FRIDAY SONG: The Easy Club, THE AULD TOON SHUFFLE (Rod Paterson, 1984)

Almost seven years ago, I stood outside the gates of Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. touting for business beside a Big Issue seller and a young bloke handing out flyers for a new McDonalds. I was touting for trade, too. The festival was in full swing and I had a one-man show to promote.

Charlotte Square is the setting for the Edinburgh International Book Fair.  In the past, I had appeared at the festival several times as an author but that year I had gone rogue and was appearing in a little room about a mile away, telling stories and playing the guitar as part of the fringe.

I had assumed that  – professional solidarity and all that – I would be welcome to leave flyers for my show at the book fair and that possibly a few of my fellow authors might be curious as to what I was now up to.

I was wrong on both counts.

The organisers didn’t want me or my flyers in the sacred square of writers and readers. As I stood outside that gate, almost all the authors, some of whom I vaguely knew, strutted past me, looking the other way.

‘Watch an author going mad!’ I shouted at one point. ‘A nervous breakdown on stage at 5.30 tonight!’

Not a glance.

The book world is snobbish place, I discovered  then (I might have had my suspicions already),  and so, I was told by friends who live there, is Edinburgh. I was in the eye of a perfect storm of snootiness.

Every time I hear Rod Paterson’s wonderful song The Auld Toon Shuffle, I’m back in Charlotte Square with the Big Issue guy on one side of me and the boy promoting McDonalds on the other.

‘Edinburgh toon has a fine distinction
Edinburgh toon gets a nice abuse
Everybody knows  when the east wind often blows
Edinburgh toon’s reduced
To two conditions that could be described
As the Auld Toon shuffle and the New Town stride.’

It’s a song about class, division and snobbery, a human vice that is quite difficult to convey musically. One of the things I like most about it is that it doesn’t scream or sneer but simply paints a picture of old Edinburgh (captured well in the YouTube video below).

‘Old man in the road with a white stick tapping
Leaning in the wind at the Cowgate Head
Through the funny smell he thinks that he can tell
Sweeter airs are overhead
But it’s an uphill struggle however you ride
From the Auld Toon shuffle to the New Town stride
‘Cause you’re one or the other, wherever you bide
You’re the Auld Toon shuffle or the New Town stride.’

The stiletto of satire can work best when it tickles the skin rather than stabbing and  drawing blood. Here, just letting the story tell itself, it works perfectly.

I was introduced to ‘The Auld Toon Shuffle’ by Steve Dickinson who, with his wife Mary, runs the wonderful Everyman Folk Club. From hearing the songs I liked to cover, Steve sensed –  quite rightly  –   that the music which works for me  is that that which disobeys the rules of genre, that mixes things up from different places, sounds, rhythms and traditions  and assimilates  whatever influences work best.

Forget purity of sources or whether a song adheres strictly  to a tradition. For me, then and now, the only question that matters is:  does it work?

The sound and the swing of this wonderful song owes a lot to the jazz  of the Hot Club de France type but is till, unmistakably, connected to folk.

The Easy  Club didn’t last long but has become something of a legend in folk history. The story of the group is well told by one of its members Jack Evans in a fascinating piece for The Living Tradition magazine.

‘The Easy Club’s uniquely swingy take on Scottish music came about in a sudden, and slightly spooky, fashion…

One afternoon, Jim began playing a reel in A on the cittern, pushing the offbeat hard as he always did. Rod, who had learned some jazzy guitar moves from playing with the late Jimmy Elliot (a great old jazz player and frequenter of Sandy Bell’s), began backing up the tune with some swingy barre chords in that Jimmy Elliot/Peerie Willie kind of style. The combination of swung rhythm guitar with Jim’s powerful offbeat emphasis caused the tune to burst into life like a Roman candle. Norman and I joined in with a similar feel, and the music was suddenly rocking like we’d never heard it before.’ 

Jack Evans’ article is eminently worth reading, not only because it tells a fascinating story of an influential band, but also because it flies the flag for musical freedom and originality.

‘The music scene in Scotland has changed a lot since 1984, with greater participation, the growth of popularity of Gaelic music, the development of dance, increases in funding, and the emergence of the Celtic music market. A lot more music, for sure – but much of it seems to me rather conservative sounding, as people have learned to play the funding game, feed the market for easily digestible Gaelic music, sound more and more Irish, more and more like everybody else.

Audacity seems noticeably absent, but then maybe that’s not really what people want to hear any more.’

I think they do. Audacity matters more today than ever.

Rod Paterson is now well known as a singer and an actor. On the website for Bring In the Spirit, the band to which he now belongs, he is describes as ‘the foremost male traditional singer in Scotland’. He has been a regular on the Transatlantic Sessions, once performing a wonderful version of Auld Lang Syne.

But, in all his repertoire, the song I like best is the one that pushed the boundaries of tradition and brought together the straight and the satirical, the jazzy and folky, into one unusual and utterly memorable song.