John Strachan (singer)

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John Strachan (1875 - 1958) was a Scottish farmer and singer of Bothy Ballads.

John Strachan was born on a farm, Crichie, near St. Katherines in Aberdeenshire. His father had made his fortune by trading in horses, and had rented the farm. From 1886 John attended Robert Gordon's College as a boarder in Aberdeen. In 1888 he moved with his father to Craigies in Tarves. In 1895 he moved back to Crichie, which became his own farm in 1897. It was still rented, but he bought it in 1918. By 1939 he was successful enough to own five farms. He became president of the Turriff Agricultural Association. He died in Crichie.

Traditional songs[edit]

John Strachan was a "tradition bearer". He was part of the last generation to sing traditional songs in bothies, along with Davie Stewart, Jimmy MacBeath and Willie Scott, though he never met them, as far as we know. A dancing master visited the farms. The farm labourers would learn to dance the highland fling and sword dances, at that time performed in hard shoes. John was dismissive of the modern fashion to perform Highland dancing in soft shoes, or "Patent slippers" as he called them. He learned songs from his mother and from the servants on his father's farm. His social status was higher than almost all other recorded singers of ballads. He was refused entry to a fraternity called "The Horseman's Word", intended for farmservants who looked after horses. They claimed to be able to control horses through whispering special words in a horse's ear.

In 1930 the American collector James Madison Carpenter came from Harvard with a wax cylinder recorder. He reached Crichie about midnight. Strachan sang "Dark and Shallow Water" for Carpenter. Strachan had learned the song from Jimmy Smith. Later they both travelled over 50 miles to find him, only to discover that he had forgotten the song. Carpenter was sufficiently impressed by Strachan to invite him to return to the States with him, but he refused. In 1935 a radio program "The Farm Year" was broadcast live from Crichie. Using songs, stories and authentic sound effects such as bagpipes and revving cars, they dramatised farm work. John Strachan and another singer, Willie Kemp, took part. John Mearns sang "The Bonnie Lass o' Fyvie" on the broadcast.

Fyvie is about 3 miles from Crichie. On 16 July 1951, John Strachan sang the song for Alan Lomax who recorded it using a portable tape recorder. It is the earliest known recording of the song. Some of the recordings made that year were issued commercially on "Folk Songs of Britain" in 1960, but the fullest version was in 2002 on the album Songs from Aberdeenshire. They are fine examples of Doric dialect (Scotland).[1]

John Strachan had a repertoire of songs that had been passed down by word of mouth, probably in this same locality, for over 200 years. Bob Dylan recorded "Peggy O" on his first album in 1962. Simon and Garfunkel recorded it in 1964, as "Peggy-O" (The Bonny Lass O Fyvie) on the album "Wednesday Morning 3AM". The Corries recorded it in 1965. On the album, Strachan sings "Lang Johnnie More", 43 verses long, lasting almost 13 minutes, to the tune of "Caul Kail in Aberdeen". Just afterwards, he said "Noo it's too long that". In 1851, probably nobody would have thought it unusual to sing songs as long as that. Strachan must have known many bawdy songs but seemed reluctant to sing them. He gave us a fragment of "The Ball of Kirriemuir", also known as "Four and Twenty Virgins went up to Inverness". At the end he says "It's a terrible een".

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ *1. The Hairst o Rettie.-*2. The Miller of Straloch.-*3. Glenlogie [Child No 238].-*4. The Beggar Man [Child No 279 Appendix].-*5. Rhynie (with chorus).-*6. The Merchant's Son (fragmentary. With introduction).-*7. The Minister's Daughters They Were There [The Ball of Kirriemuir].-*8. Fragments: Loch Leven Castle, Fin the Bed Began to Heat (Tail Toddle), Cuckoo's Nest. With commentary].-*9. Binnorie, O Binnorie [The Twa Sisters] [Child No 10].-*10. The Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter [Child No 110].-*11. The Stootest Man in the Forty Twa (with chorus).-*12. Bonny Udny.-*13. The Bonny Lass O Fyvie.-*14. Clyde's Water [Child No 216].-*15. The Laird O Drum [Child No 236].-*16. Robin Hood [Child No 114].-*17. Macpherson's Rant.-*18. The Guise O Tough.-*19. Johnnie O Braidislie (with chorus).-*20. The Bogheid Crew.-*21. Harrowing Time.-*22. Where the Gadie Rins (with chorus).-*23. Lang Johnnie More [Child No 251].-*24. I Had Some Far Better Verses Than That [interview]
  • This article derives from the liner notes to "Songs From Aberdeenshire", but the text has been changed considerably.