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Thomas Fraser and the launch of Shetland's first vinyl LP this century

by Tom Morton -

Shetland still has Britain’s most northerly record shop - just as it has the northernmost church, the northernmost fish-and-chipper and the northernmost...well, everything. If you want north, we've got it.

The most northerly specialised record shop would be Lerwick’s The Bop Shop, which deals mostly in second hand vinyl and CDs, though it’s open only at weekends and at other times on demand. High Level Music - slightly to the south, about half a mile) is essentially about musical instruments and instruction, but also has a selection of music by Shetland artists.

However, neither of these fine establishments are official Record Store Day stockists, and so on 21 April, It was to Grooves in Orkney, part of the Old Library complex which includes The Sound Archive cafe and venue, an exhibition space and more, I perambulated (or sailed, there being water in the way). For Most Northerliness in RSD terms was there, and so was the launch of the Official Record Store Day 2018 Most Northerly Vinyl LP, and lo, it was and is utterly and completely Shetlandic.

Long Gone Lonesome Blues is the seventh release under Thomas Fraser’s name, though it’s the first on vinyl - all the rest are CDs. In fact it's the first album by a Shetland artist to be released on vinyl this century. It's an edited version of the CD of the same name, originally released in 2002. Twenty-four years after Thomas Fraser died.

You can listen to some of his music on YouTube here.

He was a Burra crofter-fisherman, and his story is extraordinary. In the 1950s, his passion for American music ignited by US Armed Forces Radio and imported 78s, Thomas began recording his own versions of classic country, blues and jazz songs, in his Burra croft, using one of the first tape recorders in Shetland. He rarely performed in public, but hundreds of songs were distributed throughout the isles to family and friends, on reel-to-reel and later on cassette. Thomas died in 1978, but a few folk in Shetland still remembered his talent and played his music. One day, his grandson Karl Simpson, heard the track TB Blues and was completely transfixed. “It was like hearing Robert Johnson or something,” he said, “and this was my grandad.” Karl decided to rescue Thomas’s musical legacy, find as many tapes as he could, have them mastered and released.

It was the start of something amazing.

Thomas Fraser was a Burra crofter-fisherman. His story is extraordinary
Karl Simpson: It was like hearing Robert Johnson - and this was my Grandad!

Thomas’s music touched the hearts of people worldwide, even in the home of country music, Nashville, Tennessee. As more CDs were released, interest grew. A TV documentary, a National Theatre of Scotland musical play written by Duncan McLean - which toured the USA to great acclaim - and a festival in Burra featuring an array of international stars. As Duncan McLean says, this lone crofter singing in his Burra home was not just one of the first European interpreters of American music, “but one of the finest interpreters of this music ever.”

And so we came to Orkney, to Kirkwall, to launch, 40 years after Thomas died, a heavyweight vinyl version of Lone Gone Lonesome Blues. Karl spoke, his mother May and his sister Rhonda sang.

I broadcast a live two-hour Beatcroft Social programme on 60 North Radio, accompanied by video from Shetland and Orkney, including interviews with Karl, May and Mackie and Stewart from The Old LIbrary. You can see a recording of that here - just click on the tab 'Beatcroft 21-04-18'

And I presented an hour-long BBC Radio Orkney Thomas Fraser Special which you can stream on Mixcloud here

There are still a few copies of Long Gone Lonesome left at record shops throughout the country. Only 500 were pressed, so they are bound to become collector’s items. Go to the Thomas Fraser website for more information about how to get a copy and about the festival planned for November this year in Burra.

Thomas's music touched the hearts of people worldwide

Posted in: Creative Scene

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