Robin Morton: an appreciation

John Moulden

Robert Samuel (Robin) Morton, 24th December 1939 - 1st October 2021

Robin Morton was among my oldest friends; almost sixty years; that is my first thought, before I think of him as an important figure in twentieth-century Irish song research, or as a significant promoter of the ‘pure drop’ before the term was coined. Yet, it’s possible that, outside of Ulster, he is little known in Ireland.

He certainly was better known in Scotland, where, as a founder member of The Boys of the Lough, the producer of award winning albums by Dick Gaughan, Artie Tresize and Cilla Fisher, founder and principal sound engineer of Temple Records, “The Scottish Record Label”, manager of The Battlefield Band, pioneering producer of records of Scottish harp playing, unaccompanied Gaelic singing, kitchen pipers, fiddle groups and more, Director of the Edinburgh Folk Festival, Chairman of the Scottish Record Industry Association and all round defender of musicians’ right to a decent living and fair treatment, he had a very high profile. Accordingly, in 2008 his achievements were recognised by his being inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame as the seventh recipient of the Hamish Henderson Award for Services to Scottish Traditional Music.

He is remembered differently in Ireland, especially the ten years he spent in Belfast, from 1962. There Robin was a friend, singer and musician, club organiser, song collector who issued his work in books, on albums and in broadcasts, and who promoted traditional music and song, and mentored its practitioners. He was also a ‘media personality’. I’m inclined to think that it was during those years he discovered and developed the qualities that were to serve him later.

He was born in Portadown, (Co Armagh) where his father, John, was an electrician - and a jazz lover. Thus, after a go at the cornet while at school at Portadown College, Robin gravitated towards Leadbelly and then, like almost everybody of his age, Woody Guthrie. That’s what he was singing in 1962 when we first met. However, his mother, Mary’s, influence soon told. Her brother, Tom McCreery, hearing of Robin’s interest in singing took him to a pub, ‘The Head o’ the Road’ at Tartaraghan, almost the centre of the Orange universe and only a few miles from the place of its founding. On Fridays, there was singing, all men and all protestants and mostly Orangemen; Orange songs dominated; The mysterious seven, The Maghery riots (Maghery’s the adjoining Catholic Parish), The first creation, The battle of the Boyne, The crimson banner, Derryad flute band, The Orange maid of Sligo, Annie Moore, Cromie’s Orange buck, Shall we from the Union sever, The siege of Derry, Lisnagade. Other songs were sung too, Scottish ones - like The lad in the Scotch Brigade, The harbour of Dundee and The road and the miles to Dundee; Irish songs – Portadown’s a pretty place, The factory girl, The bonny bunch of roses, Sweet Loughgall, Johnny Harte, The wild rover, Rafferty’s pig, Dafferty’s duck, Ellen O’Connor, My bonny Irish boy, The Irish carman, Dobbin’s flowery vale; recitations like “I’m livin’ in Drumlister and English songs too – all the elements of the song corpus of the north of Ireland but with an unusual bias – unionist-centred but, nevertheless, Irish in form and performance style. Some of these songs had seldom been collected from traditional singers, and some never at all – Sam Henry had actively avoided sectarian songs and the BBC’s recording scheme of the 1950s had steered clear too – further, these men would have been suspicious of collectors called Seán (O’Boyle) or Séamus (Ennis), but Robin was with his uncle who was known and accepted, and Robin was too. He went and he listened and he took part – singing Woody Guthrie songs – and he went back, again and again, and eventually he recorded. He also recorded Frank Mills from Benburb in hospital – Robin had, as he said,, “got a kicking” playing rugby for Portadown against Dungannon and got stuck there for a week. That week he recorded ‘Old Arboe’ from an old man who was too shy to be recorded but was caught as he sang behind a screen sitting on a bed pan.

That would have been 1962/3 when Robin was studying for a diploma in Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. The next year he spent in London – another diploma – in Psychiatric Social Work at the London School of Economics. He met Ewan MacColl and went to Cecil Sharp House to get copies of the songs (like the ones he’d heard among friends, at The Head o’ the Road) that had been collected in Ulster by the BBC, and was disappointed that they could only be transcribed; Ewan to the rescue, he had copies and was happy to allow them to be recopied. Robin came back to Belfast, started work with the families of children who needed psychiatric help and brought those songs with him but, influenced by MacColl, sang Cosher Bailey and Join the British Army. In 1964 he started a club on the lines of the London Singers’ Club, The Ulster Folk Music Society, very well remembered by a generation.

Belfast was full of fine musicians, many of them migrants from the country, some of the Queen’s students, like Henry O’Prey and Seán Quinn played with them in the McPeake’s Ceili Band and so Robin and the rest of us were introduced to fiddler, Tommy Gunn, piper Seán MacAloon, the ivory flute player, James McMahon, mandolin player Jimmy Grimes and John Rea, hammer dulcimer (that unkind people called ‘the bicycle wheel’, unable to musically reconcile the ringing of its undamped strings). There were many more and they were persuaded to play at the club and they became friends. They introduced Cathal McConnell and our network, and Robin’s began to expand.

The Head o’ the Road led to introductions too – like Sam Higginbottom and Arthur Whiteside, a rabid Orangeman (Vivian Molloy who was a neighbour as a child, will testify), who sang some of the most contentious songs in the Orange repertory – The Protestant Maid who introduced arsenic into the Communion bread and, having informed the celebrant priest, challenged him to consume it and prove Transubstantiation – or about The ladder into Purgatory that led from every popish altar and whose descent was each priest’s last act – but he also sang The darling baby, that Robin took over and loved – about a husband’s inability to quieten a child when its mother was away and which subsided as soon as she returned - ‘the wretch’! These were prizes but the best was to come.

I mentioned the legendary ivory flute – its owner, James McMahon (there’s a Facebook page devoted to memories of him) had an older brother, also living in Belfast, Paddy. Paddy was a singer – The shamrock boys from Kill, Edward Boyle, On board the Victory, Mary Neill – not many songs but among the best. Paddy told of a great singer from near where the McMahons were from, Roslea in Fermanagh – John Maguire and introduced him and Robin. He was a great singer, not a shade of doubt. He was a spellbinder – but that was not all, the fields around his farm at Tonaydrumallard held a whole exultation of singers – more of the family, Biddy, Brian, another sister (probably Ellie) – Robbie Doonan – and Nellie and Peter Mullarkey – outstanding singers and outstanding songs – the wonderful love song, Erin the green, now a staple, is owed to Nellie.

There were other recordings made but these two centres, Tartaraghan and Tonaydrumallard provide the bulk. Robin used them to compile Folksongs Sung in Ulster – and showed another side of his character. He mentioned the idea of putting the songs in a book to a more experienced collector and was advised against it – people will just spoil them, he was warned. This may have been a typical attitude, Robin told of showing the first results of his collecting to the Director of the Ulster Folk Museum. He suggested that he could be lent a decent tape recorder – “… but, Mr Morton, what qualifications do you have for this work?” Robin had none that were acceptable, so he went and bought his own machine – a Uher 4400 Report Stereo – the best at the time. And he published the songs because he thought that people needed to know about them.

Folksongs Sung in Ulster issued in 1970, fifty-two songs (including one from his Aunt Sally, Tom McCreery’s wife) of which twenty appeared on two LPs that came out the following year. It was a unique combination and unique for another reason. Most song collections up to then had concentrated on the texts and tunes, most of the discussion was about other versions of the song. Robin’s focus was on the place the songs occupied in the lives of the singers, and the ways they reflected the lives of the people and the history of Ireland – he did include references but they were relegated to an appendix – and I compiled it. Perhaps this was because Robin had found a new academic direction. He’d given up his work in social psychiatry to begin a degree in Social and Economic History. Without a regular income he put his tape recorder to work as a freelance broadcaster conducting interviews for BBC Northern Ireland Radio, as Robin Morton. A bit later, Cathal McConnell was puzzled to hear someone called Robert Martin, sounding very like the Robin he knew, interviewing for Radio Éireann. Sometimes Robin sold the same interview, differently edited under three different names to those two outlets and the BBC World Service.

At the same time, he had recognised that John Maguire was a genius, not just as a singer, he certainly was that – there was a concert at Belfast’s Whitla Hall, where John held an audience breathless for the entire first half – he seemed to bring his life onto the stage as if in his kitchen – his part is remembered and the headline act has been forgotten – and, again when, singing a song over to himself before a television appearance, he stilled a studio full of hard-boiled sound and lighting technicians, cameramen and floor managers who applauded when he’d finished. But another aspect of John’s genius was conversation. Robin decided he was worth a book. Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday: The songs and life story, told in his own words, of John Maguire, traditional singer and farmer from Co. Fermanagh, was published to acclaim in 1973. It was among the folklore books of the year, narrowly failing to win the Chicago Folklore Prize. It was reissued in 2017, by Routledge at a massive £76.00 in hardback but, much more reasonably, £23.11 paperback. An accompanying LP was published by Bill Leader, Leader Records rather later, 1975, I think. It contained 12 songs and is another gem. I had half a dozen that I’d bought for £1.00 each about twenty-five years ago and gave them away to friends last year. It’s time for a CD reissue.

However, that was almost the end of Robin’s work as a collector though he did pursue an interest in issuing a similar book about the fiddler Tommy Gunn and interviewed him extensively but eventually decided it would not have held the same interest. In any case, by that time his life had changed utterly.

It was his own fault. He had such a range of abilities, he could have been a broadcaster, even a Television Personality - for a while he was a continuity announcer for BBC Northern Ireland - or an academic historian or ethnographer, indeed, when he finished his degree in Social History he started a PhD in Edinburgh, comparing the history of the concept and treatment of ‘madness’ in Ireland and Scotland, but the music won out.

In 1967, he’d formed a group with Cathal MConnell (flute, whistle and songs), Tommy Gunn (fiddle, lilting, dancing and songs), and himself (concertina, bodhrán and songs). They’d ‘done’ festivals across Britain under their three names until a promoter in Aberdeen demanded something easier and they became The Boys of the Lough, after the reel. Tommy, then in his sixties, eventually found it too much but not before Robin and Cathal, who’d made an album, An Irish Jubilee, together, in 1971, had met, and enjoyed instant friendship with Aly Bain, a brilliant young Shetland fiddler, and singer-guitarist Mike Whellans who were playing as a duo. The Boys of the Lough was reborn and with Robin and Cathal, Aly and Mike, and when Mike was replaced by Dick Gaughan and then he by Dave Richardson, enjoyed unparalleled success – the first professional folk band - before Planxty, Altan or Dervish – until Robin left in 1979.

That meant another new beginning. He had met and married Alison Kinnaird, an exceptional artist in two fields – harp playing and in engraving on glass – in 1974, and in order to live and work in one place on their very various pursuits, had bought and were converting a disused church at Temple in Midlothian, in the hills to the south of Edinburgh. Touring with the ‘Boys’ didn’t occupy all Robin’s time and, having produced the LPs for his books and An Irish Jubilee, he recorded Alison’s Harp but none of the existing ‘folk’ labels, Topic, Leader, Transatlantic would take a risk on the, up to then, unheard, sound of a solo Scottish harp. Temple Records was born – The Harp Key: Crann Nan Teud was published in 1978, their first issue. Robin had met the Battlefield Band in 1972 and had produced their first album, in 1980 he became their manager, which he remained until his death. Temple Records enjoyed over a hundred releases, many of them pioneering efforts, scoffed at by others because, like harp music, they were unfamiliar or uncommercial –unaccompanied Gaelic singing, ceol beag (dance music on highland pipes) and piping recitals, groups of fiddlers, early Scottish music. The unifying feature was quality; on which Robin refused to compromise. He loved music but it had to be good music.

In parallel with Temple releases he produced albums for other labels, in many cases launching careers. Some of the Scottish ones were mentioned at the outset but his contribution to Irish music was also of substance. He produced Cathal McConnell, Len Graham, Kevin Mitchell and Geordie Hanna & Sarah Ann O’Neill’s debut albums. Records of fine musicians followed John Rea (Dulcimer), Seán MacAloon (pipes), flute players, Packie Duignan, Séamus Tansey and Josie MacDermott and fiddlers, Séamus Horan and Vincent Griffin, all for Topic. Seamus Tansey especially was a labour of love. He and Robin had met in the 60s but hardly again until they encountered one another at the great first “Crossroads Conference” of 1996, when Tansey delivered a blistering attack on the forces of ‘innovation’ in Irish music, and Robin was astonished to learn that this, among the greatest of Irish flute players, had not made a record in twenty years. That was soon rectified and the result is still in the Temple Catalogue.

So, it is clear that, for all his success, huge success, in Scotland, there was no taking the Irishness out of the man. Devoted to the idea of quality in music, he valued his early and formative experiences. This led to his, lending his recordings to be digitally copied by ITMA , and later giving them to the Archive where every song or tune, every person mentioned here, may be heard to the benefit of, as Robin always hoped, musicians, singers and researchers alike; untold riches await!

Robin Morton was a pioneer, with Sam Henry and Hugh Shields, among the most important song collectors and disseminators in twentieth century Ulster. His collection is small but his treatment and assessments of the songs and their singers was exemplary. He thought of them as friends, and the mutual respect was palpable.

As a student of song, I appreciate all that, but, as I said, he was my friend - for almost sixty years and his death brings me great sadness but it’s also a matter of great joy that, in his life, my friend made such a difference, to so many and in so many ways!

He died unexpectedly and is mourned by his wife, Alison, children Ellen and John and their children; by his brother, John, sister-in-law Anne and niece, Grainne, and by many; may they find comfort.