Seeing the Corries in concert set Susie Kelly off on a lifelong love affair with folksong that has resulted in her sharing songs with audiences of all ages at home and abroad, organising workshops and festivals, leading community singing groups, and serving on the Traditional Music and Song Association National Committee.
Susie began singing as a youngster in Edinburgh. She sang in choirs at school and at Sunday school and became one of the founding members of the Edinburgh Children’s Choir, which is now part of the National Youth Choir of Scotland. All of these experiences instilled a love of singing with people that continues today.
From Edinburgh, Susie’s family moved to Haddington, where she and a classmate, singer-songwriter-to-be Gill Bowman, busked with their guitars at Halloween, and through the music programmes run by St Mary’s Collegiate Church – in conjunction with Yehudi Menuhin – Susie remembers getting an introduction to ballads in the shape of W.H. Auden’s poem The Ballad of Barnaby.
More traditional ballads would follow as, by now living in Penicuik, Susie went along to see the Corries and was hooked. She joined Penicuik Folk Club and with fellow club member, singer and guitarist Brian Miller she investigated the local drama club. This led to the formation of Penicuik Punch & Judy, a children’s show that they decided to take to festivals.
At their first port of call, Auchtermuchty, Susie fell in love with folk festivals and couldn’t get enough of them. Around this time she also went to Newcastleton Folk Festival and enjoyed the music, atmosphere and sense of community so much that she has returned every year since and for the past ten years she has been involved in organising this long-running event.
During the 1980s Susie fetched up in Dumfries & Galloway. Here, as well as forming the singing group Stravaig with Phyllis Martin and sisters Jean McMonies and Moira Greenwood and going on to record and tour internationally, Susie became Music Officer for the local council. Among the many projects she instigated and oversaw in this job was Vocal Cords.
Aimed at mixed ability groups, this developed into a series of workshops in five different locations, with each choir giving a performance locally before coming together for a grand finale in Easterbrook Hall, Dumfries. Some two hundred people appeared onstage in this massed singing group and Susie remembers it as great fun, before correcting herself with the memory that she was being paid to organise it and changing “great fun”, with tongue in cheek, to “really hard work.”
One legacy of Vocal Cords that particularly pleases her is that Newton Stewart Activity & Resource Centre continued to run the workshops she started and now has its own recording studio in-house, where it produces CDs of the choir. While in Dumfries & Galloway Susie also got a great buzz from teaching children skipping songs and playground games that were in danger of dying out and from her extensive involvement in the Youth Music Initiative.
Having moved to Stirling in 2012, Susie has since acted as tutor for Callander Singing Group and she is currently leader of the Tolbooth Singers. This friendly and informal group meets regularly in the popular Stirling venue and reinforces Susie’s belief in the power and sheer pleasure of people singing together. As she says, “I can’t imagine life without it.”