Kathy Stewart Kennedy
Kathy recounts her first husband Andy M. Stewart’s life story and rise to fame with Silly Wizard; as well as her own musical journey from down town Manhattan to the village of Stow and beyond.
I grew up in White Plains, New York. It's a suburb of New York City. We were in between the country and the city in a sort of no man's land. I was born in the fifties. My mother spent a lot of time on the piano, so she was probably my very first musical influence. She used to sing at the piano and we had many records at home. A lot of them were stories of the composers. We used to sit as little children and listen to stories of Papa Haydn and Mozart. We were fascinated to hear that Mozart died penniless. We didn't know what 'penniless' meant!
Mum was a great influence, but also in the background was my Father who was a jazz musician. He went out and did gigs. He was a saxophone player and of course I adored my father – looked up to him – always have. Believe it or not, today is the 11th May which was his birthday. How appropriate that we're sitting here talking about music and my father. He was a natural musician in every way. He never studied music. He was a commercial artist in New York city but also a musician, playing in jazz bands throughout west Chester county and he was still playing up to the time of his death, latterly in Western New York in a club called The Cajun Club. He had a fan base there. I think the band was called The Gothams. They were all men of a certain age, all playing ragtime music during the lunchtime period. These women would come and probably relive their youth. The music was absolutely fabulous. On occasion I would go and sit there when I was in my twenties or thirties and listen to my Dad play. It gave me such a feeling of absolute pride. The licks and riffs he did on the sax were amazing. He had such a flair for it.
My mother insisted that my sister and I took classical piano lessons. I think in the back of her mind she thought she would like to bring up two proper young ladies and proper young ladies needed to be able to play the piano (as she had done when she was growing up.)
I had the most wonderful piano teacher, (following some that were less than wonderful and believed in using a ruler to rap errant fingers.) Dorothy Schumaker sensed something in me from the start. We bonded. She was incredibly talented. Her favourite composer was Schumann. She would tell me the stories of the composers and would make them come alive. She didn't just have me sitting down playing. She brought these people to life – their lives, their loves. She was a romantic. She lived alone and I think I was her favourite. She would take me to concerts. I think she was hoping I was going to be a concert pianist, but I knew at a young age that I didn't have the discipline it took. I had the passion but not the focus. I used to play and play night and day. It was recreation for me. I did several solo recitals. I remember being terrified. Miss Schumaker always invited all her Scarsdale friends and they all wore gloves in those days, and we all had to drink punch with our gloves on. It was lovely. But I knew as soon as I started listening to rock and roll, pop and folk music that I was going to go in a different direction.
My father gave me a guitar at the age of eight and having a guitar was just such a great thing in those days. I used to spend a lot of time in my bedroom as a teenager trying to figure out chords. I had a Pete Seeger book, so I started with C, F and G7 chords – I remember the F chord being the thing that I felt I had to conquer. What was great was that I started to write silly songs back then. I had a friend called Amy Potter and she and I used to get together at her house on guitar and piano and we used to sit and write songs together. Actually, she was a better songwriter than I was by far.
In those days there was something very organic about music. It's very different nowadays. Back then you had to seek it out and when you found the song you were looking for it was so exciting. There were radio stations in New York like WMCA and WABC. You'd have your transistor radio under your pillow at night and then your favourite song would come on and it was like yours and no one else's and there was something so personal about songs. If somebody connected with you then that was ace , so radio was a very important thing to any teenager back in those days.....and of course the Beatles. I had a huge crush on Paul as most of the young girls of my time did. I'd have dreams about him and end up kissing the pillow and thinking it was him and all that stuff.... His songs were beautiful. There were so many great musicians.….Herman's Hermits... 'Mrs. Brown you've got a lovely daughter.'
In my neighbourhood we had wonderful teenage parties that often took place in somebody's basement. The parents would be there on the sidelines. There would be potato chips and coca – cola and record players and we'd be dancing. When we started to grow up it was -Spin the Bottle - and all that. The parents were more watchful then!
In my late teens I told Miss Scuhmaker that I wasn't going to be studying piano at college. I went to study art, having got a scholarship due to a huge pointalistic painting I did of an old man, that won first prize in the White Plains art fair. In the high school I went to there were so many incredible people. The competition was insane for the school plays. There were all these magnificent singers and dancers. They were probably set to go to Broadway at some stage. I didn't think I could ever rise to that. I fell in love with opera. I had a fantastic teacher, Mr. Severtellow, who started an opera club in school. We had a lot of immigrants coming from Italy and he was wonderful with them. He was an Italian American, and an opera singer at the same time, but the most exciting teacher. When you grow up I think your first mentor is your Dad and then your next is your first male teacher. He had a massive influence on me because he was incredibly talented and what he would do in opera club is act out the opera and sing the arias for us and explain what they were. Next thing you know, you are going to an opera and loving it. I feel very lucky having grown up in New York because it was such a cultural Mecca. The art galleries there were so inspiring. We had Lincoln Centre there. We had the Met. I feel very blessed to have had all that.
I had a big attic room. I used to do massive murals on the floor. The murals were always characters from these operas. We were studying Shakespeare at the same time too. We had literature, art, music. We had all these immigrants from different place and there was a really large Afro-American group living in this area. You can imagine the kind of music we were listening to – things like Salsa. The Porto Rican radio station was fabulous. I used to listen to that a lot because I was studying Spanish at the time. At the dances the kids that were Afro-American were incredible. We used to just stand at the side and watch these guys dance. They wore great clothes too. It was always fun and we never felt that we could do ourselves justice if we were to join in, because they were the best, and the best in athletics as well. So we had all that. We never really had any racial tension although that was big in other places then. We just kind of appreciated each other. It was very rare that there were any problems. It was a wonderful community. It changed sadly, but I feel I was part of a wonderful community. All the different cultures worked together in one community.
I went to a junior college where I studied art in Massachusetts. I didn't see myself doing commercial art. I didn't have the focus for that. I loved oil painting and did a lot of writing and poetry. I was the co-editor of a literary magazine. I played guitar in the background. I went to Boston university next. I started living on my own and loved living in Boston. Boston was more intimate than New York. I stayed in a rooming house. In those days you could find a rooming house for about 30 dollars a week and I did some waitressing. I lived a kind of Bohemian lifestyle although I didn't take drugs and didn't do a lot of parties and alcohol. The last rooming house I stayed in was overrun with cockroaches! I got myself a big upright piano from Good Will – a charity shop. I listened to music a lot and there were lots of things going on in the area.
We had open mike nights. Joni Mitchell sang at one of the clubs in the Boston area that I was asked to play at. I remember gathering friends together and telling them I was going to be playing. At this point I had become so much in love with the songs of Emmylou Harris and Mary McCaslin. I listened to their songs over and over again. I would sit in my room playing the guitar, working on a style of singing and playing that I had never really played before. I found that I was very comfortable singing those kind of songs. As a New Yorker we're not thought of as being country singers but I just connected to that style of music, so that was what I was comfortable performing.
I got involved with a theatre group called Sanders theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts and started to get involved in Celtic music which I fell in love with too. I made friends with lots of musical people who played bagpipes and all sorts. I worked in a bookshop called The Celtic Realm. People used to come in and listen to records that we sold. Some of these were Silly Wizard, The Battlefield Band and the Tannerhill Weavers. There were artists from Wales and Ireland too and we sold books and all sorts of things. There was a nice little community in the Harvard area and there was a Celtic studies program there. Through that I ended up volunteering for an organisation called Black Dog Industries. We used to bring artists over from Scotland , England and many other places to perform at Sanders Theatre. There was an incredible array of the finest people around. We got Silly Wizard over. So that was how I met Andy M. Stewart and this was the beginning of our relationship. He was incredibly charming and gregarious. After writing to each other for a year Andy asked if I wanted to come and visit Scotland. I was very excited about that. Silly Wizard were doing very well at this time. They were touring quite a bit. Andy actually paid my way to go over. We stayed in Edinburgh. Andy and Martin Haddon lived in Stockbridge at that time. I became acquainted with all these wonderful people. Next thing Andy and I were engaged to be married, shocking my parents entirely. When Andy was on his way to meet them he said, 'I wonder how your parents are going to take to an unemployed banjo player!' But of course Andy charmed them also. They loved him.
We would take long drives in the car and he would come up with his dithery doos. Andy was a country boy from Blairgowrie. He loved the countryside. He loved fishing. He loved all that. He loved being a country boy. But there were lots of situations that were very difficult for him. He was grouped in with the traveller community, He found it very, very difficult at school and sadly he was discriminated against, which caused a lot of problems. He told me when things were going very badly for him that he wrote on a wall at school - I WILL SUCCEED. He was determined to succeed no matter what. I would say that he did!
His family were all singers and storytellers. His own mother was a wonderful storyteller and a huge influence on Andy. He would probably be rolling in his grave if I mentioned Granny Belle Stewart but all these family members were naturally an influence on everything that Andy did. The type of singing, which was unaccompanied, all from the Blairgowrie, Rattray area.... the storytelling, this was all interwoven in what Andy was all about. Also he loved Irish music and he would incorporate the Irish sound into his singing. So he would add extra Irish inflections to his songs. Andy's first band was called Puddock's Well and I believe that Dougie MacLean was part of that and maybe Martin Hadden. Andy was singing in the pubs around Blairgowrie and Perthshire and would play any chance he got. Andy was invited to join Silly Wizard as their singer.
When we got married we moved to Stow. Andy was great pals with Bill Watkins who also had a connection to Johnnie Cunningham of Silly Wizard. He lived with wife, Jackie and kids in Anvil Cottage at the Crossroads. He could sell Stow to anybody. He told us stories about it and the holy well and Bishop's Palace. Of course, Billy Watkins himself is a fantastic storyteller and author. He wrote a book of his own life – A Celtic Childhood, it's called. It did very well in America. His second wife was American. We stayed with Billy Watkins for a few months. We had many a hilarious evening sitting in front of the fire with Billy telling us stories and Andy joining in with even funnier stories.
There was a flat for sale across the road above the old cafe. We went to look. It was derelict but we looked around and said that this was where we were going to live. We didn't have much money for anything else. We furnished it with furniture from a local auction. I think it was possibly in the wee hall attached to the Royal Hotel, but I'm not sure. I remember buying a wing-back chair for something like 25p. We had no rug, we'd a crate that we put the television on. You know what....... we didn't really care. We had people coming in and out of the house. We were socializing with not an ounce of anything. It really didn't bother us that much. We had milk stamps at that time.
The Silly Wizard band had broken up. Phil Cunningham had said he wanted to go solo and for Andy that was the end of the band because Phil was the backbone of the band. Without Phil the band couldn't really be, and Johnny had left anyway. It was almost as if Andy had suffered a divorce. It was not a great time. I was expecting a child which came as another shock. From that time on Andy started working with the fantastic Irish musician Manus Luny. They really developed a beautiful sound. They went on the road together over quite a few years. Also, Bill Watkins taught Andy all he knew about the lighting industry. Andy and I started the company Strathmore Music and Film Services up there in that flat above the cafe. Little by little we furnished the flat. We were on this new business scheme. We got a little bit of income and we started our publishing company with Andy's first music book. I was doing all the transposing of the songs and we would send them to this wonderful fellow in Boston who was up to date with publishing. I had found all the photographs and I was doing the illustrations too.
Andy did quite a bit of songwriting over this period. One of the most memorable songs that I really connect Andy to Stow with is 'Heart of the Home.' Although he was a man for the road, he always longed for domestic life in a romantic way and I think to have his wife and son and a house was something he always idealized and always really wanted, and I think he achieved it because we did finally leave the flat and move to 49 Earlston Rd and to him I think it was a major achievement. For us as a family to actually have our own home was something Andy had fought and worked hard for. When I hear the song 'Heart of the Home' it is all about that, the idealized family around the hearth. He worked to the bone to achieve this. He was hard working. He worked hard on the road. He worked hard on his music and on that lighting company, to the point of exhaustion I think on lots of occasions.
There was a tune he wrote for me called 'Kathy Anne's Waltz' which is on his 'Man in The Moon' album. It is beautiful. We had an upstairs room on the third floor. He had this little dictaphone which he worked with and sometimes he would speed it up. You'd hear him working away and I have this strange memory of listening to the squealing of this dictaphone being sped up. Andy never took the easy root in whatever he did. Everything was complex. He wasn't straightforward at all, but he always came up with the goods in the end. He also wrote Golden Golden for me before he came to Stow and that is truly beautiful.
Songs written in Stow
Take Her in your Arms
If I Never Spend a Morning with you
My Heart it Belongs to She
At it Again
Listen to the People
When You Took Your Love from Me
Tak' it Man Tak' it
Donegal Rain. - The two of us collaborated on this one. We were in New York at the time and I was playing my mother's piano and it was the piano of my childhood and I had come up with this melody and Andy was taken with it and he said …........ 'Oh, I think we need to write a song.' He had found these lyrics in a book and he started to sing while I played the piano and all of a sudden, a song came out of it. It didn't happen like magic. When we got back to Scotland and back to Stow it took him a good while to work out, but it became a very beautiful song. Vince Gill, a famous country singer, also sings it.
Errant Apprentice - Bill Watkins helped with the lyrics of this. With some of these songs Andy would do a bit of research and sourcing and then come back with music. He'd ask me to play it on the piano and see what it sounded like. I have a distinct memory of going through Tak' it Man Tak' it with him. It's a kind of a jig rhythm. I worked very hard writing out the music for his second book as well. It was a long and arduous process.
A neighbour of ours, Bill Dickson, wrote the lyrics for Man in the Moon. I wrote about it in my diary. In fact, some other songs that Bill Dickson wrote are in this book as well. Bill was a very unusual character. He was affiliated with the folk scene and had been for many years. He knew Richard Thomson, an English songwriter, and people like that. He used to tell stories about Richard and other folk musicians. Bill suffered from a lot of different problems by the time I got to know him, both psychological and physical. He played guitar rather delicately. He was a mysterious person was Bill.
I'll just read out what I've written in my diary.
Man in the Moon was a song that significantly altered my life during this 4 year period during the nineties as it was the first in a series of songs that I composed in collaboration with lyric writer Bill Dickson of Stow, marking the start of an adventure both in my personal life and in the art of songwriting. The story behind the song and the song itself is as complex as the author's personality and merits more than a few paragraphs – a novel perhaps as the story is ongoing, or was, as Bill is no longer with us. I remember his funeral. I'll never forget it. For Bill and for myself, it was our first successful song because Andy liked it so much that he covered it in his album, also entitled Man in the Moon. That is significant. It is a song that has captured imaginations everywhere and has been performed by Andy M. and Gerry O'Burn from Scotland to Germany to the United States. Andy had started working with Gerry O'Burn the Irish guitarist. They toured all over the place. I've also performed it locally and in Edinburgh and it was on my first demo with Dick Gaughan, Alan Bertram and Mark Forshaw. It won second prize in a songwriting competition in Edinburgh in 1992.
Braeholm, Stow 1991
The lyrics were written under the light of an intense August moon just a few houses up the Brae at FairView and handed to me as a goodbye present the morning after. Emotions were highly charged at this time as my parents who had been visiting from the States for a fortnight, were leaving the next day and Bill Dickson, who had become a very good friend that Summer, was about to move to Edinburgh to attend college there, or so he had said. I had just taken a shower this particular morning when Bill arrived with his goodbye poem and I threw on a robe and ran down the stairs, hair dripping, as he handed me the envelope with the treasure inside. As I read the words I realized that this piece was perfection itself, with that odd hint of magic that makes it a true work of art. It was also very, very moving. The melody came into my head and curled around the words perhaps five minutes later. Yes, the tune needed refining. It took me a few days in front of the piano to do that, but it soon came into its own. It was as if the song had always existed somewhere but merely needed to be brought to life. But what was strange about this experience was Bill and I were, and perhaps still are, convinced that it was the moon, its energy, the pull of it, its power, that had done the real work.
Bill would experience, what I used to call, 'Little Deaths.' He would periodically disappear, lose himself, what he would call 'his fugues', binge on alcohol and live in the streets of Edinburgh. He would return to his mother's house in Stow destroyed, ruined and usually quite ill. Life in his mother's house was routine and somewhat regimented. Bill was a broken person emotionally and angry inside. He could live no other way than this it seemed. This song is about Bill's episodes of 'Little Deaths' and being brought down from them by someone he was close to, someone who brought him back to sanity, back down to earth. This earth is Bill's earth, the Border country, the country he knows in his bone marrow as he is a child of a long, long line of Scottish Borderers. It is a song about the changing of the seasons, the turning of the land and also the life cycle. It is a song about a tragic person who found a bit of understanding from someone who cared. Somewhere in the beechwood in Stow are two trees with moons carved on them. Underneath each tree is a flock of daffodils that reappear every year as a tribute to the Man in the Moon.
Because of my collaboration with Bill and the fact that he was clearly an interesting lyricist, it got me started writing music, penning songs of my own and of course with the influence of Andy, the great teacher, who I really looked up to as a songwriter. I thought he was faultless. He had such a style of writing and he was such a fine storyteller. Every song had a formula that worked as far as I was concerned. Of course, in the background was Andy's mother. Many times, Andy would try his new songs out on Martha, his mum. Nine times out of ten she would listen to his song and say, ' Yes son, that's a SONG, that's a SONG. If she said that then it was her vote of approval. When I started writing songs, I remember the first one I wrote on my own without Bill was Algoma Steel Fires. I remember singing that to Martha and she said, 'Lassie that's a SONG.' I think, because she gave it her seal of approval, I was happy. Martha was incredible. She may have been an eccentric person and I know she had mental health problems, but she was astute, and she was classy in so many ways and a very beautiful person. I loved her very much and admired her and when she said that it sort of got me going and there started a kind of prolific period in song writing for me.
The body of work that was for my first CD was all from those Stow days and probably went back into my past life as well, before Stow, all those memories came together into a body of work. What was lovely also was that Andy was incredibly encouraging and he said, ' Let's do something with these and consider making an album.' To cut a long story short, the album came out on Fellside? and that was the beginning of my recording experience. I was also doing the odd concert here and there.
I'd like to also add that Stow was going through what Nick Flavin called – The Mini Renaissance. I'll never forget it because we had a folk club, run by Tom Bonnar. I'd actually started writing songs. And you know Ruth, you and I had started 'Junior Acoustic Music.' That was a very exciting time. There were so many things happening. We had fund-raising festivals with paper boat racing down the Gala Water for Junior Acoustic Music. This organization was your brainchild. I seem to remember you saying.....I've got this idea. Come on over here for a cup of tea and we'll talk.
You had started working with children in the village hall on a preschool program to develop young children's musical awareness. You had them moving to music, singing, making instruments and all sorts. What was it you called it..... 'Soundstart.' You were starting to get a name for yourself doing this and it started a seed in the village. You were probably motivated by the fact that you had small children of your own. You wanted your own children to have a musical experience and to grow up with other children appreciating music in our little community.
Junior Acoustic Music was the next step along the way. I remember you telling me about your idea and asking me if I wanted to come in on it. I said, 'Yeah,' because I was unemployed at that time and it seemed like a great opportunity. We brought in traditional musicians from the area to teach children from the Borders in a fun way so that the children had a grounding in folk music and were able to learn instruments such as guitar, fiddle, flute, mouth organ etc. It started out in the Autumn of 1991 in Stow Town Hall. After the first year it moved to Langlee Community Centre as we were offered free accommodation there.
It was at that stage that I was starting to teach piano at the house. That is how I became more acclimated to village life. I think as soon as people started bringing their children to our house for lessons, I became part of the fabric of the village. It became a community to me. Before then I always felt a little bit marginalised, a bit like the proverbial tourist. I remember I helped Miss Stark at the school on a few projects. I played the piano for one or two of the school Christmas concerts and things and then I put on a musical play in the Town Hall, some out of space thing with rockets and astronauts and the like. It was quite an event in the village. It was great fun and very well received.
I now live in a beautiful little cottage, Primrose cottage, in Peebleshire. We go down roads sometimes and we don't know where we are going to end up. It's been a difficult journey in many ways. When I talk about my musical journey it is usually affiliated to what is going on in my life. I can't differentiate between one or the other. I would say that my album, 'Celestial Shoes' was part of the body of work that was created in Stow. 'Hope Tears and Tambourines' was my journey outside of Stow. I left Stow, a place that I loved very much, full of consternation and full of uncertainties. I tried very hard to be optimistic, sometimes failing but I have to say that I always found writing to be very much cathartic, so very important. So from there I produced a very different body of work altogether, probably written from an older woman's point of view, my album 'Almost Home.' I finished and launched this last year. People think of me as a country singer, but I think this latest CD is a little bit more about me being part of the Borders community because I have included Borders musicians and collaborated with local people. It was recorded in Penicuik with Dave Gray as the engineer. I got to be producer. I'd never done anything like that before. There were many wonderful people involved, all Scottish. It was an incredible experience.
Meanwhile I have remarried. I have a wonderful husband called Ken Kennedy. He's the head gardener at Port More estate, Eddleston. He is also a musician and he was very much involved in Hope, Tears and Tambourines. He played bass. Colin McFarlane, who lives in Earlston, was the producer. I cannot leave out Alan Bertram who was a massive influence. I have so much to be grateful for. Working with that man during the time that I was putting together Celestial Shoes was great. He is a great musician, and it was actually Andy who got us together. Andy heard Alan playing guitar and said, 'You know you need to work with him.' He is amazing and a great friend. I haven't seen him in many years, but he just recently sent me a beautiful card when he found out that Andy had passed away. Alan stood by my side, let me tell you, through thick and thin during that period of time..... And then there is Colin McFarlane, another phenomenal influence, musician and friend,....so I've been very, very lucky. Then there is the fact that Ken is a bass and harmonica player too and has his own musical history. The wonderful thing about the two of us is we do music together. That is what got us together in the first place, and a fine man he is..........!