Friday, 1 April 2011

Mary-Anne Paterson: not one of your hairy weirdos

After all the brouhaha surrounding ‘acid folk’ in recent years, it surprises me that Mary-Anne Paterson’s sole album remains so obscure. Me slipped out on President’s budget Joy subsidiary in the spring of 1970, and sank without trace. The only review that I’ve ever seen appeared in Gramophone that September, and simply reads: ‘A Scottish folk singer with a soft vocal style and a good selection of songs, including Coulter’s Candy, The Gentleman Soldier, Come All Ye Fair And Tender Maidens and The Water Is Wide.’ This hardly does her justice – in my opinion Me is the best true acid folk album made in the UK during the genre’s heyday. (And I’m using the term strictly – most artists that get called 'acid folk' are simply weird pop bands who played acoustically: Comus, Mellow Candle, Spirogyra and the like. My interpretation is music rooted in traditional folk, but which adds spacey and freaky flourishes to the ancient songs and melodies.)

But I digress. Mary-Anne was born and raised in Edinburgh, where she was surrounded by artists, writers and musicians. Like many of the city's teens, she hung out at the Grail bookshop in the mid-60s, and tentatively began to perform at the Traverse Theatre and the annual Festival, as well as training to become a drama teacher. A friend of hers had a music publishing contact in London, and suggested that her lovely voice might be suitable for recording. In the autumn of 1969 Mary-Anne dubiously travelled to London to make a demo, and was signed by President soon afterwards. President was owned by Eddie Kastner and made most of its money out of publishing classic rock and roll songs, though its label had considerable success with The Equals and a handful of others. Mary-Anne had a strong interest in mystical religion at the time, and the deal's appeal for her lay largely in the name of the publishing company she signed with: Pan Musik.

Mary-Anne recalls the album being recorded in Denmark Street's Pan Sound Studios around New Year of 1970, overseen by producer Mike Cooper (not the singer-songwriter), whom she remembers as "a lovely, kind and meticulous man who made a great fuss over me and worked terribly hard on the arrangements. Really, he's the one who has to be thanked for the way the music turned out." Backing her was a bunch of buskers who went uncredited on the original back cover. After reissuing Me on Sunbeam, I was contacted by the renowned Canterbury scenester Geoff Leigh, who wrote: "I recently bought Mary-Anne's CD from you, mainly to check out the 'mystery buskers' who played on it. I can confirm that they were yours truly on flute (I recognised my playing straight away!), Alan Moller on guitar and John Doherty on percussion. We used to busk a lot in those days - she no doubt saw us in Tottenham Court Road tube station, just around the corner from Tin Pan Alley. However, in true 60s style, I have no recollection at all about the session!"

The album combines beautiful takes on standards like The Water Is Wide and The Jute Mill Song with two lovely self-penned ballads (Love Is Gone and Reverie For Roslyn, which bookend the set), and a truly deranged freak-out (on Black Girl). Paterson’s voice is gloriously pure throughout, and the record benefits from a cool, spacey sound and mix. For me the only missteps are The Gentleman Soldier and Candyman, whose jaunty tone jars somewhat - but all in all, it's a folk classic. Bizarrely, President chose a horribly dull cover shot for the LP, though clearly the relevant shoot had yielded far better pictures (see the top of this post). It's almost as if they were willing people not to buy it... They arranged no publicity whatsoever either, though my copy had a faded newspaper clipping inside - it's undated, and I have no idea what publication it comes from, but it's the only piece of press relating to Me I've ever seen:

Following its instant obscurity, Mary-Anne returned to Edinburgh and never heard from the label again. She continued singing, but made no further recordings, and eventually began working as an arts therapist, helping asylum seekers and refugees, as well as patients in hospitals. As she told me at the time it appeared on Sunbeam: "It absolutely amazes me that anyone's interested in this obscure little record I made all those years ago, especially as I never aspired to a career as a singer. But it's very flattering, and if it helps draw attention to my other work, I'll be even more thrilled."


  1. Thanks for the piece and the pics Richard.
    It's true this is an obscure album, certainly one I discovered recently and in fact I'm surprised that nobody ever mentioned it to me...people that like myself are well into this kind of stuff.
    Acid folk? hardly...we all know the problems about certain (most/all?) labels. Inevitably each person will have his/her take on it. Personally I feel the only track that's definitely 'acid folk' and the whole album's highlight is her fantastic version of 'Black girl'. I suppose Geoff Leigh and the other buskers have to be thanked for that!
    I also like the cover, the pics in the red at the top they're nice but kind of too the hazy pic that was used it's hard to tell where she might be from...she looks South American rather than Scottish!

  2. I'm also a big fan of this work and would be pleased to see it highlighted more. As for the acid folk label, I know exactly where you're coming from; the production job on "Me" helps make the album what it is. The sense of space and eerie atmosphere go hand in hand with the base acoustic guitar and flute, the combination is dreamy, mystical and right at the more bucolic end of psychedelia.

    Mary Anne's sole record is a beautiful work (her lovely voice almost goes without saying) and it's good to see her slowly getting her rightful praise.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Aldo, as I tried to explain in my post, it's the production on this LP that reflects an acid influence, not the lyrics or music. I agree that Black Girl is the furthest-out thing on it. PG, I agree that the sense of space is really effective on Me - I can't think of any other album of the time that makes traditional songs sound so ethereal (especially The Water Is Wide).

  4. Fair enough about the production, it certainly makes the difference on an album which is almost entirely made up of traditional songs...
    You say it's not the lyrics or music: well, you can appreciate then that despite a certain spacey quality of said production for some labeling such a record 'acid folk' can be misleading...
    I really like the record but I honestly think that a lot of people would expect something different when described as such.
    I'm not a fan of Comus, Spirogyra and others that I feel are rock bands with not enough folk! I prefer others like Dando Shaft for example, not to mention of course the Incredible String Band especially of their early 1966-68 period...there's no better label than their own name, perfect description!
    I suppose for me 'acid folk' is better represented by acoustic albums influenced by traditional forms but generally made of original songs...on top of my head I would say records like Forest's debut or COB 'Spirit of Love' from around the time of 'Me'.

  5. Hi, I was at school with Mary-Anne. Fancied her rotten. She agreed to go out with me once on the basis that I would never ask her again. Foolishly I agreed. We went to the cinema - the Playhouse - but I blew and didn't go out with her after that. I did see her frequently at a club and went out with one of her friends for a long time. I have Mary-Anne's autograph and still have it to this day. I can remember seeing this recording in a shop sometime in the 60s but regretfully didn't buy it. I have an MP3 of track 9 The Water Is Wide.

    Give her my regards, David Millan