Friday, July 4, 2008


As we contemplate July 4, 2008 and the 232nd anniversary of the United States of America's Declaration of Independence we realize even more the power of the written word. Companion documents to our own Declaration include the Declaration of Arbroath and the Iroquois Constitution which have literally inspired the birth of nations. Pair meaningful lyrics together with a good melody and you magnify the emotions that it evokes and its overall effect on society and, aye, the Community of Man.

Songs that come to mind without much pondering (and for different reasons) include The Star Spangled Banner, Amazing Grace, La Marseillaise, The Lord’s Prayer, Imagine, We Shall Overcome, Dixie, Battle Hymn of the Republic, The Eyes of Texas, Highland Cathedral (written by a couple of Germans), Ireland’s Call and the incredible The Minstrel Boy, among many others.

Music can be a great unifier and one song born innocently in the seventies could some day join the august company invoked above. Once in a great while someone approaches the alter and that’s what this piece is all about.

Scots and most Scottish-Americans are well familiar with Dougie MacLean the former teenage musical prodigy who played off and on with the august and seminal Scottish groups Silly Wizard and the Tannahill Weavers. Those folks were part of his adolescence and we correctly surmise they remain good Friends as he approaches his maturity. A multitalented and prolific composer, singer, songwriter and musician (guitar, fiddle, harp, banjo, mandolin, viola, bouzouki, bass, didgeridoo, keys, whistle, bodhran, harmonica and percussion, for now), Dougie went solo in 1981 and then formed his own independent record company, Dunkeld, in 1983 and hasn’t looked back. With his own record label, recording studio, publishing company and now Pub and Hotel, Dougie and wife Jennifer remain very busy.

We luckily can’t seem to get too far away from Dougie mostly because of his great body of work that beckons us to meet frequently on radio, TV, computer, CD, MP3s and in person. Dougie has been described as the mainstay of the modern Scottish Folk scene though his music is appreciated across all genres. It was an easy predict for me to embrace MacLean given my appreciation for the offerings of James Taylor.

Dougie MacLean’s music is emotional and he writes endearingly of his Perthshire home and native Scotland. He has written many songs that have received great play in the United States. In 1989 Dougie embarked on a tour of the United States in conjunction with Fiona Ritchie's National public radio (NPR) show, Thistle & Shamrock. If the members of the US Scottish Community didn’t know him before, they sure knew him now. The Thistle & Shamrock remains one of PBS’s most popular shows and Fiona one of the lynchpins of the US Scottish Community, music and otherwise.

Dougie has toured the United States since then to include stints with Grammy Award winning country singer Kathy Mattea who has blossomed further as a performer since this West Virginian “discovered” Scotland. MacLean has co-produced albums and written songs for Mattea while also playing guitar and singing harmony on Mattea’s 1993 Christmas album, Good News.

Most folks don’t know it but one of MacLean’s most recognizable works is The Gael which appeared on his 1990 album The Search, a collection of instrumental works originally commissioned for the opening of the Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition. Adaptations of this piece by composer Trevor Jones were used as the main theme for the 1992 Last of the Mohicans soundtrack and another in the Mohican Promontory piece which made a later notable resurgence as part of a Nike advertisement entitled Leave Nothing. The advertising world has been good to Dougie as we shall learn later. In 1993 MacLean received a gold record/disc in recognition of his achievement for the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack. The recognition given MacLean is too numerous to note here and will ultimately be addressed by his biographers.

Dougie MacLean has become a Scottish icon and International star - the stuff that legends are made of. I have always been a fan and have been mostly content to listen to his CDs and especially to appreciate now how other artists interpret his music. That brings us to the core and purpose of this commentary.

In 1979 MacLean released Caledonia on an album of the same name. Though no one seems to know for sure when Dougie wrote the song (Wikipedia states, “somewhere between 1974 and 1977”), from what I have been able to piece together MacLean wrote the song in 1977 while in Brittany touring (busking) with two Irish lads. In today’s world it seems ludicrous that we don’t know for sure though I haven’t found any more specific references in any of my searches. Dougie, if you read this, thanks for letting us know when Caledonia was written.

It does seem fitting that he wrote the song off Scottish soil evoking emotions not unlike Scottish Soldier which was adapted from the pipe tune The Green Hills of Tyrol written during the Crimean War (1853-1856) by John MacLeod, a Pipe Major in the 93rd Highlanders who was yearning for the auld sod. The river runs deep as the emotions evoked here mainly by Scots away from home are similar to those put to paper by Dougie MacLean. One thing we do know is that Dougie MacLean’s personal testimony and lament at being away from home helped launch his solo career and created what seemingly has become, “the new voice of Scotland.”

Quite a few artists and groups to include Frankie Miller, Dolores Keane, Lisa Kelly of Celtic Woman, Derek “Fish” Dick, Celtic Thunder, Aoife Ní Fhearraigh, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Mary Black, The Stationary Willberries, Amy MacDonald, Paolo Nutini (terrible!) and Alex Beaton, among many others have attempted Caledonia with varying degrees of success. As a side note Paolo Nutini and Amy MacDonald, even though MacLean protégés, offered two of the worst versions I have heard. Nutini tries to emulate a stoned Dylan while MacDonald appears detached and/or should fire her sound mixer. The earthy and very Irish Keane is very good though her version drags badly at the end. Aoife’s version was a bit ethereal with her flutter vibrato though I liked Brendan Monaghan’s uilleann pipes.

Caledonia first went to number one on the Scottish Music Charts when it was sung by Scottish rocker/singer and MacLean Friend and Confidante Frankie Miller in 1992. Ironically, the great success of that recording of Caledonia is partly attributable to the impetus prompted by the airing of a Scottish TV commercial for Tennent's Lager, where Frankie Miller's rendition was first aired.

No one is surprised that Dougie’s original version is far superior to most all other singers. There are a couple, however, that have equaled and even surpassed the author.

The highly successful “Celtic Woman” show which aired on Public Television (PBS) in 2007 took America by storm. Sales of their Celtic Woman: A New Journey DVD and CD have been monstrous. Brother David gifted me with this album last Christmas and it remains a much appreciated and well used gift. No doubt that the Riverdance phenomenon and artists like Enya and Clannad and the resurgence of the world Celtic Community helped prop open the doors for this group and their success. The album opened at #4 on the Billboard’s Album Chart, selling 71,000 copies in its first week. The album later hit number one on the World Music Chart. Shouldn’t we take pleasure that Simon Cowell wasn’t involved with the formation of this group?

Performers in Celtic Woman include classically trained Dubliner Lisa Kelly who sings this most popular song on the album. stated, “There is just something about this song you just can’t put your finger on. It is filled with warmth, love and romance…” The bottom line is that Lisa nails the song and you have to give kudos to the arrangers who kept the sprit of the song intact tweaking it enough to keep it “fresh.” Her performance, though, is almost too perfect, too choreographed. If you haven’t noticed, she is also drop dead gorgeous. We also noted that she is very happily married and the Mother of three. Gees…

But just as we run Lisa up the proverbial flagpole I have to nominate another artist who performs the song even better. Not possible you say? It does seem improbable though one Alexander William MacLeod Beaton does just that. Yes, I’m talking about baritone Alex Beaton. This native Glaswegian who born to a Scottish father and an Irish mother, immigrated to the United States in 1965 after beginning his musical career as a member of the highly acclaimed The Cumberland Three, one of Britain's top folk groups in the early 1960s.

Alex served in the U.S. Army, entertaining troops in Germany. During the 1970s, he wrote and achieved success performing “American” country music like another good Friend and accomplished Scottish singer, Colin Grant-Adams. Though he would have been a great success in that genre we thank God that Alex has since focused on Scottish folk music. He has become a highly sought after entertainer at Scottish Highland Games and Celtic Festivals around the United States, Canada and the rest of the world. He has collaborated with such luminaries and good Friends as Margaret Gravitt and Alasdair Fraser.

Alex has worked hard for four decades and in that interim has created his own label, Glenfinnan Music, nineteen very successful albums and a triple feature DVD, Alex Beaton's Scotland: A Musical Travelogue of Scotland.

Wherever Alex performs, he brings another huge element into play. He personally engages his audiences with a great sense of humor, a rich baritone voice, impeccable timing and right-on interpretations of both contemporary and traditional Scottish songs that seem to carry from his soul. And that leads us to Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia.

During a performance, Alex may share some fascinating bit of Scottish history to bring the music to life. Alex did just that when he was kind enough to play Caledonia for me at the most recent Glasgow, KY Highland Games explaining to a large and appreciative group that “Caledonia” (Wooded Land) was the Latin name given by the Romans in the first century to that northern part of Great Britain that was later applied to that area we now know as Scotland further comments about Caledonia and their capital Dunkeld, “As its name implies, Dunkeld was a ‘capital’ of the Caledonii, a Pictish-Celtic people. Kenneth MacAlpin made Dunkeld one of two capitals, along with
Scone, when he united the Picts and Scots in 844 CE.” Aye, that’s the area where Dougie MacLean was born and raised.

Alex sings the song deliberately though with great passion and bravado. His baritone voice seems perfectly suited for this song. His timing and delivery combines the best of Dougie MacLean and Lisa Kelly and brings the song home. Caledonia is on Alex’s 1995 album,
The Water is Wide.

One of the wonderful aspects of Caledonia is audience participation. Wherever the song is sung, audiences from Scotland and Ireland, to California, Texas, New York, Canada and the rest of the world sing along. They know the words to what has fast become the unofficial national anthem of Scotland. In short, this song has inspired a nation! In a recent conversation the multi-talented musician, singer, music historian and Director of Music at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, Flora MacDonald Gammon, explained that, "Caledonia has literally synthesized the feelings of a nation."

Believe it or not, Scotland has no national anthem and those that outrageously offered God Save the Queen are now disgraced and out of power. Flower of Scotland and Scotland the Brave remain the two most popular choices. Caledonia doesn’t seem to be in the mix though the folks at Holyrood need to properly poll their Scottish constituents. I might add here that, not surprisingly, Dougie MacLean is a very active dues paying member of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and strong adherent of Scottish independence. With his gift of song he continues to inspire a nation and the Scottish Diaspora.

Thanks to all the entertainers who perform Caledonia and appreciate its significance to native Scots and those of Scottish origins. As one Scot has stated, “This is powerful, emotional stuff. It’s enough to make any Scot, ex-pats in particular, weep into their beer.” I can testify that this Scottish-American cried in his Syrah.

In 1703 Andrew Fletcher, Scottish writer, politician and patriot who opposed the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England demonstrated his consummate understanding of the power of music by commenting, “…if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws.”

Thanks, Aye, especially to Dougie, Lisa and Alex.

Ned Buxton

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