Making his recording debut at 65, Stornoway-born Paterson reflects on life well-lived and characters met along the way with the traditional folk-informed collection of self-penned numbers, Torn, on which he’s accompanied by Anna Massie on guitar, banjo and mandolin, pedal steel player Allan Train, Angus Lyon from Blazin’ Fiddles on keys and accordion with backing vocals from Suzy Wall and Findlay Napier.
Island life informs much of the album, opening with ‘The Pier’, a spoken piece accompanied by piano and drone, a recollection and observation of watching folk arriving on the ferry (“Women in Glasgow frocks and heels/disembark down steep steps/clutching handbags and handrails/Husbands in Sunday suits carry cardboard suitcases…Chatter from arrivals/tears from departures/Arms placed round shoulders/Backs turned against land and sea”), seguing straight into the accordion wheezed, fingerpicked title track which, staying on the pier, speaks of the ambivalence of those in the Hebrides being torn between leaving or staying, between returning home or making a life forever away from where they were born, the song telling of a young girl yearning to leave the only place she’s ever known and of the impact on her parents (“The boat sails Monday morning/Before the town’s awake/They drive her to the harbour/A car full of heartache…Back home the house is silent/They sit and watch the dawn/As the ferry boat gets smaller”).
More lightly picked, accompanied by piano, the wistful ‘Two Rivers’ relates to Glen River and the Creed River, both of which played a part “in the design of my restless heart”, the safety of the gently flowing former contrasted with the latter (“Its waters fast/Its pull is strong”) and its association with the wilder, bolder days of youth. There’s further specific associations in the gently banjo rippling ‘The Heart of the Hebrides’, the first part recollections of places from the Butt to Uist (“I have watched a Bernera sunset/On a summer solstice night…I have felt the winter storms/Lash against the Port of Ness…I have crossed the Grimsay Causeway/Landed down on Barra Beach/Sailed across the sea to Scalpay/Where I saw the Devil’s Sheep”) with the second speaking in sensory memories of its people and industries (“I’ve watched the fishing fleet/Setting sail before the dawn/Stood amongst the fishermen/In a frozen auction mart/I have worked a kipper yard/Minded herring as they smoked/Hanging from the rafters/Above the burning oak…I have heard the weavers loom/Late into the darkest night/I have seen the single bulb/Spreading out its yellow light”), with its lament for the Admiralty Yacht that sank at the entrance to Stornoway harbour on 1 January 1919, with the loss of at least 201 men out of the 283on board (“I’ve stood on the Holm cliffs/Thought about the Iolaire/Trying to make some sense/Of what unfolded there/And tore the Heart out of the Hebrides”).
‘Tender’ is a dreamy swaying love song for his wife (“If I should lose you/In whatever shape or form/The moon would lose its colour”) that carries musical hints of John Prine with Wall playing the DeMent part on the harmonies, the influence carrying over as the subject matter returns to local history with ‘A Silver Locket and A Key’, another song about leaving and those left behind, here relating to how, within 48 hours on the First World War being declared, all the fit men from the Hebrides enlisted, with 1151 of the 6712 who went off to war never to return, the lyric describing a young girl standing with her mother watching and waving goodbye and a man, perhaps her father, at the Somme, the locket and key of the title linking them together in their hearts.
It hits the half-way mark with harmonica and banjo shading ‘The Tree That Bends’, a traditional flavoured number in which the lines “When the farmer goes/To plant the tree/He protects the bark/Leaves the branches free/By following this/Ancient way/The tree grows stronger/Day by day” is an allegory about protecting your children while giving them space to learn.
As noted earlier, for years fishing was a mainstay of Hebridean economy and from 1850 up to the Second World War up to 3,000 island women were employed as “Herring Girls”, his grandmother being one of them while his grandfather was a kipper man from the Glasgow Gorbals. Their story underpins the uptempo percussive folk blues of ‘The Alchemists’, the title and the line “turning silver into gold” referring to the process by which the Silver Darlings were turned into the golden Stornoway Kippers, the last verse again lamenting the industry’s passing (“Now the herring are no more/And the gold has turned to dust/Kipper yards demolished/boats turned to rust”).
Mortality rears its head with the easy, fingerpicked circling melody of ‘Tides They Turn’, a song he began writing while being rushed to hospital in an ambulance after a heart attack, the unexpected changes life brings and the passing of the years captured in “Clouds they pass/Sand runs through the hourglass/Minutes walk/While years fly”.
There’s more local history explored in ‘Mary Ann’ which, sung in cracked tones and backed by piano, was inspired by a photo Elizabeth MacDonald posted on Facebook of her auntie and two friends (“three laughing chambermaids”) taken outside the hotel they worked at in Whiting Bay on Arran, tells of a young girl’s journey from the hills of Harris to working in Oban before getting caught up in the Clydebank Blitz in 1941 (“A mother with child/On a on bombed out street/Dressed in black/Rubble at her feet”)
War also serves as a backdrop to ‘When the Yellow’s On The Bloom’, a song which (melodically recalling ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’) began life at a song writing retreat in Moniak Mhor where they were asked to write about what the place felt like. The broom and gorse bushes outside the window sparked his story a young man from Lewis during the First World War who, as he lies dying, dreams of seeing his loved one and the yellow gorse bushes again (“As I lie on Flanders Field/The sound of battle fading fast/I slowly close my eyes (my love)/And I’m with you in Luskentyr/Where the sea is emerald green/And the curlew call is clear/We will walk those hills again (my love)/When the yellow’s on the broom”).
It begins its descent with the accordion and banjo based Celtic folk temperate trot ‘And The Healing Will Begin’, a lilting reassurance that when “The wind has knocked you down/When your hope has lost its anchor/There’s no comfort to be found” then “in the middle of the maelstrom/Deep within the blue-black light/There will be a place or person/Put there to make things right”, and that “if you find the courage/And the trust to let them in/When the storm is at its strongest/The healing will begin”.
Returning to the earlier theme of how things can change in an instant when life gets in the way, featuring echoing backing vocals and set to a lurching sway in the Rendezvous Café in Downtown Stornoway on a Friday evening in the Autumn of 1975, ‘Accident Or Design’ talks of parting ways with four mates hanging out “Not knowing this is the last night/It will ever be this way” with one off to college and then sea, another to start work in the factory, one about to sign on and, like those in ‘Torn’, the narrator “scared of leaving/And scared of staying around”.
Torn ends as it began with bittersweet spoken word, a childhood memory of a summers spent on ‘Suilisgeir’, a village close to the sea on the isle of Lochmaddy, “now empty/each winter moving nearer the sea/They say/It would take a foolish man’s money to repair the pebbles and concrete/Would I had it”. You don’t have to come from the Hebrides to feel the emotional resonance of the love for home and the loss that the years brings that suffuse the magical album.
Artist’s website: www.normanpaterson.com
‘And The Healing Will Begin’ – lyric video: