folk roots: 1994
"Do you know?" says a handsome Scots woman called Barbara Dickson, "the last person I sat having a drink with in this bar was Tim Rice..." Hello, hello, hello, what's all this then? We can see the eyebrows screaming skywards from here. Tim Rice? And Barbara Dickson? Barbara Dickson What the frigging hell is she doing in these hallowed pages?
A showgirl, right? The West End theatre. Tim Rice and the blokes from Abba. Duets with Elaine Paige. Top Of The Pops. Laura Ashley frocks. Immaculate coiffure. Another Suitcase In Another Hall, Flash perms. I Know Him So Well. Willy Russell...
And there's the link. Willy Russell. Famous Scouser. Godlike scriptwriter and celebrated socialist, is a bit of a folkie. He spent more nights than is good for anybody surrounded by beards and beer in dark rooms in Liverpool bellowing out Wild Mountain Thyme and Leaving Of Liverpool in dramatic lung-threatening manner.
It was long, long ago before all you were born, of course, but among an impressive array of Scots singers doing the rounds at the time was a sweet-voiced lass called Barbara Dickson.
An outstanding singer she was, too, regularly working the club scene throughout Britain with an approach that was widely regarded as dangerously populist at the time as a result of Barbara taking the liberty of mixing traditional material with songs by the up and coming songwriters of the day like Rab Noakes, Archie Fisher and Gallagher & Lyle.
She made regular appearances in Liverpool. Willy Russell became a huge fan and when he launched his own playwriting career with an amusingly jaundiced account of the whole Beatles phenomenon titled John, Paul, George, Ringo & Bert, he invited Barbara to sit at a piano at the side of the stage and sing Lennon/McCartney songs all night.
Such was the success of Russell's offbeat tribute, and so strikingly accomplished was Dickson's contribution to it, that the whole shebang was swiftly transferred to the West End stage... and Barbara Dickson was whisked into the sunset by an adoring luvvy fraternity to make pop records and plush concert tours, and never returned again. Until now. Barbara Dickson has just made a new album, Parcel Of Rogues, which - over two decades later - takes her back to traditional folk song. It's a brave, if risky, step. It's not as if she needs to do it - comfortable halls in Blackburn and Bristol and Portsmouth singing pop/MOR to middle-aged couples with Volvos and ice cream, lots of airplay on Radio 2 and the odd hit single thrown in, that's been the way of it for Barbara in recent years. And not a bad way to pay the mortgage either.
But here she is, going off on the sort of tangent guaranteed to confuse and irritate those fans settling down with their knitting to enjoy a nice evening of show tunes and singalong-a-Babs good humour. And then there's the folkies themselves. Strange lot at the best of times. Cue cynical ridicule and contempt from a pocket of society peculiarly protective and elitist about their own chosen form of music and who won't take kindly to the approach of this semi-household name patronising them with shallow cupboard love.
Barbara rolls her eyes. "Yes, I am very nervous, and it was important that I got it right for this reason. But I've always wanted to prove I could do an album of traditional music well, because my reputation when I used to do folk clubs wasn't particularly as a singer of traditional songs. I used to do a cross section of songs, but because I could do contemporary songs and play difficult chords and I used to sing songs by Gallagher & Lyle, people maybe thought I was better at doing that than I was at traditional songs."
At the time, of course, the boundaries were much more keenly drawn. If you sang contemporary songs then you couldn't possibly do traditional music with any degree of depth.
"People used to classify me as lightweight in the traditional songs department, but the really good singers of traditional songs, people like Martin Carthy, never ever made judgements like that. There was an hilarious thing in The Scotsman newspaper when I went into the theatre and they were going on about what a loss it was to the British folk scene.I just thought 'I wish somebody had told me that at the time!' I couldn't even get any work in Scotland. That was the era of the 'entertainers' and with the greatest respect to Billy Connolly and Hamish Imlach it was hard to get work there if you didn't tell jokes."
Parcel Of Rogues includes the first traditional song she ever learnt, I Once Loved A Lad, along with an assortment of reasonably well-known songs like Geordie, Farewell To Whiskey, Van Dieman 's Land and the title track, performed in a lively, authentic manner that a few years ago might have passed for standard rock. Not exactly innovative, but hugely likeable nevertheless, and specificially designed to introduce the songs to a fresh audience.
She baulks at the suggestion that she's on a missionary trail taking British traditional music to the poor masses, starved of their own music for so long. But she still talks a good propaganda pamphlet for folk music, even though admitting that she hasn't set foot inside a folk club since she got the call from Willy Russell all those years ago.
"I've never lost sight of how much I like folk music. I learned so many great songs in folk clubs and I've never stopped loving the music. It's worth so much more than the average person in the street gives it credit for - it's such a shame that more people don't know about it and get the opportunity to hear it. I know a lot of people on the folk scene are perfectly happy to keep it that way, but I think it's a real shame - I don't think it would ever get spoilt. That's why I've done these old songs on the album, it shows they are still alive.
The idea for a new album made up entirely of traditional material sprang from the introduction at one of her concerts of her completely unaccompanied version of MacCrimmon's Lament and the stunned reaction it received from her audience. "My manager suggested I sing something acapella and I didn't really think anything of it. To me it was the easiest song in the set, but people hadn't heard anything like it before and just had no conception of how anybody could sing a song completely without accompaniment. I find it a lot easier not having to worry about other instruments, but it started me thinking."
She's not the first person to go voyaging into her roots - and Parcel Of Rogues comes hot on the heels of Don't Think Twice It's Alright, an album of Dylan songs which didn't exactly set the world on fire. Maybe there's something therapeutic in these apparently regressional career moves, but Dickson - a stubborn adversary of folk elitism in the '60s and '70s - insists the album is a commercial as much as an idealist enterprise and liberally uses modern arrangements and technology to prove it. Inevitably, though, it's a work of real nostalgia. Among the musicians backing her, for example, are two staunch survivors from her folk days, Alistair Anderson on concertina and Archie Fisher on guitar and backing vocals.
"See, I've still got my old shirtbox. When I was travelling around I used to learn songs from different people and they'd write the words down on these grubby bits of paper. So I collected all these bits of paper and stuck them in this old shirtbox that's tied together with string. It got lost when I moved to Richmond but when I moved out into the country (she now lives in Lincolnshire) I found it again.
"So when I got together with Archie Fisher we started going through this old shirtbox and finding the bits of paper with Guinness stains on that people had given me in the west of Ireland and places. It's like having songs written on the backs of fag packets. We were going through these bits of paper trying to recognise the handwriting."
Archie Fisher was one of her biggest influences. Brought up on pop music, her first introduction to folk song was through John Watt, who pointed her in the direction of the great singers still around in Scotland at the time, people like the colourful street singer Jimmy McBeath and the mother superior of Scottish traditional song, Jeannie Robertson.
"I listened to a lot of those singers and people like Enoch Kent and all these guys singing Ewan MacColl songs, which I thought were great. Songs with a real tough, hard edge to them. I learnt an awful lot from all these people as well as MacColl records and the Waterson family songs. And everywhere you looked there was an emerging contemporary scene with people like Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer and Mike Heron - Edinburgh was very vibrant in those days. You had the Incredible String Band and Owen Hand, as well as Archie Fisher and Ray Fisher.
"When I was 17 I went on holiday to Ireland and I never recovered from it. I went to O'Donoghue's pub and there was Luke Kelly and the Dubliners sitting in the back room there. If you're exposed to that sort of quality you cant help but soak it up like a sponge."
Her liberal attitude towards folk song didn't especially endear her to some aspects of the scene. It wasn't unknown then for clubs to insist you only sang the songs of your own country: or that you must only sing traditional material; or you might have your guitar confiscated on the way in at 'unaccompanied only' clubs. She had no truck with any of that. "I always hated that attitude. Nobody's ever going to tell me to put my guitar away. I could always have done a night of just unaccompanied songs, but I didn't want to.
You've got the technology, so why not use it. That sort of thing did happen to me and it was horrendous, though I'm happy to see it doesn't seem to exist now.
"But by and large I was very well treated in folk clubs. People used to fix up tours and drive me around and let me stay at their houses and I didn't have a difficult time at all. Then at the end of the tour I'd go home to Scotland having had a great time. It was never gruelling: but then again I didn't work flat out all the time. so it didn't become a chore.
I wasn't looking to get out of that scene at all, but I had the offer from Willy Russell to do the John, Paul, George, Ringo & Bert show at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre and thought I'd do that and then come back to playing in folk clubs. I never really expected it to lead on to anything else."
The show was a huge culture shock and an unexpected success. It required little acting from Barbara, and she merely sat at the piano and played Beatles songs in the same manner that she would ordinarily play Jeannie Robertson songs. They caused a minor sensation - the world had become used to hearing Beatle songs in various odd guises, but Lennon-McCartney as folk music? Different - and gloriously effective. The show took off and before she knew it, Barbara Dickson was a star.
"I'd never worked with actors before, but folk music goes very well with theatre and I loved it. It's very honest and direct and I know a lot of folk musicians have worked in the theatre to good effect. And I thought actors were wonderful - they were so wacky. And then I came out of the theatre and went straight into pop music and that was a real culture shock!"
She was signed up by one of the great record industry moguls, Robert Stigwood, stuck in a studio with former Marmalade front man Junior Campbell, and - with big budget, promotional push and a radical update of an old Nat King Cole song Answer Me - transformed into a pop star.
A real Cinderella job. Suddenly the slightly frumpish looking bespectacled figure with lank hair and dowdy expression was magically fumed into a striking glamourpuss with contact lenses, highlights, perms and figure-hugging costumes. It was a culture shock for the folkies too, watching wide-eyed in the wings.
"Oh, there's always been an image machine in the music business, but you can use some of that to advantage. If you feel like you could do with a new hairdo or a certain look these people are actually very good at it. At the beginning I was very frightened about all that because I wasn't secure enough to be happy about them doing it and I thought I was going to disappear and be plasticised. But you have to understand that if you have an album that's called Satin And Lace or something, then they're going to want to put you in a ballgown. It's part of the selling process.
"Having been involved with it for twenty years it doesn't remotely upset me any more. If I don't like an idea then I say so and that's the end of it, but in the early days I was a bit reticent about all the image-building. Some artists are terrified of changing their hairstyle or getting dressed up, but with what I was doing I didn't need to be in jeans and jumper. I can't imagine anyone taking Richard Thompson and giving him a gold lame suit and putting him in a toupee, because that wouldn't fit him or the music and it would be ridiculous, but I was doing much more mainstream pop and I had to take advice on that. It's like being in the theatre and taking on a role and wearing a costume for a part and in the end I quite enjoyed doing it."
She never expected the pop career to last. Well, you don't, do you? Any minute now, she kept thinking, she'd find herself singing in some folk club in Barnsley.
"Twenty years on I still think like that. It never felt like it was really happening and I always thought it would all suddenly disappear, and I still do. I never took it seriously at all for that reason and I survived it pretty well. I didn't think it was the most magical thing in the world going to Top Of The Pops in a limousine. I enjoyed it, but that was all. But I'll never forget going to Los Angeles for the first time and sitting on a balcony having my breakfast thinking 'This is the life! Tills beats waiting on Doncaster railway station!' Like Billy Connolly always says, it beats being a welder. You must appreciate all the things happening to you, but it doesn't mean you despise or turn your back on where you came from."
A series of hits followed in the next few years - Another Suitcase In Another Hall, Caravan Song, January February, In The Night and - most spectacularly - I Know Him So Well, the Abba/Tim Rice song from the musical Chess on which she duelled with Elaine Paige.
"I went to Stockholm to record the song and I really enjoyed that because their recording technique is so good as well. The guys from Abba really impressed me. There's this real melancholy Nordic sadness in their tunes and it doesn't matter how poppy their lyrics are and the tunes are majestic. Anyway that song really got to me - the idea of two women singing different things about the same man was brilliant. I always think about the quality of the songs I sing and I like what songs say. That's something I learned in folk clubs and through listening to people like Bob Dylan. In the main I do like good songs."
She returned to the theatre for a more dramatic role in another Willy Russell creation, Blood Brothers, in which she played - to great acclaim - a gritty mother. This play, which is still running in the West End of London though she's no longer in it, won her various awards and the admiration of the theatrical fraternity shocked by her versatility. "It's the only time Willy Russell's written something with music and a lot of it is to do with folk music. When I heard the music - a song called Easy Terms in particular - I really identified with it and found it so suitable for what I did. That was such a good show for me to do. It's a very dramatic piece of work and you really have to act your socks off in it.
"It could have been hit or miss for me, but it worked. I really liked the woman I was playing. My mother's from Liverpool - her family were very ordinary people from Toxteth and the character I was playing was very similar to my mother and I could use that. I felt a great deal for her, she was very fired up, and the whole thing was very worthwhile."
Now she keeps an open mind about the future. She has a major British tour coming up in May and June in which she'll be mixing all these weird and wonderful traditional songs with the safer diet of show tunes and tasteful pop. She would love to go back into another stage show but finds parts as good as the woman she played in Blood Brothers almost impossible to find. She's open to suggestions about anything... except waiting on Doncaster railway station.
"I've always been open to everything, whether it's theatre or music, and I'm not about to change now. Even in the early days I wanted to use different styles all the time - that was partly the influence of Archie Fisher, who I worked with all the time when I was younger. He had a very eclectic taste and I learned a lot of songs via him, and that did me a lot of good in the long run. It's partly why I wanted to include him on this album to acknowledge that and thank him.
"Before I sang in folk clubs I'd sit at home doing the pop songs of people like Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. If I'd wanted to be accepted by the traditional lobby I wouldn't have touched contemporary songs at all, but I didn't want that. I always felt that every song was perfectly valid in whichever musical style it was written. I could never get into musical elitism. It's like extreme politics. I've no time for anybody who can't be bothered to listen to somebody who doesn't have these political standpoints that they have."
Now she takes some small satisfaction from knowing that she was right and they were wrong. Never taken seriously as a folk singer, she's back to pay respect to her roots and maybe rub a few noses in her subsequent success.
"One of the reasons Willy Russell asked me to do the John, Paul, George, Ringo & Bert thing in the first place was that he knew I wouldn't change my style to suit the songs. He wanted me to sing exactly the way I sang in folk clubs. Now I listen to the way I sang those songs in 1974 and I sound very naive. I was young and inexperienced and I think people found a real charm in that and nobody compared the way I did those songs with the way The Beatles did them."
And now she's back with traditional music, the big question is will anybody buy it?!?
"Well, I certainly hope so! If it doesn't sell then it will just confirm my view that people don't buy folk music in very great numbers. I want to get people who like me to trust me and come with me in this small departure. I've tried to do something that is not inaccessible. I think it's accessible, but it also has quality. I want people who don't know much about folk music to buy it and be introduced to this wonderful, massive well of culture we have in this country but which nobody seems to drink from."
And why don't they drink from it?
"It has a lot to do with image. I find it extraordinary that Martin Carthy is not a household name in Britain. He was described to me once as the definitive English guitarist and I think that's true, but if you were to ask somebody in the street who they thought was the definitive English guitarist they'd say Eric Clapton. Nobody's heard of Martin except the people who know and love him, but he's so original and so extraordinary.
"I think the folk scene itself is responsible because it's so insular. Perhaps they like it that way. but I think that's a great pity. I can't see how it can possibly be spoiled by being less insular. What's wrong with 16 year old guitarists being exposed to the structure of traditional songs and inspired to become a young Richard Thompson. Now that's quite a thought, isn't it?"