Monday 2 November 2009

The music and life of Thomas Fraser as told in 'Long Gone Lonesome'

'Long Gone Lonesome' is the story of a Shetland fisherman called Thomas Fraser. The story is told by Duncan McLean and the Lone Star Swing Band, as a National Theatre of Scotland production. It's a wonderful story of an incredibly talented musician from the tiny Shetland island of Burra, and it's told by a very talented and passionate group of musicians, the Lone Star Swing Band: Duncan McLean, Fiona Driver, Graham Simpson, Dick Levens and Iain Tait.

The Long Gone Lonesome tour van © National Theatre of Scotland

Thomas Fraser grew up on Burra with a passion for country and blues music. He learned to play the guitar and, when reel-to-reel tape recorders were invented he got a friend to bring him on e back from the mainland. He then used this to record himself performing, and perfecting, his own adaptations of his favourite songs, including songs by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. He never recorded with the intention of releasing them as albums and on his deathbed he entrusted his recordings to the care of his nephew, Bobby. Cassettes were released of the recordings and Bobby received numerous requests for recordings. and then his Grandson, Karl, took the step of getting them transferred and released on CD - to great critical acclaim. Karl talks movingly about the reel-to-reel tapes on the Thomas Fraser web pages where he says:
"Transferring the reels developed into a harrowing task. It seemed to me that on this fragile tape were the entire history of my family. Many of the reels were at the end of their natural lives and very brittle. The slightest false move and you could wipe out a song, possibly the only surviving version of that song. It was fascinating but at the same time enormously stressful. "

The Lone Star Swing Band, from left to right: Ian Tait, Fiona Driver, Duncan Mclean,
Graham Simpson and Dick Levens © National Theatre of Scotland

I went to see it performed at the Tolbooth in Stirling. Me and my friend Heather both came out the show and remarked on (as well as how much we'd enjoyed the show!) the importance of archives in the development of the story and in its performance. Okay so we're both archivists so therefore might be slightly more inclined to see the wonder of archives everywhere but I don't think we were alone in being moved by the use of an old reel-to-reel recorder playing Thomas's original recordings, or Duncan Mclean's stories of meeting with family and friends on Burra to talk about Thomas's life. So there was the original recordings, the old photographs, and the oral history collected by Duncan McLean - all interspersed with the enthusiasm of the Lone Star Swing Band for their music - combining in a wonderful tribute to a highly talented Scottish musician.

The Lone Star Swing Band do a fantastic job of bringing this story to life, and their passion and enthusiasm for the music and the story shines through in the performance. When they played the original reel-to-reel recording of Thomas Fraser's version of 'Somewhere over the rainbow' I had to fight back the tears. This song, which in my mind, is schmaltzy and over-produced, is reduced back to a beautiful and heartfelt song of hope. The use of old photographs of Fraser and his family, and island home of Burra, projected on the backdrop of the stage added to the atmosphere and helped us understand the environment which Thomas lived in.

'Long Gone Lonesome' is going to be on in Glasgow as part of the highly successful music festival 'Celtic Connections' and I would heartily recommend going to experience it!

Duncan Mclean © National Theatre of Scotland

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