I am writing this tribute to Gordeanna in strange circumstances and with a heavy heart, counterbalanced by the fact that Gordeanna has been, and remains, one of the most influential and inspirational figures of Scotland’s folk revival. Anne Neilson, Gordeanna’s friend and collaborator, was to have written this tribute, but within 48 hours of contacting her for an update and a promise from her that she would work on it at the weekend, we received the shock news of Anne’s sudden death at home. Anne’s tribute would have been knowledgeable and heartfelt; my writing is more general and observational. Thankfully Gordeanna’s life has been well documented elsewhere and the fruits of her work are all around for us to see and hear.
Jeannie Robertson and Lizzie Higgins are two key names among people who had an influence on several generations of singers, and are still a reference point for any traditional singer. For most of the younger ones among us, and some of the not so young, they were only able to hear Jeannie and her daughter Lizzie through recordings. Thankfully, for most singers around today, and especially the younger ones, they have been able to experience Gordeanna in the flesh. In this sense she has been a living link to these older singers who enriched our lives and culture, and will be an essential reference point for the future.
When Gordeanna was at school, she was in the right place at the right time and was part of one of the pivotal movements that would have an influence far beyond its size. Norman Buchan, who was later to become a Labour MP and Shadow Culture Minister, taught English at her school and founded the Rutherglen Academy Ballads Club. Meeting after school and occasionally at lunchtimes, the young people of the school got plenty of opportunities to sing themselves. More importantly, they also had opportunities to see and listen to a string of singers including legendary names such as Pete Seeger and Jeannie Robertson who dropped into the School at Norman’s invitation. This was made possible because Norman’s wife, Janey, organised concerts in Glasgow by Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Flora MacNeill and Jeannie Robertson, and a visit to Rutherglen Academy was usually on their schedule.
Recognised as a singer with great potential, Gordeanna was invited down to Beckenham in Kent to attend workshops organised by Ewan MacColl. She struck up a friendship with Peggy Seeger which lasted a lifetime. During her school years, Gordeanna sang with The Clydesiders folk group and after leaving school joined The Clutha folk group. She was always nervous as a solo performer and The Clutha and later groups including Palaver gave her opportunities to shine. A book could, and perhaps should, be written to fill in the story.
In the early 70s, The Clutha released an LP called Scotia. That particular LP, on sale in the high streets of Scotland in shops like Woolworths, certainly opened the ears of a young Heather Heywood and must have had a similar impact on lots of young singers. The Clutha was among the first folk groups to play primarily Scottish rather than Irish music. Gordeanna was also pivotal in Eurydice, the Glasgow Socialist Women's Choir, which was formed in 1988. Another chapter for the book!
As well as being inspirational through her singing, Gordeanna made a huge contribution through teaching, often working alongside her close friend Anne Neilson. Anne was also a member of Rutherglen Academy Ballads Club and they share a lot in common. This is where I feel it is appropriate to move and link to a tribute to Anne whose sudden death shocked us all not long before this issue of Living Tradition went to press.
Anne was introduced to traditional music in 1957 at the second meeting of the Ballads Club in Rutherglen Academy. She was one year behind Gordeanna McCulloch at the school, but their relationship with each other and their impact on others were to last for the rest of their lives. Anne worked professionally as a teacher after leaving school and if she made only a fraction of the impression that she has made on many of Scotland’s younger musicians, she must have been a great teacher. Anne worked with, taught and supported many students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland who clearly thought that she was amazing, evidenced by the many tributes paid to her on social media.
Anne didn’t feel rooted in a tradition herself. She claims that the only two songs she learned at home were, Wee Chookie Birdie and Help, Murder, Polis. I held a different view to Anne about this and discussed it with her. I think that you can become a traditional singer by immersion as well as by birth. Posterity and Anne’s peers will now decide which of us was right.
Anne didn’t have the same platform or opportunities to perform as Gordeanna had with the Clutha. She was committed to her teaching and operated more in a background role, pushing others to the fore as any good teacher would naturally do. Later in life she did however spend many years as a member of Stramash alongside Bob Blair, Adam McNaughtan, Kevin Mitchell, John Eaglesham and Finlay Allison.
Along with Gordeanna and a few others, Anne worked tirelessly with the Glasgow Ballads Club. It is impossible to overstate the impact of Anne and Gordeanna on traditional singers in Scotland. They have a shared legacy in youth. They benefitted in their own lives from inspirational teachers and they have given that same gift to others. For the moment it seems like there is a cloud hanging over us, but that will pass. They will be missed – but they will be remembered.