If you are even mildly curious about Scottish and Celtic folk music, you cannot do any better than hearing veteran Scottish folk singer Archie Fisher when he performs Friday, September 19, at Christ Congregation Church in Princeton.
Fisher opens the 2014-’15 season of the Princeton Folk Music Society, a group that celebrates its 50th year this season, making the organization one of the oldest of its kind in the nation.
Fisher is a master guitarist, singer-songwriter, storyteller, and entertainer who lives in southern Scotland, where he also raises and rides horses.
Recognized for his decades-long contributions to the furtherance of Scottish folk music, Fisher was inducted into the Scots Traditional Music Hall of Fame and in 2006 was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire), a prestigious honor nominated by his peers and bestowed by Queen Elizabeth. That honor would stay with Fisher even if Scotland were to vote in favor of independence from Britain in its September 18 referendum.
Princeton Folk Music Society program coordinator Justin Kodner says the choice of Archie Fisher made good sense for several reasons. “For the first concert of the season, we try to have a performer who will give the audience a good taste of what they can expect to see and hear at our monthly concerts. That’s not easy because, in our concert series, we try to present a wide variety of what the folk community has to offer, but Archie Fisher is an excellent choice for our purpose.
“He is a fine musician (guitar), a wonderful singer with a marvelous repertoire of traditional (mostly Scottish) songs, and has himself written several songs that are sung and have been recorded by many prominent performers. Archie’s songs have become a significant part of the folk tradition. His appearance here is a great honor for us.”
Asked about his roots via E-mail, Fisher says that had a youthful musical advantage. “Growing up in Glasgow, my father was a police inspector and had a few instruments around the house. He himself as a tenor sang light opera and what is known in Scotland as ‘leaning on the piano’ — songs as well as vaudeville ditties that he picked up while taking some time out from his patrols at the theater,” Fisher says.
“My first awareness of traditional music came from a few of the songs (my father) knew that were definitely from the Scottish tradition, like his version of ‘She’s awa wi the Beggar Man.’ My mother came from Hebridean stock and sang in Gaelic now and then. It was very melodic stuff, but we didn’t understand a word. My first instrument was probably one of my father’s ukuleles or his banjo or mandolin — which became mute as the strings were eventually broken.”
Fisher says that in his early years he “was blessed with six sisters, all very musical, in a vocal way, and they sang and harmonized together with songs they had learned at school” or sung at home by his homemaker mother and sister Ray, who, he says, “went on to become a force of nature in the Scottish folk revival.”
About his decision to be a folk singer, not always the best of career moves, Fisher says, “There was no big eureka moment about wanting to be a performer. My first love was the guitar, and I would at that time have been happy to just accompany Ray or anyone else who needed backing and harmony.”
He says his first professional gig was in Edinburgh in the 1960s; it paid five British pounds ($14 at the time). “There was no big break in my musical life, just what I hopefully think was a steady progression,” he notes.
In addition to being influenced by his father and sisters Ray and Cilla, Fisher says that he got inspired by the skiffle craze of the late 1950s. Skiffle — an American slang term for improvising — has its roots in a popular African-American music tradition that combines folk, jazz, and blues. It became a popular movement in England after World War II and included musicians such as British Lonnie Donegan (the “king of skiffle” who created the 1959 novelty song “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On the Bedpost Overnight?” and the American expatriate Johnny Duncan (whose hit song was the “Last Train to San Fernando”), and paved the way for the British rock music invasion of the early 1960s.
Fisher’s music and politics were further shaped when he discovered the 1955 album “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall” by the influential American folk music group that featured performers Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger.
He then began to perform in earnest. “During the late 1950s and early 1960s I was part of a group of folk singers known as the Glasgow Boys; the core of which were Josh MacRae, Ewan McVicar, and Hamish Imlach. We had a kind of symbiotic development amongst us, sharing guitar licks and songs which initially were in the Americana vein because we loved the instrumental associations. Later on I learned five-string banjo licks from Americans like Ralph Rinzler,” the Passaic-born Appalachian banjo/ guitarist and important 20th century folklorist.
Fisher says that his strongest musical relationship in North America is with the Canadian songwriter and musician Garnet Rogers. “We first toured together in the early 1980s and recently shared the main stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.”
Fisher revealed his Glasgow sense of humor when asked about who offered the best advice about the business of being a folk singer. “The only business advice I ever got about being a musician was when the bank sent me a notice that I was overdrawn,” he says.
However he is willing to tell young folk musicians today that he sees the overall quality of folk musicians, folk music presenters, and folk festivals as improving. “Mostly the young people of today are going their own way. With the strong educational centers producing and fostering talent to a level that was not available in my youth, you can now get a degree in ‘Folk Music’ and a business plan is part of that,” he says.
Fisher’s has left a legacy of musical recordings, starting with “Fisher Family: Traditional and New Songs from Scotland,” released in 1965, and followed a series of solo recordings, starting with his debut, “Archie Fisher” (in 1968) and continuing every several years to his most recent, for the Minneapolis-based Red House Records, “Windward Away” (2008). He also has a number of recordings with already mentioned Rogers, Scottish vocalist Barbara Dickson, and the Glasgow band Frightened Rabbit.
After Red House released “Sunsets I’ve Galloped Into” in 1996, Fisher toured throughout North America, frequently performing with guitarists John Renbourn (from Glasgow) and Bert Jansch (London), pioneers of the 1960s folk and blues renaissance.
Fisher will be recording another album for Red House Records while he is states-side here for the next few weeks. He admits he has been lucky to also be a voice for BBC Scotland for the last 30 years, and that work supplemented his income and kept him in Scotland much of the time.
“The 30 years I spent as a freelance broadcaster for BBC Radio Scotland, which included 27 years presenting (the roots and folk music program) ‘Travelling Folk,’ kind of acted as a preservative for me. I had that other string to my bow and never had a chance to get burned out on the road,” he says. When asked about his life off stage, Fisher declined comment.
“I feel now that it is a privilege to be invited to sing in the venues that invite me. I suppose I am fortified by the life experiences I have had. I always loved a good yarn, and they seem to have slipped into my repertoire,” Fisher says as he prepares to open the golden anniversary season of a regional treasure.
Archie Fisher, Christ Congregation Church, 50 Walnut Lane, Princeton. Friday, September 19. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.; show starts at 8:15 p.m. Sponsored by the Princeton Folk Music Society. $20-$5 (for children under 12). www.princetonfolk.org or 609-799-0944.
The Princeton Folk Society’s 50th season of monthly Friday night concerts continues as follows: October 17: vocalist Priscilla Herdman with guitarist Max Cohen; November 21: songwriter and banjo-monologist Joel Mabus; December 12: New England singer-songwriter Bill Staines.
January 16: contralto songwriter Sloan Wainwright; February 20: the Maryland-based band Emma’s Revolution with Pat Humphries & Sandy O; March 20: New Orleans troubadour Mary Gauthier; April 17: Pennsylvania singer-songwriter Craig Bickhardt; and May 15: Irish fiddler Kevin Burke.