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There’s More to Life Than This: the Musical Activism of Dick Gaughan

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail saying that I had been refunded for three tickets I had purchased to see the Scottish folk singer and socialist Dick Gaughan in concert. There was no explanation given for why the performance had been cancelled and, disappointed that I couldn’t take my parents to see the man about whom I had been raving to them for years, I took to the internet for more information. It became clear that Gaughan was suffering from some serious health problems, which he has since clarified to be a suspected stroke. His family and friends and those who know and love his music can only hope that recovery is swift and total. Those who have never had the pleasure of hearing him should hope that he will return to the stage again. He is a fine singer, and extraordinary guitar-player and a lifelong champion of worker’s rights, whose work deserves to be more widely known.

A professional musician since 19701, Gaughan has written many great songs of his own about Scottish history, international socialism and all manner of things of general humanist interest, but he is perhaps best known, fairly or not, as an interpreter of other people’s songs. His early albums lean heavily on traditional Scots ballads, or the “muckle sangs” (big songs), telling tales of centuries of Scottish history to new listeners. Then, as he told Roots World magazine in 1998, the murder of the socialist folk singer Victor Jara in 1973 at the hands of Pinochet’s regime in Chile focused his mind and brought him to the realisation that he “couldn’t just play old tunes. You had to speak out. And, really, that is what the tradition is about. Traditional music – which to me has always meant just the songs that people sing and listen to, be that rock ‘n’ roll or old ballads – it has always had to do with politics.”2 He began to see the journalistic music of his own time as part of the wider folk tradition, saying “It is subversive to acknowledge that ordinary people actually have a culture with artistic merit. This gives the lie to those who would like us to think that the poor are poor because they are stupid.”

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats once introduced a song by saying “There is a magnificent Mark Eitzel song called ‘It is important throughout life to proclaim your joy.’ It is also important to admit on occasion to the righteousness of your fury, the justness of your cause in the face of those who would do you wrong.” Dick Gaughan has never needed to be reminded of this. On albums like Gaughan and Handful of Earth, which Folk Roots magazine called the best folk album of the ’80s, he began to include well-chosen topical songs about workers’ issues and the political chicanery of the elite.. The writer’s credits on these records read like a who’s who of British folk songwriters, and in Gaughan they had found a scorching voice. The version of Ed Pickford’s “Worker’s Song” that appears on Handful of Earth remains this writer’s pick for the best British folk recording ever put to tape. And he branched out too, singing about Tom Paine, Geronimo and even recorded a beautiful version of Joe South’s Games People Play.

That Gaughan’s interpretations are often more or less definitive says much about the power of his artistry and the overwhelming sense of integrity he brings to his approach. He has recorded and performed a number of outstanding songs by a fellow Scot, Brian McNeill, who is a fine singer and guitarist in his own right, yet his own recordings pale in comparison to those made by his friend. Some of these songs represent the best available distillations of Gaughan’s own ideas and interests. “Muir and the Master Builder” tells of the naturalist John Muir’s harsh, ultra-religious upbringing in Dunbar, Scotland, and how the love of nature which later led him to lobby the US Congress to create Yosemite National Park grew out of an explicit rejection of his father’s pessimistic, Calvinist view of God’s vision and beneficence. For Muir – and I think for Gaughan, who has described himself as an “atheist” but whose admiration for the 17th Century proto-Christian socialist group the Diggers suggests a nuanced outlook – a god whose plan for the world is one where men go out into the community and lecture on morality while beating the Bible into their children at home simply does not square with a god who could be responsible for the sheer majesty of what McNeill’s song calls “the Redwood Cathedral”.

And who grew straighter than long Johnny Muir,
A redwood of flesh, blood and bone,
Filled by the Master Builder with a passion so pure
For the mountains that no one can ever own

The last line, in particular, expresses a recurring theme in the songs Gaughan sings. Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” has been recorded by many musicians, notably by Billy Bragg, but Gaughan’s reading on his 1981 album Handful of Earth is the most searing version I have heard, and again explores the notion of the earth and its riches as a common resource for all, and the vicious resistance with which citizens are met when they try to assert such a natural order.

We come in peace they said to dig and sow,
We come to work the lands in common and to make the wasteland grow,
This earth divided we will make whole
So it will be a common treasury for all

Yet if all this sounds like the standard socialist folk stuff, so obvious as to be cliché, so traditional as to be conservative, then surely the most interesting aspect of Gaughan’s work and his live persona is his ability to surprise and turn preconceptions on their heads. I first saw him perform at the Walthamstow folk club in London, around five years ago. The atmosphere in the venue was genial, communitarian, everybody appeared to know everybody and there was no traditional opening act, the stage was simply left open to local musicians and regulars and anybody who wanted to sing or play was invited to step up. A number of different individuals did so, some were very good, some not so good, but all sang the kind of simple protest songs one expects to hear in such a place and, not long into the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in Britain and with a referendum on Scottish independence given prominence in the Scottish National Party’s manifesto that year, a raucous, rebellious mood quickly filled the room. One middle-aged man who had accompanied himself on banjo as he sang about the 1984-85 miners strike stood next to me after his performance and I noted the pin badges on his banjo strap and waistcoat, expressing solidarity with all manner of respectable socialist causes.

As Gaughan finally took to the stage we were therefore all primed and ready to hear this proud working class Scotsman of Highland and Irish stock sing songs about the Highland Clearances, the Jacobites and all the rest. And he did, but not before giving a speech about the pathetic posturing of Scottish politicians living high off the hog while claiming affinity with the great rebel leaders of the past, great rebel leaders who themselves had fraudulently posed as liberators while looking to reinforce absolute monarchism and hereditary privilege. He then launched into a ferocious version of Brian McNeill’s “No Gods and Precious Few Heroes”, a withering response to these politicians and their romantic nods to the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie fighting the English:

A
nd tell me will we never hear the end
Of poor bloody Charlie at Culloden yet again?
Though he ran like a rabbit down the glen
Leaving better folk than him to be butchered,
Or are you sittin’ in your Council house, dreamin’ o’ your clan?
Waiting for the Jacobites to come and free the land?
Try going down the broo [job centre] with your claymore in your hand
And count all the princes in the queue

Though an open, active supporter of Scottish independence, Gaughan appears to have the same contempt for the traditional symbols and myths of Scottish nationalism as for the Scottish nobles who signed the Act of Union with England in 1707. He knows that they are distractions, that there’s “nothing much to choose between the old laird and the new” and that if a people allow themselves to be intoxicated by “the lies of a past that we know was never real”, they will find they have simply exchanged one yoke for another once they have won their so-called independence.

With the greatest of respect for the other musicians who played that night, it was immediately obvious that the main act was a more complex and nuanced artist and simple sloganeering would not be a factor for the rest of the night. It’s for this reason that he will stop singing songs if he feels they are being misinterpreted, or his intentions are misunderstood. On the 1985 album Live in Edinburgh there is an excellent performance of Tommy Makem’s Four Green Fields, a song which was written in the 60s but has become so widely-recorded by folk singers that it is often thought to be one of Anon’s masterpieces. The four green fields of the title refer to the four provinces of Ireland, one of which, Ulster, is “in bondage”, and Ireland, personified as a grief-stricken old woman, laments her loss. It ends with a prophesy:

‘But my sons had sons, as brave as were their fathers,
and my four green fields will bloom once again’, said she

The song was written two years before the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and its tone has more in common with the poetry of Yeats than the kind of pro-IRA rebel songs that would emerge from that conflict, but these lines would soon seem very topical and were quite easily presented by other performers as a call to arms. On Gaughan’s website he explains that he performed it in “an attempt to move this song away from the triumphalist and sectarian approach which is the usual interpretation and try to place it where it rightfully belongs, as part of the wonderful tradition of songs which represent all Irish people. Unfortunately, the sectarian associations have proven too strong so I now refuse to sing it live – so please don’t ask me.” This kind of honesty with oneself and one’s audience seems unusual to me, and wholly admirable. He is an artist who accepts that to be openly politically radical is to be accountable.

Earlier this year, the British press was awash with the symbols of British patriotism, militarism and empire, the occasion being the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. As someone whose respect for, and fury on behalf of the ordinary men and women of the armed forces has increased exponentially with my antipathy to their senior officers and political leaders and the decisions they take, there was something more than a little unseemly about the tone of these expressions of remembrance. There was a great deal of focus on the flag, the nobility of the sacrifice and the occasional vague reference to the horror of day-to-day existence on the frontline, yet precious little on the insanity of it all, and the failure of the state to live up to its responsibilities to those young men who survived. It all made me think of Dick Gaughan’s song “Why Old Men Cry”. Musically it is not his finest hour; experimentations with piano, electric guitar and glossy production in the 1990s were not entirely successfully, but the lyric is stunning. He sings of a pilgrimage to the battlefields of Ypres and Passchendaele where his maternal grandfather died. For a few verses it sounds like a simple lament for the fallen, then a graphic depiction of a horrifying death, drowning in the mustard gas which “swept the trenches and ripped apart his lungs”, and then comes the turn, or volta in poetry terminology. Gaughan’s narration brings the listener back home to the mining villages of East and West Lothian, Scotland:

I walked from Leith to Newtongrange at the turning of the year,
Through desolate communities and faces gaunt with fear,
Past bleak, abandoned pitheads where rich seams of coal still lie
And at last I understood why old men cry

For Gaughan this is the greatest betrayal. The national myth that grew out of the Great War was that the fallen gave everything for our freedom and future prosperity, and that they succeeded. Yet for men like Gaughan’s father, the new covenant in free Britain was not much different from life before the war:

My father helped to win the coal that lay ‘neath Lothian’s soil,
A life of bitter hardship the reward for years of toil,
But he tried to teach his children there was more to life than this,
Working all your life to make some fat cat rich

Anyone who has ever found themselves wondering why social activists bother in the face of overwhelming, crushing adversity can find their answer in these lines. “There was more to life than this”. Even if all there is more of is the activism, the caring, the fight, there is meaning and purpose in that. Gaughan is not a pessimist. The song ends on a hopeful note and so will I. We must hope that Gaughan’s health problems are behind him soon. There are few left like him and there are too many songs he hasn’t sung yet.

I walked from Garve to Ullapool as the dawn light kissed the earth
And breathed the awesome beauty of this land that gave me birth
I looked into the future saw a people proud and free
As I looked along Loch Broom out to the sea

You can make a donation to Gaughan’s health care fund here.

Notes.

1  http://dickgaughan.co.uk/biography/index.html

2   http://www.rootsworld.com/rw/feature/gaughan.html

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Jamie Davidson writes about politics and history. He studied neither of those fields at Goldsmiths, University of London and now lives and works in Shropshire, England. He can be reached at jwdavidson0@gmail.com and @JW_Davidson

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