An Interview With Rab Noakes – by Josie Duncan



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On the 24th of April, Rab Noakes headlines Sundown Song Nights at the Glad Cafe. It is no exaggeration to call Rab Noakes a legend. I first saw him perform live at the ceilidh place in Ullapool when I was a teenager and was blown away and inspired by his stage presence. In 2018 Noakes marked 50 years of professional performance and released an album, the celebratory ‘Welcome to Anniversaryville’.

‪Since starting ‘Sundown Song Nights’, a series of gigs at the Glad Cafe that explores how broad the term ‘folk song’ is, Rab Noakes has been at the top of my list of dream performers. I am so excited to have him! Rab took the time to answer some questions for me ahead of his appearance at Sundown Song Nights. ‬ 

• ‘Sundown Song Nights’ is a series of concerts that explores how broad the term ‘folk song’ is. Do you believe that ‘folk’ is a broad term?    

I’m not at all thirled to the idea of segregations and divisions. I’m all for the old Big Bill Broonzy assertion of – “It’s all folksong to me, I ain’t never heard a horse sing”

• You’ll be performing a solo set for us. How does your approach to song change when performing solo, as opposed to with a band?

When it’s with a band I tend to set the pace/tone with my performance. As arrangements develop in rehearsal I will engage in musical dialogue and adjust to become more part of the whole sound rather than a solo artist with a backing band. As with the solo shows, the key part is its stage-craft. Sequencing and the shape of the show are where the extraordinary efforts reside. The music and songs should be never less than good as well as possess the potential to be exceptional. If you’re not capable of that you should be doing something else. I have had times when I’ve stolen the show. These instances are not accidental.

• What type of music was in your house when you were growing up?

My mum sang a range of songs, as she went about the day, including such highlights as Lady Nairne’s ‘Rowan Tree’ and pop songs of the times (early 1950s). At that time the radio was the main source. Highlights for me are things like ‘Allentown Jail’ by Jo Stafford and the hits of Guy Mitchell on the BBC Light Programme alongside ‘A Gordon for me’ and ‘Westering home’ by Robert Wilson on the Scottish Home Service. Other songs that impressed me were the likes of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ by Danny Kaye from the Hans Christian Andersen film. I sang all the time from the time I was 4 or 5 years old. I simply fell for the song as an artefact and consider it to be the greatest of all artforms.

The Glad Cafe is a really lovely venue in the Southside of Glasgow. How has the musical landscape of Glasgow changed throughout your career?

I first came to work in Glasgow in 1963 when the main music events were the Package Tours at The Odeon Cinema. I attended every one from Oct 1963 to February 1965. I went to the Mod clubs long before Bob Dylan bounced my generation into an appreciation of folksong. The key folksong establishment was The Glasgow Folk Centre in Montrose Street. You only need to look at a custom listings publication to see what it’s like now. 

• At the beginning of your career and releases you seemed particularly focused on performing your own songs, and as time passed you began to engage with a wider variety of source material for your songs. How do you feel traditional music has influenced your career?

I don’t consider my activities as amounting to as ‘career’. This is what I do, and have always done since, like I said, I was about 5 years old. My first public performances were songs like ‘Westering home’, ‘A pair o’ Nicky Tam’s and’ Mary’s boy child’ (from the Harry Belafonte hit record). I engaged with folksong in the 1960s and was engaged by the depth and beauty of many of these songs. In the main they will have a presence in my work but not a terribly detectable one, outwith the few which are deliberately designed to. From there I engaged deeply with the music of the 1920s in terms of the Blues, the early murmurings of Country Music, jug bands, Minstrelsy et al.

• What effect do you think Scottish songwriters have had on folk and traditional music?

I can’t detect a songwriter affecting traditional music since Robert Burns. This slips outwith my sphere. I think that question needs to be answered by purveyors of Traditional or Trad Music in the 21st century who can articulate a perception of what’s informed them.  

• You have been involved in some mighty collaborations, working with the ‘Grit’ Orchestra, Barbara Dickson and Kathleen MacInnes to name a few. Have these experiences impacted your songwriting or solo set in any way?

Grit was a tremendous thing to be part of. It was more a professional musician role in that I was working to a prescribed part in Greg Lawson’s exceptional work which was, of course, based in Martyn Bennett’s exceptional work. A key factor, and from me was the fact I was the older person there who had actually met and spent time in the company of the ‘source singers’. My key part was the Jimmy MacBeath ‘MacPherson’s rant’ cut-up. I get a lot out of collaborations as I can engage in a different space regarding musicianship. They produce something that wouldn’t occur otherwise. The two you cite have singular characters. I’ve known, and have sung with, Barbara since 1965 and that’s at the heart of what we do, and how we do it. Kathleen and I were enjoined by Ceol’s Craic and, when we work together, we have a wonderful time exploring and responding to each other’s abilities. The Gaelic element is a valuable thing. Singing with her is a real ‘voyage of discovery’ for me. I’m always up for attempting to write something to order for such events and have occasionally managed to do so. 

• As senior department head of music programmes for BBC Radio Scotland, you had the opportunity to showcase any style of song available. With an ear tuned to every style of songwriting in modern music history, what made particular songs stand out?

My Senior Producer was Stewart Cruickshank. Between us, and our great staff and presenters, we constructed 70 hours of output a week featuring everything from SDM in ‘Take the Floor’ to sharp new pop in ‘Rock on Scotland’ and all stops in between. The point was not to have things stand out but to fully reflect Scotland’s creative activity in the world of music’n’song and serve the audience as comprehensively as we could.

You are a very versatile musician. Throughout your career you have engaged with not only a wealth of original songs, but also genre-crossing covers and traditional songs. Your style would be difficult to pin down in only one word. Do you think artists can get caught up trying to fit within the bounds of one genre?

The bedrock of what I do is the professionally-composed pop songs of 1958-1961. All I’d absorbed to that point came to mean something in that era. I don’t do ‘covers’, I engage in interpretation. My guiding light is Buddy Holly who, although best regarded as an accomplished songwriter, never ever shied away from singing something good that suited him wherever it came from. Nowadays, everyone’s called a singer-songwriter and the art of interpretation has been devalued. That’s a loss and, frankly, in many cases has substituted the richness of professional songwriting with a means of self-expression.

Thank you so much Rab for taking the time to answer these questions! I can’t wait to hear more from you on the 24th!

Opening up the night will be Hebridean songstress Ceitlin Lilidh (Ceitlin LR Smith). Ceitlin’s stunning vocals can be heard performing regularly with SIAN and NiteworksCeitlin has a wealth of experience performing all over the world as an ambassador to Gaelic song. The contrast between the two incredible performers is sure to make for a memorable, unique and beautiful night of song.  

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