Rod Paterson

Born: December 28, 1953

Died: May 30, 2024

WHEN a “Scots re-imagining” of the classic Joni Mitchell album, Hejira, was being put together for the 2016 Celtic Connections, the singer Rod Paterson was swiftly identified as one of the musicians who simply had to be involved.

The team behind the Pilgrimer project were the novelist and poet James Robertson, whose idea it had been, and Karine and Steven Polwart as musical directors.

In the event, Robertson reflected earlier this month, Paterson sang two songs during the concert, delivering them “with the kind of sensitivity, grace, humour and timing that characterises all his singing”, and all but stole the show.

The death of Rod Paterson at the age of 70 has occasioned many such admiring tributes. An outstanding interpreter of the songs of Robert Burns, he was also an acclaimed singer of traditional Scottish folk songs, as well as a gifted guitarist and a key figure in the folk revival of the 1970s.

Billy Kay said: 'His music will be deeply missed' (Image: free)

To Billy Kay, he was the finest Scots singer of our generation. “His humour, warmth, storytelling, knowledge and music will be deeply missed”, writes one of his many friends and acquaintances. Others have spoken of his rich and expressive voice.

Rod Paterson was born in Calcutta, India, in 1953, to William Paterson, a clerk in a jute mill, and his wife Mary, both of whom were originally from Dundee. The family returned to Scotland when Rod was six months old, settling in Birkhill, Angus. Rod attended Moorhead Primary and Dundee High School and went on to study Spanish and philosophy at Edinburgh University. Much of his time while studying in the capital was spent in Sandy Bell’s, the Edinburgh pub renowned as the cradle of Scots trad music.

He was a keen guitarist in his adolescence and played his first gig in a Dundee hotel at the age of 16. Sessions at Sandy Bell’s led, at length, to the formation of Jock Tamson’s Bairns, a renowned group that brought together Paterson, Tony Cuffe, John Croall, Adam Jack, Ian Hardie, Norman Chalmers and Jack Evans.

Their second album, The Lasses Fashion (1982), is still regarded as one of the finest examples of the traditional music revival in Scotland. The great guitarist-singer-songwriter Richard Thompson later named it as one of the 10 best albums of all time in a Q magazine feature; his list also featured Elvis Presley, the Byrds and the Smiths.

After a 10-year lay-off, the Bairns reconvened in the mid-1990s and went from strength to strength.

Paterson was also part of another influential group, The Easy Club, which emerged from Jock Tamson’s Bairns. Their groundbreaking debut album, released in 1984, came to be regarded as a masterpiece. When it was remastered for CD in 2001, The Sunday Herald noted that it highlighted Paterson’s “swaggering voice” and added: “It is Paterson's singing that soars above everything else. His Auld Toon Shuffle is the alternative anthem for Edinburgh.”

Paterson went on to steep himself in musical theatre projects, especially in shows written by Billy Kay. In 1994 he was in the band that provided musical accompaniment to The Big Picnic, Bill Bryden’s promenade production set in the Great War.

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For many years he taught Scots song in the Traditional Music department of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He also released a number of solo albums. Whatever he did, he attracted praise from fellow musicians and newspaper critics.

Typical of the latter was this concert review, from The Herald in 2012, which described him as a “wonderful interpreter of Robert Burns and traditional songs who can also weld wryly poetic observation to a swinging rhythmic guitar chord sequence in the Great American Songbook style, a talent that's earned him the ‘Birkie's answer to Cole Porter’ tag”.

Paterson, the writer added, “is a singer with an almost forensically detailed grasp of his material. He doesn't just learn the lyrics and the tune, he'll enthuse over the wording and relevance of a phrase, such as 'thick flies the skimming swallow' in Burns's Now Westlin' Winds, and this passion, allied to his melodic assuredness and richness of vocal timbre, brings the whole song to near-cinematic life”.

Among those paying tribute to Paterson was the singer Karen Matheson, who posted a photograph of a rehearsal for the 1995 Transatlantic Sessions, which included herself, Rod, Mary Black, Emmylou Harris, Rufus Wainwright and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Rod, she says, was “one of the most glorious voices of Scots song”.

In the words of Catriona, his partner of 36 years, Paterson was self-effacing, and a “gentle, modest man” who would have been overwhelmed by the tributes that have been paid to him.