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Thomas Fraser recordings


Yo u and My Ol d G u itar

YOU AN D MY O LD G U I TAR Biography

Thomas Fraser was born in Burra Isle, Shetland in 1927. A natural, he learnt early in life to yodel, play fiddle and later, the guitar. In so doing, Thomas developed a consuming interest in music. Funds from his occupation as a fisherman were used to purchase a reel to reel tape recorder shortly after electricity arrived to the Isle in 1953. What took place over the next 25 years has since been cited as one of the most remarkable stories in recording history. Thomas painstakingly recorded thousands of his beloved country, blues, traditional and jazz tunes and in the process, this modest Shetlander created what many have called some of the greatest recordings of American music you will hear. However, Thomas’s unique vocal style, obvious passion for music and brilliant character were tempered by an intensely shy demeanour. Consequently, his performances were largely limited to immediate family and the walls of his croft house at Setter. Working alone in his lobster boat and tending to the croft, Thomas had a typically hard life. During the 1970s, bad luck and ill-health contributed to two accidents at sea. Sadly, Thomas passed away in January 1978 aged only 50. Shortly before his death, Thomas confided that he “did not have long to go” and asked his nephew to look after his reels, remarking in jest, “who knows, maybe someday I will be famous!”. Exactly 25 years later, Thomas’s statement was to become strangely prophetic. The CD ‘Long Gone


More selections from the

Thomas Fraser recordings


Yo u and My Ol d G u itar


More selections from the

Thomas Fraser recordings

Lonesome Blues’ was released to critical acclaim and at last, Thomas got some of the recognition his talent had so richly deserved. Amazingly, Thomas Fraser’s musical legacy is one that is still being mined – a legacy being re-discovered exactly 50 years after he first pressed the record button. Since ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’, more precious reel to reel tapes have been unearthed. Lying dormant in attics & spare rooms came tapes untouched for decades. This collection combines some of the new material alongside tracks from the family collection and stands alongside ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’ as more ‘Selections from the Thomas Fraser Recordings’. My overriding reason for this project, despite the emotional stress that goes with it, remains the same – a desire to see all my Grandfather’s output suitably preserved. First and foremost, as a family memento and second, to give people further insight into a unique talent and extraordinary story. As on ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’ the tracks on this release were recorded using various domestic reel-to-reel tape machines set at different speeds. Although every effort has been made to achieve optimum sound quality, priority has been given to historical context and as such, some tracks cannot compare to that of modern recordings. Thomas never had the luxury of a studio setting to work in and we must always remember that his work never took the form of formalised recording ‘sessions’. Thought was never given over to making an album. Thomas’s likely riposte would have been “what would people want to hear me for?”. No, this is just Thomas Fraser day-to-day, at home, simply doing what he loved best.


Yo u and My Ol d G u itar

The value of this collection would have been diminished if it were not for those individuals who preserved tapes given to them many years ago by Thomas and Phyllis. Nearing his death, Thomas mused that maybe someday, his recordings may see the light of day. This release gives us another chance to witness the unique talent that is Thomas Fraser and provides us with another window on what went on inside the peerie croft house at Setter all those years ago. Many people passed through the house to listen & learn from Thomas. Friend Robbie Cumming recently remarked that as he walked home from a music night at Setter in the early hours, he was buzzing – his head brimming over with the sound of Thomas singing and playing.

It is a nice thought that these very same sounds continue to inspire that feeling among thousands of people all over the world, all these years later. Thomas & Phyllis would be very proud. I hope it does them justice and I hope you find the release interesting & enjoyable. Karl Simpson, September 2003


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Thomas Fraser recordings


Yo u and My Ol d G u itar

The Songs 1 Blue Yodel No.1 (T for Texas) (Rodgers, J) 2.48 Recorded 1961 This ‘Blue Yodel’ was one of Thomas’s all-time favourites and he recorded many different takes throughout his musical lifetime.

2 You and my old Guitar (Rodgers, J & McWilliams, E) 3.04 Recorded early 1960s Courtesy Scott Christie collection Thomas’s Levin ‘Goliath’ has attracted considerable attention lately. Last Christmas, his guitar was featured in ‘Guitarist’ Magazine and it was nice to see it being played by Eddie Williamson at the Thomas Fraser Tribute Concert last year.

3 Carolina Moon (Davis, B & Burke, J) 1.46 Recorded 1958 Thomas possessed great control over his music, going from ‘attacking’ a song to immense subtlety & maturity in treatment. For Thomas’s cousin Alfie Jamieson.

4 Cowhand’s Last Ride (Rodgers, J & Hitt, A) 2.47 Recorded circa 1969 Most of the songs Thomas covered contained a strong story element. This one tells of a tough Cowhand and could almost be set on parallel with his own life.


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Thomas Fraser recordings

5 The Letter Edged in Black (Trad. Carter; Nevada) 3.41 Recorded 1958 The sounds taped all those years ago at Setter cut through time like a knife. I have hinted at the stress involved in this project. Essentially, it has meant that while listening to the reels over the last three years or so, I have been on tenterhooks. Placing the frail reel on the tape machine means waiting with baited breath as the song reaches it’s conclusion. You pray that the brittle tape survives the closing seconds – a ‘pop’ or wobble on the tape and your heart stops momentarily… after all, I cannot ask Thomas to do another take and the bitter fact remains that once we have released all suitable material, there will be no more…

6 Cowboy Johnny’s Last Ride (Carlisle, C) Recorded mid 1950s Courtesy Scott Christie collection

2.21

7 Lonesome Town (Knight) 3.07 Recorded early 1960s Courtesy Scott Christie collection A surprise find. My sound engineer, Andrew Rose, threatened to quit unless it was included!

8 Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 (Tebbetts, C) 2.21 Recorded 1956 Much of Thomas’ early work was recorded in the bedroom he shared with his wife Phyllis and baby daughter May. May managed to stop crying during the recording of this track!


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9 Away out on the Mountain (Harrell, K) 2.58 Recorded mid 1950s Courtesy Scott Christie collection Recently a BBC review stated that Thomas’s recordings were “all the more fascinating for being nurtured in relative isolation”. It is indeed uncanny how Thomas managed to ‘capture’ the genre so authentically. The Shetland Islands could not be further away, both physically and emotionally, from the people and places which Thomas sung so passionately about. Thomas probably heard his favourite music on the US forces network. It is said that when Thomas first discovered Jimmie Rodgers, he went into Lerwick and ordered the entire back catalogue…

10 Pottinger’s Reel (Anderson, T) 1.15 Recorded mid 1950s Courtesy Scott Christie collection The fiddle was Thomas’s first love. It is often said that Thomas had an individual style, employing a unique ‘lift’ in his playing. Visually, his playing was also likely to be memorable as Thomas would become quite animated. At dances and parties, when shyness had been overcome by a few drinks, he was known to play the instrument behind his back. Thomas would always bow at the end of his act and some recall the audience’s reaction when his combed-back hair would fall forward, covering his face. In those days, quite something. This tune is said to be named after the fiddler William Pottinger of Quarff.

11 I’m glad I got to see you once again (Gibson, D) Recorded mid 1960s Courtesy Jeanie Fullerton collection

2.32

12 Unwanted Sign on my Heart (Snow, Clarence E ‘Hank’) 2.31 Recorded 1956 Thomas was not the only music fan in the Setter house. His wife Phyllis was also very


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keen and played guitar and mandolin. This track features both husband and wife, Phyllis accompanying Thomas on guitar.

13 Yodelling Cowboy (Rodgers, J & McWilliams, E) Recorded 1956

2.57

14 Blue Yodel No. 2 (My Lovin’ Gal Lucille) (Rodgers, J) 3.28 Recorded 1977 This track originates from Thomas’s last ever recording session in April 1977. The sound demonstrates the improvements in recording hinting at breakthroughs in audio technology which were to arrive soon after Thomas’s death. During the course of this final session, Thomas recorded some 10 songs on side one of the precious reel-toreel. Feeling poorly, Thomas sung and played little before he died on the night of 6th January 1978. Side two of the reel remains empty…

15 Louisiana (Razaf, Schafer & Johnson) Recorded mid 1950s Courtesy Scott Christie collection

1.44

16 Abilene (Brown, L & Gibson, B & Loudermilk, J) 2.06 Recorded 1961 I am often asked if Thomas ever wrote any of his own material. The answer is no. As friend Eddie Williamson once said, recording was simply a hobby for Thomas and he never considered making a career out of it. Thomas simply loved the songs he covered.

17 Careless Hands (Hilliard, B & Sigman, A) Recorded circa 1958

2.57


Yo u and My Ol d G u itar

18 Blue Yodel No. 5 (Stormin’ on the Deep Blue Sea) (Rodgers, J) 2.49 Recorded 1961 Thomas may have related to this track for his occupation, like most Shetlanders, was a fisherman. Musical friends recollect that after having worked lobsters all day, Thomas would often be in considerable discomfort making the chord shapes.

19 The Homesteader’s Reel (Smith, I) 1.27 Recorded late 1950s Courtesy Scott Christie Collection On this Shetland reel composed by Ivor Smith of Tingwall, Thomas is accompanied by Scott Christie on guitar. Thomas and Scott first played together at a School concert in 1945 with the late Geordie Goodlad. Thomas, Scott & his brother John would play & record regularly together over the next 20 years.

20 A Talk with my Heart (Rose) 2.32 Recorded early 1960s Perhaps the lyrics to this track are what drew me to include it. It’s a shame Thomas can’t be here to experience all that has gone on in the last 12 months. For sure, if he was alive, Thomas would have had had his fair share of big days recently. The words of this song went through my head numerous times the day before the Thomas Fraser Tribute Concert held on 16 November 2002. “There are so many things that I wanna do, I don’t know where to begin – but tomorrow, is gonna be a big day for me…”

21 Muleskinner Blues (Rodgers, J & Vaughn) Recorded early 1970s Courtesy Davie Manson collection

2.12


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22 Little Old Wine Drinker Me (Mills & Jennings) Recorded mid 1960s

2.15

23 Sadie my Little Girl (Rodgers, J & McWilliams, E) Recorded 1960 Courtesy Bobby Fraser collection

2.12

24 ‘Tis Sweet to be remembered (Wiseman) 1.55 Recorded late 1960s Courtesy Jeanie Fullerton collection This track is dedicated to the late Tammie Burgess of da Ness. Tammie was a great Thomas Fraser fan. As a boy he witnessed Thomas performing and never forgot it. Tammie was the first person on the phone when we announced that ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’ was on advance order. He also made a special trip to Burra to attend the History Group music exhibition to look at Thomas’s instruments and have a sneak preview of the CD.

25 Lovesick Blues (Mills, I & Friend, C) 2.38 Recorded mid 1960s Courtesy Davie Manson collection Thomas attacks this song with a passion quite different to the pace of the Hank Williams version. Despite the sonic deterioration of the original tape, I felt it was important to include as it displays Thomas at his best – a thick, earthy guitar sound and a pained voice living the song. Sometimes the palest ink is better than the best memory… The voice at the end of this track is Thomas’s wife Phyllis who passed away in 1985. My Grandmother was very proud of Thomas’ achievements and she deserves much of the praise in keeping Thomas’s music alive. This CD is dedicated to her memory.


Yo u and My Ol d G u itar


More selections from the

Thomas Fraser recordings

Credits Karl & May would like to thank the following people for their help in the making of this collection: Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio for audio restoration, mastering and whole-hearted enthusiasm for the project. Scott Christie, Tom Simpson, Davie Manson, Laurina Herculson, John Wm. Ward, Margaret & Wullie Simpson and Cathy Simpson of Vaivoe, Wullie & Kathleen Henry, Jennifer Hutchison, Jeanie Fullerton, Eddie Williamson & Barbara Tait who all loaned their Thomas Fraser recordings. Martin Parker for graphic design. Dina Patel and all at Sound Performance for duplication. For photographs, Mac Ward & Lorraine Fogarty. Niall Irvine at Perspectives for image scanning. Enid Payne for her kind advice and time on the text and proofreading. Paul Hazell, writer & broadcaster, for his kind assistance with information on the tracks. Special thanks to Alexis for the website & putting up with me throughout this project. Laurina Herculson and all at The Burra History Group for their continued support. David Gardner of The Shetland Arts Trust. The late Tammie Burgess for his enthusiasm in the project. Bobby Fraser for his continued support, advice & enthusiasm. For memories & recollections: Alfie Jamieson, Maisie Anderson, Jeanette & Norrie Wiseman, ‘Peerie Willie’ Johnson, Robbie Cumming, Arthur Pottinger, Eddie Williamson & Alan Tulloch. Caroline Moyes, Mike Harding, Mel Mclellan, Archie Fisher & Tom Morton at the Beeb. Pete Smith of ‘Country Music Roundup’ Magazine, James Keough of ‘Acoustic Guitar’, John Conquest of 3rd Coast Music, Vaila Wishart of ‘The Shetland Times’ & James R Nicolson of ‘The Shetland Life’. A big thank you to all who ordered ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’ and the kind reviews, comments & goodwill. Huge thanks to all who took part and helped in The Thomas Fraser Tribute Concert.


Yo u and My Ol d G u itar

© Karl Simpson Also available by Thomas Fraser: ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’, Cat. No. Da Da1 For more information on Thomas Fraser and future releases, please visit

www.thomasfraser.com Or write to Karl Simpson, Setter, Burra Isle, Shetland. ZE2 9LB


You and My Old Guitar