Joe Rae

The Broom Blooms Bonny

Musical Traditions MTCD313

Rather like Gordon Hall, Joe found the folk revival and song collectors, rather than them discovering a source singer.  He was born in Lanarkshire and brought up in Ayrshire, very much in Robert Tannahill and Robert Burns country.  Singing had been a thing that took place with family and neighbours' get-togethers, when he read about the TMSA and its Kinross Folk Festival in a newspaper in the late '80s and made his way there.  Cover picturePreviously he had had no contact with folk song events.  He was immediately befriended by Sheila Douglas who subsequently recorded songs and stories from him and a wonderful piece of local and family oral history to go along with the songs that appears in her book The Sang's the Thing (Polygon 1992 ISBN 0 7486 6119 00).  Though he worked for twenty years in a builders' office in Glasgow, he remained very much the country boy at heart and seems to be fulfilled in his present occupation:

Rae: When my boys were comin' on and none o' them were showin' much inclination for staying on at school, this workshop in Kilmacolm was for sale and I bocht it fourteen years ago and went back tae the practical side o' the joinering.  I like makin' things - in fact, I maybe like it that much that I don't make nae money at it!  I tend to be a perfectionist.  I missed the chipboard days, being twenty year away fae it.  I've never worked wi' chipboard in ma life.  We make old-fashioned things like doors and windows.  Folk are going back to the solid wood.  The plastic age is past.  That suits me.  The laddies having got something at their fingertips, which they wouldnae have had in this last recession, which I saw comin'.  There's schoolmates o' theirs have never worked.  I'd hae been better off financially continuing to work in Glasgow, but money's no everything.  I like what I'm doing' an' ye can pick an choose wi the kind o' stuff I'm doin'.  I don't need to do the mundane stuff.  Folk workin' oot the back o' a van can dae that.  I get asked to make some quite unusual things.  I've just finished a four-poster bed.  We had a nice job in a Greek Thompson house in Glasgow, an A-listed interior.  We made a mezzanine floor, designed in the Greek Thompson style, and a square spiral staircase.
Mike Yates followed in Sheila's footsteps and the recordings that make up this album were made in April of this year in Joe's home in Beith.  They have come up with 12 songs and 3 stories.  Mostly, they are fairly complete ballads sung in a slow and relaxed manner.  The two main source of these were his grandfather, John Rogerson (Oor Young Lady, Paul Jones, Achnachie Gordon, The Auld Man's Fareweel) and an old neighbour Ned Robertson (Laird o' Roslyn's Daughter, The Bonny Hind, Katherine Johnston, William and Lady Marjorie)

play Sound ClipThe ballad that provides the album's title is from the response line in Sheath and Knife (sound clip) is one that comes from a forgotten source; a work colleague about 30 years ago.  I think I can help him trace where it comes from.  The tune and text are practically identical to the version on the 1971 Tony Rose album Under The Greenwood Tree (Trailer LER 2024) though Tony has three extra verses.  Tony learned it, apparently a collated version, from June Tabor, then a student at Oxford.  Both Joe's main sources were shepherds.  This leads Mike Yates to make an interesting observation about what this has meant to the slow pace and delivery:

Yates: Both John Roberson and Ned Robertson - not to mention that other great Scottish shepherd singer, Willie Scott - would have had ample time to sing their ballads over to themselves whilst walking the moors with their sheep.
The comparison with Willie Scott is unfortunate.  Though most of us knew and heard Willie in his declining years, he was never anything other than a master of traditional song.  He did sing more slowly with advancing years, but his pitch, pace and tone was always very pleasing.  The same cannot be said of Joe's singing.  In fact, it is the slow pace that draws attention to his faults as a singer.  He is guilty of one of my pet hates of trying to hold consonant rather than vowel sounds: Oh, it's whisperrrred innnnn the kitchennnnn...

At times, he has problems with maintaining the tune, especially when he has to cope with an upward jump of a fifth or more, and at other times he employs a vibrato that he does not appear to have full control over.  Overall, I would have to say that the songs, fine versions all, are more interesting than the singer.

Three of his tunes seem to be slowed down versions of Bothy ballad tunes, She Widna' Dae It is very close to the tune of The Hash o' Benagoak and Katherine Johnston is closely related to the tune for Mormond Braes.  The most interesting example is the Drumdelgie-like tune for The Laird o' Roslyn's Doughter.  Like many traditional singers, his tunes occasionally take a few verses to settle down, and this is most noticeable here on this last named song.  It is something that you hear frequently in the tradition and practically never from the unaccompanied folk club singer singing a traditional song.  Why is this?  In the case of Jeannie Robertson, I feel sure that the way she changed the tune at the start of the verses in, for example, The Twa Recruiting Sergeants is a conscious device.  With other singers, including Joe, I am never so sure.  But whether it is just the singer starting the song and waiting for the tune to catch up, or whether it is contrived for effect, it always seems to add a pleasing charm to the performance of the song.  It is certainly the case here.

play Sound ClipJoe is at his most effective when a song is taken at a faster pace, and at his self-deprecating best when he is advising against marrying a man of his profession (sound clip - Ye'll Gang tae the Pawn)

When we come to considering the story-telling, we are in entirely different territory.  Everything about his style is delightful.  play Sound ClipHe has wonderful pace, the ability to absorb the listener, to make it sound perfectly feasible that a man should meet and marry a mermaid (sound clip).  He grips the listener's attention as firmly as Tam McCissock grippit his mythical beast.  The use of dialect, pauses and his sure deadpan delivery are all very effective.

Reversing the proportions of songs and stories on this CD might have made a better reflection of Joe Rae's talents.

Vic Smith - 4.10.01

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