Menu

The National Theatre of Scotland's

Long Gone Lonesome

February 2

February 4, 2012

at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, Chicago

A World's Stage Production from Scotland
written by Duncan McLean
directed by Vicky Featherstone
 

Notes on Long Gone Lonesome

by Duncan McLean

Towards the end of 2002 I came across a CD of home recordings buy a Shetland fisherman called Thomas Fraser. The track listing was a fascinating mix of early country, blues and jazzy pop, and it only took 30 seconds of the opening track, 'Brakeman's Blues,' to stop me in my tracks. Despite the fact it had been released by Thomas's grandson, this CD was no exercise in family nostalgia: Thomas Fraser was performer of real power and passion.

If your house catches fire,
and there ain't nobody round

If your house catches fire,
and there ain't nobody round
Throw your case out the window
and let the damn thing burn on down

Not only was it passionate, it was fresh and imaginative too: that verse isn't in the Jimmie Rodgers original of the song! Fraser has the vision and the nerve to mess about with the lyrics of one of the most famous songs in country music, changing them to suit his own voice, his own style, his own situation.

What was his own situation? The liner notes told me that Thomas had lived from 1927 to 1978. That he'd been a shy, almost reclusive fisherman from Burra, one of the smaller and more barren of the Shetland Islands, lying 200 miles off the north of mainland Scotland. Most surprisingly, they told me that he pursued no musical career and in fact rarely left his croft.

The notes were fascinating, though they raised as many questions as they answered. How could such a man master the musical styles of four thousand miles away, and make them startlingly new through his own alterations and interpretations? What's more, why would he want to? And why would he then keep his remarkable performances hidden away?

Years later, a commission from the National Theatre of Scotland brought me the opportunity to talk to many people who knew Thomas, some of them intimately, other glancingly. I've immersed myself in his music. I've studied his guitar style and his yodeling technique. I've visited the croft at Setter, and walked the length of Bruna Ness behind it, to stand on Da Giant Stane there, just as Thomas did. I'd like to thank everyone who helped me, especially Thomas's daughter May, and his grandson Karl. Both were generous with their time, and with their own thoughts and memories. I should make clear, however, that the version of events presented here, and their interpretation, are mine alone: May and Karl gave me full co-operation without asking for any control over, or even sight of, the script.

The show tries to find answers to the questions that leapt out at me when I heard that first CD. It includes as many of the stories about Thomas—hilarious, tragic, curious—as time allows. Most importantly, it features a dozen or so of the songs he loved, and that I love too: they're songs that could almost tell the Thomas Fraser story by themselves, even without my words to link them.

Which brings me the ideal opportunity to thank the other members of the Lone Star Swing Band for their huge contribution to arranging and energising these songs. We decided early on that we shouldn't try to imitate Thomas Fraser. Just as he adopted the songs of his heroes and made them his own, our aim has been to reshape and reimagine the songs to evoke, not the exact sounds of Thomas, but his inventive, playful spirit.

It would never have crossed Thomas's mind that we'd be gathered here thirty-four years after his death to celebrate his life and music. But just because he didn't think of it, doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. Thomas was the antithesis of the celebrity culture we are surrounded by now. He had talent by the bucket-load, but applied it to making music, not making himself famous. Long Gone Lonesome doesn't exist to make Thomas more famous, but we hope it will encourage people to seek out the work of a great but largely unknown Scottish performer.

Buy one of the CDs. Sit back, listen, pay attention (Thomas doesn't make good muzak.) Listen to the passion in his voice, to the hesitations and unexpected emphases, and think of him choosing to sing those songs, that way.

Why? What does it mean?

We may have to leave here
to find peace of mind, dear
Someplace where we can live a life of our own

Or:

I'm going to lay me down, lay me down and rest
I'm going to lay me down, lay me down and rest
I've got a worried mind: I'd be better off dead

Or:

Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where my cares are far behind me
Away above the chimney pots where troubles melt
like lemon drops
That is where you'll find me

'That is where you'll find me...' What a tantalising line for a biographer! But in the end this isn't a biography. As Thomas would surely have preferred, this is really about music, and music's ability to entertain, to stimulate, and to build bridges.

Back to Long Gone Lonesome

Additional Pages