Gordeanna McCulloch is one of Scotland’s greatest folksong and ballad singers, with a voice as strong and individual as those of Jeannie Robertson, Belle Stewart, Jimmy MacBeath, Davie Stewart, and Willie Scott, all of whom passed into legend as tradition bearers and national treasures.
Gordeanna was born in Bellshill in 1946 and became a pupil at Rutherglen Academy in 1958 at an opportune moment. The late Norman Buchan, who went on to compile the priceless 101 Scottish Songs book in 1962, was a teacher at the academy and when Gordeanna arrived the Ballads Club he had started was really gathering momentum. Meeting on a Tuesday after school, club members enthusiastically sang everything from skiffle to the Muckle Sangs via children’s playground chants and bothy ballads, and Gordeanna’s repertoire featured all of these.
Norman Buchan very quickly recognised her love of the big ballads especially and in 1961, at Buchan’s suggestion, Gordeanna and her fellow pupil and lifelong friend Anne Nielson appeared on a BBC programme hosted by Magnus Magnusson, to talk about and sing these songs. Gordeanna sang Johnnie o’ Braidisley in a voice that owed nothing to outside influences. Hers was a natural talent and the year after she left school she was invited to London to perform at Ewan MacColl’s Singers’ Club, the ultimate accolade in those days.
Shortly afterwards, in 1965, Gordeanna featured on an LP of new voices from Scotland for the prestigious folk label Topic Records, with Norman Kennedy and the Exiles. She then met up with a group of librarians and musicians, including Don Martin and Erlend Voy, and together they formed The Clutha. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this event. Not only did The Clutha record albums that defined the Scottish folk scene of the time, the research her fellow group members undertook at the Mitchell Library helped to extend and enrich Gordeanna’s repertoire and develop the authority as well as the variety and tone that she brought to Scots song.
Gordeanna released the first album under her own name, Sheath and Knife, on Topic in 1978 and added to the critical acclaim she had already attracted. The influential musician, promoter and song collector Arthur Argo delighted in the dignity and pathos in her singing and publications including The Guardian, The Times Educational Supplement and Hi Fi News acknowledged her unique voice and haunting way with a ballad.
All through her career Gordeanna has radiated her love of singing, and in groups including the Gallus Molls or Palaver and in her work with the Eurydice Choir, whose singing in George Square on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s acceptance of the Freedom of Glasgow remains a personal highlight, she enjoyed and passed on the thrill of harmony singing. She has further shared this thrill and her experience in ballad singing through workshops at TMSA events and at Celtic Connections and, most recently, through the formation of The Glasgow Ballad Workshop.
A particular joy to Gordeanna – and her students – came when she was able to take up a teaching position at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, delivering Scots song to first and second study singers. Her input was invaluable – ranging from repertoire, musical critique, performance advice and programme balance to suggestions of source singers to study – as she shared a heritage that is as valuable to her as the air she breathes.