Various artists’ Les Barker’s The Stones Of Callanish

cover, The Stones Of Callanish Judith Gennett wrote this review.

Les Barker, a poet and former accountant, is from Manchester, England. Some of the goofy poems that Barker writes are published in small books, and these goofy verses are read aloud to a sort of cultish audience at house concerts and music festivals. They are also recorded on goofy CDs, of which I have reviewed a couple, including Arovertherapy. His more serious and incisive poems are set to music and recorded on “various artist” style CDs by stellar casts of traditional musicians such as Eliza Carthy, Pete Morton, and Lester “Coope Boyes and” Simpson. A somewhat different work, The Stones Of Callanish was recorded way back in ’89 and then re-released on CD. It is his only “folk-opera” (most folks don’t make too any of these!).

The “opera” is a contrast of Scotland and England, ancient and modern, the country and the city, timelessness and immediacy, as well as aesthetics and goofiness. But the actual plot is timeless. Like a light horseman to Germany, “the man,” voiced by Scottish singer and theatre devotee Rod Paterson, decides to leave a remote Hebridian island for the occupational wars of London. “The girl,” voiced by Leslie Davies, decides to follow him. In doing so, she runs across a villainous lorry driver, played by the voice of Nick Dow, somewhere north of Dover. She becomes pregnant and, not finding her Hebridian lover, turns to prostitution in London to support herself and the baby. But, coincidently, Paterson becomes her first customer! They then decide to return to The Hebrides.

All these events are represented by songs. When Rod Paterson leaves Lewis, he sings: “I’ll not die under skies that are wet, white and wide / Crucified on your old broken cross.” More cutely, as the lorry drivers barrel on to Metal Bridge at the Border with Rod Paterson a hitchhiker, they sing: “Trafford Park, M63, pulled up and hard-shouldered / Chappie from the Ministry, he says we’re overloaded / Headed up to Hamilton, breezing over Beattock: / Chappie from the Ministry, dangling from a meathook.” Teamster humor aside, the second song also speaks of the futility of modern urban-based society, and shakes its head at Paterson’s flight.

The tunes to the songs are traditional. I am pressed to recall most of the names of the original songs, but the last song, sung by Davies as she hopes to return to the Islands, begins “Take me home to Lewis / Take me home across the sea…” The tune here comes from a Gaelic song translated as “My Blessings On Barra,” written by an Australian emigrant: “My blessings on Barra / The most beautiful island under the song.”

Other songs in the “opera” are sung by observers, by Hebridean women, Gaelic singers, or by tall stone relics that stand against time. The opera begins with these stones, represented by June Tabor, observing the hardships of Alba’s people during the Clearances: “I watched to the westward: they came from the east; / They hunted my people; they chased them like beasts…” Janet Russell’s Hebridian woman tells the same story, against the same ocean backdrop, and further sings of the continuing and universal condition of humanity: “But they’ll die in another man’s land / The rich take what they can / For the poor, more emigration… / For we still have our ships with white sails.”

Gaelic singer Catherine-Anne Phee repeats this theme in an altered Gaelic waulking song by Simon McKenzie (who apparently speaks better Gaelic than does Barker): “Meadows without cattle, homesteads without children.” The Stones Of Callanish repeatedly try, by a pondering telepathy I suppose, to rescue the couple and reflect at last on modern times, as did the slimy lorry drivers. Tabor sings:

The stones on the hill, like sentries we stand, / Obsolete gods in an obsolete land; / Freedom is coming, a hundred years late; / Now they want progress I can’t close the gate.”

The de facto protagonists of these stones are the tall sharp skyscrapers of London, portrayed by Fiona Simpson and they sing their own smug…and perhaps smoggy…song. “For men are mice / Entombed, enticed, / And sacrificed.

Les Barker, so used to writing witty puns, is also a wonderful writer of serious material, and so good at selecting traditional tunes and fitting lyrics to them. Much of this excellence lies in his perception of complex meaning and sound of words in lyrics, a skill that bypasses so many contemporary songwriters. On the other hand, the traditional Scots material is so good, he doesn’t have to worry about finding great tunes! One of the best songs is “You Ebb and Flow,” sung first by Janet Russell (the Hebridean woman). She tells of the constant historical battle of the men of the Islands with the everpresent sea: “I’m watching your waves; / You ebb and flow / You take the brave / And give them no gravestones…” This is later echoed in a track sung by Rod Paterson as he reaches and refers to the city and its modern life…and its evil office blocks: “We strive, we save / You ebb and flow. / In long terraced waves, / Like millions of gravestones…” This second song is especially enticing, as it is accompanied by Silly Wizard accordionist Phil Cunningham. Other notable Scottish musicians on accompaniment include Jack Evans, John Martin, and Savourna Stevenson.

The biggest problem for the traditionalist and romanticist is that Stones sometimes lapses into sounding like musical theatre. Who would want to imagine a stage when they can imagine Lewis? Paterson is especially prone to slipping into the vale of acting and you can feel it in his vocals. The songs written about London sound particularly thin. Perhaps there is a point to that, but they also provide a good place to go and get a banana from the kitchen, as I just did.

The Stones Of Callanish is a lovely work recommended for those who love Scottish music, and the synthesis of Scottish music, history, geography, and words. For those who persist in wanting comedy, Wrigley and Dow on “Going Down To Metal Bridge” are worth the price of this one-of-a-kind album.

(Mrs Ackroyd, 1989)

[Update: Les Barker died in 2023. You can learn more, listen, read, and purchase at the Fake Thackray website. ]

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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