Obituary: Elizabeth Stewart, singer who carried her Scots Traveller heritage overseas

Elizabeth Stewart at the Keith Folk Festival in 1992. (Photo by Ian MacKenzie, courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh)
Elizabeth Stewart at the Keith Folk Festival in 1992. (Photo by Ian MacKenzie, courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh)

Born: May 13, 1939;

Died: October 13, 2022.

ELIZABETH Stewart was a peerless singer of Scottish traditional ballads and songs who carried her Scottish Traveller heritage to audiences across Scotland, the UK, Ireland, and North America. From her origins in Fetterangus, her family’s influence on the folk revival of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in Britain and America proved immense, with her unshakeable belief in its value.

She bore centuries of Traveller folk tradition – songs and ballads, dance music, piping traditions of reels, strathspeys, jigs, and marches, folk-tales and riddles – which she felt a keen duty to preserve and promote.

She was born in Fetterangus, a small village of some three hundred residents in the Buchan heartland of Aberdeenshire, one of four children to Jean and Donald Stewart. Her mother Jean (1911–1962), led a career as a pianist, accordionist, broadcaster, and band leader, for which she is well-remembered today by many throughout the North-East, while her aunt, Lucy Stewart (1901–1982), proved a key figure in the modern folk revival.

These two, together with her uncle, Ned Stewart, an accomplished fiddler, formed the core of her musical and cultural influences, but she had generations more to draw on, too, including her grandmother, Elizabeth “Aul Betty” Stewart, her grandfather James “Jimmsy” Stewart and his father “Crichie” Donald, from a strong tradition of military piping champions.

Such was the depth of musical tradition in her village that from some 300 residents, that Fetterangus provided musicians for 13 dance bands in the 1930s and 1940s.

Aided by this legacy, Elizabeth emerged a prodigy, able to play “My Aul Wife an Your Aul Wife” at three. By nine she was playing in gigs across northeast Scotland in her mother’s Jean Stewart Band, sneaked in beneath many a publican’s gaze, and by her teens was broadcasting on the BBC.

In the mid-1950s, folklorist Hamish Henderson of Edinburgh’s newly founded School of Scottish Studies arrived (unannounced), armed with a reel-to-reel tape-recorder, led to Fetterangus by a recommendation from the Traveller Robertsons of Huntly, that there was a singer of skill and depth there.

Thus began a new stage in the family, the recording and dissemination of a range of stories, riddles, music, and songs rarely heard outside the home.

Lucy’s reputation spread in the late 1950s, drawing more attention to the family’s rich traditions and, in 1959, Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, and Charles Parker visited, working on the Radio Ballads, their pioneering prize-winning documentaries interweaving oral history interviews with MacColl-penned songs.

They heard Elizabeth playing a jazzy, up-tempo version of “The Hill o' Bennachie” on the piano, a tune and treatment which MacColl then used for his now well-known “traditional” song, “Come Aa Ye Fisher Lassies”. Elizabeth and her sister Jane made the long train journey down to Birmingham to record the song, their Buchan dialect, familial harmonies, and natural talent all lending effortless authenticity.

On Hamish Henderson’s recommendation, American folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein spent nearly a year with the family from 1959, immediately enamoured of Elizabeth’s remarkable skill as a pianist, from the traditional strathspeys, reels, the majestic “heavy pipe marches”, as she called them, to Country and Western, classical, and boogie-woogie. “Scotland’s answer to Winifred Atwell”, as she has been called, was also a lifelong fan of Rock and Roll, and players such as the late Jerry Lee Lewis, who passed away on the day of her funeral.

After her mother’s untimely death at just 50 years old, Elizabeth took responsibility for the family, working during the day in traditional Traveller business of dealing in second-hand goods, and at night playing in dance halls and hotels, holding family and self together through a combination of personal grit, and the bonds of music and song.

Stewart seemingly effortlessly blended the private domestic traditions of her aunt Lucy, with the more public adaptive traditions of her mother. From the 1960s, she played Scottish and other dance music for foxtrots, quicksteps, tangos, two-steps, waltzes, and the more local Eightsome Reel and Gay Gordons, as well as popular rock and roll, jazz, and blues material.

In raising the tempo and adapting the rhythm of some of Lucy’s old ballads, she was able to sing her family’s beloved songs while still giving the dancers music with life and lift, in doing so, helping ensure their survival.

At 33, Elizabeth undertook an 18-state tour of festivals and college campuses organised by another American folklorist, Charles Joyner. She soon became better known in the UK folk scene, as a pianist and ballad singer, always acknowledging the legacies bequeathed her by her aunt Lucy and her mother Jean, bringing their Traveller traditions to wider audiences.

In 1988, she was a guest of Harvard University in celebrating the centenary of Francis James Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, the work which coalesced our understanding of the immense cultural inheritance on our doorstep. For Elizabeth, these were living songs, part of family and community, not simply literary artefacts.

Elizabeth and I spent many hours together since I first met her in 1988, at the Edinburgh Folk Festival. Standing in the lobby afterwards, she took my hand, looked me in the eye and sang to me, into me, and, it seemed, to me alone. No-one, and I mean no-one, could put a song across like Elizabeth Stewart. Sometimes she put them across so well that she herself couldn’t go on, overcome by the unfolding tragedy and by the constellation of family, history, love, and emotional life that informs the songs. I’ll never forget that.

Driving around Buchan and beyond, I absorbed so much more than her wonderful songs and stories; I experienced her absolute conviction regarding the value of her culture and identity. We drove a lot together in those days, visiting the Abbey at Old Deer, Aden, and lord knows where else; we just drove, sometimes to look at something, sometimes to tour the countryside, perhaps go by Aikey Brae site of the Traveller’s horse fair, or through Fetterangus to see the old houses and fields, and the graveyard to pay tribute to her dear mother, Jean, and aunt Lucy, to sing a song for them.

Or maybe we’d drive through to Aberdeen for an Elphinstone event, up to Keith or Kirrie for the festivals, or down to Edinburgh in 1995 for her star turn at the Edinburgh International Festival alongside Jock Duncan and Tom Reid – what a night that was. She sang “The Plooman Laddies”, of course, and we dueted on “The Jolly Beggar”, with her harmonizing on the chorus.

Later I recorded that duet and sent it to American folklorist, Kenny Goldstein, who was delighted to hear it all those years after he had been recording with the family and to think of a young protégé, me, together with Elizabeth whom he’d first known some 35 years before. One afternoon, I recorded her singing it, up tempo for the dance floor, at the New Deer Hall. Unstoppable joy.

In 1992, Elizabeth made her first album, Atween You an Me, while continuing to play traditional music festivals in the North-East, and concerts in Shetland. Her final visit to the US came five years later, playing college campuses, visiting Sun Studios and Graceland, musical home to some of her 1950s heroes, and Austin, where she took part in American Folklore Society events, displaying not only her musical skills, but storytelling, knitting, and dealing too.

Overcoming health concerns, in the early 2000s she recorded a double CD, Binnorie: Songs, Ballads, and Tunes, featuring more than two hours of songs and music which showcases her mastery of Scottish fiddle and bagpipe music on the piano. She also took part in festivals in Ireland and Scotland, gave masterclasses at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), and mentored a new generation of young ballad singers.

In 2012 came Up Yon Wide and Lonely Glen: Travellers’ Songs, Stories and Tunes of the Fetterangus Stewarts, her rich memoire of Traveller life in rural Aberdeenshire. The book, compiled and edited by Alison McMorland, contains more than 100 songs, some of her own composition, and mixes the realities of a challenging life with the incomparably rich landscape of traditional music and song that was both sustenance and responsibility throughout her life.

Elizabeth was always first to acknowledge the influences of her mother and her aunt, yet her style remained all her own, sometimes so deeply feeling the humanity of a song that she was reduced to tears.

She is survived by her children, Jeannette, Elizabeth, and Michael, sister Jane, and a generation of traditional singers and performers for whom she embodied resilience, and the power and potential of traditional music and song.