The Soul Of Scotland: Rare Birds Jim and Susie Malcolm

Reprinted with permission from FolkWorks

6 mins read
A body of water with a mountain in the background

“Is that daylight that’s streaming through your window?” asks Scottish troubadour Jim Malcolm incredulously. Yes, it is indeed. He and his wife and fellow vocalist Susie are at home in Perthshire, Scotland where it’s dinnertime, dark, and about 39F degrees, connecting with me via Zoom as I sit in sunny Pasadena, CA where the Malcolms will be performing on January 27 at Caltech. Not coincidentally, the first leg of the US tour coincides with the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, haggis optional.

Chat about the weather reveals that, while 39F degrees is brisk enough to reach for a proper jumper, Jim says “Definitely, yes!” when I ask if Scotland is experiencing climate change. Susie explains that “…less snow, less ice means we’re just getting warmer. Milder winters and hotter summers, sometimes surprisingly hot for short spells, and we don’t have cooling systems here. This is adding up to Scotland being a bit more pleasant, unless you want to go skiing, but it does make us say, ‘Oh, dear.’” Although there is occasional flooding in the spring, Jim says, “In Scotland, we’re lucky because we have a lot of high ground.” We share a laugh over Scottish stand-up comic Frankie Boyle’s line: “In Scotland we have mixed feelings about global warming, because we will get to sit on the mountains and watch the English drown.”

“Actually, I saw a rare bird,” says Jim, “so rare that I thought I had mis-seen it. It was a white egret, just spotted by the river near our home.”

“Never been seen in Scotland before, I think,” adds Susie. The sighting made the local news for its rarity.

One of Jim’s most popular songs, “Neptune,” alludes to a recent past, in grandfather’s day, when men could literally cross Scotland’s brooks and creeks by stepping over the backs of salmon thronging in the shallows. These ancestral lands gave rise to centuries-old musical traditions, the very land where the Malcolm family loves to ski, fly-fish on the river, and forage for wild cherries today. Jim explains how the landscape defines the difference between Irish and Scottish music: Ireland’s low, rolling hills result in a flowy, lilting melodic style, while Scotland’s crags and valleys are higher and deeper, resulting in what Jim calls a more “vaulted” sound, with a signature “jumpiness” in a lot of Scots tunes. “You also have to remember that a lot of Scottish music was composed on the pipes, rather than the fiddle or the whistle,” explains Jim, “so Scots music has that specific kind of sound.”

The regional and cultural differences are surpassed by kinship according to Jim, who calls Scotland and Ireland “Celtic sisters,” explaining that “Scots were a tribe that came from Ireland.” He adds, “We’ve always been a bit jealous of the Irish. We’re sort of second-class Celts, down the food-chain from the Irish,” basically because the larger Irish population has produced a larger musical footprint. He adds that many music fans discover Irish music first, the airs, reels and jigs of the Emerald Isle initially serving as a frothy chaser to the denser, harder stuff of iconic Scottish sound.

Although Jim doesn’t call himself a purist in terms of his catalog, he says “About half of the songs we do are old. Like, really old. Like, medieval.” A similar sense of roots formed the bedrock in American folk music for the past few generations, where traditional forms ranging from anonymous chain-gang work songs and Delta field-hollers to Appalachian gospel hymns created a template of authentic familiarity for contemporary songs of political and social uprising written by Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, Ochs, Paxton, McGuire, Fariña, CSN&Y, and the many who followed.

These days, Susie listens to The Canny Band and young vocalists Karine Polwart and Hannah Rarity as examples of  Scottish singers who are taking the ancestral tradition forward. The couple’s singer-songwriter daughter Beth Malcolm, named Scots Singer of the Year in 2023, also carries on the tradition with the band Niteworks and haunting songs like her rendition of “John Riley”. Susie remarks that she’s not trying to change the songs herself, but says “I do expect the songs to change. It’s great that the younger generation are taking the tradition forward and do want to make these songs their own.” Jim says, “They come back to the old songs time and again, looking for the gems, the gold, the diamonds, because they’re really good songs.”

“We feel very close to the source,” says Jim, who performs with nothing more than an acoustic guitar what he calls his “moothie,” rhyming with “Ruthie”—his harmonica. Both Jim and Susie share a dedication to live performance as a truth-serum against the glut of overproduced, over-processed studio recordings where, with the right software, even the feeblest, flabbiest vocal can be autotuned to ethereal (if synthetic) perfection. “I come from a long line of unaccompanied natural singers,” says Susie, “and that’s my first love, the way that someone would just stand up and sing a song, unadorned, because you have a song. I’m not really looking for any musical ornamentation, just one singer, one song.”

Early on, Jim dabbled in rock and roll: “I wanted to be Jimmy Page,” he sighs. But the sheer volume of the Marshall stacks changed his mind. “I couldn’t believe how loud it was! So I found my way back to acoustic guitar and a subtler feeling, singing about stuff that was just around the corner, and it was lovely and quiet to my ears.”

“The original folk scene was a hive of protest,” says Jim, “but now we’re more interested in exploring the past,” offering a connection with the old world versus the pioneering movement of young people in the 1960s. Susie says, “We wouldn’t even want our concert to be a concert of protest. We don’t want people to walk out feeling more worried,” adding that the music she shares with Jim is a form of escape from the “troubling harsh reality” of modern life. She seems amused and pleased that “…they usually leave feeling uplifted, and I’m not sure why that is, because a lot of the songs we sing aren’t that uplifting—some are quite dark.”

Indeed they are, since a great many of the Malcolm’s songs deal with yearning and lost love, set in minor key arrangements of stark, aching beauty. Susie says, “We like to sing about love in its different stages. There are loads of songs of unrequited love in the Scottish tradition, and older love, versus first young love and attraction. There are lots of songs from that part of love.” She cites the Robert Burns poem, “John Anderson my jo, John,” in which Burns witnesses as a friend ages, his raven locks now

“…like the snaw,
but blessings on your frosty pow”

— describing his companion’s thinning white hair.

Susie cites a “nervousness” about the state of happiness lodged deep in the Scottish psyche. Susie says, “There is the famous melancholy, and the recognition that not all is bright. Even when we’re happy, we’re aware that it’s fleeting. There’s this nervousness that what we have may not last. But that doesn’t spoil the sweetness of the love. In fact, it sharpens it. And the tormented soul is the creative soul.”

How does this play out for the performers? Jim says, “Scottish audiences are, ya know, dour and reserved unless they’ve got a drink in them.” By contrast, American audiences delight the Malcolm’s with our cheerful national enthusiasm. “We say that all the sort of genes of optimism went over to America,” says Jim, “while the miserable genes stayed on in Scotland, with the ones who didn’t dare to leave.” Susie adds that a dear friend, Scotland-born and now living in San Diego, says she misses her native bonnie braes and banks, but can’t bear the idea of returning to what she calls Caledonian “negativity.” The word itself makes Susie giggle.

Jim admits that he’s especially tickled by the planned gig on the Caltech campus in Pasadena, because the theatre where he and Susie will play is referenced in television’s “The Big Bang Theory.” He says, “Americans can sit there with a smile on their face even if they don’t like you. They always laugh at your jokes, so by the end of a tour in America, you think you’re Bob Hope! That really doesn’t happen anywhere else in Britain or Europe. A visit to America involves a lot of work, expense, and risk, but the audiences always make me come back.” The duo will soon land in Prescott, Arizona for a month of concerts around the American west, with more dates and more cities in the southeast planned for October and November 2024 (see for details).

Saturday January 27, 8:00pm Pasadena CA

Pasadena Folk Music Society

Beckman Institute Auditorium, Caltech
400 S. Wilson Ave., Pasadena, CA 91001-1649

Tickets are $25 each plus a $4 convenience fee or $10 for Caltech students and anyone age 16 or younger without the fee. They are available online at this link and by phone from the Caltech Ticket Office (626-395-4652). Ticket office hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. Tickets are available, without a handling fee, by in-person purchase at the ticket office on the first floor of Caltech’s Keith Spalding Building, at 1200 East California Boulevard in Pasadena

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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