ELSPETH Cowie's emergence as one of Scotland's best-known traditional singers brings her full circle in a story that began with the winning of a Burns singing prize at school. By the late 60s, she had left her musical roots for rock and blues. Sandy Denny and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell were fave raves. But a move to the trad music heartland of Aberdeenshire got her back on track in the 1970s and 80s. She was a stalwart of the Aberdeen Folk Song Club and became acquainted with Lizzie Higgins, a fine singer and daughter of the celebrated Jeannie Robertson of travelling folk stock.
Lizzie's encouragement and kindness ignited a passion that led Elspeth to join the band Seannachie in 1986 after moving to Edinburgh. Well known for its wickedly clever arrangement of Scots songs and tunes, Seannachie provided an ideal vehicle, superb musicians who could support the singer and help her to point up the story without railroading over her. Two great albums, Take Note and Devil's Delight resulted, the latter still reckoned by aficionados to be a modern folk classic. Seannachie dissolved in the late 1990s but re-formed sporadically for tours in the Netherlands and Germany.
Elspeth moved mainly towards solo work to find the freedom and confront the challenge of putting the story across without the aid of an instrumental safety-net. On the concert stage, the effect is uplifting, stirring and moving as audiences and reviewers at festivals, clubs and events in Scotland, England, Ireland, Spain, Germany, France, Sweden and the Netherlands have testified. Scotland's two leading national daily newspapers agree. 'Magnificent vocal gravitas,' said The Herald. 'Utterly compelling', said The Scotsman. The unaccompanied album, Naked Voice, released to pass on tunes and words, gives a flavour of this but comes nowhere close to hearing a live act that can still and mesmerise a noisy room from the first few notes.
She also toured as a Scots/Gaelic duo with her singer-actress friend, the late great Ishbel MacAskill from Lewis, performing (and shopping!) together in France and Spain as well as the UK. Elspeth was a founder of the vocal trio Chantan with Corrina Hewat (Seannachie, Bachue Cafe, Unusual Suspects) and Christine Kydd. They blended folk, blues and jazz influences to breathe new life into the nation’s rich musical heritage and within months went from a 'just for fun' rehearsal at home to being a support act for singer-songwriter Richard Thompson at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. They recorded Primary Colours, a landmark album on the Culburnie Records label. It has become a sought after collector's item.
Elspeth was one of the select band of folk and traditional singers chosen by Dr Fred Freeman to record for a number of Linn Records' ambitious album collection of the complete songs collected or written by Robert Burns, Scotland's national bard. She was also in the folk choirs for: Andy Thorburn's remarkable Tuath Gu Deas (North to South) based on the Brythonic language epic Y Gododdin, the oldest written material in any of the tongues of the British Isles; and for Simon Thoumire's Music for a New Scottish Parliament which celebrated the emotional and heart stirring inauguration in 1999 of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh nearly 300 years after the last one had been dissolved in 1707 by the Acts of Union with England and Wales.
Scotland has a rich store of instrumental tunes, as well as a legion of exciting young musicians to take them out to enthusiastic new recruits. Yet arguably, the country's powerful old ballads and songs are what make the Scots tradition truly unique in world music. Elspeth Cowie and others like her are the bridge over which the tradition has and is being carried to a new generation of singers. Her tireless work on behalf of traditional music does not stop there. From 1996 to 2001, she was full-time National Organiser of the Traditional Music & Song Association of Scotland. She helped to develop TMSA into an influential information, education and lobbying voice, listened to in the corridors of power. She also tutored for bodhran and song workshops at festivals, other events and the Edinburgh based Adult Learning Project.
The sounds of pipe music and jazz have also inspired her. Elspeth's father, Glen, was in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). The sound of pipes playing The Black Bear, reputedly the fastest regimental march in the UK army, was a regular event during her childhood. Albums by jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee are also constantly played at her home. Fourteen album appearances - one solo, one with Chantan, two with Seannachie, and ten on special projects or compilations - reflect a singer revelling in her craft.
(Picture in banner and above: copyright Allan McMillan)