Street singers in song

Street singers in song: Blind Hughie and Blind Mattie

Dundee’s history echoes with the sound of song and music. It was common for people to buy song sheets and chapbooks from ‘hawkers,’ who would advertise their wares by performing: singing, or with humorous, spontaneous patter. (In Dundee, the public appetite for song led to a dedicated song shop, The Poet’s Box – more on which later.) There were also singers, poets and musicians who used the streets as a stage and sought audiences in the folk passing by or standing discussing the issues of the day. Two of the most famous of Dundee’s street singers – coincidentally both known not only by their songs but by their blindness – inspired their contemporaries to commemorate them in verse. (The role of singer or musician was, in practical terms, one of a few open to blind people in the 19th century, and the blind street performer was a familiar figure on the streets of many Victorian cities.)

Hugh Lennox moved from Kirriemuir to Dundee in the mid-19th century after his first wife died, where he became better known as Blind Hughie, the singer. He was often to be heard singing on Reform Street, but would also travel, particularly to markets or fairs around Dundee and Angus where he would be sure of a crowd. Hughie sang mostly in Scots, and his performances were a mixture of comic music hall songs and traditional folk songs. After his death in 1889, the Poet’s Box began selling a broadside which commemorated Hughie as the “last wandering minstrel o Scottish sang-lore.”

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Blind Hughie: Poet’s Box broadside (A.C. Lamb collection, box 421)

Hughie is so associated with the landscape that he almost becomes part of it – with his ‘hairst heather’ face and intense sense of direction. He almost certainly did have extremely good knowledge of the roads he walked, and ways of sensing place that may have looked mysterious to sighted onlookers. But the focus on certain aspects of his repertoire associates Hughie with a particular image of the Highlands, and the idea that the Scottish song tradition was dying in the wake of industrial modernity (this very song’s existence being part of the vast body of proof that it wasn’t.) Perhaps people thought of Fingal, Ossian’s blind bardic narrator, when they heard this song.

There are a few parallels between Hughie’s life and legacy and those of Martha Wallace (1875 or 6 – 1962). Martha was born blind, the daughter of a Dundee cobbler. After a short attendance at Dundee’s School for the Blind, she put her musical talent to work as a street singer and melodeon player. She became known as Blind Mattie, and grew to be extremely well-known and liked by the people of Dundee. In later life, she was invited to perform at the Caird Hall. When she had a lucky escape from a bus accident in 1949, but her melodeon did not survive, people donated money to a fund advertised in the Courier to buy her a new one. Mattie lived with Maggie Nicol, a friend or partner, for most of their lives, eventually retiring to a care home together when Maggie also became blind. After her death, Stewart Brown of the Dundee band Lowland Folk composed a song which, like the broadside about Hughie, celebrates the street singer as hardy in the face of a hostile outdoor landscape – though Mattie’s is urban, a Dundee of “markets and fairs, and roond the back stairs” which in the 1960s was being reshaped through the construction of high rise flats and new housing developments:

Squeeze the old box an’ rattle the can

Never mindin’ the wind or the rain

Though the nichts are drawin’ in

An’ the blood’s gettin’ thin

It’s time to be singin’ again.

(The lyrics to this song are published in Nigel Gatherer’s fantastic “Songs and Ballads of Dundee.” ) Mattie’s signature song was  ‘My Ain Folk’ – a sentimental song on the theme of immigration and exile, which was popular in Dundee in broadside versions during the 19th century. She is also invoked in Michael Marra’s “The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke,” about exile and emigration in and out of Dundee based on Marra’s family history.

The Dundee left behind in the song seems to be mid-twentieth century at the latest. Francis, an Irish-Dundonian shipwright, has died in the Yukon shunned by all of his family except the narrator:

Who among us would still say

I’ll not forgive until my dying day

Between the earth and the sky above

There must be a twinkling seam of love

I’ll summon up the drums of the Blackness Foundry

Blind Mattie, the Mackay twins too

We’ll sing it up from the Overgate to Anchorage

And place a coal upon the fire for you

We’ll place a precious coal upon the fire for you.

This is one of my favourite songs (and, as I write this, the radio warns of cold winds from Arctic Canada which may be bringing snow to Dundee). These two Dundee street singers were remembered as being so connected to their place, they almost transcend the passing of time. We remember best of all the songs they sang those which speak of something we can’t return to: a destroyed clan system or a family overseas. Whether or not those things were ever real for us is not the point. Their memory is comfort to those of us who feel exiled in our own homes. The street singer, to their audience, is always on a journey: the listener encounters them on their own walk through the town, never quite sure when they will next be seen. Perhaps an air of unsettlement, of impermanence, around the way they and their songs are remembered is inevitable.

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