SINGER-songwriter, instrumentalist, band member or soloist, Davy Steele was an ebullient presence on the Scottish and international folk scenes, an irrepressible wit and a powerful voice, who left an enduring legacy of songs, often evoking the people and places of his native East Lothian.
Whether in the high-powered ranks of bands such as Battlefield, Ceolbeg or Clan Alba, amid the vocal harmonies of Drinker’s Drouth or performing by himself, Davy was a consummate interpreter of traditional song, as well as his own compositions which often displayed a deeply rooted sense of people and place well as social and political change.
Davy was born in a miners’ row in Summerlee, Prestonpans, in 1948, the son of Jimmy Steele, a miner, and Meg Waddell. He remained a proud “Panner” all his days, and credited his music teacher at Preston Lodge High School, Ian Hay, as first inspiring him to write songs about his own area. He also first found his voice in school concerts run by Hay.
Leaving school at 15, Davy enlisted with the Royal Armoured Corps, seeing service in Aden, Germany, Cyprus and in Northern Ireland. His experiences in Northern Ireland in particular prompted him to question much about life and he left the Army in 1975, eventually working with teenagers in crisis in a residential unit in Midlothian. It was during his Army service that he married his first wife, Ann McAlpine, with whom he had three children, David, Mark and Krysty.
All the while, whether as soldier or social worker, Davy was entertaining people with his singing and humour, forming a duo, Barley Bree, with Archie McCulley while still in the Army, then joining the popular vocal quartet Drinker’s Drouth and performing solo in clubs and as a pub entertainer. In 1981 he brought his singing and guitar and bouzouki skills to the powerful line-up of Ceolbeg with Gary West, Wendy Stewart, Pete Boond and others. He had gone full time as a touring singer and musician in 1988, and as well as Ceolbeg, co-founded the bands Urbn Ri (with piper Fred Morrison and fiddler Eilidh Shaw) , then Caledon and Clan Alba, with Morrison, Dick Gaughan, Brian MacNeill, harpists Mary Macmaster and Patsy Seddon and others.
In 1997, however, he found perhaps his ideal line-up and reached his widest audience of all when he joined the hugely popular and globally touring Battlefield Band. He made numerous recordings with these bands, as well as three solo albums, Long Time getting Here, Summerlee and Chasing Shadows.
He was a powerful and instantly recognisable interpreter of traditional Scots song, but, despite his larger-than-life stage presence, could also display great sensitivity, as in some fine contributions to the monumental Complete Songs of Robert Burns series produced by Linn Records, or in his wistful tempering of the triumphal pipes and drums in Ceolbeg’s epic version of Hey Johnnie Cope. He was a fan of American soul music as much as Scots folk song, but through his own writing he left a legacy of songs which have the ring of “authentic” traditional material, not least through his natural Scots tongue.
Many of these songs, which have now entered into the folk repertoire, were shaped by his own upbringing around Prestonpans, such as Farewell tae the Haven, a lament for the end of fishing from Morrrison’s Haven at Prestonpans, or his moving song for his miner father, The Ballad of Jimmy Steele. His elegy for the passing of the heavy horse, The Last Trip Home, was inspired by his Ceolbeg colleague Gary West’s interviews with his ploughman uncle.
In a different vein, Eyes of a Child, reflects his experiences working with youngsters in crisis, while his potent politically-fuelled songs include the anti-poll tax anthem The High and the Mighty and Stand Together which he originally wrote to mark the 30,000-strong March for Scottish Democracy in 1992. Scotland Yet, written for the devolution referendum in 1997, is his heartfelt vision of a united and self-confident nation, becoming a song of the Yes campaign in the independence referendum of 2014, while Just One Chorus remains the ideal song to round off session or concert.
Life was riding high for Davy when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, to which he succumbed in April, 2001. To mark the tenth anniversary of his passing, his second wife, the Scottish harper and singer Patsy Seddon, organised a tribute album, Steele the Show, which was released on Greentrax records and launched at an emotional concert at Celtic Connections in January 2011, at which Davy’s songs were performed by such former colleagues, folk luminaries and friends as Dick Gaughan, Ian McCalman, Karine Polwart, Andy M Stewart and Patsy herself (as well as a moving contribution from their son, Jamie Steele). A book of Davy’s songs is planned.
Given his sense of place in his song-writing, it seems very appropriate that these days his features beam from a mural at Summerlee, Prestonpans, where he grew up.