JACK BECK INTERVIEW
Back in the mid-60s, before she had even turned professional, Barbara began her musical career working on the folk circuit alongside Scottish singer and musician Jack Beck. Jack has since gone on to become an acclaimed performer of Scots traditional songs and ballads with over 40 years of experience and several recordings to his name.
Now resident in the United States, Jack kindly agreed to be interviewed about his early days working with Barbara in this interview from January 2009.
You'd been working on the folk scene for some time before you met Barbara, back in the mid-60's. How did you get into folk music yourself?
Well, I'd been a fan of jazz and skiffle in the late 50s and when John Watt was starting the Howff folk club in Dunfermline in 1961, I was running a jazz club on the same premises. John was also a jazz fan. I went to his folk club and from there I was hooked.
I'd read that you helped found The Howff and that was where you and Barbara first met?
I helped John to renovate the venue - up until then it had been an air-raid shelter/cellar under an optician’s shop, and I was a regular attender from the start. Then the fire authorities began to get nervous about the place and so we moved to the Brucefield Hotel and that’s when Barbara first
came along. I was a member of a group called the Farriers at that time. We had been called the Tarriers but then found out there was already an American group with that name - it was easy to change our business cards!
Barbara ended up joining the group and then, shortly after that, we went out as a duo. We both wanted to focus on Scottish material whereas the group had played a mixture of British and American stuff.
So were you a full-time musician at that stage?
No, I was an apprentice house-painter and sign-writer. I was working for my Dad at the time. Later on I took over his business and then I went on to become a college lecturer in building subjects and finally Head of Department.
What memories do you have of that period? It must have been an exciting time to have been on the folk circuit, as you were working at the same time as people like Archie Fisher, Gerry Rafferty, Rab Noakes, Billy Connolly and so on...
I have great memories of those times. We really felt like pioneers and there was very little distinction between the performers and the audience.
Archie was a big influence on both of us and has remained a good friend to us both over the years. Rab has also continued to bob in and out of my life. There's others I remember fondly - the MacCalmans, Danny Kyle, The Incredible String Band, Bert Jansch, The Corries and many others.
What type of places were you and Barbara playing back in the 60's?
It was mainly folk clubs and concert venues. Festivals had hardly started then and regular music venues just didn’t book folk artists. We also did one-off gigs such as old-folks’ homes and British Legion Halls.
Did you and Barbara do any recordings together?
The only recording we made together was a concert at the Pollock Halls in Edinburgh that featured singers from a number of Scottish folk clubs. I've got quite a few home recordings which we both did at practice sessions and they're a good representation of our repertoire then, although most aren’t very good quality – some are, though!
Can you recall any of the songs you were doing together at that time?
So many... The Barnyards o' Delgaty; The Freedom Comeallye; A medley of kids' songs we used to perform; Dainty Davie; The Waters of Tyne; Let the Bulgine Run; The Silkie of Sule Skerry; The Crow on the Cradle; The Jute Mill Song; The 30 Foot Trailer; The Earl of Errol; You Like the Sun; Birnie Boozle; The Bonny Ship, the Diamond; The Gairdner; The Palace Grand; My Donald; The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face; Lowlands Away; Twa Recruitin' Sairgents; The Broom o' Cowdenknowes; Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies; The Wild Mountain Thyme... I know there were quite a few more, but that's all I have on tape.
Did you have any idea when you were working with Barbara that she would 'make it' in the music business? Why do you think she went on to become a household name when so many other talented singers on the folk scene didn't?
Barbara was definitely ambitious - and I'm sure that was for success beyond the folk scene, even then. She was very unusual for a 'folkie' in that she played the piano and was a big Beatles fan, because her mother was from Liverpool and Barbara felt a strong affinity with that city. So I'm quite certain she wanted to be a full-time musician and that the folk circuit was a stepping-stone to that.
I never had any doubt whatsoever that she would succeed - she stood out from all the others on the folk circuit in her musicianship and the natural quality of her voice. When we sang together I was probably the one who did most of the researching for material, but once I had found a song, Barbara brought it to another level. Of course there were other fine singers around, but Barbara's complete musicianship was, I think, the key to her entry to the wider musical world.
I think the only thing that REALLY surprised me about her later career was her success as an actor - that really rocked me back on my heels as I'm not aware of her having any previous experience of that kind.
You worked with Barbara, I believe, from 1964 to 1967. Why did you part company?
There were a few reasons really - firstly, I was getting married. Secondly, I'd become quite disenchanted because we were gigging so much (we were both earning much more singing than at our day-jobs) that we didn’t have time to learn new material. I also have a vague recollection that we were offered a tour of Denmark and I couldn’t get away to do it. There was no animosity - we just went our different ways.
Barbara carried on on the folk circuit until 1974 when she got her big break in Willy Russell's "John Paul George Ringo... And Bert". Did your paths ever cross again during those years?
We didn’t really re-connect until Barbara came up to Glasgow to appear in an episode of 'Taggart' in (I think) 1996 or so. I'd heard a radio interview she gave where she was very complimentary about me and I phoned Archie to see if he had contact info. He told me I was lucky - she was in Glasgow. I phoned her hotel and was delighted to speak to her again after so long. She actually remembered stuff I’d completely forgotten!
You left the folk scene for a good many years throughout the 70s and 80s - why was that?
When Barbara and I stopped singing together it was about the same time that folk music moved into the pubs and the whole scene became pretty commercialised. Also, I had just gotten a bit bored with it all. So I didn’t go near any clubs or venues and didn’t look for any bookings from 1967 until about 1975, although I still sang informally.
Then I gradually got back into things, singing with my ex-wife Aileen and later starting the group Heritage, around 1978. Heritage played mostly instrumental music, so I didn’t really start singing seriously again until the late 1980s. By that time I could re-visit the songs I’d sung in the 1960s and appreciate them all over again.
You guested on Barbara's "This Is Your Life" in 1997 - what memories do you have of that?
That was an amazing experience! I travelled down with Archie (Fisher) and then met up with John (Watt) and Rab (Noakes). We were treated like royalty and then some. It was great to feel part of Barbara’s life and to connect with people who I’d only seen on TV or heard on records. It was especially great to see Barbara’s mum and her brother Alistair again after so long.
What prompted your move to the States in 2004, and are you involved in the folk music scene over there?
My wife, Wendy, is from Tennessee and when I retired from my college position I could really be anywhere, so we just wanted to be over here. My mother had died but Wendy’s folks were alive and living near Knoxville. Because I’d toured regularly in the US since the mid 1980s I have many friends over here and there’s a lot of interest in Celtic music. I teach at Celtic summer schools and perform with Wendy (she's a storyteller and singer with a PhD in Ethnography) and I have a weekly Celtic music show on the local radio station in Johnson City, Tennessee.
I’ve recorded quite a few albums over the years and Wendy and I've just finished one over here - all Scottish songs except for one, which is Appalachian.