Robin Williamson has spent his musical career bridging the gap between old traditions and new styles. From his innovative work with Mike Heron in the Incredible String Band to his efforts to revive the bardic tradition, he has built an impressive catalog spanning four decades. “Rather than ask what Robin Williamson does,” noted Jo Hughey Morrison in MusicHound Folk, “it might be more appropriate to ask what he doesn’t do.” He has been nominated for several Grammy Awards and has written scores for a number of motion pictures. “Williamson has been rock steady,” wrote Thorn Jurek in All Music Guide, “in his investigations of all things poetic and traditional… since 1962.”
Born in 1943 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Williamson grew up in the Home Counties and also spent time abroad in France. He completed school at Auld Reekie and at 16 began performing as a musician. He traveled to London in the early 1960s with guitarist Bert Jansch, and the two spent the winter traveling the folk circuit. He eventually learned to play the fiddle, guitar, mandolin, sitar, flute, and harp. In 1965 he met Clive Palmer and the duo performed old-time Scottish and Irish songs at the Incredible Folk Club.
After the duo signed with Elektra Records in 1966, they recruited multi-instrumentalist Mike Heron and called themselves the Incredible String Band. As producer Joe Boyd pointed out, the Incredible String Band was the first group to combine various influences to perform in a style that is now referred to as world music. Although the band’s first album was well received, Palmer departed to pursue other projects. Williamson, meanwhile, traveled to Morocco for three months before returning to Scotland with an assorted collection of instruments. These instruments would be employed on 1967’s 5000Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, an eclectic album featuring original compositions by Williamson and Heron. The band found success with 1968’s follow-up, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. “Although the music was less commercial than its predecessor,” noted Jim Powers in All Music Guide, “it reached the top ten in the British album charts and was also the group’s highest Billboard chart placing in America, reaching number 161.” The group recorded a series of ambitious albums including Wee Tarn, U, and Changing Horses before breaking up in 1974.
Williamson moved from Scotland to Los Angeles with his wife Janet in 1975. Temporarily disillusioned with the music business, he turned to writing. He completed the loosely autobiographical “Mirrorman’s Sequences,” which was published in the collection Outlaw Visions. He then co-wrote a detective novel with Dan Sherman, titled The Glory Trap. But Williamson soon returned to his first muse. He played a number of dates with a short-lived band called the Far Cry Ceilidh Band, but the group never recorded. For his next project he formed Robin Williamson and His Merry Band with classical harpist Sylvia Wood as well as Chris Caswell and Jerry McMillian. The band’s first release in 1977, Journey’s Edge, explored traditional music. It was followed by American Stonehenge in 1978. The Merry Band developed a reputation for the diverse nature of their live shows and what Lahri Bond of Dirty Linen referred to as “good-spirited bawdiness.” His Merry Men released A Giant at the Kindling in 1979, an album that featured Williamson’s epic “Five Denials on Merlin’s Grave.” In December of 1979 the band performed its last show and broke up.
Williamson toured as a solo artist during most of the 1980s, performing one-man shows in the ancient bardic style. A live show would be broken into two parts, the first consisting of an eclectic mixture of material with the aid of multiple instruments and the second set made up of an epic-length story. “I’m just trying to extend the general approach to combining spoken word and sung word…,” Williamson told Bond, “working largely in the Celtic tradition, but trying to write new things in that style. I think the music I make and write as an artist has borrowed not only from the heritage of Scotland, but also from the romantic and visionary heritage which sprang from the Celtic revival of the 19th century….”
Williamson also worked on motion picture soundtracks during the 1980s. He scored a 13-part series on Welsh history, The Dragon Has Two Tongues, and contributed to the music of director Ron Howard’s Willow in 1988. In 1987 Williamson recorded a children’s album, Songs for Children of All Ages, for Flying Fish. He also became involved in non-musical ventures, including the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Caledon Forest Project, a
Born on November 24, 1943, in Edinburgh, Scot-land.
Formed Incredible String Band with Clive Palmer, 1966; performed with Mike Heron in Incredible String Band, 1966-74; moved to Los Angeles, 1975; formed Robin Williams and His Merry Band, 1976; released Journey’s Edge, 1977; released American Stonehenge, 1978; released A Glint at the Kindling, 1979; toured as one-man solo act, released a series of albums on Hying Fish, 1980s; relocated to Wales, 1980s; formed recording label Pig’s Whisker Music, 1996; re-formed Incredible String Band with Heron, 1997; recorded A Job of Journey Work with Clive Palmer, 1999; released debut for ECM, The Seed-at-Zero, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Pig’s Whisker Music, P.O. Box 114, Chesterfield, Derbyshire S40 3YU, England, website: http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/˜uniq grav/.
fund set up to replant native hardwoods. “The Celts respected the soft feminine nature of the landscape,” Williamson told Bond. “They held their bardic colleges deep in the sacred groves of the ancient Caledon Forest….”
In 1996 Williamson restructured his publishing company and formed an independent record label called Pig’s Whisker. He immediately began issuing both new and archival material, including Farewell Concert at McCabes, a live recording with His Merry Band, and Robin Williamson and Mike Heron—Bloomsbury 1997. The latter recording originated from a number of live dates with Williamson and Heron performing as the Incredible String Band. With 17 releases in two years on Pig’s Whisker, Bond noted, “Williamson juggles as many projects as he plays instruments.”
Williamson rejoined original Incredible String Band member Clive Palmer in 1999 and issued At the Pure Fountain. “[l]t was just great to see Clive again after all those years,” he told Bond. “It was like a 30-year circle being drawn to completion.” He recorded The Seed-at-Zero for ECM in 2001, writing music to accompany the works of Dylan Thomas and several other bards from the British Isles. “Musically this combination of words and music is nothing short of stunning…,” noted Jurek. “It is moving in that it is not so much a tribute to the work of such men, but is a statement on how timely, even now, their purpose and words are; a brilliant work.” Williamson’s renewal of ancient traditions has created a distinct body of work with an optimistic vision toward the future. “With all the bad news around these days,” Williamson told Bond, “we, as artists, have to paint pictures that rekindle the spirit, that say there is hope.”
(With the Incredible String Band) 5000Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, Elektra, 1967; reissued, Collectors’ Choice, 2002.
(With the Incredible String Band) The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Elektra, 1968; reissued, Collectors’ Choice, 2002.
(With His Merry Band) American Stonehenge, Edsel, 1978.
Songs of Love & Parting, Flying Fish, 1981.
Legacy of the Scottish Harpers, Flying Fish, 1986.
Celtic Harp Airs & Dance Tunes, Greentrax, 1997.
Ring Dance, Pig’s Whisker, 1998.
Just Like the Ivy, Pig’s Whisker, 2000.
The Seed-at-Zero, ECM, 2001.
Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Dirty Linen, August/September 1999, p. 20.
“Incredible String Band,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 6, 2002).
“Robin Williamson,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 6, 2002).
“Robin Williamson: In Celebration of Celtic Roots,” Dirty Linen, http://www.dirtynelson.com/linen/feature/33williamson.html (June 6, 2002).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.