(Researched and written by Ken "The Chordmeister" Shearer)
Waulk This Way
It all started at least a couple of centuries ago with, of all things, a women's movement. More specificallly, the women in Scotland who operated the large looms that spun wool into the blankets, scarves, kilts and what-not. In the days before Walkmans, I-Pods and background Muzak, working people on assembly lines had to create their own music. What these women did was to utilize the irregular clacking of the looms' foot pedals to serve as a syncopated, rhythmic backdrop for a type of accapella "call and response" singing that came to be known as waulking songs.
A Tune's A Tune For All That
At around the same time in Scotland, during the Robert Burns era, one of the most popular forms of professional travelling musical groups were duos that consisted of violin and cello. Many of the musicians of that era were classically trained as well as being familiar with the idioms of folk music. This gave them the versatility to perform on Friday and Saturday nights at rousing dances and pub sessions and then on Sundays perform more sedate, formal music at church and civic events. You could say this provided full service musical accompaniment for all those lads and lassies who would go out and sow wild oats on Friday and Saturday night... then go to church on Sunday and pray for a crop failure. The Bard would have certainly understood something like that.
Skiffle Off Across the Pond
Next, we pick up the connecting thread (properly woven and spun, of course) in, of all places, New Orleans in the 1920's during the birth of the Jazz Age. One curious off-shoot of this new movement was a lively, rough-and-tumble-form of dance music that came to be known as Skiffle, sometimes referred to as "folk jazz" because instead of horns and orchestral brass it used empty jugs, washboards and one-stringed make-shift basses. They tended to take the traditional folk songs and liven them up with a good beat that one could dance to. Since this Jazz Age was going on during the Roaring 20's with Speak Easys and movie stars like Jean Harlow popularizing the platinum blond look, a popular Skiffle tune may have been, "Black is the Color of My True Love's Roots".
Shetland Hitting the Fan
Skiffle music eventually gained popularity over in the UK after the end of World War II, but not before American Big Band 30's swing orchestras found some ardent fans in places as far away as the Shetland Islands off the northeast coast of Scotland. It was there that local guitar virtuosos Peerie Willie Johnson and Jimmy Elliot gravitated towards the modern orchestral swing chord stylings of Duke Ellington and his band. Johnson and Elliot were able to learn by listening to the radio and to available records how to achieve that wonderful sound. They successfully incorporated these new elements into the Scottish repertoire... so much so that when Duke Ellington himself toured the UK and visited Scotland, he was so impressed with what he heard that he declared "Scottish Swing" to be one of his favorite styles of music! Not one to let such high praise go to his head, Peerie Willie said years later that during all the musical touring he did during WWII, he never once changed out the lowest bottom string on his guitar. This legendary and influential artist was still a true, penny-pinching Scotsman to the end.
The Rock Island Lion
Speaking of penny pinching, post WWII England and Scotland still endured many shortages long after peace had been declared. Among those shortages were limited access to those new-fangled electric guitars gaining momentum across the pond. Making due with what they had, Skiffle music became all the rage in the 1950's UK. No one drove that to a level of frenzy more than The King of Skiffle himself, Glasgow's favorite son, Donnie Lonnegan, whose most famous show-stopping finale, "The Rock Island Line" was the crowning glory of the genre. Towards the end of the decade, as goods and services became more plentiful and more American-made electric guitars became available along with a flood of new rock n' roll records, Skiffle started to faded in popularity. The ultimate shift in taste and style occurred when a Skiffle group called The Quarrymen, founded by a couple of guys named John and Paul, latched onto these new instruments and musical interpretation, met up with a guy named George, and the rest, as they say, was hysteria.
Waulk Right In, Sit Right Down...
The fun-loving, acoustic folk jazz known as Skiffle remained dormant over in Scotland for a number of years. The younger generation listened to rock n' roll, while the older generation gravitated towards more traditional accordion-based dance music made immensely popular by people like Jimmy Shand. But you can't keep a good thing down for long, and not to be outdone by the folks from Glasgow, a group of Edinburgh musicians in the late 1980's led by Jack Evans brought Skiffle back to life with their popular band The Easy Club They took the popular folk music from the 60's, such as "Walk Right In, Sit Right Down" and Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town", and put a refreshing spin on them. The Easy Club eventually disbanded. Jack Evans moved up to the Highlands to run a music school and fellow bandmate Jim Sutherland went on to produce a collection of contemporary Scottish music called "Folk In Hell"... but the thread of "Celtic Swing" was still being woven.
So Then...What IS This Thing Called "Celtic Swing"?
The thread gets picked up once again... this time by the Atlanta/North Georgia area band Caledonia Swing who specializes in Celtic music with a jazzy twist. Incorporating all of the elements that preceded it, Caledonia Swing weaves the tapestry further with some hints of European Gypsy Jazz, some classic American Standards, a dash of Ireland's own Van Morrison and last, but not least, Scotland's number one troubadour, Dougie MacLean. Just like the violin & cello duos of the Robert Burns era, the versatility of Caledonia Swing's musical roots makes it possible to offer a custom blend of musical styles to suit a wide variety of venues...from ceilidhs and festivals to more mellow, easy-listening settings.