William (Billy) Jackson, the Scottish harper, multi-instrumentalist, and composer, is one of the most well-loved musicans ever featured on our radio programs. He took time out of his work as a musician, composer and music therapist to reminiscences exclusively for us in 2005.
I have never written anything about my travels or adventures over the years, but 2005 marks some milestones for me. I turn 50 in September. I have been performing traditional music for 35 years. It is the 20th anniversary of my Wellpark Suite (May 1985) and (almost) the 30th anniversary of the founding of Ossian (July 1976). So I guess I have a story to tell. Less than some, but more than most.
I should begin with my earliest musical memories. I was introduced to music by my Aunt Ann, one of three aunts and one uncle who raised me. She played piano accordion and piano. Their parents were from County Donegal in Ireland and they had come to Glasgow in search of work, like so many others. So there was always an strong Irish influence in any music about the house. I was raised there with my brother George, who later joined me in two bands, Contraband and Ossian. I spent all my summer vacations in Donegal at my grandmothers place. At first we used to stay in the old thatched cottage, and I remember the smell of the smoke and the damp still. It was busy, with usually seven or eight siblings or cousins joining us, and my Aunt Ena in charge. She delivered me when I was born at home, was my godmother, and raised me mostly. She even took orders for recordings and handled concert bookings when we weren’t around. There would have been no Ossian without her support, financial subsidy, and constant tea and sandwiches at rehearsals in the bedroom.
Later visits to Donegal introduced George and me to Irish music from bands such as Sweeney’s Men, The Johnstons (Paul Brady) and the first Clannad recordings. Later The Chieftains, The Corries, The Dubliners and Fairport Convention, were our musical influences. At the age of thirteen I played guitar and banjo in a folk band The Molly Maguires. I have the photos of it yet. Later that morphed into Contraband. At that time Mae McKenna joined Contraband as vocalist, and we have been working on each other’s projects since we were both fifteen years old, to this day. As a result of performing free at numerous UCS (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders ) fundraising concerts, Contraband was invited to attend the Eindhoven Folk festival in The Netherlands in December 1971. The entire Scottish and Irish folk scene was there. So at the age of sixteen I found myself playing double bass and sharing the stage with The Chieftains, The Dubliners, The Laggan, Dick Gaughan, The Bitter Withy, Alastair Macdonald and many others. It was an experience which confirmed for me that I was going to do that for life! Contraband moved to London in 1973 and recorded one LP for Transatlantic Records. That experience really was the basis for Ossian later starting its own label, Iona Records, which influenced many others to do the same. Dougie MacLean often tells how he started his Dunkeld label when he saw how Ossian was controlling its own business affairs.
Contraband finished up in April 1975, and I worked for one year in a children’s home in Glasgow, which kind of sowed the seed for my later work in music therapy. In July 1976, George, John Martin (fiddle, Contraband) and I, teamed up with singer Billy Ross to form Ossian, named after the legendary Celtic bard and son of Fingal. Our first performances were during a tour of the western isles with a traveling theater company performing Deirdre of the Sorrows. In the afternoons we would perform a children’s show, and the musicians were disguised as magic trees. We managed to remain very still until we came alive and sang, except for a performance on the isle of Jura when a wandering dog in the audience was convinced we were trees and lifted his leg. You have never seen musicians move so fast!
Ossian toured all over Europe and North America. We had some great travels and experiences which is a story in itself. It was not always luxury and on many occasions we had to sleep in the van. In winter we put newspaper over ourselves as our breath froze on the roof of the van during the night and melted in the morning. The dripping sound was our alarm call. Ossian continued performing and recording till 1989. We recorded seven cds, with three line-ups. In 1992 I went to the Guildhall School of Music in London to get my diploma in Music Therapy. I felt that I had to do something academic as the idea of not having a real job is very ingrained no matter how successful you might be in music. But also it was something that I had wanted to do for some time. I have continued to mix my music therapy work with performing and teaching up to the present time. My composing has also continued, and since The Wellpark Suite was released in 1985, I have written four or five other major pieces combining traditional and classical musicians. I am not a trained composer. I just write what I hear, and also do all the orchestrations myself. In 1999 I entered, and won, the "Song for Scotland" competition, (organized by The Herald newspaper in Scotland) to find a new anthem for Scotland. I was surprised at some of the reactions to my composition "Land of Light" in Scotland. Some people were angry that I had written a song that they did not like, or felt that it was a wasted opportunity. Some felt that my song was not anti-English enough, or that it was too hymn-like. Like all the other 248 entrants, I simply wrote a song and sent it in. I did not choose the winner. The three judges chose "Land of Light" unanimously and I later performed it, with Mairi MacInnes singing*, for HRH Prince Charles. I have also performed it, and have heard it performed at numerous Scottish events in the US. It was featured at the Edinburgh Tattoo in 2000.
So now in 2005 I am embarking on a new musical venture with Irish harper Grainne Hambly. We are presenting Irish and Scottish harp in concert as well as giving workshops and lessons, a kind of mini-traveling harp festival. I could go into more detail on various of the projects and musical partnerships I have been in. I will have to sit down and write the book one day.
*(concert organized by F. Ritchie.)