WIDELY regarded as a near-permanent institution on the Scottish folk scene, the Clutha, while never maintaining as high a profile as some other Scottish bands of the past four decades, has been an innovative and influential presence during the folk revival.
One of the first Scottish folk groups to include a fiddler, then a piper, within its ranks, while still keeping traditional Scots song – particularly sung solo rather than with harmonies – to the fore, the Clutha emerged as far back as 1964, formed by three young librarians and former colleague, all from Glasgow’s renowned Mitchell Library, the rich collections and archives of which would remain a touchstone for the band. The founders were singer-guitarist Don Martin, the late John “Jack” Eaglesham on vocals and concertina, Erlend Voy on fiddle and later concertina, and singer-guitarist Ronnie Alexander, and they called themselves the Clutha after an ancient name for the River Clyde.
Within a year, the line-up had been increased to six, with the addition of another fiddler, Callum Allan, and Gordeanna McCulloch, who at just 19 was already establishing her reputation as a convincing interpreter of Scots song. In the sleeve notes for the group’s debut album, Scotia, in 1971, Don Martin observed that “from the start the Clutha determined to concentrate largely on their native Scottish songs. They considered it strange that a country with a very rich heritage like Scotland should harbour so many folk groups who apparently preferred to sing and play American or Irish material.”
Ronnie tended to take the lead vocals when the group performed in ensemble numbers, although often during performance, it tended to break down into quartet, trio, duet or solo arrangements. From the start they eschewed instrumental and vocal gimmickry, getting the message over in a natural, “sing the way you speak” mode and without affectation.
Don’s plectrum guitar style and forceful singing helped to form what was later described as Clutha’s “raw drive”, while Ronnie’s fingerstyle provided a subtle base for instrumental accompaniments as well as for his own varied and effortless vocals. The fiddles and concertina provided a pleasing blend for instrumentals and accompaniments.
The group utilised the Mitchell Library’s collections to unearth old songs which had long passed out of circulation and also to collate versions of better-known material. It also absorbed repertoire from older tradition bearers who were still about at that time, such as Jeannie Robertson and Jimmy McBeth. Gordeanna, who had been a pupil of the hugely influential Norman Buchan at that crucible of folk revivalism, Rutherglen Academy, became a magisterial interpreter of the “muckle sangs”, while
John Eaglesham specialised in bothy-style and humorous material. Fiddler and singer Erlend Voy, whose musical family hailed originally from Orkney, used to drop by on Davie Stewart, a well known traditional singer who lived in Possilpark when Erlend was the local librarian. During the Sixties and early Seventies, the band used to take Davie with them to festivals and clubs, bringing him to a wider audience.
The band’s early years saw it performing in clubs and festivals throughout Britain as well as radio and television appearances. As its fame as a champion of Scottish traditional music spread, it performed throughout Europe and Scandinavia and in the United States. Its members’ instrumental prowess also saw it winning the ceilidh band competition at the TMSA’s 1971, ’72 and ’73 Kinross festivals. By that time its ranks had been swelled, in 1967, by piper and pipemaker Jimmy
Anderson on chamber and Highland pipes, a novel concept for Scottish folk groups at that time. Jimmy left in 1977, to be replaced on pipes by Tom Johnstone, who still appears with the band. Both pipers came from the ranks of the famous Muirhead and Sons Pipe Band, eight times grade-one winners of the World Pipe Band Championships.
The group contributed seven out of the 15 tracks on the 1973 Topic compilation album Streets of Glasgow, Further albums, including Scots Ballads, Songs & Dance Tunes of 1974 and 1977’s The Bonnie Mill Dams further consolidated the group’s reputation, while the surge in popularity of “ceilidh dancing” during the mid-Eighties saw it form an offshoot, the Clydebuilt Ceilidh band, augmented by accordionist Iain Ewart. Gordeanna, too, further established herself as a leading exponent of Scots traditional song, winning ballad competitions and releasing her own 1978 album
Sheath and Knife, on which she was accompanied by her Clutha band-mates. Hamish Henderson, poet, folklorist and genial patriarch of the Scottish folk revival, described the Clutha as “combining a scrupulous respect for the tradition with a vigorous and experimental flair. Its individual members are sensitive and thoughtful musicians who have an intimate rapport with the tradition they have inherited … and thus are capable of presenting it with clarity and authority.” The English folklorist Fred Woods wrote that the band was “characterised by a superb raw drive that has remained undiminished and uncompromised throughout.”
While Gordeanna left the group in 1984 due to family commitments, and later sang with groups such as Palaver and Malinky, as well as leading Glasgow’s Eurydice women’s choir, she continued to appear with the Clutha on most occasions. She sang with them on their most recent album, On the Braes, in 1996, which prompted Pete Shepheard to write in The Living Tradition magazine: “Clutha: now there’s a name to conjure with. Like the river Clyde … the influence of this Glasgow-based folk band continues to flow across the landscape of Scottish folk music.” In recent years, appearances became sporadic (and founder-member Jack Eaglesham passed away in April 2014) and their last performances were in 2011 –including, perhaps appropriately, Girvan Folk Festival, the first festival the band ever played at, back in the mid-1960s. What they describe as their swansong was in the appropriately Clydeside Victoria Bar in December of that year, although, according to Erlend Voy, they planned to finally bow out gracefully, with a song, at the Scottish Traditional .Music Hall of Fame Dinner in December 2014.