It can be fairly claimed that a love of traditional song ran in Arthur Argo’s veins. As the great-grandson of the renowned North-East folk song collector Gavin Greig, it perhaps seems only natural that he should become a foremost authority on and tireless promoter of Scotland’s song and music.
As a journalist, broadcaster and radio producer, as well as a singer and collector, folk club and festival founder and tireless encourager of fresh talent, Arthur brought folk song – particularly of his native Aberdeenshire – to whole new audiences throughout Scotland and beyond.
Born in Aberdeen in 1935, he grew up in New Pitsligo then Maud, steeped in traditional song. His father, John Argo, a stone mason, was known as a fine singer and his mother, Nan Barron, also a great lover of traditional song. His maternal grandfather, Arthur Barron, after whom he was named, had a vast store of songs and was one of Gavin Greig’s most industrious contributors. His mother recalled how Arthur as a child would absorb songs from his father and grandfather. He would later be recorded singing for BBC radio Children’s Hour broadcasts and other programmes, and his singing on the airwaves earned him the nickname of “The Buchan Lintie”.
At the age of 12 he was afflicted with polio, which left him with a limp and other health issues, although he counteracted them with his boundless nervous energy and drive. In 1952 he took up journalism, becoming a cub reporter with the Turriff Advertiser. Around that time, Hamish Henderson was staying in Turriff, renewing the revelatory song collecting in the North-East on which he’d first embarked the previous year with the American collector Alan Lomax.
Henderson found himself bemused then delighted to be assisted in his fieldwork by Gavin Greig’s grandson, as well as recording his singing. “It isn’t everyone,” he wrote, “who has the luck to go out collecting accompanied by the great-grandson of the greatest collector in the area.”
Arthur would sing at the second Edinburgh People’s festival in 1952, organised by Hamish as a counterbalance to the “highbrow” culture of the Edinburgh International festival.
He moved to the Aberdeen Press and Journal, while continuing with his song collecting, including with the visiting American folklorist Kenneth Goldstein. Following in his great-grandfather’s footsteps (Greig had run a weekly column in the Buchan Observer on North-East folk song), Arthur used his newspaper space to chronicle his musical explorations, attracting a wealth of correspondence and songs.
Having listened to Goldstein talking about the folk song revival on the other side of the Atlantic, Arthur determined to visit America. Towards the end of 1961 Aberdeen Journals granted Arthur six months’ leave of absence from the P&J, enabling him to make what would prove a momentous six-month tour of the United States, with the help of Ken Goldstein and his wife Rochelle and also Jean Redpath, who was already based there, he toured the States, playing at folk venues, where his Buchan song repertoire proved a revelation. Arthur met such established or emerging figures on the US scene as Rambling Jack Elliot, Tommy Makem and one Bob Dylan.
It was while he was in the States that he recorded what seems to have been the first entirely unexpurgated album of Scots bawdy folk song, A Wee Thread of Blue, prompting Dylan to sign in Arthur’s diary of the trip: “The next album I make will be titled ‘Bob Dylan sings country Bawd’ – cause I wanna sing with some Scotland feeling too …”
Back home in 1962, at a time when such clubs were few and far between, Arthur was the prime mover in establishing Aberdeen Folk Club, which had of course on its doorstep such important tradition-bearers as Jeannie Robertson and Jimmy McBeath, from whom such emerging revivalists as Tom Spiers, Arthur Watson and Norman Kennedy would derive inspiration. Guests would also include such distinguished US visitors as Rambling Jack Elliot and Pete Seeger.
Within a couple of years, the club’s newsletter became the widely influential Chapbook magazine, which Arthur edited with the help of Carl MacDougall and Ian Philip, and which was pasted together with the help of an electric typewriter and Letraset. Arthur was also an early supporter of the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland when it formed in 1966.
After working for the Press and Journal and Evening Express for 12 years, he joined the BBC’s press department in Edinburgh then Glasgow (when he helped run the Marymass Folk festival in Irvine), before returning to Aberdeen in 1973 as a radio producer, specialising in local programming which enabled him to pursue his loves of traditional music, folklore and the Doric. He also ran a booking agency which, without charging fees, was greatly supportive in the early careers of the likes of Billy Connolly, Tam Harvey, Isla St Clair, Barbara Dickson and Rab Noakes, as well as Aly Bain, the young Shetland fiddler who Arthur would bring to the mainland and drum up work with him, particularly with Mike Whellans.
However, while he was able to instil in so many artists and others a sense of their potential and self worth, Arthur himself was wrestling with inner demons, particularly alcoholism, which led to his tragically early and widely mourned death at the age of 45.
In the words of the late Sheila Douglas, another champion of Scotland’s traditional music,(and whose as yet unpublished account of Arthur’s life was of great help in preparing this biography), Arthur “held up a beacon that illuminated both the roots of folk song tradition in Scotland and the way forward through revival to its continuing prosperity. His life was difficult and ultimately tragic, but he inspired so many others and planted so many seeds that have flourished, that we can only think of him in terms of success.”
She pointed to Arthur’s industrious North-East song collcting “from a centuries-old treasure house of which the majority of the Scottish population is hardly aware. For all that, they are all still to be heard in folk clubs and festivals all over Scotland. Arthur had a great deal to do with this, since he did so much in his short lifetime to spread the gospel of folk music, not only in his native Buchan, but throughout Scotland and beyond.”