Folk singer. An appreciation

THE death of Ronnie Alexander, who has died aged 75, has deprived Scotland of a significant personality of the 1960s folk revival. While on the staff of the Mitchell Library during the early part of that decade, he met with Erlend Voy, John Eaglesham and Don Martin who shared a common interest in Scottish folk music and together they formed The Clutha Folk Group, with the particular aim of bringing together Scottish vocal and fiddle music.

Soon they were joined by Gordeanna McCulloch and Callum Allan. Five of the six were singers, and the range of instruments played included guitar, concertina and two fiddles. Ronnie sang and played guitar. He was entirely without conceit of his musical talent, but was happy to provide a background of finger-style guitar for the instrumental accompaniments as well as contributing in great measure to the group’s vocal range.

In this respect it soon became clear that he was the natural lead singer for the ensemble performances, and this he achieved with considerable success and style for many years. He also contributed regular solo turns, including impressive renditions of Child Ballads, accompanying himself on guitar.

The Clutha’s early years saw it tackle an ever more ambitious programme of performances in folk clubs and festivals throughout Britain, soon extending to appearances across Europe, especially Scandinavia, and in the USA, always presenting themselves as champions of Scottish traditional folk music.

During the 1970s they became well known as recording artists, with three long-playing records, Scotia (Argo), Scots Ballads, Songs & Dance Tunes (Topic) and The Bonnie Mill Dams (Topic). They also contributed to collected albums and accompanied their own member Gordeanna McCulloch on her solo album Sheath and Knife (Topic).

Ronnie Alexander was very much a part of all of this and so his overall contribution to the revival and development of folk music in Scotland was considerable. In the words of the late Hamish Henderson, the group combined "a scrupulous respect for the tradition with a vigorous and experimental flair".

Ronnie and his co-members continued to appeal to later generations, as demonstrated by this admirer on social media: "Ronnie was a pioneer of the folk revival; when he sang he was like the personification of Glasgow; scathing, humorous and subversive; he had a measured, dry wit and was kind of cool."

Although he lived for much of his life in Glasgow he was in fact a native of Kilsyth, Stirlingshire. When he was young his family, perhaps remarkably, lived in a suite of rooms in a castle there, at Auchinvole. In ironic recognition of this, a reel The Laird of Auchinvole was composed by accordionist Gordon Young and often performed by the purely instrumental off-shoot of The Clutha, The Clydebuilt Ceilidh Band.

Ronnie was also renowned for his political interests, which were formed as a result of a great deal of careful reading of a wide range of political works. He also served as the group’s "librarian", having compiled a long series of handwritten songbooks which served as an efficient reference tool.

As it happens, Ronnie had long since decided against a professional career as a librarian, and had instead retrained as a teacher. Graduating from Strathclyde University he secured a post in modern studies at St Patrick’s High School, Dumbarton. There he played a leading role in the EIS Teachers’ Union.

As well as teaching his subject, he used his ability as a communicator to pass on his guitar skills to pupils, giving willingly of his own time for the purpose.

Although suffering declining health in recent years, his positive attitude to life never left him. He will be sadly missed by all involved in perpetuating traditional music in the Glasgow area.