On air Listen


« Previous | Main | Next »

Julie Fowlis on Lon-dubh / Blackbird

Mike Harding | 15:49 UK time, Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Julie Fowlis comes from North Uist in the Western Isles and for those of you that don't know her work, she is a stunning singer and a world class musician, and sings almost entirely in Gaelic.

Earlier this year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards she was presented the Folk Singer of the Year Award by KT Tunstall and has just made it on to the Radio 2 playlist with her stunning translation of the Lennon/McCartney song 'Blackbird'. Here she is to tell us a bit more about it... 

Julie Fowlis writes:

I have three distinct memories of this classic Lennon/McCartney song - well, perhaps not memories, but I can place this song in three different parts of my life quite easily. 

My first recollection of this song - I am a teenager in high school, pursuing all sorts of music, bad fashion and attempting to talk to boys like they are normal human beings.  My friend lends me two double sided tapes of Classic Beatles recordings as we have to study 'Octopus's Garden' for a music class.  I fall in love with the intriguing music within and forget to give the tapes back...

Fast forward a few years, and I am now in University.  I am expected to take a third study instrument class (oboe and piano are my first and second studies).  The choice is either classical guitar with a scary tutor or kit drumming.  I don't fancy my chances as a Gene Krupa wannabe so opt for the guitar.  I am by far the worst in the class - the rest are already guitarists of sorts, or at least string players. 

My puny 5'3" frame and soft singer/oboe player fingers don't make me an ideal candidate for the class.  I try really hard but don't seem to make much real progress, much to the amusement of our tutor.  Our exam pieces for the end of year are given out - the guitar part in 'Blackbird' plus an Eric Clapton number and an excerpt from a Spanish guitar suite.  I take my music for Blackbird and spend about a month practising until my fingers blister, and much to the annoyance of my wee sister who shares a flat with me.  I am now beginning to really dislike this piece of music.  So does my sister. 

The exam looming, I step up the practising a gear - all to try and prove this tutor wrong about my guitar playing abilities - and my wee sis is nearly ready to move out.  The exam day arrives, I manage to pull off the 4 minute performance of a lifetime and don't make a single mistake (I actually never played it once without a mistake before the exam, so it was really a bit of shock to me as well as the tutor).  With sheer luck and blistered fingers, I sail out with a 9 out of 10 and drop the class immediately.

It was with great interest then, almost 9 years later, when Mojo approached us to perform a track of our choice from the Beatles' White Album.  I knew instinctively that I had to reconcile my differences with this song and we choose 'Blackbird' straight away. 

Myself and my bouzouki/fiddle playing husband Éamon Doorley, guitarist Tony Byrne from Dublin and fiddler Duncan Chisholm from Inverness sit down in a hotel room in Bergen, Norway and jam away with the song until we come up with something we like.  Myself and my friend and acclaimed singer Mary Smith from Lewis translate the song into Gaelic - we spend a lot of time getting the 'flow' and feel of the words right. We record it in one day in Glasgow, and I find myself wanting to take out that dusty old guitar again....just in case I can still remember it....


  • Comment number 1.

    Sounds like a bit of fun in the end.

    I suppose my biggest bogey instrument is the flute. Expert players have tried to position it for me but it still can not help me produce any sound at all.

    Within my limited abilities, fretted strings, preferably 4 or 8 of them tuned to GDAE are kinder to me but I still have bogey tunes that I feel should be within my grasp.

    The Monaghan Jig is one. Perhaps it would be easier if I could sight read but learning by ear, it just seems to twist in ways that my head and my fingers sort of disagree with, refusing to cooperate.

    Anyway, good luck with the project and with the guitar should you pick it up again.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.