 'Funny Family', an LP that was widely regarded as a classic children's album. She worked throughout Britain and in a partnership with Peta Webb that resulted in one of Melody Maker's records of the year and one of Phillip Donnellan's films in the series 'Pioneers of the Folk Revival'. She contributed to various compilation albums and sang in the original Bill Bryden's production of the 'Mystery Plays' at the National Theatre with the Albion Band.
Since returning to live in Glasgow in 1989 she has shared with Jo Miller the first Traditional Arts Development position in Scotland, co-founded a community arts organisation and is a tutor on the Scottish Music Course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Glasgow. She now lives in Perthshire with her husband Geordie McIntyre.
Personal Note from Alison
Singing has always been an immensely important part of my life. Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of singing with my parents and grandparents and being encouraged to 'dance' to the fiddle- playing of my mother, who was a bit of a pioneer in her time. A very talented woman, she had learned the violin in childhood, reluctantly playing for the school country dance classes when she really wanted to dance herself. She graduated to playing for the silent cinema and seized any other opportunity that arose as she tried to make a living through her music in the late Twenties. Her father, a self- taught musician on piano and cello, was a natural singer with a wide repertoire. Singing around the piano was a frequent occurrence when my mother and I would spontaneously harmonise together.
My father, who was born in 1898, had a great sense of history, and was particularly proud of the part his mother had played in the Suffragist movement. He frequently said, "Never forget the struggle ordinary working folk have been through to improve their lot," and his everyday speech was peppered with quotes from Burns and the Bible. He knew and loved many of the 'auld sangs', as well as Harry Lauder's music hall songs with all the patter. Singing in all its forms was definitely his thing, and in his time he was a church precentor, and also deeply involved in choral work.
From these early musical beginnings my love of singing and folksongs flourished. During the Sixties I lived in Cornwall, which has its own unbroken folk traditions. It was here that I came face to face with the mighty Padstow 'Obby Oss' and became aware of living folk customs. I began collecting children's songs and games, became a resident singer at the Falmouth Folk Club and was awakened to my own Scots song tradition. On moving to York and relatively nearer to my parents in Ballantrae, Ayrshire, I was able to go to folk gatherings'; it was Arthur Argo in 1972 who said, "Try and enter for the Kinross singing competition (T.M.S.A.) which I did and won. I was unaware that previous winners had been Sheila Stewart, Lizzie Higgins and Belle Stewart. However more importantly, there I met Hamish Henderson who from then on took me under his wing, introducing me to singers and his collections at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. I began to record and learn directly from other singers: Willie Scott the Border Shepherd, Lucy Stewart of Fetterangus, Betsy Whyte, Jane Turriff and lan Manuel, not to mention Hamish himself.
To quote a Hamish saying, I experienced "the kitten's leap over the back of the sofa," when I became conscious that an integral part of the singing tradition are the collections of songs printed over the last three centuries. In the early Seventies I visited the National Library of Scotland and well remember the excitement and awe I felt on handling an original volume of 'Johnson's Musical Museum' with the realisation that this was the work of Robert Burns all those years ago. I salute the un-named singers who sang songs that caught the ear and attention of these early collectors. Collections are one thing; however it is still the singer who puts the life and fire into songs, who constantly re-creates and re-fashions, passing them into the 'carrying stream.'
Learning from such singers has influenced and shaped my own singing style, a process of absorption which has taken place over the years. A song half-forgotten or even a fragment remembered by a singer has often been the stimulus for me to create my own version or 'way of it', piecing together the fragments, asking other singers if they know this verse or that. Sometimes it can take years before the song emerges again: 'Swan Swims Sae Bonnie', 'Cuckoo's Nest', 'Rue and Thyme', 'Belt Wi' Colours Three', 'Green Banks o' Yarrow' are just such examples of this process.