I climbed into the red taxi idling in front of my hotel. “I’m going to the Blue Lamp,” I told the driver. “121 Gallowgate.”
“Know it well,” the driver said. Heavy-set and in his late forties, he sported a close- cropped beard and a shaved head. “Headin’ to the Folk Club, are ye?”
“That’s right. Big fan of old Scottish folk songs.”
He picked up on my American accent. “Not many American tourists are into that sort of thing,” he said.
“Well, I suppose I’m not really a tourist. I’m researching a novel I’m writing about the Scottish folk revival of the nineteen-fifties and sixties.”
“No shit!” he said. “My great aunt was a big part of that.”
I squinted at him from the back seat. “Who’s your great aunt?”
“Jeannie Robertson. You heard of her?’
Now it was my turn to say no shit. “Heard of her? I know all about her, her songs too. As a matter of fact, one of the characters in my novel is kind of based on her.”
Of all the cabs in Aberdeen, I had the good fortune to step into this one. Even though Aberdonians tended to come from large families, it was a whale of a coincidence to meet a kinsman of one of the influential figures in the Scottish folk revival.
We were stopped at a red light and he reached into the back seat to shake my hand.
“Name’s Willie,” he said. “You’d best talk to my brother Jack. He’ll be at the Club tonight.” He tapped his sizeable chest. “My favorite music is country and western, your country, your western, but it was Jack who got Aunt Jeannie to teach him those old Scottish tunes.”
Jeannie Robertson had come from a long line of what were known as Scottish Travellers.
For centuries, they lived nomadic lives without permanent homes. Like gypsies, they moved around the country in caravans. This unconventional group faced discrimination and hostility from mainstream Scots. One of the ways they made money was by repairing old pots and pans which is how they got to be called “Tinkers”, a scornful epithet.
They were a musical lot. They picked up songs during their travels throughout Scotland and sang them to each other at their nightly campfires. This tradition went back hundreds of years, when songs were passed down orally and not written down. The Travellers held on to those old melodies and tunes, many of which had been forgotten by everyone else. Jeannie Robertson popularized those ancient songs and, without intending or realizing it, she had a great influence on Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who themselves inspired a generation of American music.
“My brother Jack and me, we’re Tinkers,” Willie said as we pulled up in front of the Blue Lamp. He refused to let me pay the fare. “Jack and I are both settled now, but we’ve got Tinker blood in us, through and through.”
“I thought that term was a no-no, an insult,” I said.
“Used to be. Not anymore. I’m a Tinker. Proud of it. These days, it’s a badge of honor.”
Willie walked in with me and introduced me to Jack. You could see a family resemblance even though Jack was thinner, clean shaven, and wore an American-style baseball cap to hide his thinning hair. We sat together and listened to members of the club as they sang centuries-old Scottish folk tunes. Jack got up there and sang a beautiful eighteenth century Scottish ballad that sounded like it could be on today’s pop music charts. Over a couple of beers, Jack told me stories about his great aunt and the Scottish folk revival. I’m not sure how many of those tales are apocryphal but they’ll surely find their way into my novel.
About the author: after having sold his independent publishing company, Robert Sickles is currently working on a novel and taking creative writing courses at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute. He loves Scotland and Scottish folk music.