FolkFire Articles

January / February 1999

  • Focal Point - A True Folk Tradition
  • FolkFire Finds Friends Near and Far
  • An American Ballroom Companion Web Site to Go On-Line
  • FolkFireHome
  • Index of Articles

  • Focal Point - A True Folk Tradition

    Focal Point has presented true folk traditional, unique, multicultural, upclose and personal music concerts for 22 years. The audience members at Focal Point concerts are given the rare opportunity to form an intimate bond with the musicians and performers of the Focal Point Concert Series. Focal Point is a proud recipient of the 1998 St. Louis "AmerenUE Awards for Excellence."

    Focal Point audiences have been treated to many wonderful nights of world-class traditional music in the warm intimate surroundings of the Focal Point Traditional Arts Center. On February 13, 1999 the Focal Point Concert Series will proudly feature Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham.

    Aly Bain is probably the best and most significant fiddle player in the Celtic tradition. Aly was born in Lerwick, Shetland in May 1948 and grew up on the islands. He began playing fiddle at the age of eleven, learning from the late, great Tom Anderson, the acknowledged master of Shetland music. After several years playing locally in Shetland, Aly headed south to mainland Scotland and, through a chance meeting with Arthur Argo (who was the agent for Billy Connelly at the time), began his life as a full time musician.

    His dramatic playing, with great tone and technical ability, brought early recognition. Alert to the musical potential of dynamic interaction between Irish and Scottish traditions, Aly helped establish the Boys of the Lough, probably the most famous of traditional folk bands to date. Aly has played and recorded with the band ever since, covering more than thirty-seven tours of America, numerous tours of Europe and countless concerts in the UK.

    Simultaneously, Aly pursued his solo career. In 1986 Pelicula Films produced his first television program, embarking on a partnership which is still maintained today. The first project was the well known series Down Home, tracing fiddle music from its roots in Scotland across the Atlantic to the United States and Canada. To date, Aly has made no less than five broadcast television series bringing traditional music to a constantly widening audience, including the internationally famous Shetland Sessions, produced for BBC Scotland. Also published in September, 1993 was Aly’s autobiography, Fiddler on the Loose, co-written by journalist and editor Alastair Clark and available from Mainstream Publishing.

    Although Aly’s musical base is in Scotland, subsequent extensive travelling has given him an appreciation and mastery of many styles of fiddle music. He amply demonstrates this on both of his critically acclaimed solo albums – First Album, recorded in 1984 and Lonely Bird recorded in 1992. As well as his solo material and the numerous albums recorded with Boys of the Lough, Aly has also appeared on albums by Hue and Cry, Eddi Reader, Fish, Richard Thompson and Runrig.

    Aly has recorded an album with world famous accordion player and producer Phil Cunningham. The album, entitled The Pearl, is the third release on Aly’s own Whirlie Records and has received rave reviews since its release in September 1994.

    Among Aly’s additional projects was another television series with Pelicula called The Transatlantic Sessions broadcast in the UK in December 1995. It featured such artists as Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, Kathy Mattea, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Michelle Wright, Mary Black, Karen Matheson, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Molly Mason, Savourna Stevenson, Guy Clark, Mark O’Connor, Russ Barenburg, Jerry Douglas, Davy Spillane, Donal Lunny, John Martyn, Danny Thompson, Charlie McKerron, Martin Bennett, Simon Thoumire, Rod Paterson, Dick Gaughan, Jim Sutherland and, of course, his partner Phil.

    Phil Cunningham was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1960. His musical career began with accordion lessons at the age of three, with violin being added a few years later. His initial training was in classical music with a deep interest and love of the traditional music of his homeland developing simultaneously.

    At sixteen, Phil joined his brother John in the highly acclaimed Scottish band Silly Wizard and was a full time member of the band from 1970 to 1983, with the band developing into a musical force renowned not only in their native Scotland, but also in the rest of Europe, Canada, and the United States. The band’s reputation was established by their performance of exclusively traditional material, and to this Phil added many compositions of his own, adding to the musical heritage of Scotland and keeping the tradition alive.

    During this time Phi1’s work began to broaden and to take him outside the framework of the band. He began to find himself in demand as a composer and performer for television, radio, film and stage. Phil left Silly Wizard in 1983 to pursue a solo career.

    Between 1985 and 1987 Phil toured with supergroup Relativity, comprised of Phil, his brother Johnny, and Irish brother and sister, Michael and Triona O’Domnaill. They made two albums together.

    Phil’s two solo albums, produced during this time, are Airs and Graces (1984), which won a prestigious American Indie award, and The Palomino Waltz (1989).

    In 1988 Phil worked on a series of six television shows with Aly Bain and this was the beginning of what has now become a well known performing partnership. Since 1989 Phil and Aly have toured together in Scotland on an annual basis and play to packed concert halls everywhere. Their first album together The Pearl, was released in 1994.

    In 1990 Phil worked as Music Director and wrote the instrumental music for Bill Bryden’s theatre production, The Ship. The production ran to a full house of 1200 people for 12 weeks during Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture. In 1994 he was Associate Music Director for Bill Bryden’s theatre production, The Big Picnic.

    In recent years Phil’s workload has included numerous commissions for TV and film, and an increasing amount of work as a musical director for television working for BBC Scotland as Music Director on four series of six programs of the Gaelic/Traditional music series Talla a’ Bhaile, Music Director for BBC Scotland’s Hogmanay Live for four years. The most recent of these went out on the network. He composed all the music for BBC’s Tales of Parahandy in 1993/1994. Phil completed his Highlands & Islands Suite, an orchestral work, in 1996.

    Focal Point Arts Center provides space for music, dance, spoken word and theater.
    The performance space is maintained and improved through the efforts of Focal Point sponsored projects. For updated concert, ticket and building schedule information, call Focal Point phone calendar at 314-961-6881. For Focal Point building and rental information, call Carol at 314-677-5515. Visit the new Focal Point website at

    FolkFire Finds Friends Near and Far

    When FolkFire launched a fundraising campaign in October, no one really knew what to expect. Driven by the hard facts of rising paper costs, increasing postal rates, and escalating print charges, a fundraising effort was imperative. The mailing list was small and the competition for contributors’ dollars was intense. "We appealed with a good case to our friends in the folk dancing and folk music community, and then, we hoped for the best." says Richard Baker, President of the FolkFire Board.

    By early December, contributors had sent in a total of more than $1,000. Donations ranged from $5 to $50, with an average of $25. The rate of response -- 26 percent -- is one that any not-for-profit organization would envy.

    Significantly, donations came not just from the St. Louis community, but also from Tennessee, Arkansas, New York and Florida. Comments from both local and long-distance contributors indicate that FolkFire is gaining recognition as a role model for comprehensive, timely, and clearly presented information. "I’m happy to support FolkFire," wrote one donor. "It’s a must for any dancer."

    Proceeds from the fundraising effort will have a major impact on the economics of FolkFire newsletter. Produced six times a year, FolkFire is financed by subscriptions, advertising revenue and contributions. "The infusion of money from this fundraising drive will make a big difference."

    The drive’s success has broader implications. Grant-making organizations, to whom FolkFire has recently begun applying for funds, look for demonstrated community backing for organizations seeking aid. The positive outcome of this fundraising effort will help FolkFire make a stronger case for grants, matching funds and support from new benefactors.

    "This drive has been a real eye-opener," says Baker. "The resounding message is that FolkFire is doing a great job that is really appreciated by the folk-dancing and folk-music community."

    Our Thanks to the following FolkFire supporters for their generous donations:
    Amy Auffenberg
    Richard Baker
    Claude Bernard
    Earl Biffel
    Gloria Bilchik
    Bill and Diana Blanchard
    Susan Brown
    Gayle Diane Buzard
    Lynne Clark
    Rex and Nancy Couture
    Donna Curran
    Linda Durrer
    Donna Eckberg
    Moritz Farbstein
    Gail Hintze
    Amy Jesaitis and Peter Stix
    Ken Johnson and Joyce Wilson
    Kathy Katich-Zust
    Kevin Keach
    Carol King
    Dan Klarmann and Karen Jackson
    Kevin Kundert
    Kathy Lass
    Peggy Lavender
    Laura Leade and Edwin Hawkes
    Anne Leners and Daniel Cook
    Susan Lied
    Leslie Lihou
    Nancy Lippincott
    Paul and Gloria Mahoney
    Matthew and Brigid McCauley
    Marie McGovern
    Cheryl Mines
    Missouri Fiddlers and CMA
    Patrick Morris
    Mike and Pam Mullins
    Jack Oglander
    Michelle Peter
    Kim Portnoy and Constance Mueller
    Ann Rehme
    Patricia Shaw Savant
    April and Alan Schwartz
    Stephanie Sigala
    Edward Steele and Judy Papian
    Dennis Talbert
    David Van Berkel
    Peter Yronwode and Paula McFarling
    William Zuppann and Edna Hayes Harrison

    An American Ballroom Companion Web Site to Go On-Line

    Dance Instruction Manuals Cover
    More than 400 Years of Social Dance.

    The release of a complete multimedia collection of dance materials covering more than 400 years is now on-line from the Library of Congress’s American Memory Web Site at

    An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, Ca. 1490-1920 was produced by the National Digital Library Program, in conjunction with the Music Division, and is the most recent performing arts collection to be released.

    The centerpiece of this site consists of more than 200 books relating to instruction of social dance during the 400 years that are represented in the collection. In addition to dance instruction itself, the books cover other related topics such as etiquette, dance history, anti-dance treatises and notation.

    The newest feature of An American Ballroom Companion is the addition of 75 video demonstrations of many of these historic dances, enabling users to compare directly the written texts with the movements themselves. These short videos consist of excerpts from a performance in full costume, as well as close-up video "tutorials" of specific steps.

    This site is the first of the Library’s performing arts electronic collections to feature complete books on-line, along with video clips. This collection provides a way for scholars, dancers and students of all levels to research and replicate the steps to historic dances from their nearest computer terminal. These materials represent a comprehensive look at the history of social dance within the context of specific eras, from the Renaissance pavane and galliard to the group dances of the late 18th century, the popular 19th century waltz and the more adventurous dances (such as the tango) of the ragtime era.

    Other features of this site include a narrative overview of the collection in a historical context and a special section on "How to Use a Dance Manual." Both of these were written by noted dance historian and choreographer Elizabeth Aldrich, who served as special consultant on this project.

    An American Ballroom Companion is an electronic collection only; the books themselves are located in several Library divisions including Music and Rare Book as well as the general collections.

    Visit An American Ballroom Companion