More (Mostly) Folk Music

The Emmettones

Below is Hamish Imlach's account of the Emmettones. It comes courtesy of Ewan McVicar, who holds the copyright. Please do not copy, reprint or reproduce it without Ewan's permission.

I sang Boolavogue, the song which won us a welcome in the Marland, on the very first records I ever made. I was a member of the Emmettones. People got ripped off in those days, as indeed they still do. One of the records got to Number One in the Irish Hit Parade, and I got paid twelve quid! The Emmettones were Cliff Stanton's idea. So was the name, which was later copied by the Wolftones. After Josh McRae had recorded "Talking Army Blues" and then "Messing About On the River", Stanton, who was Josh's agent, persuaded him to try some Irish Rebel songs. Josh didn't know any, so Cliff got him a couple of books of songs, and gave him a Paddy Galvin album and an album by Dominic Behan that was newly out - Easter Week And After on Topic.

Josh was told to choose ten songs. For some we liked the words but not the tunes so we set new tunes. One of these was "Bold Robert Emmett", which we put to the tune of "The Streets Of Laredo". That track reached Number One in Ireland, and you can still hear the song sung to that air. We went down to London and recorded six sides in a day in the Decca studios, with the aid of Kenny Napper playing bass, all four of us clustered round one ball microphone. Where's yer 54-channel multi-track noo?

Three singles came out, including "Erin go Bragh", "Johnson's Motor Car", and "Men Of The West", and we got a three-year contract which none of us wanted. Bobby didn't want to do any more, and we scratched about to find another fiddle player. Decca were desperate for us to go on and record "The Scottish Soldier", which they had treacherously got from Andy Stewart and wanted our version to come out before his - all by the same record company, too. But by the time we pissed about forming another group Andy's version was out and a roaring success.

The first time I had played at the Glasgow Folk Club in the Corner House in the Trongate in 1959, there was a banjo player there called Hugh Clark. His girlfriend, Mac, who was still at school, played fiddle. We were trying to adapt her style and teach her the songs, show her how to cope without the dots in front of her. Then we went down to London and recorded McPherson's Rant and Scottish Soldier, it came out and it was pretty rotten - it made Andy Stewart's own version sound slick. If we had been first and good, it could have been instant fame for the lot of us. The following year Decca knocked back the Beatles as not commercial, and we had a three-year Emmettones contract with Decca! The Emmettones weren't even a group, just people who had done a couple of recordings together. After the Emmettones recording, Josh and I went into a Hungarian restaurant. We'd looked around Soho, and thought we'd try something different. The food prices were very reasonable, and we'd managed to get some money in advance. We had been all round London with Cliff Stanton, who claimed that the only money he had on him was a Scottish one hundred pound note, and all the banks were closed so we couldn't get him to change it. Eventually we went with him to his father so we could get the 5 advance each he had promised us.

The bill for Hungarian food for Josh and me was nineteen shillings, for wonderful goulash and rice and other tasty items. We'd also drunk some Carlsberg Special Brews with the meal. When we wondered what to have after the food the waiter recommended some apricot brandy which was 140 proof, and we really got into that. The drinks part of the bill was for over 9. The waiter helped us to get a taxi to Euston, where the sleeper back north was luckily already paid for by Cliff Stanton. We had a half bottle with us, so we had quite a good trip back.

Our picture was put up in McBurnie's Record Shop in Belfast, and appeared in the United Irishman newspaper with the slogan The Emmettones, Three Young Lads From Donegal. They got Bobby's name and mine almost right, they called me Seamus Imlach. Josh's was changed into something more Gaelic - Seán Connolly or such.

I've had some strange versions of my name over the years - Seumus Hemlock on a handwritten poster at the Castle Tavern in Dublin, Hymie Schimlick in a three am station to station call from a telephone operator in Nashville, Tennessee, and very recently the Automobile Association sent me a circular addressed to Miss H Lylach - a flower by any other name. Call me anything you like, as long as you don't call me early in the morning.

The Emmettones were reincarnated a few years later, for their very first (and last) public appearance. A huge guy called Gerry Docherty would come round with a collecting can for the IRA, a massive six-foot-six gentle giant from White Street in Partick. Gerry later spent a long time in Long Kesh. He was one of a large family. His father had been involved in the IRA and been jailed, and proscribed by the church. He was violently anti-clerical. Gerry came up to me and said, "Is it true you were one of the Emmettones?" I had to confess. Gerry said, "I'd love to have you for a concert." "Well, it's pretty difficult. Bobby's moved to London, Josh is a school teacher and living in Fife. "Oh, but it would be wonderful. For one thirty-minute spot I'll pay you fifty quid." That figure was a fortune in those days. I was on the blower to Josh immediately.

"There's this guy paying us fifty pounds to play in some hall in the Gorbals."

"As the Emmettones."

Then he said, "We couldn't do it ourselves, we need an instrumentalist, one who could sing some of the harmonies like Bobby did." It took two people to do Bobby's role, so the one and only time the Emmettones performed in public Robin Williamson played fiddle, and Archie Fisher sang harmony, in a hall in the Gorbals. We shared the fifty quid four ways. The Emmettones did my career some good: I was invited to play at various Irish functions on the strength of them. I'd never actually been in Ireland, but I did have a grandfather from County Down. Occasionally I drag out one of the Emmettones records and listen to it, and think, "That wasn't all that bad for something recorded all on one mike. I've improved not one whit in thirty years. My voice sounded better in those days."