Mike Whelans and Aly Bain
Recording from the 1976 UCLA Folk Festival fiddle workshop with James Porter, Robin Williamson, Aly Bain, Jack Link, Bob Naess, Paul Wells, Dewey Balfa and Marc Savoy. From the University of California, Los Angeles, Ethnomusicology Archive and posted at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/calauem_000655
The following interview was undertaken by Rosa Michaelson in Edinburgh and published in the magazine Folk’s on Vol 2, No. 10. November 1985.
Rosa Michaelson, fiddle player with Sprangeen went to meet Aly Bain, fiddle player with Boys of the Lough; we include part of the conversation that followed.
Rosa Michaelson (R.M.): When did you start playing, what started your playing off?
Aly Bain (A.B.): I just like it, you know. There were a lot of people around playing. There was a lot of fiddle playing on Shetland and not much else to do.
R.M.: What age were you when you started?
A.B.: Oh, I suppose about 10 or 11, but I’d had the desire to pay for quite a while before that. It’s just like everything else when you are a kid, no one believes you really want to do something when you say you want to do it. Not that I think it would really have made a difference when I started. I think it’s a thing you either get into or you don’t. It doesn’t really matter whether you start at five or ten, you are still young enough to learn quite quickly at that age.
R.M. Did your relatives play at all?
A.B. I had an uncle who played on my mother’s side and her father played the fiddle also, my grandfather. And my father played a little bit at New Year and sometimes at Christmas he would play for a while. My mother’s side is probably where I got my music from, although on my father’s side they were also interested in music. He was more interested in reading poetry and stuff like that. I suppose you get a certain amount of emotional feeling from that which I think is pretty important in music.
R.M. When you started playing was it still the case that there would be regular dances?
A.B. Oh, there were plenty of dances going on at that time though when I started playing I was obviously too young to be playing at dances. I learned originally from the woman who lived next door to me, she played. Maggie Simpson was her name. They were all quite a musical family and she played one or two tunes on the fiddle that I liked. I learned them, they were just simple tunes, and then I went to Tom Anderson after that. He used to come and pick me up once a week in his Ford Popular. We would spend from maybe seven o’clock till half past nine just, you know, playing and listening to music. He didn’t have any other pupils at that particular time as there was hardly anyone else actually playing the fiddle then among the younger ones on the island. It was kind of pre the revival of the fiddle music, although there were a lot of older players still playing. My parents had known Tom from since I was born so it was a sort of natural thing to do. He gave me a good grounding in what I shouldn’t be doing.
R.M. Did he teach you to read then?
A.B. No. I don’t read very much and I still can’t read very well. I’ve never learnt tunes from music. I’ve always learnt by ear. And I just couldn’t .. I was just really interested in playing, I wasn’t really interested in reading. You can develop a knack of learning tunes by ear and that’s what I used to do. I never was a good reader maybe because I didn’t practice enough, though I can read after a fashion. I can read well when I know a tune but I can’t read well when I don’t know it. In the early days of playing I played in the Shetland Folk Band, which was the Shetland Folk Society Band. And I think Tom was about the youngest guy in it. So there was me and Tom and Old Willie Hunter that’s Willie Hunter’s father, Willie Anderson – he was an old player – he’s since dead, and Peter Fraser and Laurie Irvine. They were all fiddlers.
R.M. You would be playing mainly Shetland old tunes then?
A.B. That’s right, it was the Shetland Folk Society Band and we played at their functions which, you know, maybe had a couple of, two or three, fundraising functions a year in Lerwick and sometimes in the country. So I was mainly among guys of my parent’s age. Peter Fraser was quite a lot older, he’s dead now, Willie Anderson’s dead now, I guess he was in his eighties. They were that age of people.
R.M. Did you listen to other players on record or radio at all?
A.B. Well I was listening a lot to records because we got a radiogram, I remember an HMV radiogram. It was the new in-thing. I got it from this uncle of mine, who played. I got records of Hector McAndrew and the first record I ever got of Sean McGuire. And a record of classical music of Ruggiero Ricci playing Paganini variations. All that was a bit above me at that time. Still are a bit above me. Anyway I found them all very interesting. Well, I didn’t learn anything from Ruggiero Ricci, but I learned a lot from the other two records. From McGuire especially. And I learned a lot from Hector’s playing as well though I wasn’t so aware of it then. His sort of style was there in my mind though I didn’t really realise it.
R.M. When did you start playing Scottish mainland tunes and strathspeys?
A.B. Oh that started when I used to see Tom. The first music I played with Tom was Scots music. The Shetland Folk Band was a thing aside from all that. When I went to Tom it was mainly in the beginning Scots music I was playing, tunes like the ‘Deil amang the Tailors’ and the ‘Fairy Dance’. You know, ‘Mrs McLeod’s Reel’ and ‘The Laird of Drumblair’ and all those tunes.
R.M. Ronnie Cooper wasn’t involved in the band then?
A.B. No Ronnie wasn’t involved in that. It was Margery Smith who was more involved in that side of it. There was almost sort of two camps of music in Lerwick. One was the Scottish dance band scene which Tom had been involved in earlier when he had the Islesburg Dance Band. But he sort of got out of that more into the orthodox fiddle playing, the old Shetland stuff and the Scottish stuff, and lost interest in the Scottish dance band music.
R.M. You became well known in Shetland as a player didn’t you? You’d already done some recording with Ronnie?
A.B. I did a little record, yes, called Reflections from Shetland or something. That was an EP. Oh, I was playing at concerts when I was about 13 and I started playing at dances when I was about 14 and I played in the Lounge Bar. When I was 18 I started there. So, I was playing music all the time. I suppose people got to know who I was.
R.M. When did you leave Shetland?
A.B. October ’67.
R.M. Had you been working after you left school?
A.B. I was a joiner to the trade when I left school at 15 and served my time and did five years. I left Shetland when I was about 22.
R.M. And did you leave specifically to play music professionally?
A.B. I did, yes. I met Arthur Argo, whose great grandfather was Gavin Grieg, when he was working in PR for the BBC. Arthur was very interested in traditional music and he was up in Shetland doing some programme, ‘On Tour’, I think, with Ben Lyons and Ronald Cooper. I did a set of music for them in Ollaberry, and he wanted me to come away. He was living here at that time, in Edinburgh, and was agent for groups like Bitter Withy. He had Jean Redpath, Billy Connolly and Barbara Dickson. That was about all, and then me. Arthur was much more than an agent. He was a very good friend. He was responsible for getting me work for maybe three years. The first time I ever went away was to Blairgowrie Festival. That I think, was in ’67. Arthur took me down to Keele Folk Festival and that’s when things really began to happen. Because the English folk scene was very strong at that time as it was here. But in England they must have had quite a few hundred folk clubs and most of them came to the Keele Festival. Arthur had this idea that Mike Whellans and I should play together because Mike did the contemporary side of music and I did the traditional. It was very difficult to make any money at all as a traditional player, so the two things blended in rather well. I did some country tunes and then I did some traditional tunes. But when we went to Keele, Mike got hay fever and couldn’t play that weekend. So I played solo and then all these people who were just starting to get into traditional music booked me, but they’d never seen Mike. So when we went as a duo, a lot of them were really surprised because they expected it to be a night of fiddle music, and it was night of all kinds of music.
Some were pleasantly surprised and some weren’t. About 1970, we formed the Boys of the Lough, which would have been about that time.
R.M. That must have been really exciting to come away from Shetland and go to somewhere like that. You must have met a lot of other musicians there.
A.B. The guys I really became friendly with were the High Level Ranters, Alistair Anderson and Tommy Gillfillan I stayed in Newcastle for one year with Tommy Gillfillan. That’s when I was playing with Mike. I was staying with Tommy I think, the first time I went off to the States.
R.M. Was there much fiddling in England?
A.B. There was none, except for the [High Level] Ranters, and Colin Ross and people like that. The only other fiddle player I can remember was Dave Swarbrick. In Scotland there was nobody playing the fiddle at all. Nobody in the folk clubs, I mean. Not in the folk-scene. There was always the Reel and Strathspey societies and Fiddle and Accordion societies. That was a long way from the folk-scene. The folk scene had different origins from any of that stuff. When I came down here first, it was all singer songwriters. That was the big craze. It was the late sixties and I suppose it was Joni Mitchell time, and Judy Collins time. There were players like Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and John Renbourn. Archie Fisher was singing loads of contemporary songs then. That was the big thing. It was pretty difficult for two or three years to get work at all. And there was very little traditional music in the Scottish clubs. That’s why I ended up in Newcastle.
R.M. Did you go abroad with Mike?
A.B. I went abroad almost immediately I started working with Mike. We went to Denmark every summer for about three years. At that time I met Sarah Grey, who was then living in America and was over here on a tour. She booked Mike and I for 40 nights in the States. We played coffee houses, which are the American equivalent of folk clubs. I think that was 1970. And that was where I made loads of contacts. I met the people who would be our agents after that; Jules Snyder. And I met the woman who brought over the Boys of the Lough for the first time; Wendy Lawrence. She brought us over to do a festival at Fox Hall. After that first tour with Boys of the Lough, Jules Snyder’s wife Janet started putting together tours for the group.
R.M. Well you’d formed Boys of the Lough. Was that the same band Robin Morton and Cathal McConnel had played in with Tommy Gunn?
A.B. The Boys of the Lough that we made was a completely new Boys of the Lough. We carried on the name, but it was nothing to do with the old group. There was me and Robin and Cathal and Dick Gaughan the first time we went to the States. It was like really humble beginnings in the States. We had to work very hard and we didn’t make any money out of it for a long while. There wasn’t any of this kind of music in the States at all at that point except for those living in the Irish urban areas. There was Irish music that had always been there but it wasn’t in the folk scene at all. So we were the first band that really had an influence over there with type of music. It was a matter of breaking down the barriers as we went along. That wasn’t hard, because the music took off almost immediately . People really like it the tours got bigger…
R.M. So Mike wasn’t playing with you then?
A.B. No, Mike had gone by then. Dick Gaughan had replaced him. And we decided at that particular point to work in the States because we could see the parallels between the Americans and the old country here and we could see that there could be a big interest in the music over there. There was also a living to be made out of working in the States. We worked along in the States until about 1974 when the Chieftains went there. I think they were the next band after us, there. Then of course, later on there were groups like De Dannan and so on. But that was quite a lot later. The music really took off toward the end of the seventies. It became a really big minority music in the States and it still is. I think there always will be a big interest in Irish and Scottish music in the States. We just happened to be the band that went over in the beginning. If it hadn’t been us it would have happened to some other band. It was a very exciting time, to be over there. It was the end of the sixties and we went to places like Harvard. All these revolutionaries were there. It was during the Vietnam War and there were huge peace demonstrations. Harvard was a really vibrant and exciting place to be; full of music’ al different kinds of music and performers. Everybody used to live there. Loudon Wainright used to live there. And all our friends were always coming and going. Mike and I, we played at Kent State the year after the shootings at Kent State and there was a big cultural and social revolution going on in the States at that time. People were looking for reality, they were looking for real everything at that time. They’d had enough of the fifties and the war and all the old American values that are now back in 1985. They are all back again. At that actual time you never have believed that there could ever have been any Ronald Reagan. He was so much out on a limb.
R.M. Did you meet many players over there?
A.B. Yes, in fact there were more young fiddlers in the States then than here. There were a lot of players like Jay Ungar; just loads and loads of fiddle players. Playing American music, playing old time music. That was also enjoying a big revival. And of course there was the bluegrass too. I met most of the fiddle players at festivals.
R.M. When Robin [Morton] left was it difficult to find someone else?
A.B. Well it’s always difficult to find someone else. At that time we desperately needed a change in the band. When Robin left we were expecting it and, er, it happened. I had always wanted to get some form of accompaniment in the band which we didn’t really have before.
R.M. Is that because of the way fiddlers play in Shetland? It’s common to find piano or guitar backing the fiddle.
A.B. Yes, I think that in Scotland, and Shetland the fiddle always had an accompanying instrument – away back they had harmoniums and guitars and then pianos.
R.M. It’s not as if the bodhran would have been a common instrument in Scotland at all.
A.B. No, it was not. The bodhran is not my favourite instrument. I think it suits Irish music – it suits certain kinds of rhythms but it doesn’t suit other so we were always quite limited in what we could play by having no accompaniment. We had to play tunes that were strong enough to survive without accompaniment. So Cathal and I, playing lead instruments, had to work very hard and drive the music along at a really ferocious pace. It was quite exhausting. So when Tich [Richardson] came it allowed us to play Scots slow airs and Irish tunes too that we hadn’t felt comfortable playing. It also gave us a chance to play in other keys like Bb and Eb which you cannot play in without accompaniment really. Dave [Richardson] used to accompany some but he was a lot of the time playing the melody in a lower octave. That helped because we had three instruments, flute, fiddle and concertina all walloping out music in the same octave. So the difference between the fiddle and concertina is very little – they are both sharp instruments. Although Tich was quite inexperienced he learnt quickly. And after two or three years he had settled in and was all the time improving. He was always experimenting with open tuning and all various types of tuning. And he could do the ‘dum-chit’, you know …
R.M. The standard line.
A.B. Yes, which nobody else could do down here. There was nobody else really doing it except Dave Jackson and Jimmy Elliot, when he was alive. But there weren’t many people who… couldn’t find anyone who was as versatile as him. So that meant we decided to have another complete change. Sort of like a cabinet reshuffle. We brought in the piano which I really love and that’s going to open up lots of possibilities.
R.M. So who have you got now?
A.B. Johnny Coakley is playing piano. He also plays guitar but he’s mainly playing piano, and Christy O’Leary who’s playing Irish pipes, and that the way the band is at the moment.
R.M. You still had your roots in Shetland. Presumably you went back and saw people?
A.B. Oh all the time and I still do but in the early days I was much more in touch with Shetland and I missed it much more at that particular time. So I was going home more often.
R.M. Did you not find a big contrast with the type of music that you were hearing and playing and the type of music that you might have heard when it was the old Shetland playing?
A.B. The old timer music in the States was very like our own music. But I had grown up listening to lots of American music so it wasn’t such a shock. I had heard bluegrass players and records of all sorts of players when I was growing up. I knew a lot of the tunes.
R.M. So at the same time that you hear Hector McAndrew you wouldn’t be escaping the other types of music?
A.B. I was playing everything. The people up there just love fiddle music, any kind of fiddle music. American music was always very popular in Shetland. I learned Bob Wills tunes and all kinds of Western Swing tunes. Just after the war and around the time of the war would have been his main big years. But his band, The Texas Playboys, are still playing. He only died a few years ago, and they are men in the seventies. So I suppose when I was hearing the music away back then it would have been popular in the States because that’s when the records were being churned out. We used to get the records from guys who were sailors who would bring the records home, you know, who liked fiddle and knew that we would like it so they would bring them home. And all kinds of music, Country music. People were daft about country music.
R.M. Shetlanders seem pretty cosmopolitan to me whenever I go there.
A.B. Actually the fiddle is a good instrument to be cosmopolitan with because it’s such a variable instrument. And you know American music sounds great on it which makes people want to play it. I think it was because Shetlanders are seamen and these guys who went off to join the merchant navy brought the musics they liked home. Whereas I don’t think people, say, in Aberdeen would have heard so much American music or even Irish music. We were in a way better informed because we had longer feelers going out everywhere. Shetlanders have always been like that anyway. They have never been sort of closed people. In order to live in Shetland you had to be a quite versatile human being and that went into all aspects of their life, music as well as everything else. Certainly there were people who disapproved of the new styles but on the whole who cared so long as you were enjoying yourself. After all it’s a long winter up there.
R.M. It must have been amazing hearing Jean Carignan play.
A.B. Yes, it was an eye-opener hearing him play. It was an eye-opener meeting him. But for me it was a perfectly natural thing to meet him because he was just like all the fiddle players I met, he was just really into fiddle music. It was just new techniques and it was a slightly different sound he was making but what was mainly different about him was this technique. We became friends immediately. We spent the whole weekend together at Fox Hall playing each other’s music. He was really interested to hear someone from over here playing the kind of music that he was interested in. He hadn’t met hardly any fiddle players here. In fact none of them had met any fiddle players from here. I don’t think any of the players I met in that first two or three tours in the States had heard anyone from over here playing the fiddle.
R.M. Do you do a lot of things outside the band?
A.B. Not a great deal. It took me ten years to do the album.
R.M. So you had been thinking about it that long?
A.B. Of course. I just hadn’t the time. I made time to do it and it was done very very quickly. I do a few gigs on my own mainly because I like to do it. Playing a whole solo night for a couple of hours keeps that side of my life in perspective. I think it’s good for me. It is also important for me to know that I can do it and enjoy it. I’ve done some films this year and last year for Channel 4 and that’s a completely new thing for me.
R.M. What are they about?
A.B. Well they are about fiddle music and about where the fiddle went from these islands. It brings in the people that I’ve talked about – Carignan from Canada and the Cape Breton players. Old Time players like the late Tommy Jarrel and J.P. Fraley. Also Texas players like Junior and the Western Swing side of it. It’s not a heavy look at what actually happened to the fiddle it’s just a look at what these people are doing with an instrument and a music that came from here.
R.M. When will this series come up on television?
A.B. I don’t know. There is word that it might come out during the Christmas holidays between the new year and Christmas but I’m not sure.
R.M. Do you think you’ll be doing more of that?
A.B. Oh I don’t know – it’s something that certainly interests me. You see I’m in a good position to do something like that because I’m a player and because I know the people that I am dealing with. I know about the people I’m working with and I know who’s interesting and and who isn’t. Who can lend themselves to do that kind of a thing. But I find all musicians interesting people or they wouldn’t be playing music. It’s like anybody who is involved in the arts whether they are painters or whatever. If you take the time to learn music, or to learn to paint or write or whatever, it means that you are interested in what’s going on around you. Musicians are always doing something for a particular reason. Even if they are not very good it doesn’t matter, you can get players who are technically not very great but have a great deal of soul in what they are doing and are interested in what’s going on around them. These kinds of people really interest me more than the top classical players, but I’m talking about earthy people who live and play their music among ordinary people. They play a part in a community. There’s always a musician in every community. It’s as if they are supposed to be there. Nature has arranged for them to be there.
R.M. Have you got any immediate plans?
A.B. We are going to Australia in January and New Zealand and Hawaii and back to the States again. And then a Highland tour and then it’ll be another year and so it goes on….
R.M. Has your album gone well?
A.B. Yes. Really surprised at how well that’s gone.
R.M. I heard you sold out the first pressing in the first few weeks but I don’t know if that’s just rumour?
A.B. No, it sold out almost immediately. And I haven’t done a lot of work on it. I put it on my own label and I’m not pushing it or anything like that. It just sells all the time. It’s good.
R.M. It shows that it was a bit late coming. If it’s ten years till the next one.
A.B. No, I don’t think it’ll be ten years till the next one. But you’ve got to feel when you make an album that it’s right. It’s like writing a book – you can’t unmake it once you’ve made it. And I’m very happy with it. I even listen to it occasionally.
R.M. That’s unique, is it?
A.B. I never have listened to almost anything we’ve done and I sometimes put it on and I don’t have any negative feelings about it at all. I actually quite enjoy it. I waited a long time and I also knew what I wanted to put on it. I won’t ever be unhappy with it. There’s nothing worse than doing an album that you don’t like.
R.M. You listen to it five years later.
A.B. I think there are people who can churn out albums, lots and lots of albums. But I’m sure there are always lots of things they are not really happy with. I always think that I wasn’t to look back in twenty years and say God did I really do that? That’s the important thing.