Obituary: Robin Morton, a figure of enormous influence in traditional and folk music
Death: October 1, 2021.
ROBIN Morton, who died suddenly at the age of 81, was a figure of enormous influence and inspiration in folk and traditional music in Scotland, Ireland and across the world.
A founding member of a longtime group, the Boys of the Lough, he then led and guided another, Battlefield Band, to international success. the year of Cilla Fisher and Artie Trezise, and the classic album A Handful of Earth by Dick Gaughan.
He also recorded Scottish harp music and Gaelic song long before these became a mainstream part of the Scottish music scene.
His love for traditional music actually developed through his teenage fascination with jazz, which he maintained until the end, and it’s a tantalizing thought that his label Temple Records could have added a live album from tenor saxophone legend George Coleman to his rich catalog of Scottish music. and Irish music.
Until recently, Robin and his wife, internationally renowned harpist and glass artist Alison Kinnaird, kept an apartment in New York City. Coleman was a neighbor, and Robin would often talk about capturing one of the aging saxophonist’s concerts for posterity.
It was Robin’s father who turned him to jazz at his home in Portadown. He took the cornet in an attempt to imitate Louis Armstrong (he had been disappointed to learn that Jelly Roll Morton was not actually called Morton and therefore was unrelated) and he later found out that he had bought records from the same jazz specialist. and the blues store in Belfast that Van Morrison frequented.
In search of other authentic forms of music, he discovered the blues thanks to the skiffle boom of the 1950s, then realized that the roots of the Appalachian folk songs that the skiffle had also carried to him lay down to him. were found in Scotland and Ireland.
When he left school, he taught mentally handicapped children, trained in Manchester, where he met and befriended the folk group Spinners and bought his first guitar. Back in Portadown, he discovered that his family, especially his maternal uncle, Tom McCreery, had a lifelong interest in traditional songs.
McCreery suggested that Robin go to the singing session at the Head of the Road pub, about ten miles out of town, and Robin’s appetite for collecting songs was whetted.
In 1962 he began studying for a degree in social work at Queen’s University Belfast, where he attended folk clubs and became involved in the Glee Club, run by Phil Coulter, which later became a successful songwriter. With a few comrades, Robin formed a folk music society, where he quickly developed his organizational skills.
After a year he moved to London to study at LSE and during this time he stumbled upon Ewan MacColl, who encouraged Robin’s musical interests and gave him access to a vast collection of songs.
Now a qualified psychiatric social worker, Robin returned to Belfast. The college folk club was as strong as ever and sang and hosted concerts there before joining other singers and musicians to form the Ulster Folk Music Society.
His goal was to integrate songs and tunes, which thrived in separate sessions at the time, a sense of things to come. He also used his time in the hospital following a rugby injury to start collecting songs from other patients, one of whom sang shyly into Robin’s tape recorder behind the privacy screen.
Among the musicians who appeared for the company were fiddler, Tommy Gunn, and whistle and flute virtuoso, Cathal McConnell. Robin started playing guitar, bodhran and concertina with them and in 1967 another pair of UFMS guests Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, whom Robin had toured for, invited them to do a tour of England and Scotland. Gunn, McConnell and Morton became the first edition of Boys of the Lough, named spontaneously after a reel they played.
At this point Robin decided to study for another degree, in Economic History, at Queen’s University. He paid for his training by doing freelance radio journalism, selling one version of a story to the BBC and another – like Robert Martin – to RTE. A former school friend, Gloria Hunniford sometimes took a third version for the BBC World Service.
Cathal McConnell once heard “Robert Martin” on the radio and told Robin that there was a guy on RTE who sounded like him.
In 1970 Robin came to Edinburgh to do a doctorate, focusing on the treatment of insanity. Before leaving Belfast he published a book of the songs he had collected, Folksongs Sung in Ulster, and started producing records, although his pioneering enthusiasm for real traditional music was not always shared by record companies.
His doctorate was never completed due to his musical interests which consumed his study time. Tommy Gunn retired from the Boys of the Lough and Robin and Cathal invited Shetland violinist Aly Bain and his duo partner, guitarist, harmonica player and vocalist Mike Whellans, who was later replaced by Dick Gaughan, to form a quartet.
With Robin’s organizational skills, promotional flair and ability to network, the group forged an international touring network, bringing traditional music from Ireland, Shetland and Scotland to large audiences in the United States. United in particular.
Throughout the 1970s Robin was the boys’ player-manager, somehow finding time to turn an old Temple, Midlothian church into a family home for Alison and their children.
It remained the family home and added another function – a recording studio and a base for Temple Records – when Robin pulled off the road and turned his attention to recording music he felt was being overlooked. He recorded Fisher & Trezise and Gaughan for leading folk label Topic Records, and when Topic didn’t share his enthusiasm for Scottish harp music and Gaelic vocals, Robin released his wife Alison’s The Harp Key and albums singers Flora MacNeil and Christine Primrose on Temple Recordings.
Others, including the revered debut album by Edinburgh-based Jock Tamson’s Bairns, followed.
Among Robin’s production clients were the Battlefield Band, whose openings he initially declined to handle. However, from 1980 onwards he continued to advocate and guide them, with typical Robin enthusiasm, from a folk club attraction to a concert hall and festival pillars.
He gave their music the slogan “Forward with Scotland’s Past” and established it internationally, keeping the group thriving through numerous personnel changes for 40 years.
His skills as an advocate for traditional music and music in general led him to spend a period as President of the Scottish Record Industry Association and from 1986 to 1988 he was Director of the Edinburgh Folk Festival.
In addition to a home, studio, and office, Old Temple Church also served as an exhibition space for Alison’s glasswork, and Robin would share his pride in Alison’s creativity – and inevitably, a few stories – with visitors. He had an endless supply of anecdotes, often referring to well-known personalities who were longtime friends.
It’s not hard to imagine how he racked up these friends as Robin was a man whose enthusiasm for everything he embraced was only surpassed by his incredible energy and desire to get things done.
At the time of his death, Robin was in the process of completing another project, a collection of Ulster songs that is only a few notes away from completion. Plans are underway to bring it to fruition until its release, yet another achievement from a man who has accomplished – and given – so much. He will be sadly missed by Alison, her daughter, Ellen and her son, John and all who fell under his spell.