THOMAS FRASER (By Kevin Carey)
Born Thomas James Fraser, 20 March 1927, Burra Isle, Scotland
Died 6 January 1978.
Flicking through the latest CD reviews in The Independent, my attention was drawn to the review of 'You And My Old Guitar', the second compilation of Thomas Fraser's recordings. Thomas who? The reviewer was glowing in his praise for these home produced, reel-to-reel recordings which had been laid down over a 25 year period in the style of Jimmie Rogers. Time to find out more.....
Thomas James Fraser was born on March 20th, 1927 on Burra Isle, one of the Shetland Islands in the far north of Scotland,. Within a few months of his birth, Thomas's family moved to Setter, the most northerly part of Burra Isle, where Fraser would remain for the rest of his life.
Receiving his first musical instrument, a fiddle reputedly dating back to the Crimean war, at the age of 8, Fraser's uncle proved an early musical influence, although it seems that several family members were instrumental in helping him hone his skills, both with the fiddle and yodelling. In any case, Thomas would soon receive his first guitar and countless hours spent practicing in his family loft would see him becoming proficient at this instrument. He would later learn to play both the piano and mandolin.
It was when Thomas was 12 years old that he received a gramophone player, again from his uncle, and Thomas was soon eagerly collecting 78's by his favourite artists, particularly Jimmie Rogers. Once again, it wasn't long before his constant playing and efforts to emulate Rogers' style would lead to the gramophone being banished to the loft along with his growing array of musical instruments.
When he was 18, Thomas was asked to perform at his brother's wedding, but being very shy, agreed to do so on the condition that he was hidden from public gaze and Thomas ended up playing his fiddle and singing in a closet! Later, he would perform as part of a small band and made some wider public performances across the Shetland isles. A lifelong friend would posthumously comment that Fraser was "painfully shy" and it perhaps offers a clue why he failed to exploit his local popularity.
1953 saw the acquisition of a Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder, something which caused much interest on the isle of Burra which had only recently had electricity installed. A second machine, a TK35, was purchased in 1956 and these two machines became the mainstay on which Fraser would record thousands of songs over the next 25 years.
Recordings were laid down in the small croft which Thomas shared with his wife, Phyllis, and daughter, May, born in 1956. Recording "sessions" were recorded mostly in isolation, with his wife and daughter banished, leaving Thomas to experiment with recording techniques which the 2 CD's show in an evolutionary way. Interestingly, bearing in mind Thomas clearly saw music as a "hobby" and not a profession, in 1961 he paid the princely sum of £60 for a new guitar, a Levin Goliath, which he would play until his death. Considering what the average adult wage was in 1961, that is the equivalent of paying something like £2,500 for a guitar today. Perhaps, in acquiring this instrument, the notion of singing professionally was considered but not pursued.
Of the 2 CD's, Long Gone Lonesome Blues is one of the best I've heard in this genre. Fraser clearly had a finely tuned ear for music, while his vocals have the same depth and sincerity as anything produced by Jimmie Rogers; Fraser's take on Hobo Bill's Last Ride, TB Blues, Brakeman's Blues and Whippin' That Old TB are amazing. Add to that fine versions of Long Gone Lonesome Blues and Lullaby Yodel - including unexpected vocal accompaniment from his daughter! There is also an experiment in multi-tracking on 'Traditional Reel', with Fraser playing both fiddle and guitar and then mixing the two recordings.
Thomas remained on the Isle of Burra, pursuing a career as a fisherman in the hostile waters off Burra, surviving a near fatal incident in 1973 when his boat ran ashore and sank, leaving Thomas perched precariously atop the small rocky outcrop as the tide rose. As the icy water rose, another local fisherman saw him and with the help of others managed to rescue Thomas just as the waters were rising above his head.
In 1977 a second accident would have fatal consequences. The exact cause of the accident was unknown (Fraser worked alone), but it appears that he sustained a heavy blow to the head while hauling in his creels and it was some time before a passing fisherman noticed Thomas's boat drifting. The injury was serious enough for Thomas to be flown to Aberdeen on the Scottish mainland due to internal bleeding, before returning to Burra. On his return, it seems the accident had a lasting effect and Fraser suffered recurring headaches which he refused to seek medical attention to relieve, and worked very little thereafter. His last recordings were made in April 1977, eight months before his untimely death, aged just 50, on 6th January 1978.
Perhaps foretelling his own impending death, Thomas asked his nephew to look after his precious tapes, saying that "Maybe someday I'll be famous!"
Two audio cassettes were released in the early 80's - Memories Of Yesterday, Vol 1 and 2
There has also been a 90 minute documentary broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, which may be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in the future.
Further reading: http://www.thomasfraser.com/news.htm
Kevin Carey, May 2004
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