Robin Williamson

I have no doubt that if the institution still existed, Robin Williamson would hold the title of 'Nightingale', the Chief Bard of Britain. I owe him a lot.

I had piano lessons at school and the experience was dismal. I struggled to read music (to this day I muddle crotchets, quavers and minims) and in any case hated the pieces I was supposed to learn. I never really warmed to the sound of the instrument. When I scraped a pass at grade 3 my teacher told my parents that I had no musical ability and that they were wasting their money. Though I yearned to play it seemed that music was for others, for those who'd been born with the elusive gift.

When I left school I spent a long weekend with my friend Andy, a fine rock guitarist, down in the New Forest (I don't know what happened to him, or whether he still plays - we lost touch). He'd just picked up the tin whistle and so I sat under broad oaks while he played tunes learned from early Clannad albums. It was all rather haunting.

So I thought 'perhaps even me, with my total lack of musical ability, might be able to get a tune from a whistle!'

After a certain amount of aimless noodling I realised I needed to learn a bit more systematically. I spent a day playing and rewinding a Clannad tape, figuring out 'The Harvest Home' by jotting down how many holes I needed to cover. It was a slow, laborious process.

Then, when I got to University, a friend passed me a book, The Penny Whistle Book by Robin Williamson.

I think Williamson wrote it when he was living in California, playing with the Merry Band: certainly the American can do attitude shines through. Using the US-favoured system of whole, half, quarter and eighth notes (mathematical sense at last!) he taught me to read music. With his characteristic wit and wisdom he led me through ever more complex tunes, through ornamentation (cuts and rolls), vibrato and how to make the whistle sing, all the while making me feel like I was embarking on some kind of adventure.

It was the perfect start. The whistle led to the mandolin and to singing, and also, in the other direction, to my becoming a piper (my logic being, well, if I can get a tune out of the whistle, maybe I can get a tune out of a mandolin, and so on, step by step). And so it was a tremendous honour to support Williamson at the Wildways gig, the weekend before last. He was the man who got me started and I remain extremely grateful to him.

Williamson's music has always been strange, otherworldly and potent, often filled a kind of prophetic charge. With such a strong flavour it's something to be savoured, like a fine whisky. Now approaching his seventies, the power of his music hasn't diminished. I took home a vinyl copy of his latest album, Love Will Remain, complete with a gatefold booklet of his paintings. The whole package is a beautiful meditation on a life, richly lived. It's an album about memory and about love.

Like The Penny Whistle Book, it is profoundly wise and I could quote from it at length: Williamson still has much to impart. Instead I shall just encourage you to buy it, and leave you with one short quote from the autobiographical 'A Road Wound Winding.'

'Music is a power which comes from the Eternal. Sometimes humans get to play it.

Sometimes they don't get in the way too much.

And the music gets through.'


  1. Five Denials on Merlin's Grave - absolutely one of the most powerful and moving pieces of bardery I know. I am grateful to him for that.

    1. Agreed! I've just got a live version of it too - extraordinary! Happy Beltaine to you - up the May! xxx

    2. I turned on the radio one night when I was 16 to listen to the regular folk program, and got '5 Denials' in its entire glory. I always kept a tape sitting in the 'boom box' just in case something good came up. I pressed 'record'...and It changed my life. I listened to that tape over and over for years, and when I was afraid it would wear out, I dubbed it onto another tape. It made me the person I am today.

      And Andy, I'm sooo glad you didn't let some stupid, cloth-eared teacher stop you believing you could do it!

  2. It's a bit hard to disentangle at this distance, but there's a good chance that it was also Williamson who bears the responsibility for me first getting a whistle ... though only because he played it on records, not because I got the book. Heck, if I'd got the book at the same time as I got the whistle, I'd probably have learned to play it left hand over right like everyone else, and then not had to do an awkward adjustment when I tried the clarinet and sax. But it's too late now; I'm a right handed player of everything else, but still a left-handed whistler.

  3. Thanks for this Andy. Just bought the last copy on Amazon of The Penny Whistle Book, and downloaded Love Will Remain from iTunes - not the tactile joy of vinyl, I know...

  4. Amazing post. I've loved Robin Williamson since getting the Penny Whistle book nearly 20 years ago. It taught me whistle and started me on the winding road to folk music and accordion (and this blog Even more influential in my life is his concert video, which gave me a model of how I might be in performance. Just an amazing concert that I've watched again and again (until the tape broke). Thanks for this.



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