With a proper job working as the curator of the Alan Lomax archive, Nathan Salsburg knows a thing or two about the power that folk song – and all song – has to transcend vernacular and tell stories to listeners whose own experience might have little in common with the characters or the set and setting of the songs. Such is the powerful, often unconscious, connection we have to our roots, songs about the Highland clearances or murderous trolls or the Thirty Years War can resonate just as powerfully in suburban semis as Scottish provincial folk clubs or the American Mid-west. To wit, Salsburg lives in Kentucky, is originally from Pennsylvania and here sings entirely empathetically a song about a Scot migrating to Newfoundland in the 19th Century, written in 2006 by British folk revivalist Archie Fisher, also known for presenting BBC Radio Scotland’s Travelling Folk since the ’80s.
An expressive guitarist whose album of fluid instrumentals is punctuated by this and just one other vocal track, Salsburg gives gentle voice to the titular Mackenzie, an impoverished Highland crofter and single father to three grown sons, who’s lured to Canada by the promise of a new life there with his brother’s supposed widow. Coll makes the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to find his brother “full fit before my eyes” living with his wife and her younger sister, whose letter and photo he’d fallen in love with.
His three sons, previously thought doomed to factory life in Glasgow, are there too, happily sailing in the bay and completing this rather spooky portrait of domestic salvation through migration. Are they all dead? Was it all an elaborate ruse on the brother’s part? We don’t know, but Salsburg sings the song beautifully, and even makes a passable stab at describing Coll’s “bauchle brogues and pladie” (old shoes and a blanket in non-Scots).
The song closes with, “My name is Coll MacKenzie and I'll have you understand / That I am a St John's fisherman come o'er from fair Scot-land”, with the emphasis on the ‘a’, and in doing so Salsburg retells the story for American ears. What a pro.
And here’s the track: