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On deadline and freezing in Chicago as I write this—leading me to again question the entire orthodoxy of global warming. If it is July, why do I have frostbite? Hmm?

Down to business. Scottish label supreme, Greentrax scores yet again with a brilliant piece of work. Entitled, People and Songs of the Sea, and make no mistake. This is a gorgeous album of people and songs of the Scottish sea. Every now and then comes an album where the liner notes and accompanying descriptions of the music are worth the price all by themselves. So it is here. Bottom line and inarguable-- this is a brilliant album of tunes and songs. But there is also a deeply moving education to be had here as to the courage and resilience of the men and women of the Scottish fishing industry. Partly a compendium album, drawn from great artists such as The Cast (who, by the way, won best Instrumental Composition of the Year just last year from this paper), the iconic Archie Fisher, The Corries, Davy Steele and the Fisher Folk Choir singing a fabulous rendition of Will Your Anchor Hold—knowing that, you can get an idea that this is a remarkable creation.

The entire project began following a conversation between the album’s creator/major domo, Shona McMillan and her mother. After a lovely and deep conversation regarding her mother’s life in the Scots fishing community, the idea formed in Shona’s heart and mind to produce an album like this. Shona also sings her lovely versions of Fisherrow and Come All You Fisher Lassies for the project. This IS living history. Many of the artists on the album are of the very communities and tragedy/joys/incredibly hard and dangerous work/long hours and dreams that come from the very soul of the coast itself.

True singing histories of tragic disasters. Lovely, gorgeous tunes of the women waiting on shore. The storms. The poverty. The terror. The wealth of family and community. The courage—all here. All perfectly done.

We return again and again to these liner notes. Not glossy compliments to artists on the recording. Not this time. Each song and tune is explained in detail, heightening the impact of this extraordinary music. Don’t ask us our favorite from the 21 wonderful songs and tunes. (Well, we ARE always partial to The Cast—their hauntingly lovely song, The Cove, was created for the village of Cove’s 2009 Memorial to the 125th Anniversary of a tragic day of fishing and a greedy storm that saw 11 men of the community lose their lives in one tragic afternoon. There were 25 men who went out, and this song deals with the incredible feelings of one of the men who survived. Why me? Why them? Why? The images would remain for the rest of their lives.

We get about 500 albums sent to us each year from artists looking for a review. Part of the reason it is so hard to get to them all is that there are albums like this that come in and consume us. Obsess us. Move us. We listen again and again. Then again. And, with the very, very best of them—like this one—the more we listen, the more we understand. Well, look, it is hard to claim that we “understand” anything about these courageous peoples’ lives. We sit here in suburban Chicago in front of a computer, listen and are moved. In some small way, perhaps, we can all open a part of us and admire a people of strength, intelligence and such courage. If we succeed in that opening, we are better people for it. That is when music moves from entertainment to something far more. A tiny, tiny bit of mutual understanding and a greater respect.

So, now we have a new goal. Before we go wherever it is we all finally go, we want to make it to the coasts of Scotland. From the Hebrides and Oban to Cove. We want to stand where those women of Cove stood in a storm in 1881 and looked to the sea. And waited. And prayed. Perhaps, if we stand there long enough, we can move a little closer still to those people. That understanding and journey will have started with this album.

It isn’t often we get to write something like this. And, it is even more seldom we get to hear something like this. Greentrax’s People and Songs of the Sea will be the compass. Shona McMillan and Greentrax head man Ian Green are the Captains of the ship. May we all arrive safely.

Rating: Four Harps

Views: 5

Tags: People and Songs of the Sea, Archie, Choir, Corries, Davy, Fisher, Folk, McMillan, Shona, Steele

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Comment by Shona McMillan on July 10, 2009 at 12:44
Hello Bill, I don't know how you came to review People and Songs of the Sea but I am so pleased you liked it so much. Reading your review was very rewarding as I have, quite literally, put the last three years of my life in to this project. Leading on from my mum's stories of her life in the fishing community of Fisherrow, her old photos were first in my collection but then came my own photos of fisher folk and writing followed. After that, I expanded the project to include music and in pursuit of that goal, was fortunate to meet Ian Green of Greentrax, share with him and similarly inspire him with my idea for this project - in 2009, the compilation album now finally released in association with Greentrax Recordings.

Passionate about this project, I wanted to get many people involved and I am delighted to see the end result, something for everyone to be proud of and to enjoy. For me especially, it was wonderful to bring together 100 fisher folk to record "Will Your Anchor Hold" and of course, to also pull together so many incredibly musicians and singers to contribute throughout the CDs 21 tracks - and what a line-up of artists (wow). Yet I saw my goal, not specifically to make a musical CD but to achieve something 'bigger than that', the CD and its accompanying booklet to be produced to deliver a lasting educational tool by which folks would want to know more and could learn more about the heritage of the fishing community in this part of the world and the old herring route once was travelled from Ireland, to Scotland, to England. To read your review from Chicago (and as I am also being contacted by so many other people from all round the world) tells me I was right to pursue my dream with such drive and focus. Because the project crossed boundaries I was given no financial support towards my research or exhibitions but I now know they have been seen by thousands of people and the feedback, from young and old alike, has been tremendously positive (800 people turning up to a small local library for the opening of my first exhibition). Reading your review from 'so far away' - I would like to point out that for me, I've always considered that the sea knows no boundaries. For fishing folk the world o'er - they all share the same dangers when they set out to fish and this creates a global community. Nevertheless, this is of course the part of Scotland's fishing coastline that I know the best so, I thank you greatly for your kind words and I hope some day you come over here to visit. I look forward then to sharing with you some more of the lovely old stories my research uncovered.

Many thanks, not just from me but thanks too on behalf of the all the fisher folk who contributed to my project and the many musicians and additional people involved in producing the People and Songs of the Sea compilation CD.

For those interested, full details of my touring programme of exhibitions (now underway and visiting 14 venues along the Firth of Forth coast until January 2010), can be found on my myspace site -
http://www.myspace.com/shona_m_mcmillan

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