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By Promote ShetlandDecember 15th 2021

Lewie Peterson is a stalwart of the Shetland music scene, playing with several bands and helping to organise the annual Shetland Folk Festival. As part of our series of posts linked to the Celtic Connections “Shetland 550” programme, he reflects on the influences that shaped Shetland’s unique musical culture.

It is truly exciting to be playing live music again, seeing people exhilarated to be out dancing and singing with friends. As I write, I have just returned from my first “mainland” trip since we were told to “stay at home” in March 2020, and the first mainland gig with The Revellers since 2019.

However, one of the trip’s highlights for me was a chance-invite to a friend’s flat where the whole living room (all folk musicians based in Glasgow) enjoyed an informal session through the whole evening. It was a reminder of the power of music on the soul and a timely example of what can make traditional music so powerful.

Playing music in a room and collaborating with people you admire and respect – there are few things so life affirming to me. Laughter, enthusiasm, the exchanging of tunes, songs, humour and maybe a dram or two. The anticipation of learning and pushing your musical boundaries, the joy of remembering a melody you forgot you had loved. Then those moments of awe when you see musical heroes doing something only they can do or when you notice the early glimmer of talent by someone you hadn’t met or didn’t realise they even played.

When it is done well, it is based on mutual respect and open mindedness – a cacophony of sounds, culture, stories that you can fully participate in as both audience member and player. No hierarchy, nothing forced and everyone chipping in at will.

The same could be said about traditional music in general. As the classical composer, Gustav Mahler said: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” It evolves all the time to reflect what is happening (or sometimes what is missing) in our lives.

Most of the traditional customs we take pride in in Shetland are heavily influenced by other cultures. For example, our famous fiddle tradition literally came off a boat from Germany or the Netherlands when the Hanseatic trade brought European vessels to Shetland’s shores. As well as goods and fish, music and tunes were traded, too.

Many of the staple session tunes still played today were introduced after Shetlanders were exposed to hives of international activity in whaling stations on both sides of the equator. Meanwhile our Nordic roots (over 550 years old) are said to have influenced what could be called the ‘Shetland style’ of playing.

No social event did without a fiddler back in the day despite, at one point, fiddle music being as rebellious in the church’s eyes as the Sex Pistols were in the 1970s.

International influences came from other sources too. Tom Anderson was one of our most famous fiddle composers and tradition-bearers. He was directly inspired by how Indian locals maintained direct links to their history and culture, as he discovered while stationed there with the RAF.

“Peerie” Willie Johnson’s famous guitar accompaniment style came from listening to French gypsy jazz and American western swing on the wireless at his home at da Herra, Yell – an example of how our cultural remoteness from the rest of UK meant we have often done things a little differently before sharing it in its new form to the world.

One American musician ... once said to me that he hadn’t known a community that took its music so seriously as Shetland.

Lewie Peterson
Lewie Peterson

Another strong feature of our culture is how much music forms part of our everyday lives here. One American musician – the former Grammy Award winner Paul Kowert from Punch Brothers and part of the Haas, Kowert, Tice Trio that visited Shetland for 2014 folk festival – once said to me that he hadn’t known a community that took its music so seriously as Shetland.

He said that as much as he enjoyed compliments for his playing, he also received just as many technical and musical questions – a curiosity about the wider world that we often overlook here.

Taking music seriously is something we have needed to do throughout time as with a relatively small population, musicians are always in demand and even to this day play different genres and styles for whatever the occasion. Many of our local musicians need to be just as up on their AC/DC or Lady Gaga as they do on their Willie Hunter or Ronnie Cooper – they are just as reflective of life in the isles too.

Without looking outwards and harnessing the ideas and influences of the times, Shetland’s music tradition simply would not be relevant today. Our ability to push boundaries and merge musical cultures is something is what has given us a distinct exportable sound that people around the world want to listen to.

That is a story we felt was worth sharing – and at Celtic Connections next month we will get a chance to reflect the isles in this way again.

Like a good music session, I hope folk take away an impression of the shared pride we have in our history and culture, an openness in collaborating with some of the special guests we have involved and a warm welcoming atmosphere for folk to congregate and enjoy themselves in wherever they are from.

If there’s a few glasses raised too, I certainly won’t complain.