An offer of a booking from Incredible String Band founder Clive Palmer sent Arthur Johnstone off on a singing career that has seen him top the charts in the former East Germany, sing to an audience of thirty thousand people in Canada, perform with the National Theatre of Scotland, and appear at major events including Celtic Connections and Edinburgh International Festival.
Arthur was born in Glasgow on June 22, 1941 and grew up hearing Scottish and Irish songs, as well as the country music of Hank Williams. In his late teens he and friends Tam Quinn and Kenny Gormal would go hostelling and camping at weekends. Folk music was becoming popular at the time and in the hostels particularly there would be songs and singing sessions. When the Glasgow Folk Centre in Montrose Street opened, Arthur started going along and attracted by the 5:00am curfew, he, Tam and Kenny also went to Clive’s Incredible Folk Club, run by Clive Palmer in Sauchiehall Street.
One Saturday they did a floor spot and Palmer immediately offered them a booking and asked the name of their group. They didn’t have a name but Kenny quickly came up with their favourite weekend spot, Loch Laggan, and The Laggan they became as they played Clive’s Incredible Folk Club every fortnight. A residency at Sloanes Restaurant followed, with Hamish Imlach and the Humblebums among their guests, and after a year they began to establish themselves in folk clubs and at festivals.
In 1971, a second incarnation saw John McDermott (banjo and harmonica) and the Patton brothers, Tony (guitar) and Billy (fiddle) join Arthur in the line-up that recorded the albums Gie It Laldy, Scottish Folk Songs, I am the Common Man and Vintage Laggan. They also appeared at the International Festival of Political Song in East Germany as well as touring France and Belgium, sometimes with Brian Miller adding guitar and vocals. A concert at Trinity College, Dublin was another highlight before the Laggan broke up in 1978.
At this point Arthur began singing solo and with Brian Miller and fiddler Charlie Soane as the Stars Band. A lifelong socialist and a strong union man through his work as an engineer Arthur felt that since he’d had a lot of enjoyment from folk music, he should put something back into it. So along with other volunteers he founded the Star Folk Club, originally in the Star Social Club but latterly during Arthur’s tireless sixteen years as organiser and host at the Society of Musicians in Berkeley Street.
As a solo singer Arthur has appeared at Edmonton and Vancouver folk festivals, acting as impromptu compere and singing in front of 30,000 people at the latter, and shared a stage with Woody Guthrie’s travelling companion Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and civil rights campaigner-troubadour Si Kahn. He has also recorded the album Generations of Change, which showcases his broad repertoire of traditional songs and political material, sung in the strong, honest voice that has established him as a true champion of the people.
He remains a familiar figure as both a singer, with the Stars Band and with Fraser Speirs and Steve Wright, and as a compere, having kept the programme flowing at festivals including Stonehaven, Portsoy and Campbeltown and at the Jimmy McHugh Memorial Concert, held in Glasgow to honour the fiddler and composer every year since 2000.