The Tannahill Weavers, one of Scotland’s best loved folk ensembles, are named for Robert Tannahill (1774-1810), a poet who earned his living as a weaver in the town of Paisley, in southwestern Scotland. Strongly influenced by Robert Burns, Tannahill composed his verses while working at his loom. The title page of his collected works bears this quote from Shakespeare: “I would I were a weaver; I could sing all manner of songs.”
On Sunday, May 7, the Weavers will be at the Ark for an evening of ballads, airs, jigs, and reels. Devotees of this band delight in their vocal harmonies and the ethereal flights of Phil Smillie’s flute and pennywhistle over John Martin’s fiddle and Roy Gullane’s guitar. Sometimes, the audience is encouraged to sing along. Try as I may, I seldom succeed, because a song like “Green Grow the Rushes O” invariably brings a lump to my throat. Emotions well up and I am rendered speechless. And I’m not even Scots-Irish. My wife says that under the spell of their music she can taste, smell, hear, and feel the spirit of her ancestral homeland.
When Smillie fetches up the bodhran and Lorne MacDougall sets his bagpipes to keening, the men’s voices take on a crisp, rambunctious intensity as they bring the jam to a rolling boil. Between songs Gullane delivers a sanguine stream of anecdotal warmth and wit. Part of the fun consists of savoring the spoken dialect and riding the crest of verses sung in a language that resembles English but has Gaelic and something Scandinavian in the weft. It’s not for nothing that nearly every Tannahill Weavers album comes equipped with a handy glossary for those who aren’t fluent in Scottish vernacular.
“In the beginning we were just a bunch of kids with guitars and whistles and a very enthusiastic interest in the folk music that was coming across the Atlantic in the sixties,” Gullane emails–such as the Clancy Brothers, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers. As for the Weaver Poet of Paisley, Robert Tannahill’s “Are Ye Sleepin’, Maggie?,” “Gloomy Winter’s Noo Awa,” and “The Braes O’Gleniffer” are staples in their repertoire.
The group plans to record more of Tannahill’s nearly 100 songs. “Indeed,” writes Gullane, “we have a few in the can as I type. Hopefully, we’ll have that album out to coincide with our 50th anniversary next year.”
To what does he attribute their amazing longevity as a unit? “Oh that’s easy. Good clean living, early to bed and lots of fresh vegetables and greens,” he quips. “Seriously. I know not. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that we’ve always enjoyed what we’re doing.”