Robin Morton - 24 December 1939–1 October 2021

Fri, 11/26/2021 - 15:38
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...he loved music - he loved making music, loved making music happen, loved those who made music; he respected them and he demanded that they respected their music and that they received the respect of others.

Robin Morton was my friend for almost 60 years: I cannot let that go, though I write for a public audience, his audience. His death is an enormous, personal wrench. So, this will not be a formal, adulatory obituary but largely a memoir.

My first sight of him… he was behind a guitar, singing American songs, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie at the Glee Club at Queen’s University in Belfast – a monthly variety programme given by the students themselves with occasional big names (when the club’s leading light, one Phil Coulter could persuade them – Helen Shapiro for one though the Beatles declined). It was a part of Robin’s journey; 1962. Within a few months, he founded the University Folk Music Society – a mix of American blues and old timey, English, Scottish, Irish, Hebrew, French (sung sometimes by genuine French, Germans and Hebrews) and Irish dance tunes from guys who played in the McPeake’s Ceili Band.

When he finished Portadown College, Robin taught special needs children and had just returned from a year of studying that discipline in Manchester, to start a diploma in social work. He was only a year or so older than most of us but seemed sophisticated, worldly wise, and sure of his direction – the next year he was off to the London School of Economics and he returned at the end of 1964 qualified as a Psychiatric Social Worker. His London experiences were formative.

Apart from LSE, which hardened his social conscience and equipped him to argue, he’d been to folk clubs – most significantly the Singers’ Club with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Bert Lloyd and other legends and, even more to his liking, The Fox at Islington fronted by Bob Davenport. These gave him two main ideas: that he ought to sing songs from the place he came from (Ewan gave him copies of the recordings made by the BBC in Ulster in the 50s) and, derived from Davenport’s lesser formality, the idea that singing should be fun and about involving people. Robin also gained organising experience - how, he never knew - on the committee that organised the first Keele Festival in 1964. He met The Coppers and Jimmy McBeath and Willie Scott and many others. Nevertheless, when he came home, my memory is of him singing Cosher Bailey and Join The British Army with a Salford twang. But soon he formed a club with a traditional ethos: The Ulster Folk Music Society.

He'd been born in Portadown, Co Armagh. His father, John, an electrician, loved jazz – there was always a big following in the northern counties of Ireland – and Robin grew up hearing that, so Leadbelly was not so unnatural. Woody Guthrie was another step - through the skiffle craze of the fifties - and led towards the music and song of Britain and Ireland. However, Robin was drawn further through his mother. She had been born Mary McCreery and her brother Tom’s wife sang (as far I understand, only one song) Ould Heelball You’re Boozing Again – it’s in Robin’s first book, Folksongs Sung In Ulster, and on one of the two accompanying LPs. It was Uncle Tom, though, who clinched the deal. He frequented a pub, The Head O’ The Road, in the townland of Tartaraghan, about six miles from Portadown, where, each Friday night, they sang. He introduced Robin and threw a spanner into the prevailing idea of what Irish folk singing was about. These were protestants and Orangemen – Tartaraghan Church of Ireland Parish is united with that of The Diamond, where in 1795 the Orange Order was founded. There Robin heard a dozen and more men who sang Orange songs (lots of them); Scottish and Irish songs and others that were English. They sounded like any other northern singers in style and accent, and the Orange songs were full of internal rhymes; Irish, in short. It was accidental but a pioneering entrance into a world that had not been explored by previous ‘collectors’. Robin didn’t count himself a collector but a part of the evening’s crack – he sang and was expected to sing - but he also recorded. He was guided to other singers from nearby, Sam Higginbottom and Arthur Whiteside being but two. Robin was ever ready to take an opportunity, such as when, hospitalised through a rugby injury, he recorded Frank Mills from Dungannon, and a shy old man whose song was ‘stolen’ as he sang from the safety of a seat on a bedpan.

Robin continued collecting back in Belfast. Tommy Gunn, originally from Fermanagh, was one of many fine musicians there. He played at Robin’s club and brought a shy, almost otherworldly, 18-year-old flute and whistle player – Cathal McConnell. And there was the mandolin player, Jimmy Grimes, who lived in the boarding house Tommy’s wife, Sheila, ran. He played with James McMahon, the possessor of a wonderful ivory flute, whose brother Paddy sang. Paddy introduced Robin to the prodigious John Maguire in Fermanagh and, across the fields a bit, to the Mullarkey’s and Robbie Doonan - all great singers. These were friends, not ‘informants’; respected and honoured friends. Brendan Fulton, who with Fergie Woods runs the website, remembers, nearly 60 years later, visiting John Maguire with Robin and observing the obvious respect in which they held one another.

It wasn’t just the collecting; the Ulster Folk Music Society ran on Robin’s energy and enthusiasm. I organised it on weeks when he was too busy, and know what it took. There were guests, Paddy Tunney among them, and concerts in Belfast’s halls - Bob Davenport, the Liverpool Spinners and Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger - and there was a memorable concert in the Whitla Hall at Queen’s when John Maguire held us spellbound, as if in his kitchen, for the whole of the first half; so much so that none of us is clear who the ‘star’ of the second half was.

All of this was in the years from 1964 to1968, while Robin was earning a living as a Psychiatric Social Worker, assessing the families of children referred to a psychiatrist. Robin reckoned it should be the other way round. The club folded about then – the premises were condemned – and Robin started a degree in Social and Economic History, had to give up the day job and (no grants in those days) began to make a living by broadcasting. He conducted interviews and sold them, edited, to BBC Northern Ireland – and sometimes, under another name, to Radio Éireann and even to the BBC World Service. Eventually he was among the first announcers on the relatively new Northern Ireland BBC Television – and then he gave all that up. He could have been a household name but that went to his university friend, Nick Ross. Instead, in 1972, Robin took off to Edinburgh to begin a PhD thesis comparing the treatment of ‘madness’ in Scotland and Ireland – combining psychiatry and social history. Folk Songs Sung In Ulster, the book and the albums, came out in 1970 and Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday, the life and songs of John Maguire, well advanced by the time of his move, was issued in 1973. Robin could have had another career; his book was considered for the Chicago Folklore Prize, the most prestigious in the English-speaking world, but was pipped by the monumental The English Broadside Ballad And Its Music.

Nobody knew how he did so many things and so well. His energy and application were ferocious, and he involved others as well – I was glad to help, and he enlisted John Blacking, a world-famous ethnomusicologist, (How Musical Is Man?) who was professor of social anthropology at Queens, to transcribe and comment on the tunes for Come Day, Go Day. In those days students barely got to speak to professors, let alone drag them into their projects; Robin was special.

He and I met often, at a time we lived in the same street. The only way he seemed able to relax was by doing something else at equal intensity – including at parties which were mostly spent arguing. However, his most precious delight was a bargain. John Ross’s Sale Rooms saw Robin prowling for a prize, something beautiful, historic or curious, and bidding to his limit. Sometimes he brought it home to show off, and perhaps sold it on after a while. It’s a habit he never lost – another account of his life (in LT66) tells of his wife’s anxiety any time he went in search of an auction.

And that’s how it was: all the facets I’ve mentioned - the energy and focus, the organisational skills, the contacts, the disciplines of psychology, sociology and history, even the sometimes adversarial style - were those he brought to his later life. All were learned in his birth-place, and most importantly, because without it the qualities above, admirable as they are, would be arid, he loved music - he loved making music, loved making music happen, loved those who made music; he respected them and he demanded that they respected their music and that they received the respect of others. He also wanted to share his passions. When he raised the idea of issuing the songs he’d collected as a book, an older song collector demurred: “The younger singers will spoil them.” Robin disagreed, he thought people deserved, indeed needed, to hear the music he loved.

The later life I mentioned, began with Boys Of The Lough. They had formed in 1967, almost casually as a collaboration between Robin, Tommy Gunn, the fiddler, singer, lilter and dancer, and Cathal McConnell. They performed under their three names until an organiser demanded something less cumbersome and the name of a reel came to mind – and, of course, Lough Erne and Belfast Lough figured in their lives. About three years later Tommy, over 60 by then, had had enough, but an instant chemistry had occurred between Cathal and Robin (who had made a successful album, The Irish Jubilee, together) and Aly Bain and Mike Whellans, then playing as a duo; this became the Boys’ first reincarnation. I remember Robin describing the concept in his flat in Belfast, just before he moved to Edinburgh – “a sort of Folk Supergroup” – and so it was. That version of Boys Of The Lough headlined festivals across Britain and America – they were huge. As well as playing, Robin did a good deal of the managing. That and the travelling undid the PhD; the Boys Of The Lough was the first full time, professional Irish/Scottish folk band (Robin hated the term ‘Celtic’; it meant everything and nothing, a commercial peg, he said). Mike Whellans was soon replaced by Dick Gaughan, and he by Dave Richardson. The band made album after album.

In the meantime, in 1974, Robin had married Alison Kinnaird, a gifted harper and glass engraver, and after a flat in Edinburgh decided to convert a disused church at Temple in Midlothian into a “good machine for living” as Robin put it, suitable for life and work. Robin loved Alison’s two arts. He recognised the high musical quality of her playing, recorded it, and attempted to interest existing record labels, who thought she was out of tune – another thing about Robin, he had phenomenal ears and he knew different. So, he put his money, as he always did, where his love was. The Harp Tree (1977) was the first Temple Record and the first album of solo Scottish harp playing. Robin went on to issue the first album of unaccompanied Scots Gaelic song and his were among the first records of solo piping and of pipe bands. He never abandoned Ireland though. He recorded and produced debut albums by Cathal McConnell, Len Graham, Kevin Mitchell, Geordie Hanna and Sarah-Anne O’Neill and by John Rea (dulcimer), Seán MacAloon (pipes), flute players, Packie Duignan, Séamus Tansey and Josie MacDermott and fiddlers, Séamus Horan and Vincent Griffin. In Scotland he launched careers - an album of the month for Cilla Fisher and Arty Trezise and an album of the year for Dick Gaughan – but much of that was after he had left Boys Of The Lough.

This was not by his choice and I’ve heard, mainly from American traditional music lovers, that some people never liked the band quite so well after his departure. However, despite leading to a difficult six months for him, it was a fortuitous ousting because it freed Robin to use the larger part of his abilities. That was 1978. Time, as Margaret Thatcher was later to say, to diversify. There was a big space in the middle of the Temple church and a sound desk was bought and a studio built.

Temple Records went on to boast well over 100 releases, and none of them for the sake of it. Each had to have a compelling reason – a musical reason. The label had a reputation for productions of the highest quality, and the studio, and Robin’s ears, were sought by the most discerning, Early Music groups among them. He recorded music he felt had qualities that people needed to hear, he took risks – with groups of fiddlers and ‘kitchen’ pipers – and his beliefs were justified. They sold - at least enough to cover the costs, which was enough for him - and most were high successes.

He also moved into management. He’d met Battlefield Band in 1972, produced their first album, and their relationship transitioned to him becoming an indivisible part of their musical identity. His organisational skills were also recognised in his three-year (1986-1988) tenure as Director of the Edinburgh Folk Festival and his reputation for trenchant advocacy led to election as Chairman of the Scottish Record Industry Association.

All this earned him, in 2008, The Hamish Henderson Services To Traditional Music Award and a place in the Scottish Traditional Music Hall Of Fame, but it is as a friend I remember him. He remained friendly with traditional musicians and singers he recorded; he joined us in the north of Ireland when Tommy Gunn’s wife Sheila died, and again when Tommy joined her; he came over for Davie Hammond’s funeral. One of his flatmates from his Belfast student days was murdered during the Troubles – he rang me to confirm it was true. I remember his anguish, and I remember that, when he was visiting his brother who still lived in Northern Ireland, Robin would go and see Seán’s mother. He called on me, and I called on him, and we talked, and we talked. I remember the intensely human atmosphere at lunchtimes at Temple, when work stopped and everybody - family, technicians, musicians, visitors - moved, sometimes crammed, into the kitchen where food was provided. It was twenty to the dozen and, in the midst of it, Robin, benign, but always direct and sometimes opinionated.

Robin Morton was a man of rare talents who used them to further what he loved. He will be missed!

John Moulden