An assessment of Dick Gaughan

( Music reviewer for "The Scotsman" newspaper )

DICK GAUGHAN has never been easy. The songs he delivers ask questions that some listeners may have thought never existed - so they may not, instantly at least, know the answers. When the answers duly come, delivered in a voice that throbs with a unique kind of controlled, vibrating passion, he can shake the most complacent mindset out of its skull.

You go home from a Dick Gaughan session feeling exhilarated, not just at the wonderful skills of the most potent singer ever to emerge from the Scottish folk-music revival, not just at the astonishingly fluent and explosively eloquent guitar playing, but by the sense of the stark exposition of wrong and the tremulously argued legitimacy of right. Even those who disagree profoundly with his view of life recognise the conviction and the supreme artistry.

And, of course, by "right" here, we mean "left". This is a man who, asked to list his greatest influences, begins instinctively with Karl Marx (immediately followed, it has to be said, by Groucho and taking in such disparate forces as John Lennon and Illyich Lenin along the way).

Dick Gaughan has never been attracted by the current vogue of consensual, namby-pamby, pragmatic politics. He gives voice to an uncompromising solidarity with the flotsam and jetsam of tunnel-vision global capitalism: the victims, the helpless, the wronged, the fighters, the brawny working-class bravehearts who made capitalism work (after a fashion). The hideous events in Chile in 1973, when the liberal world lost not only Allende but also the poet and singer Victor Jara, served to underline his feeling for the oppressed, wherever on this planet they may be, and his desire to shout their case from the metaphorical rooftops.

And out of that solidarity, Gaughan burns. There is fire. There is anger. There is cauterising scorn.

Yet there is also deep compassion. There is peace and much love. There is old - his versions of some of the great Scots traditional ballads, "the Muckle Sangs", as Hamish Henderson dubbed them, have probably never been equalled in their pulsating intensity by any recorded singer with the exception of one of his great heroines, Jeannie Robertson - and there is new: his own compelling compositions as well as those of Brian MacNeill, Leon Rosselson and a host of others, and his stunning steering of such unexpected vehicles as Joe South's "Games People Play".

Where did it all come from, this power, this commitment, this commanding musical prowess, this "thing" that can mesmerise halls not only in his own land but all over Europe and North America?

Well, for a start, we know that there was music in the family. Contrary to what many of the textbooks say, he was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1948 - he was an accidental Glaswegian, because his father was temporarily working as an engine driver at Colville's Steelworks there. Dick really belonged to Leith, the one-time thriving port on the Firth of Forth now absorbed by Edinburgh, where his parents returned after a short while.

His mother, Frances MacDonald, was a true Scottish Highlander, from Lochaber, and her first language was not Scottish/English; it was Gaelic, the language of the Western Highlands and Islands. With the language came the Gaelic songs - as a child she had won a silver medal at the National Mod of An Comunn Gaidhealach, the annual Gaelic festival in Scotland. Dick's father - also Dick - was born in Leith of an Irish father who spoke the Irish version of Gaelic and played the fiddle. Dick's grandmother, Bridget, born in Glasgow of Irish parents, played accordion and also sang.

So when we find that Dick Gaughan picked up a guitar at the age of seven, we should not be surprised. As a teenager, growing up with guitar skills in an urban environment in the Sixties, he dabbled, as one would, with rock, country, blues. It was a fabulous time for music-making, when no holds were barred. But for him, increasingly the music and the politics began to come together. Rock may have been an angry outpouring of sound, but it was on the quieter folk scene, with the great Hamish Henderson and Ewan MacColl leading the protest march over here and the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger doing it over there, that the most penetrating and persuasive statements were being made about war and peace, about the state of society. Dick was soon in the thick of the burgeoning folk revival, and at the age of 22 decided to hit the road as a solo singer and guitarist.

By 1972, he had replaced Mike Whellans in the outstanding all-acoustic, Scots-Irish band The Boys of the Lough, that included the great Aly Bain on fiddle, and appeared on their first album. He left the Boys in the following year.

His own first album, No More Forever, issued in 1972, was well received. It consisted of traditional songs, with one notable and pre-emptive exception: Henderson's paean to a great Scottish socialist, The John Maclean March. There was nothing but awe at the marvellous dexterity of the all-instrumental Coppers and Brass five years later, and in the same year came Kist o' Gold, again traditional songs but also versions of MacColl's withering Ballad of Accounting and Henderson's poignant Farewell to Sicily, pointing the way towards a less traditionally-oriented Gaughan.

But few could have expected his next move - joining fiddler Chuck Fleming and others in a wild and often wonderful electric band called Five Hand Reel, whose rocking rhythms and great songs - including Dick's irresistible stab at the Gaelic lines of Bratach Bana - exasperated the purists and found a newer, younger audience. He was out of it by 1978 and returned to solo work.

He was never an album-a-year man. "I don't go into the recording studio until I feel I want to make a record," he once said. He was clearly ready for Handful of Earth, in 1981, when he laid down his marker as one of the great voices of contemporary Scotland. The cover picture for the LP prepared listeners for what was to come. Gone were the yukky, uncomfortable scenes of Highland harbours. Now we saw Dick standing in defiant pose in a wheatfield, and behind him the twin chimney towers of the cement works at Dunbar. With Ed Pickford's Workers' Song and Leon Rosselson's World Turned Upside Down - about the Diggers' revolt that reminded Dick that "the first colony of the British Empire was England" - Dick Gaughan became a fully-fledged troublemaker of song. But alongside these polemical eruptions were softer, ruminative pieces such as Phil Colclough's achingly wistful Song for Ireland, Robert Burns's Westlin' Winds, and a reworked version of Both Sides the Tweed, which served to express Dick's abhorrence of anti-English sentiment in pursuit of the rightful cause of Scottish self-belief. A poll conducted by the magazine Folk Roots voted Handful of Earth the top album of the 1980s.

As later albums came along, the traditional songs became fewer, the newer writings began to dominate his repertoire. And, at last, there were self-penned songs from Gaughan himself. Now he had the confidence to say it his way. In his album A Different Kind of Love Song (1983), the title track confronts the difficulty he has in dealing with those of his audience who ask him why he keeps singing songs of aggression. His reply? That the songs he sings are songs of love, not hate. But that they delineate a different kind of love. Delivered with that controlled but quivering sense of beneath-the-surface turmoil that is his hallmark, it is probably as powerful a piece as he has ever delivered. The album also carried Dick's simmeringly moving restatement of Games People Play.

And then came Clan Alba. This was a prodigious effort, masterminded by Dick, to produce a kind of Scottish folk supergroup, bringing together eight of the finest players and singers available in Scotland (including, of course, himself). There was one album, there were some unforgettable gigs, but the scope of the thing was just too big, and it finally foundered.

But Dick Gaughan was not through with surprises. In 1996, his Sail On album included his version of the old Melanie hit, Ruby Tuesday, as well as Brian McNeill's ferocious No Gods and Precious Few Heroes, which has become a standard in the Gaughan repertoire. More albums have followed, to great acclaim.

Dick greeted the New Year of 2004 with a project to write 90 minutes of music and song for a full, classically-trained orchestra and guest singers, premiered at the huge Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, a magnet for international folk stars, in January 2004.

But, ultimately, Dick Gaughan is not about an orchestra. Dick Gaughan is not about a big, spectacular show. He is a troubadour on the road, taking his songs and music around the world, from Catalonia to Canada, making the occasional foray into the recording studio when the urge comes on him.

And making new friends, new enemies, and influencing people.

Alastair Clark, Edinburgh


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