The Sangsters
at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, Baddeck, Cape Breton
(8 October 2007)

If you drink enough whisky while eating haggis, you'll soon forget what you're eating.

Those are words of wisdom from the Sangsters, a close-harmony vocal band from Fife in the Lowlands of Scotland, who gathered Monday at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck to describe Scotland in story and song. They had an hour to do it, and close to 150 people were packed into the small conference hall -- standing and sitting-on-the-floor room only -- to hang on every word.

But the Sangsters -- Anne and Scott Murray, Fiona Forbes and John Blackwood -- weren't doing all the talking, or at least not all the singing. Without microphones, they needed all the help they could get for volume, and they encouraged their audience to sing along at every opportunity.

"We optimistically printed off 25 copies" of a song sheet that morning at the Gaelic College, Scott said, ruefully. They got a few dozen more copies made at the museum, but it still wasn't enough to go around.

Even so, it didn't always go well. "That wasn't even good," Fiona said after one faltering chorus attempt. "That was poor."

But the crowd got better, and the Sangsters never tired of exhorting them to song, even though the four of them alone sounded like a full chorus. Each song they described in fascinating, if wandering, detail.

"The Silver Tassie (Cup)" is about a young man going off to war, for instance. "That song was written 220 years ago, but it's still relevant today," John said, noting the young people who are still shipping out to Iraq and Afghanistan.

There's a great deal of debate in Scottish circles, Fiona noted, over the true definition of a "traditional" song. Some folks consider anything over 50 years old to be part of the traditional fold. Others count only truly ancient songs that have been passed orally down through the generations. And some would argue, for example, that anything from the pen of Robert Burns fits the traditional mold.

None of that explains why the Sangsters broke into a nontraditional rendition of Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy" ("All my love, all my kissin', you don't know what you been missin', oh boy...") but everyone seemed to have a good time.

"That's the cheery bit of the show over," Scott warned. Scottish lyrics, John added, consist largely of war or fighting, romance and drink.

The Sangsters present their music simply, often a cappella or with two guitars, but with beautiful harmonies enriching every note. And all along the way, they had remarkable luck getting the audience to sing along, even without too much stumbling over the distinctive Scots dialect in the words.

"There's a lot of talk about dying of a broken heart in the tradition," Fiona noted. "Personally, I think that's because they didn't have antibiotics."

The group returned several times to the Burns canon. Scott lauded the imagery of Burns' lyrics.

"It's a lovely thing to go from the barebones of a story to his poetic vision," he said. "It was his genius to pick out the stories and make something marvelous of it."

review by
Tom Knapp

17 November 2007

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