"Uncle Alex" to many of us.
Alex Campbell was the archetypical wandering troubadour, the template of the 60's folksinger. He learned his craft in the late 50s busking in the streets of Paris and Copenhagen with Derroll Adams and Rambling Jack Elliott.
He was also one of the first Scots to stand on a stage and be funny without relying for his laughs on stereotyping his people as braindead money-grasping idiots.
I have many memories of Alex, but my favourite is one incident where he taught me a very important lesson about dealing with hecklers.
In 1972, I was playing as a duo with Aly Bain and one night we were booked to support Alex at a college in Bradford. In the front row sat a guy who spent our entire set muttering and humming, out of tune, and was obviously taking great amusement from trying to destroy our concentration. I began to rebuke him but, as most of the audience couldn't hear him, they hadn't a clue why I was getting angry and I ended up looking like an idiot.
When we came off, Alex grabbed me and asked me what the hell I thought I was playing at. I explained and he grinned and said, "Leave him to me - watch and you'll learn something."
He began his set with his usual banter interspersed with, "Hell, yeah", and sang a verse or two of "The Barnyards O Delgaty". Then he stopped, peered round the microphone at the nuisance in the front row, raised his head and swept his eyes round the room.
"People", he bellowed, face creased into that huge grin of his, "we have a heckler!", and he pointed with an exaggerated gesture at the guy in the front row, inviting laughter.
The audience complied.
Still strumming the guitar, he stepped down from the stage and slowly strolled over to where the kid was sitting and towered over him. Alex could look twice his height when he wanted to and I was glad it wasn't me he was targetting.
The audience were loving it. He stood there for a few moments, strumming away, looking straight down his nose at the kid who by this time was sliding down in his seat.
"You know, in this country we call people like you a heckler. In America, they call you a baiter".
"And you're a master!"
It took a second or so for the audience to figure it out, then they roared.
Lesson - never take on a heckler until the audience know what's going on and are on your side.
Alex made more records than anyone I ever met and had a very straightforward approach to recording - he stood in front of the mics and sang the song. Once. The only reason he would do a retake was if there was a technical problem. He treated recording like he treated live performing - you sang the song, then you sang the next song. When I was with Five Hand Reel, he asked us to provide the accompaniments for an album he was recording in Germany. The entire album was recorded in an afternoon. Rehearsal? "Och, never mind all that, let's just do the song".
Too many people have been fooled by the hellraiser image Alex projected into overlooking the enormous talent which lay behind it. He had an almost infallible instinct for a great song and he knew how to make a song accessible to the listener, the apparant simplicity of his delivery masking an artistic intelligence which could distill the most complex set of ideas into something which the audience immediately understood and related to. He had a very clear understanding of the essence of the song interpreter's craft, that every song has two texts, the literal text of the words as written and the emotional subtext of the singer's personal experience and understanding. And Alex knew how to express both with passion and power.
In a world which is frequently deluded into equating complexity and obscurantism with quality, he was a shining example of the true art of communication. Pete Seeger could have been talking of Alex when he said, "Any damn fool can get complicated, it takes a genius to attain simplicity".
Yes, he could be rough, awkward, impatient, opinionated and a genuine hellraiser - as Rab Noakes said in his song for Alex, "You get difficult, dangerous, I'm damned if I'll lie". But he could also be quite remarkably gentle and generous, particularly in passing on his knowledge and experience to younger performers. He was the master of his craft and, above all, everything he sang, he sang with total honesty and committment and a complete belief in every word.
There have been few like him. We all owe him a great debt.
Contributions and copyright
©Dick Gaughan February 2001. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, material or electronic, without the written permission of the author.
If you have memories of Alex Campbell you would like included here, please email them to the address:
Important : please make sure your email is plain text without HTML or MS Word formatting otherwise it may not reach me.