Scottish folksinger and raconteur Hamish Imlach reached a milestone in his career this summer: 25 years as a professional musician. But he forgot to mark the date on his calendar. "It never occurred to me that it was my 25th year," says Imlach, who plays the South Side Folk Club Saturday. "I think I'll be different; I'll have a 26th-anniversary tour next year."
Over the years, the colorful Imlach has evolved into somewhat of an institution amongst European folk circles. He has recorded 18 albums, and has over 30 tracks featured on various folk compilations. But his initial love of music developed by accident.
"In the '50s, I used to go to jazz clubs because it was the only way to meet women. And I became interested in the blues. I started out trying to copy Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy - that sort of stuff - nearly all American. I didn't have anyone to teach me, so I started to pick up stuff off 78s."
"So I developed a fairly unusual style of playing the guitar. (It's) more like flailing banjo, hitting done with the (thumb) nail, because I can't use a pick."
But by the early '60s his technique had developed to the point where he taught guitar. Bert Jansch (Pentangle), Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band) and his star pupil, John Martyn, polished their skills under Imlach's guidance.
But that was in the future. In 1959, Imlach and the late Josh MacRae recorded several Irish rebel songs. They sang Bold Robert Emmet to the tune of the Streets of Laredo, and it got to number one on the Irish hit parade.
And during this period, Imlach first started adding hilarious monologues to his performances. "In the early days of the folk clubs, most people were petrified in front of a live audience. For me talking and telling jokes is a way of relaxing. My first concert was at the Citizen's Theatre in Glasgow in 1960, and I can remember introducing The Twa Corbies -sort of a knight in shining armor- as a shite in mighty armor. I was absolutely petrified."
In those days, nobody in Britain could earn a living solely from performing live folk music. Imlach tried university. "I was a failed student. I was supposed to be studying engineering but spending all my time in jazz and folk clubs in Glasgow. Then I got married for the usual reasons - I have a daughter of 29," he says with a laugh.
But in 1964, Butlins holiday camp at Ayr offered him full-time work during the Glasgow Fair fortnight. That gig lasted a week. The manager caught him singing Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice - a bawdy song sung entirely in Glasgow vernacular. "The career started badly and fell away," says Imlach, philosophically. Yet he turned professional that summer, and later signed to the prestigious folk label Transatlantic Records.
Although he rarely wrote songs, he had an uncanny knack for collating fragments of songs and poetry, and providing them with traditional melodies. And by the end of the '60s, he had established a reputation as one of the British folk scene's major attractions. Emerging artists, such as Paul Simon, often filled opening slots for Imlach.
And when the folk club circuit dried up in the early '70s, he found an eager audience on the European mainland. But constant touring and drinking took its toll. "Exhibition drinking in Germany nearly killed me," says Imlach. "There was one particular gig I did. They (the organizers) laid on a bottle of whiskey for me, and I finished it off (over four hours).
"A guy from a popular newspaper was there. He did a full two-page spread with a photograph of the empty bottle, and me - still sober. Every gig for years in Germany, I would get a bottle of whiskey on the stage, and I would get a round of applause every time I look a drink. The people would say. 'He wasn't very good tonight, he only finished half the bottle'."
Those drinking bouts reached a climax in 1977, when his kidney collapsed. He wound up in hospital critically ill. "I lost eight stone (50 kg), stayed off booze for 18 months, felt thoroughly miserable, and said, 'Sod it,' and started drinking the odd beer. Obviously, I can't drink like the old days."
Nevertheless, his career's solidly back on track. He's touring the globe, and still making records. He has just finished recording Portrait - an album that features German folk musicians. "It's a real mixture of traditional, contemporary sort of blues and rag-time type of things I did 20 years ago. I'm not going to please the folk critics very much, but you can't please everyone."
This story gives some biographical details about John Martyn's mentor. It was published in Canada in The Edmonton Journal of Friday 22 September 1989.