Michael Marra obituary

Scottish folk singer-songwriter and playwright known as the Bard of Dundee

The Scottish singer-songwriter and playwright Michael Marra – popularly known as the Bard of Dundee – has died aged 60 after suffering from cancer. Marra's songwriting was rooted in Scottish life, and he found an enthusiastic audience within and beyond the folk music scene, which led to him supporting performers such as Van Morrison, Barbara Dickson and Deacon Blue. His song Hermless was regarded as a potential Scottish national anthem.

The son of a printer and a schoolteacher, Marra was born in the Lochee district of Dundee. At 14, he was "encouraged to leave" Lawside academy. He worked in a variety of jobs, such as a messager, baker and labourer, before forming his first band, Hen's Teeth, in 1971. The lineup included the songwriter Dougie MacLean.

Soon, Marra was playing in the Dundee band Skeets Boliver, alongside his brother Christopher. The brothers wrote the band's first single, listed as Streethouse Door on the label although the band actually sings Shithouse Door.

In spite of extensive touring, they had little commercial success and the band folded in the late 1970s. By then living in London, Marra released a well-regarded solo album, The Midas Touch, in 1980. But his songwriting was embedded in the Scottish experience and he returned home to release a second album, Gaels Blue, in 1985.

Marra's distinctive emphasis in his songwriting on the people of Scotland, and in particular his native Dundee, drew him into the Scottish folk music scene, with its blend of traditional songs and more recent compositions. The band Hue and Cry popularised Marra's Mother Glasgow, while songs such as Frida Kahlo's Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar and General Grant's Visit to Dundee illustrated his quirky humour. His love of football spawned Hamish the Goalie – about the Dundee United goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine – which was also recorded by Leo Sayer, and The Flight of the Heron, a tribute to the Celtic footballer Gil Heron, father of the poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron. Another of his songs tells the story of when a fox ran on to Celtic's pitch in the middle of a game. Hermless was perhaps too personal to be considered seriously as a potential national anthem, but the idea of celebrating the lives of ordinary people appealed to Marra.

Marra's musical style was influenced by Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. His preferred accompaniment to his gravelly singing voice was the piano, though he also played guitar. His recorded output was not extensive, but included Quintet (2007), comprising songs about five musicians, including the Shetland guitarist Peerie Willie Johnson and Martin Carthy. A collaboration with the band Mr McFall's Chamber led to concerts and an album in 2010, while his last recording, Houseroom, saw him paired with The Hazey Janes, whose members include his children, Alice and Matthew.

Marra provided music for plays such as Billy Kay's They Fairly Mak Ye Work at Dundee Rep in 1986. Collaborations with Edinburgh's Communicado theatre company led to Marra working as an occasional actor. He sang the sentimental ballad Old Shep on BBC Scotland's Highlands police drama Hamish Macbeth. His play St Catherine's Day was enthusiastically received in Glasgow and at Dundee Rep. With the Scottish poet and dramatist Liz Lochhead, Marra devised the show In Flagrant Delicht, which was performed in the US and Australia as well as Scotland. His show A Wee Home from Home was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010. He wrote an operetta, If the Moon Can Be Believed, and the songs for The Mill Lavvies, first performed in 1998 and revived at Dundee Rep in September 2012.

Marra was awarded honorary doctorates from both Dundee and Glasgow Caledonian universities. He toured England infrequently, but appeared at the Sidmouth, Towersey and Derby folk festivals, and his poignant lyrics and keen sense of humour were in evidence when he shared the stage with Karine Polwart and Chris Wood in the concert The Tongue that Cannot Lie at Kings Place, London, in 2011.

He is survived by his wife, Peggy, whom he married in 1972, and his children.

• Michael Marra, singer-songwriter and playwright, born 17 February 1952; died 23 October 2012


Derek Schofield

The GuardianTramp

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