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Obituary: Joan Blue BEM was Scottish country dance music doyenne

'Accompanist extraordinaire' Joan Blue was a hugely respected musician, whose enthusiasm inspired generations of youngsters.

Joan Blue playing piano in black and white photo of Scottish country dance band quartet
Joan Blue at her beloved piano. Image: Supplied.

Joan Blue, who has died aged 91, was a doyenne of Scottish music, performing at dances, teaching generations of youngsters and delighting audiences with tales from her eventful life.

Her late husband Jimmy Blue was an accordion legend, but Joan was an accomplished musician in her own right.

An “accompanist extraordinaire”, she played piano alongside some of Scotland’s leading lights.

And her contribution to music and education was recognised with a British Empire Medal, which took pride of place in her Bankfoot home.

Joan Blue smiling in later life
Joan Blue. Image: Supplied.

Born in Balhousie Street, Perth, on February 18 1933, Joan McFarlane McNeill was a second daughter for John and Molly McNeill.

Music was there from the start.

Joan remembered meeting her dad from his work at Pullars and marching, arms swinging in time to the pipe marches he whistled on their way home.

At the age of 10 Joan expressed an interest in the piano.

She was tutored by Miss McLean from Rose Crescent. And Joan’s playing improved so quickly that by the age of 14 she was playing for country dance classes in Bankfoot and the Tulloch Institute for five shillings a night.

Black and white 1970s photo of Joan Blue in long dress with husband Jimmy and Ian Powrie in kilts holding accordion and fiddle
Joan Blue with husband Jimmy, right, and Ian Powrie.

Joan won a bursary to Perth Academy but didn’t want to be known as an “Academy Ashbucket” so attended Caledonian Road Secondary.

She did well, concentrating on commercial studies, and went on to join the civil service when she left school, working in Highland House.

Joan and Jimmy Blue made a formidable couple

In 1950 Joan was approached by Bill Wilkie of the Accordion Orchestra
to ask if she might join them as pianist.

It was there that she learned how to “vamp” on the piano. And she always credited Bill Wilkie as the biggest influence in her musical life.

She also met Mickie Ainsworth, leader of the orchestra, who in turn introduced her to Jimmy Blue.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Joan and Jimmy Blue, she is wearing wedding dress, he is holding an accordion
Joan and Jimmy Blue on their wedding day. Image: Supplied.

Joan and Jimmy were married in 1955. And while Joan had to give up her civil service career she continued playing with the Mansfield Quartet.

The couple had two daughters, Virginia and Sandra, which curtailed Joan’s musical career.

But with Jimmy playing summer seasons with Andy Stewart, then touring Australia and New Zealand, Joan joined the WRI and formed a successful choir.

She wrote pantomimes for the ladies to perform in the village hall and even managed to appear on Grampian television’s Pick of the North, singing and accompanying her neighbour Ann Kemp in a talent contest.

Joan and Jimmy Blue holding hands at a function while Andy Stewart in tartan jacket speaks into a microphone and a group of musicians with accordions, drums and keyboard sit behind
Joan and Jimmy Blue with Andy Stewart. Image: Supplied.

In 1966 Joan joined the Kinnoull Band. She loved this time in her life and would sing and play piano, performing regularly at dances in Blackford and Amulree and even as far as Northumberland.

Education became Joan Blue’s passion

This was also when Joan looked into teaching music.

She was auditioned by the Perth schools music supervisor, and the following week she was teaching at Milnathort school.

So began three years of her being a peripatetic music teacher, teaching at Goodlyburn, Forgandenny, Craigend, Bridge of Earn, Glenfarg and Milnathort.

One of her proudest moments was winning the primary school’s class at Perth Music Festival with her Goodlyburn pupils.

However, in 1969 when the General Teaching Council was set up, Joan was advised she would have to train for four years.

Despite her record of success, the unqualified teacher had to resign.

Joan Blue playing piano on stage with musicians including Angus Fitchett on fiddle and Sir Jimmy Shand
Joan Blue with Scottish music legends Angus Fitchett on fiddle and Sir Jimmy Shand. Image: Supplied.

But, as one door closed, another quickly opened. And in 1970, Joan was offered the post of secretary to the Mother Superior at Kilgraston School.

Never one to shirk a challenge she accepted and spent 30 happy years there.

Her musical talents were appreciated at Kilgraston. She collaborated with the drama and music staff in their productions and started her beloved fiddle group with pupils and staff.

The fiddle group ran from 1995 until 2020, with Joan finally retiring at the age of 87.

‘Never refuse an invitation’

In August 1970 Joan was appointed secretary of the newly formed Perth and District Accordion and Fiddle Club.

She held the role for 23 years and was delighted when the National Association of Accordion and Fiddle Clubs honoured her at an annual lunch in the Huntingtower Hotel in 2016.

Joan and Jimmy Blue standing next to a framed portrait of themselves, with Sir Jimmy Shand
Joan and Jimmy Blue with Sir Jimmy Shand. Image; Supplied

When Jimmy Blue died in December 1999, Joan’s mantra became “never refuse an invitation”.

And so when she was approached by Perdy Syers Gibson, who asked if she would accompany her for fiddle competitions, the answer was a definite yes.

The pair travelled all over the country participating in concerts and festivals, including the Edinburgh Festival, and made a CD together.

Joan also spent many years accompanying violinist, Stella Wilkie, and through Stella became involved in Music for Hospitals.

They played in care homes and hospices to entertain the patients and produced a CD in aid of Alzheimer’s Scotland.

CD cover showing Joan Blue smiling on piano while Perdy Syers Gibson plays violin
Joan recorded a CD with Perdy Syers Gibson. Image: Supplied

Joan also enjoyed trips to Shetland with Stella to take part in the annual festival. And the family remember Joan returning from these trips buzzing with stories of music sessions, drams, dancing and laughter.

A life in music lived to the max

Joan gloried in having a busy diary and once gave an example of her week’s activities.

It included playing organ at Forgandenny church, accompanying the guest artist at Banchory accordion club, being interviewed by Robbie Shepherd for Take the Floor, accompanying musicians at Perth accordion club, playing with the Angus Strathspey
and Reel Society, taking her fiddle group at Kilgraston then accompanying the guest artist at Crieff accordion and fiddle club.

Joan Blue in later life, smiling in a dark coat
Joan Blue. Image: Supplied.

As well as playing piano, Joan was booked to give talks about her music and did the circuit of rotary clubs, church meetings and WRI groups.

Her talk was appropriately titled My Life in Music.

She also loved to travel and visited many countries including Canada, Thailand and Australia with her friends and family.

In November 2022 Joan was presented with a British Empire Medal for her services to education and music by the Queen’s Lord Lieutenant at the City Chambers in Perth.

It was a reflection of the respect in which she was held, and recognition of the creativity, musicality and warmth which made her so beloved.

Painting of Joan and Jimmy Blue.
A portrait of two Scottish music greats. Image: Supplied.

Joan spent her final days in Balhousie care home in Pitlochry where she was looked after by the kind and caring staff.

When she arrived there she commented that it was fitting. She had been born in Balhousie Street and would end her life in Balhousie care home.

“You do know,” she said to her daughters, “that I was the original fair maid of Perth.”

In addition to being a much-loved wife and mother, she was an adored nannie to four grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.