As a Songwriter & Composer, it absolutely fills me with dread to think that my work would be forgotten, Published/Recorded or not and for it all to sink into the oblivion of time. As music creators, none of us would want that. This is probably why this story connected and resonated with me when I first discovered the remarkable and intriguing story of Thomas Fraser, Shetland’s local hero. A Country & Western and Rhythm & Blues one at that.
In fact, I first heard about Thomas’s music back in 2009/10, when I became acquainted with a good and noble man by the name of Jim Ironside, when I lived in the digs Jim provided to me when I moved down to Galashiels in the Scottish Borders from Glasgow for a new IT Support job in 2009 – (which incidentally I was laid off from 2 months later). Anyway’s, It became apparent to Jim that I was a musician (evidenced by the electric & acoustic guitars and amp I took with me), also a songwriter and Jim encouraged me with my music. It was from there that I started teaching guitar, bass & drums (I was/have been a musician since the mid 80s), after relocating and being subsequently laid off.
Jim, an Aberdeenshire man, a proud Scot who loved Robert Burns, would often quote some lines from Burn’s poetry to me. Jim was a former businessman, retired, with a rich and varied career behind him. One most notably for bringing the Aberdeen Angus Beef brand into existence, one of his forte’s was Business Marketing. Jim loved his music. He loved Scotland and he loved Country Music. It didn’t register with me at the time, new area, new chapter in life etc.. but Jim briefly told me about the music of Shetlander Thomas Fraser. Jim’s wife Thelma was from Shetland, so Thomas was a local hero to them. It wasn’t until some years later, perhaps 2016 or so, that I seen the documentary about Thomas Fraser on the TV, that my curiosity was fueled and I learned more about him and his work, thanks to Jim, which has led to this article about Thomas and his music. Jim sadly passed away a couple of years ago, but not before publishing his first and last book, Blue Toon.
“Long Gone Lonesome Blues”
Born on the Isle of Burra, in Shetland, in 1927, Thomas grew up to be fisherman and a crofter, but no ordinary one. He also played guitar and sang a mean Country yodel tune or Rhythm & Blues song and many more. It all started when he was young, at around eight years old, as he took up the fiddle, which was given to him by his brother, Walter, whom procured it during his time in the Merchant Navy. He was then introduced to the country yodel by his uncle and that pretty much kick started his love and appreciation for Country, American Roots and Rhythm & Blues music. Soon after, Thomas was given an acoustic guitar and this is the instrument he embraced to support his inner voice, his calling. He loved music and became a proficient musician and singer, as he would listen to Jazz, Blues and Country gramophone records, in particular, Jimmie Rodgers music and he learnt the “Brakeman’s” style, playing his guitar and singing constantly.
When he was in his mid-teens, around sixteen, he became a fisherman, as one would imagine in the islands of Scotland then (and now of course). But when he was not working on the boats, he would play and sing at local concerts and weddings….albeit, incredibly shy like to begin with. As he performed more, his confidence grew and it’s been said that he could “raise the roof”, with his renditions of popular song then. Remember, this was the early to mid 1940s !
Country music is possibly the last thing you’d expect a Scottish islander to play/sing, especially way back then, as far removed from Shetland life and culture….or was it !!
Songs about life struggles and love resonate through all cultures and it just so happens that the music to inspire Thomas was predominantly American.
Was Thomas Scotland’s first Rock n Roller ?
“Scotland’s First Rock & Roller” ?
Out of respect, I contacted Thomas’s family to ask for permission to publish this piece in relation to Thomas’s work/music and submitted an earlier version of it. Thomas’s grandson, Karl Simpson, whom I’ve communicated via email a couple of times, from about 2 years ago (see end section), kindly provided additional information about Thomas’s life and music. In response to my suggestion that Thomas was Scotland’s first Rock & Roller, Karl added….
“Thomas had long hair on top, which he kept in place with a kind of headband (necessary to keep hair out of the way when working with fish). Anyway, on stage he would frequently take this band out and when bowing let the hair fall down. Upon raising his head the hair would swoosh back over his head. I was told this would cause a real stir in the audience. Remember that this was in the late 40s. When Elvis moved his legs some 8 years later, it caused a sensation. After another gig in Lerwick, he sledged down a hill in the snow on an upright bass together with ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson… (peerie Willie was a renowned jazz guitarist here ). You could be right, this was probably around 1947-1950.”
Thomas may well have been Scotland’s first Rocker, but he also had a passion for recording his music too and may also have been one of Scotland’s first “self produced” music artists. And another reason why Thomas’s story resonates, as I too have a Home Studio/Self Produce and the fear that my digital creativity may be lost in years to come frightens me. I want my sons and their families to know my work and how much I love music. So I guess this is my way of helping out a fellow musician, by telling his story to more people so that his music and legacy continues in the hearts and ears of others, to be enjoyed.
In the mid 1950’s, Thomas met and married his wife Phyllis and as they both had a healthy interest in music, they played and recorded together, Phyllis accompanying Thomas on guitar. They had acquired a Reel-to-Reel tape recorder and recorded incessantly. Home Recording really only took off with computer based systems in the 1990’s and the only musician that I know of who had done any home recording in the 50s or 60s was Buddy Holly, as he recorded his last songs on a tape machine in his New York apartment (The Apartment Tapes) in late 1958, early 59 and these were to be his last recordings, as he was killed in a plane crash in Feb 1959. So Thomas was way ahead of the game, driven by a passion to play and record music. What on earth drove him to the notion that he could record music ?
Thomas recorded thousands of songs, receiving requests for recordings from villagers, some with personal messages…he was a star !
“The Shetland Lone Star”.
Thomas & Phyllis are married
Karl, Thomas’s grandson further elaborated on the tape machine and Thomas’s home recording and it transpires that some other Shetlanders were also ahead of the game. The recording bug took hold with a few other people on Shetland. None like Thomas I imagine. Remember, some of the fisherman also gained employment in the Merchant Navy and traveled around the world, to the USA, so when the seamen returned home, they brought back American music with them, in the form of gramophone records, so Thomas and others had been exposed to American music before most people on the mainland. He also listened to the US Forces Network Radio, which played Country music.
“Regarding tape machine usage, you are correct, but I would say by the 1960s, there were quite a lot of enthusiasts with tape machines. In 1953, when Thomas got his first machine, there were already two people in Shetland with recorders. In the mid 1950s it was very rare to have one of these machines, but it caught on fast. Paul McCartney and John Lennon had their own personal reel to reel machines – Paul McCartney was here in Shetland in 1970 on a short visit. I often wonder – he was just 9 miles as the crow flies from Thomas’s house and it is most likely that as Paul was strumming his guitar in the hotel in Lerwick (he took it with him), that Thomas would have been doing exactly the same in Burra. If only Paul had known, I’m sure he would have paid a visit, as they would be doing more or less the same thing. They would have got along like a house on fire…”
Thomas’s newly upgraded tape machine, the Grundig TK-35
Thousands of songs were recorded by Thomas and his wife Phyllis, the family still retain approx 1000 tracks. Karl adds,
“Regarding songs, we have about 1000 surviving tracks, but there was probably more in the region of 2000. Thomas had a bad habit of recording over songs, thereby wiping what was already laid down. Many tapes were lost in some way or another over the years. There was a bag of tapes which was loaned out by Bobby (Thomas’s nephew and guardian of the reels for some years), to a chap in Lerwick. The person came to return the tapes one night, but Bobby was not in. This person in his wisdom decided to leave the tapes in a carrier bag hanging off the outside door handle (in Shetland!). The tapes were never seen again. Thomas had sisters who had tapes and these were often recorded over with Top of the Pops programmes. We are lucky to have so much still at our disposal. ”
Thomas, in his later years, purchased a “Levin ‘Goliath” acoustic guitar, which still survives to this day. Karl tells us,
“His guitar, yes we still have it and it is in good order after a restoration. We also have his tape recorder (although it is not operational at present). We have his microphone and radio along with many of his records and sheet music.”
Thomas sadly passed away in 1978, after injuries sustained from being at sea, whilst scallop fishing some months before in 1977 on his boat. Thomas’s nephew Bobby had been taking care of all the reel tapes with Thomas’s recordings on them in the 1980s, but as more demands for the recordings came in, (as two Thomas Fraser cassette tapes were issued previously – “Memories of Yesterday’ – Volumes 1 & 2), But Bobby didn’t have the time to continue with the constant requests for more releases and it wasn’t until Thomas’s grandson Karl heard and took a more mature interest in his grandfathers’ music at his uncle Bobby’s house in the 1990s, that the next phase of the Thomas Fraser story began.
Karl was amazed at the wealth of talent his grandfather had and the amount of time and effort he put into all those recordings. Thomas was a self-produced artist. One of the first in Scotland. Karl felt the world had to know more about his grandfather and his wealth of musical output. He went on to transfer the old reels to CD then eventually to digital, to further preserve their family’s musical history, which is a part of music history of not only the Shetlands, but of Scotland too. Thomas Fraser was a self-contained musical pioneer, recording, singing, performing on his own, way way before it was the norm. Producing his own recordings. Had Thomas been living in Glasgow or Edinburgh, the outcome of his story would be very, very different and would have no doubt been involved with studios here or in London. I’m convinced he would have become a Producer and Mentor.
Thomas’s music & life was also the subject of a BBC Documentary “The Shetland Lone Star” in 2009. World renowned guitar maker from Glasgow, Moon Guitars, produced a commemorative guitar as part of the Thomas Fraser Memorial Festival launch and the National Theatre of Scotland toured Scotland then the USA, with Duncan McLean’s “Long Gone Lonesome’” in 2012.