Covered In Folk: Dougie MacLean
(Caledonia, Cara Dillon, Mary Black, Brooks Williams and more!)

As with many of our more folk-oriented Covered In Folk subjects, I discovered the work of Dougie MacLean through two primary sources: through my father, who handed me one of his albums over a decade ago, and through label-watching, after discovering the same poignant song twice over, in separate female voices, and realizing that neither of them had written it.

The song in question is Caledonia, the Latin name for Scotland, and as its matronymic title implies, though it treats its subject as an anthropomorphised object of desire, its lyrics truly speak of a love of country. As a musical poem which speaks eloquently of the calling, and the homecoming, which so many ex-patriots and lovers experience, it is unsurprising to find that Caledonia resonates with and is well-covered by those who understand what it means to long for the Scottish Isles; indeed, though the song easily made Folk Alley’s list of the 100 Most Essential Folk Songs in 2009, the vast majority of covers which one can find are from Irish and Scottish singer-songwriters, who know MacLean as a countryman whose songbook is lush with tributes and mournful hymns to his native land, and seem to prefer this particular track as a favorite.

The multi-instrumentalist, who started his career in the mid-seventies with popular tradfolk group The Tannahill Weavers, and has since produced over a score of solo works, seems much less known outside of his native region, however. Despite the strong influence of Irish and Scottish folk on the broader canon, and on American culture itself, MacLean seems to be one of those artists whose influence in name is predominantly limited to those who trace their own roots directly to the same source.

Pity, that: though the artist sometimes referred to as “the Scottish James Taylor” is yet in his mid fifties, he’s hardly a one-song wonder. His instrumental The Geal was used in the film The Last Of The Mohicans, though you probably didn’t rush home to figure out who wrote it; Turning Away, which you’ll hear covered below, was used for the soundtrack of the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Angel Eyes. He’s received the OBE, had his songs chosen as the theme for national homecoming campaigns in his native land, and toured the folk mainstage circuit extensively in the US and abroad. An exploration of his larger body of work reveals several decades worth of beauty and poetry – a collection which is as praise-worthy and praise-ful as the printed and sung works of Burns, Yeats, Tannahill, and others – and a knack for melody and arrangement which both builds on and transcends the simple, elegant folk tradition from which he springs.

Rather than fill the shelves with a Single Song Sunday, then, I’ve chosen to split the bill down the middle this week. So here’s a half-dozen covers of Caledonia which ring true and traditional even as they swing through the vast ground that encompasses folk, from Euan Morton’s softly lilting piano ballad to several heartfelt contemporary Irish/Scottish singer-songwriter takes right up to Frankie Miller’s smashing Celtic folkrock anthem, and a paired eight-track set of coverage from the rest of MacLean’s body of work. Taken together, they provide ample evidence for his unsung worthiness on this side of the pond.

Category: Covered in Folk, Dougie MacLean, Single Song Sunday 2 comments »

2 Responses to “Covered In Folk: Dougie MacLean
(Caledonia, Cara Dillon, Mary Black, Brooks Williams and more!)

  1. Martin

    thanks for sharing! another great and brand new cover version of caledonia (along with several other fine tracks) is on singer-songwriter mrjones’ new all-covers album:

  2. Diane

    Here’s another cover of Caledonia, from an old friend and one of my fave Irish singers, Mary Courtney (playing with Morning Star):

    Mary alone (well, with the crowd singing along) in a low quality video from an Irish bar in Trenton.

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