I would doubt there was anyone leaving the Baillie Gifford Theatre at a smidge after 4pm on Tuesday who hadn’t fallen a bit in love with Cerys Matthews. She was promoting her book Hook, Line and Singer at the event Sing it Loud, Sing it Proud, and anyone who was not won over has probably never had a childhood.
Though she was tired, having made her debut at the Proms in London the previous night, she turned up sporting a white panama and holding an acoustic guitar and proceeded to point out that in the title of the book, “The Singer is not me, that’s you.”
After a little banter with the chair, Bob McDevitt, she launched straight into the history of a song that went from Scotland over the seas to the Americas with the Scottish diaspora and was taken up and adapted by Woody Guthrie and others. It began life as Lass of Loch Royal, a traditional ballad about inequality, misery and poverty but ended up as a love song Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet. Throughout the event Matthews flipped between chat and singing easily to illustrate a point, also quickly switched genres and languages. Her enthusiasm for the songs, collected over 30 years, was infectious.
She ran quickly through a French song taught to her by a Belgian girl, Un canard a dit, a four-line bit of nonsense about a duck telling his lady friend to laugh, which she does. That’s it. Which was fun, but when she tried to sing it in English, the point was made that some things just don’t translate, but she “gets many levels of enjoyment from that tiny little ditty”.
Her mission is a simple one, just to get people singing. Even if people are tone deaf “they can still enjoy making a noise. It won’t trouble them!”
“We hear noise all the time, but it’s always recorded noises and Auto-Tuned noises. But the most fun is to be had making your own noise in a very human-sounding way, whatever that sound is. Just like we enjoy home cooking as opposed to just processed foods.”
McDevitt wondered if people were singing more anyway, with there being many choirs starting up after the success of The Choir and other singing shows on TV drawing tens of thousands of people to do their bit. She said: “the X-Factor encourages one kind of singing, but you can sing in many different ways.”
“I have five children now and one of them is 10 and when she comes home with her friends from school they’re all singing this nasally kind of voice. What they’re trying to do is mimic the Auto-Tuned voice they’re hearing on the radio.”
Describing how travelling with young children can be difficult, particularly as they have no conception why they have to buckle up on planes, she said that owing to the lack of a naughty chair while flying she had once resorted to using the toilet for the purpose, which as “not cool at all”. Setting up makeshift crêches with a blanket and toys in busy airports, she found, was a good way to meet and talk to adults, and an appropriate song for the purpose was Wind the Bobbin Up. Fittingly, it was also an example of how songs travel, in this case from 19th-century Yorkshire but she found it in America, so sang it with an American Southern drawl.
As with many of these songs, I had forgotten that I knew it by heart, as my primary schools seem to have hammered a musical education into me which was swiftly forgotten once secondary school realised we weren’t future star musicians and so weren’t worth bothering with. (So a belated thanks to Miss Hancock and Mr Huxtable for that, and no thanks at all to that horrible violin tutor who put me off trying to learn any music past the age of 11.) Reconnecting with that was a magical little experience, and I could see looking across the audience that I was far from alone.
One I didn’t know was one of her favourites, The Twa Brothers, that she didn’t sing but described the horrific story of one brother accidentally killing the other with a pen-knife. The audience sat appalled then laughed as she explained that she’d found while collecting that “you Scottish love your blood and gore and murder“.
On the chapter ‘Nana’s Tune Emporium’, culled from sheet music in and old piano stool, she sang a line from O for the Wings of a Dove and asked: “Do you remember that one? That didn’t go in there…”
Next up was a rendition of High Hopes, in which the audience joined in lustily, but mainly in the chorus, a pattern which was repeated in most of the other songs, including the next singalong Let’s Go Fly a Kite, that could apparently be heard right across the EIBF site, prompting McDevitt to ask if it was common that people only knew the choruses.
This reminded Matthews of the fact that everyone know the chorus to Waltzing Matilda as a cheery song but hardly anyone knows it’s really about a vagrant who is starving, steals a sheep, is caught and is about to be hanged for the crime and so drowns himself. I knew this (thanks again, Miss Hancock, though you did traumatise a class of five-year-olds with a blow-by blow account of that one) but the uneasy audience laugh that followed this suggested she was right.
The stories of the songs – where they came from, the story in the song itself and how individuals came across them – lend them layers of meaning. Sometimes the myths that accrete round the songs, such as the one that Ring-a Ring-a Roses is about the plague, are interesting, even if they’re false: “I love stories, but sometimes stories aren’t always truthful.”
Describing her complicated relationship with America (“love and hate”), she railed against butter substitute, “cream” that’s powdered milk, powdered eggs and brown bread that can only be bought from fancy organic shops. her vitriol, though was reserved for “government cheese”: “As far away from a sheep or a cow as the guitar.” On the other side, the music that has come out of the poverty “has shaped everything we know about contemporary music”.
“Europeans moving to America as poor workers in rural areas, and when they came together with the African slaves working in the fields together… that pot of cultural exchange has given us the music that we know today.”
Running through a list of early examples, she settled on a more recent composition, Little Boxes, with the story that the composer Malvina Reynolds came up with it while driving and told her husband: “Take the wheel, I feel a song coming on!”
She tried a little of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, saying she was “reclaiming it for the Welshies”, but remembered she was being filmed for the BBC while in Scotland and decided it might not be a good career move.
Audience questions included “What was the oldest song?”
“Any Latin speakers in the house?” she asked, before singing something faintly familiar, that turned out to be King of The Castle, a song popular among Roman children.
“When did you start singing?” asked one girl.
Matthews replied “When did you? I think that children sing from the get-go. I don’t ever remember ever not wanting to sing.”
There was a quick run-through of other questions and renditions of St James’ Infirmary Blues, K-K-K-Katie and Eviva Espana! closed the event, but the most affecting audience response was from a woman who said: “I wanted to say how important I think your book is. My mum died three months ago, and in the last few weeks of her life, when she couldn’t talk any more she could still sing. I got the book just after she died and a lot of the songs were the ones she was singing, so I wanted to thank you very much.”
The signing queue was, understandably, huge, and many people made the dash across to the main bookshop when the signing tent sold out. While I waited, I befriended queue-mate Camille from No Fit State Circus, enjoying a day off from their shows Bianco and Noodles. Her friend Rachel Hazell brought much-needed tea and shortbread while we waited.
And though she was clearly exhausted, Cerys was charming to everyone in the queue, even doing impromptu requests. In all, probably the best event I’ve seen this year. If she’s back next year, do not miss it.