The Clutha were a big deal in Scottish traditional music in the 1970s although not as well known down here in the south as such bands as Silly Wizard and The Boys Of The Lough who were following similar paths. Live From Harvard was recorded in 1981 with the band very much at the peak of their powers. It is very much a product of its time and if you were around back then you will be familiar with many of the songs but you won’t find the pyrotechnics of Treacherous Orchestra or The Peatbog Faeries. In some ways it’s charmingly old-fashioned.
Lead vocals are handled by Ronnie Alexander, Erlend Voy and, most especially, Gordeanna McCulloch who is rated alongside Jeannie Robertson and Belle Stewart – indeed she may be thought of as one of the last of the great traditional Scottish singers. Completing the band are Callum Allan on fiddle and piper Tom Johnstone. There is a great authenticity about the music so much that the first song, ‘Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow’ really requires the lyrics to understand what’s happening and although ‘Tam Bowie’ is marked for “advisory content” I suspect that you need to be fluent in Scots to find anything offensive. This is the only time I’ve heard Tarwathie (as in ‘Farewell Tae Tarwathie’) pronounced with a short a.
There are a few songs which we soft southerners knew well. ‘Tramps And Hawkers’ is a rousing come-all-ye and ‘Twa Recruiting Sergeants’ would be heard most nights. ‘The 51st Highland Divison’s Farewell to Sicily’ is sung fairly straight but is enlivened by an up-tempo setting of the melody. ‘The Forrester’ and ‘The Cruel Mither’ are well-known and ‘Peer Rovin’ Lassie’ would seem to be a variant of ‘If I Were A Blackbird’. Meanwhile, ‘The Deerness Ram’ is a version of ‘The Derby Ram’ from Orkney. How it got there is anyone’s guess. Tom Johnstone gets to star on two pipe sets, the second of which ends with ‘Banjo Breakdown’ which is one of the most extraordinary things you’ll have heard in a long time.
The Clutha are still in business despite the loss of both Gordeanna McCulloch who passed earlier this year and Ronnie Alexander who died in 2017. Live From Harvard turns the clock back to a time that some of us would regard as a golden age.
Label website: www.birnamcd.com
‘My Apron’ – the original studio version: