Positively Scottish Humans of the US: Carl keeps alive Scotland’s musical culture

Carl playing in Seattle in 2000

Wi’ his kilt and sporran, and never-ending repertoire of nostalgic Scottish songs, Carl Peterson has been keeping the Caledonian musical flag flying across the Atlantic since the early 1960s, first in Canada, then the United States. Originally from Greenock, Carl was inspired by Scottish folk stars such as Robin Hall and Jimmie Macgregor, and The Corries, as well as Americans Pete Seeger and Burl Ives. He has delighted concert audiences in every US state except Alaska, and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island. Now living in Pennsylvania, and after years entertaining on the Highland Games circuit, Carl is turning his hand to writing about the close historical connections between Scotland and the United States.

I left Scotland when I was 16 and went to Canada, and I was there for 20 years before I came to the US. I hadn’t been back to Scotland for 14 years so it was neat to go back for three weeks this year and visit the places that I sing about in the States.

I met this old fellow in Greenock and he went on about the town losing the shipyards. I thought, maybe I’m missing something here but I remember what it was like…my father getting up at five o’clock in the morning and working in the yards and the dust and the smog. But a lot of people don’t recognise that.

Carl in San Francisco. Behind him is the tall ship Balclutha, built at the Charles Connell shipyard on the Clyde

Carl in San Francisco. Behind him is the tall ship Balclutha, built at the Charles Connell shipyard on the Clyde

In the early 60s in Canada we had a wee trio going called the Patmacs. Then a friend of mine from Port Glasgow came over and joined us and he wanted to form a rock’n’roll group. We started a group, the King Beezz, with two or three Scottish guys, and for a few years they were one of Canada’s top rock’n’roll groups. We had four top 20 hits but I got tired of that scene and I went back to folk music.

We reformed the Patmacs but after a while I decided to go out on my own and headed to Montreal. After the Quebec movement started, a lot of the Irish bars closed down and I decided to come down to the States, and that was when I got into doing Scottish festivals. It was a lot of travelling and a lot of fun.

When I got started doing the festivals there was just me and another fellow from Glasgow, Alex Beaton. Sometimes we would play the same Highland Games.

Then the Celtic rock thing came along which I think spoiled it. It was a bit ridiculous because a lot of these festivals now are music festivals rather than Scottish Highland Games. These groups go and do rock versions of Whisky in the Jar and a lot of the Scottish culture at these festivals is being lost.

Carl PetersonWhen I did all my concerts I didn’t do any Irish stuff, I appeared in my kilt. The audience always wanted to see the kilt, and when we are Scottish and wearing the kilt we have more to offer visually than the Irish do. I always maintained a Scottish identity, I was adamant about that.

You have to know how to play an American audience so it doesn’t go over their heads. You can sing the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond and Over the Sea to Skye, then bring in all the other stuff and they accept it very well. Scottish people over here are well liked.

I had brought out a CD called ‘Scotland Remembers the Alamo’ which was well acclaimed and got a lot of good reviews. I thought I had to write a book explaining the connection so I wrote it and called it ‘Now’s the Day and Now’s the Hour’. After the Revolution, when Sam Houston took over the Texas army, he asked for volunteers with the cry, ‘Freemen, Freemen of Texas. To Arms, To Arms! Now’s the Day and Now’s the Hour’. Of course I recognised the words straight away.

I’m now writing a book based on my experiences at school and a CD I wrote about the Faerie world in Scotland and I’ve spoken to a film maker. So there’s a chance it might become a TV series.

My sister keeps telling me I was better off in Scotland. But I never would have had the same success as a singer and entertainer. I have played Scottish songs all over the United States and Canada and I like to think that, in my own small way, I have kept Scottish culture alive and well.

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