Robin Williamson

In Celebration of Celtic Roots

by Lahri Bond

[From Dirty Linen #33 April/May 1991]

...this rolling world's no poet's home
Nor has been since Man's fall
Through hollow lands and hilly lands
Where the lonesome sparrow calls
His notes evoke a broken key
As you can understand
Which makes us roving strangers all
Far from our native land...

- "These Islands Green" (1977)

These words could easily describe the path of the bards of ancient Britain who traveled from village to hamlet armed only with their harps, the power of their poetry and the magic of their songs and tales. The beauty and enchantment of these early truth sayers holds a certain timelessness to this day, despite the advent of instant mass-manufactured culture through media.

Robin Williamson has been the living extension of these ancient bards since the beginning of his career with The Incredible String Band in the '60s and early '70s. Together with co-founder Mike Heron and a handful of others, the String Band represented the wild and uncontrolled synthesis of cultures, ideas, stories and music that hallmarked the 1960s. [See Dirty Linen #32 for an in-depth look at the Incredible String Band's career.]

With the String Band's demise in 1974, a vast body of work was left behind which represented both the humor and magic of the past 10 years. Many of Williamson's lyrical and poetic compositions at the time were collected into the 1972 book Home Thoughts From Abroad. It featured writings from 1966 through 1970 and contained many previously unpublished works.

In 1975 Williamson moved to Los Angeles with his first wife Janet and began a steady flow of writing which resulted in some of the material in his 1977 release Journey's Edge with the Merry Band.

"I did three or four different things. I did a book on fiddle tunes [Fiddle Tunes: English, Welsh, Scots and Irish], which is a selection of my favorite tunes really, for Oak. I did a book of how to play pennywhistle [creatively titled The Penny Whistle Book, also on Oak].

"I had published in the States at that time what could best be described as a surreal autobiography." The piece is called Mirrorman's Sequences and is part of an anthology of West Coast writers called Outlaw Visions [Acrobat Books, U.S.].

"It consists of things that happened in the period prior to and up to the beginning of the String Band. It's told in the form of lies. It's a series of truths which are told as lies instead of having chapters..."

Around the same time Robin collaborated on a spy novel, of all things called The Glory Trap, with author Dan Sherman. The book was published under the joint authorship of "Sherman Williamson" as if it were one person.

"It's usually a better idea to put just one person's name on the book according to our agent, so we put the one name. Besides, the book is... quite tongue-in-cheek, actually."

Indeed, it reads more like a straight and hardboiled thriller about financial intrigue and gun-running in North Africa and Spain, with most of the action taking place in the Mustapha-like city of Fez.

"I did the descriptive bits, the characterizations, and the bits about locations in general. They're mostly mine. Whereas most of the action and fast-paced bits are Dan's, except for the love scenes... well, I always liked romance, you know."

The only recorded work at the time consisted of an acetate flexi-disc which accompanied the Fiddle Tunes book. The musicians on it consisted of another recent British immigrant Stan Schnier on bass (known to String Band fans as Stan Lee), an accordion player named Todd Urbonas and guitarist Mark Simos. They played a few gigs under the name The Far Cry Ceilidh Band, but never recorded.

It was not long after that Robin met classical harpist Sylvia Woods at a party. Sylvia was beginning to experiment with Celtic harp. Around the same time he met Chris Caswell at a folk festival. Chris had been playing with Jerry McMillan in Northern California for some years. This quarter joined together under the title of Robin Williamson and His Merry Band (after Robin Hood and his merry band of men).

In 1977 the band released its first album Journey's Edge, which had a much more traditional feel than any of the String Band's recordings. On songs such as "Mythic Times" and "The Bells," the band displayed a wonderful empathy for the traditionally-inspired material that Robin began to write. With Sylvia Woods' harp, McMillan's fiddle, and Caswell and Robin playing a large variety of acoustic stringed and wind instruments including bagpipes, the band began to blaze the trail for a new Celtic tradition. Journey's Edge acted well as a bridge between the String and Merry Bands' approaches. Also on the album are some very String Band-like humorously weird songs as Robin's ode to insanity, "Rap City Rhapsody," and the hysterical "Maharajah of Mogador," which featured Middle Eastern yodeling and Peter Lorre imitations. Former String Band vocalist Likki McKechnie-Lambert also makes a guest appearance.

By the release of American Stonehenge in 1978, the band had solidified their sound and the album features some of the quartet's most inspired work, including "These Islands Green," the California-inspired "Pacheco," and two lovely instrumentals, "Port London Early" and "Her Scattered Gold." The band's group composition, "Zoo Blues," is a wonderfully witty attempt to squeeze as many animal puns into one song as possible:

Gorilla my dreams
You're a cheetah it seems
Fly are you lion to me
You otter be sad losing me
(For goodness snakes)

The Merry Band's live shows were always a joyous combination of skillful and inspired playing together with a fair amount of good-spirited bawdiness.

In 1979 they released their last and finest album, A Glint at the Kindling. This album finds Robin in top writing form, dipping deep into childhood memories. There's his recounting of his experiences at compulsive military training when he was 14 in Ireland, "Lough Foyle." The song is full of not always pleasant memories of cold carsys (outdoor primitive toilets), late night defections, and the general trouble he got by being in such an unlikely situation. "Me and the Mad Girl" touchingly recounts his chance meeting with a "mad girl" in the forest when he was 10 -- "I knew you were as mad as me and as sane as a summer's day." "The Woodcutter's Song" matches a newly-written melody to a traditional English poem about what are the best woods for burning in the winter hearths. This is probably one of the Merry Band's most covered tunes and a good example of their power to revive tradition.

The centerpiece of the album is an epic poem set to music by Robin called "Five Denials on Merlin's Grave." "The piece is based on five broad stages of ancient British history and contrasts dusty historical and archeological viewpoints together with dilute folklore and echoes of legend that remain against the emotion of the ancestral figures of the green islands have woken in me, since I first learned of them as a boy." Clearly this poem was the stepping stone for Robin to fully explore the magnificently rich imagery of his Celtic roots. The poem concludes:

Restless in life and seeking no end in death
For breath of the ages in the face of the air
Still ghosts to the vitality
Of our most early and unwritten forebears
Whose wizardry still makes a like of history
Who somehow reared and loosed an impossible beauty
Enduring yet
Among the green islands of the grey North Sea
And I will not forget.

In December, 1979, the Merry Band split up, leaving Sylvia Woods to start what is still a thriving harp instruction business through books, audio and video tapes.

Chris Caswell continued to build and design frame harps, as well as having formed a duo with Danny Carnahan (see Dirty Linen #32). Carnahan and Caswell toured for three years in the early '80s and made two albums for Kicking Mule Records.

Not much is known of Jerry McMillan's whereabouts, except he is surely playing fiddle somewhere.

The Merry Band left three excellent albums and a British rehearsal compilation called Words and Music 1977. There were a few unrecorded songs, both traditional and original that were part of their stage repertoire, including the occasional String Band cover such as "First Girl I Loved" and "Koeeoaddi There." People who were lucky enough to see the Merry Band will also remember the occasional spoken word or poetic piece like the whimsical "Griper."

Robin released a fully-annotated book version of Five Denials on Merlin's Grave, published by Robin's own Pig Whiskers Music and illustrated by Janet Williamson. The book is a must for serious students of Celtic myth and folklore as it is an incredible piece of source and reference material in addition to its obvious extraordinary poetic value.

The '80s saw Robin mostly touring solo and bringing his one-man bardic-style show all over the world. Instrumentally he would utilize guitar, Celtic harp, smallpipes, pennywhistle, jaw harp and occasionally fiddle in his live shows. The second set of the shows were usually devoted to one long story which took up the set's length. Three of these original stories -- told in traditional style -- were collected on a series of tapes known as The Gruagach's Tales -- grugaches being the wizard class of ancient Britain.

Around the same time, he also released his first solo album since 1972's Myrrh. The album was called Songs of Love and Parting, which is pretty much what its theme was. It interwove traditional songs such as "The Parting Glass" and "Flower of the Briar" with originals such as "Verses at Balwearie" and "The Forming Blodeuwedd," which is a rather mystical sounding extract from a theatre project Robin had been working on at the time.

The Mabinogi was a multi-media theatre piece performed by the dance/theatre company Moving Being. Based on four ancient branches of stories which also incorporate some of the earliest Arthurian legends and tales of Merlin, the 1983 performance of The Mabinogi was held in an open-air production inside Caernafon and Cardiff Castles in Wales.

"It was outdoors and it was surrounded by a medieval faire. There were a number of different stages, some of them with wheels that moved around and there were horses in it. Oh, it was great."

Previously Robin had worked with Moving Being on a theatre piece called Tree of Leaf and Flame, which combined dance, poetry, new songs and a few string band chestnuts such as "Waltz of the New Moon" and "Seasons They Change," all held together by their Celtic themes.

"In the back of the stage there was a large curtain with a Celtic design on it from which the dancers could come and go. I could either have my harp set up on stage right or I could move across or walk in among the dancers."

Included in this program were four pieces which would later show up on a tape and in a small book Robin published called Selected Writings 1980-83. The pieces, "Song of Mabon," "The Fair," "Lammas," and "Edinburgh" work strongly together as a unit or separately. "Edinburgh" in itself is a beautiful, long piece of prose which both celebrates and laments the history and fate of Robin's hometown.

"Oh Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Edinburgh, whirl out your tippet sane and fro, and before the judge I'll jingle in scold's bridle what jewels have never stolen of you, of fire below the ash, oh fine dear heart..."

From 1984-85 Robin also released five cassettes each with five stories on them which centered on specific themes in Celtic lore, such as legendary histories, bardic mysteries or tales of enchantment. These 25 stories make up a great deal of the spoken material Robin began to perform live. No longer separating his show into different parts for music and stories, he would now interweave tale and tune in a seamless fashion which would go from being humorous to profound. Here too he began introducing to audiences, some of Britain's finest legendary characters, such as Thomas the Rhymer, Taliesin, Michael Scott the Wizard, Fionn MacCumhaill, Wee Jack, and many others.

"I'm just trying to extend the general approach to combining spoken word and sung word... working largely in the Celtic tradition, but trying to write new things in that style. I think the music I make and write as an artist has borrowed not only from the heritage of Scotland, but also from the romantic and visionary heritage which sprang from the Celtic revival of the 19th century and from people like Yeats and Blake in the 19th and 18th centuries. And the American poet Walt Whitman and the beat generation of the 20th century. That style of writing has got a lot to do with what could be called `bardic' -- namely, the idea of being alive is an incredibly inspiring thing, and we can draw on that as source. So I think there's a definite continuum there, which I feel that I am a part of."

In addition to his storytelling, Robin had been researching old music manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland. The result was a set of instrumental recordings called The Legacy of the Scottish Harpers, Vols. 1 and 2 (1984 and 1986).

"That's a fascinating little story, actually. There are these manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland. It's not like they're secret manuscripts. They're well known, but little has been done with them. There's very little remaining music that's certainly for the harp. There are literary references... but there's no music that was specifically written for the harp, like piano music. I began to wonder what kind of music the Scottish harpers played. One knows pretty much what the Irish harpers played, at least in the 18th century, because Edward Bunting wrote it down. Anyway, there's lots of great tunes there, and that's the first record. The second record is all court music. A lot of those things sound like Elizabethan music."

The '80s also saw Robin working on a number of soundtracks including "The Dragon Has Two Tongues," a 13-part Welsh history series for Channel Four TV (U.K.), Prospect of the Sea, a Moving Being theatre/dance portrait of Dylan Thomas, and also contributions to the score of the George Lucas/Ron Howard fantasy film, Willow.

Somewhere along the way, Robin moved to Cardiff, Wales (which explains why he has done so much Welsh related work). In 1986, a seasonal album, Winter's Turning, was released and featured tunes by such "songwriters" as Henry VIII, Bill Shakespeare, and the great O'Nonymous (also a few by those little-known composers Vivaldi, Corelli, Praetorius, and O'Carolan).

Songs for Children of All Ages was released in 1987, and besides such classics as "Froggy Would a Wooing Go" and "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies" are reprises of String Band favorites "Water Song" and "Witches Hat." Also included was "The Gartan Lullaby," with which Robin would usually close his live shows. (The recorded version doesn't include his touching spoken word tribute to his son Gavin.)

In the '80s, Robin also started a close association with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Caledon Forest Project, which is a charitable trust encouraging farmers to replant the Borders with native hardwoods, an important project on many levels from its environmental impact to its symbolic importance in the continual regeneration of Scottish culture.

"The Celts respected the soft feminine nature of the landscape. They held their bardic colleges deep in the scared groves of the ancient Caledon Forest, which, until the Middle Ages, covered the entire area from Berwick to Galloway and up to the Clyde. It was the home of wild Merlin, one of the historical characters on which the legendary Merlin was based and inspired a wealth of Arthurian lore.

"There have been a series of benefits which resulted in the Caledon Forest Project being able to buy one of the last scraps of the Caledon Forest. There are only two tiny scraps, one which now belongs to the National Trust in perpetuity, which is great. It is 5,000 years old, never been felled, and it contains all of this extraordinary ground cover in which species can survive that wouldn't live anywhere else. When you've got that scrap, you can put a forest together again. But you can't put one together from scratch. That's one of the amazing things about a forest -- you can't just grow one. One thing fosters another, which is why these forests we have on this planet are so incredibly precious. I mean, apart from making our air, they're self-perpetuating and they foster a number of different species without which the general pool of life may very well be immeasurably poorer at some point in the future which we can't foresee."

Despite his extraordinary output of work, Robin had not created an album of solely original songs in nearly 10 years.

Ten of Songs was released in 1988 and contains newly-recorded songs and some of Robin's strongest and most personal material ever. The addition of occasional electric instruments, drums, or backing vocalists intermix with the subtle acoustic textures found throughout. "Political Lies" had been a long-time set pleaser and is one of Robin's few political songs:

Political lies, political promises
This shadow everywhere a sense of powerlessness
and you and I left wading in the history
a history of mystery
a history of betrayal

A musical version of "Lammas" was included as well as "The Barley" and "Scotland Yet," all updated from their original appearances in Tree of Leaf and Flame.

I rear up, unnecessary and perforce
and I say to my Scotland, I say
accept your mongrel natural son
whose tongue is bent most unwilling to otherly words
your chain is unbroken, your seal inscrutable.

-- "Scotland Yet"

Ten of Songs as a whole sees Robin renewing and strengthening his original vision of matching words and music in sort of a Kerouac-inspired "word jazz." There is a renewal of his Celtic-infused sense of wonder,

I am a lover of the steady Earth
and her waters.
She say let the light be brilliant
to one who will cherish colour.

-- "Verses at Powis"

There is also a renewal of love --

How could I know my every guard would be broken
by elemental love
archetypal love
sweet uncharted love.

-- "Innocent Love"

In August, 1989, Robin remarried and his wife, Bina, is now also his manager.

Music for the Newly Born, a cassette-only release of instrumental music for young children and their parents was released in 1990.

The Craneskin Bag, a book which collects many of the stories from five sets of five series of tapes with related Celtic stories and poems was published by Canongate Books in the U.K. with an American release due this year under the title, The Wise and Foolish Tongue.

In the meantime, Robin is in the process of recording several new tapes of stories and music to be released later this year. His live shows this fall featured a good deal of new and inspired material, hopefully some of which will be on these new recordings.

Robin Williamson -- musician, songwriter, storyteller, enchanter, poet -- continues to call forth the ancient Celtic muse of inspiration.

"With all the bad news around these days, we, as artists, have to paint pictures that rekindle the spirit, that say there is hope. And we have to put some resources into making those pictures real. The best each of us can do is bite off a chewable chunk of what is wrong and say this little piece is going to be right."


Music Books

Poetry Books

Novels

Stories

Spoken Word Cassettes (All published by Pig's Whisker Music.)

Film, Theatre & Television Appearances

Film, Television, and Theatre Scores


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