Revolutionary music from 'sleepy Scotland'



In Sleepy Scotland
Alistair Hulett
The Cold Grey Light of Dawn
Alistair Hulett and Dave Swarbrick
Saturday Johnny and Jimmy the Rat
Alistair Hulett and Dave Swarbrick
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“Sleepy Scotland” is the term used by English trade unionists in the 19th century to describe what they perceived as chronic passivity among Scottish workers. The mass protest movement during and immediately after World War One, known as “Red Clydeside”, that erupted in the industrial belt around Glasgow and Clydebank put paid to all that. This movement was imbued with revolutionary aspirations and was a major headache for the ruling classes in Scotland and England.

Alistair Hulett has long maintained an interest in this episode, popularising the song “John McLean's March” in the progressive folk scene in Australia over the course of the last decade or more. That song is found on Hulett's 1994 album, In the Back Streets of Paradise.

John McLean was a revolutionary socialist leader in Red Clydeside, arrested for his political activities and then released by force of mass workers' protests even before the victory of the 1917 Russian Revolution began to inspire the workers' movement around the world. In February 1918, McLean was made a consul in Britain of the revolutionary Soviet government, was arrested again and released a second time due to mass pressure.

Hulett has been making a major study of the Red Clydeside, which will be the theme of his next CD, and presenting workshops on the topic which include his original songs.

In Sleepy Scotland (released in 2000), an album that explores Scotland's traditional ballads, is a prelude to the Red Clydeside album. It is the “mostly trad” album that Hulett has “been muttering about for years”, he writes in the cover notes. “The singer/songwriter tag is something I've never managed to wear with a great deal of personal ease. Traditional songs have always formed a sizeable part of my live repertoire, but so far that's not been reflected in my recorded output”, he explains.

Some of the songs on the album are quite well known, such as “The Weaver and the Factory Maid” and“Tam Lin”. Others are unfamiliar to me. They paint a picture of ordinary life in historic Scotland.

It is the three songs on the album written by Hulett that drew my attention most. In part, these songs (especially the title track) that are essential for creating the link between the ballads and the theme of an awakening “sleepy Scotland”.

Hulett told Green Left Weekly, “The point [the album explores] is we should never write off any section of the working class, a big lesson recently learned in America with the eruption that began in Seattle a couple of years ago”.

The title track paints a picture of displaced and alienated workers who climb out of the wreckage of industrial collapse and respond by getting blind drunk. These people will be affected by the tide of revolution when it erupts.

Similarly, “By Ibrox Park” reflects on the legacy of the 1822 formation of the (pro-English) Scottish Orange Order. He wrote it after watching a crowd of soccer fans enter Ibrox Football Stadium waving the Union Jack. The chorus (“Bang the drum and wave the flag, let them know who's king of the pile of slag”) mocks the dead end of patriotism and sectarianism for working people. Hulett counters in the final chorus with “scorn the drum and burn the flag”.

The other albums Hulett has released in the last few years with Dave Swarbrick, Saturday Johnny and Jimmy the Rat in 1996 and The Cold Grey Light of Dawn in 1998, are more typical of his earlier solo efforts despite the unmistakable (and welcome) contribution by Swarbrick. These are mostly made up of original songs, expressing in music Hulett's own revolutionary outlook (he is among the Scottish-based Socialist Workers Party members who joined the Scottish Socialist Party as a group last year.)

After period living in Australia, Hulett returned to his native Scotland several years ago. Experiences from the history of the workers' movement in both countries are reflected in his music. Some of the Australian examples, often long-forgotten in popular consciousness, include “The Siege of Union Street” (about a Communist Party-led victory in the unemployed struggles of the 1930s), “The Days of '49” (about the 1949 coalminers' strike and the lesson that “must never be forgotten/How Chifley and his government stood on the bosses side”) and the “Sons of Liberty” (about the bushrangers of Australia's folk heritage and “the spirit of resistance [that] is the legacy they leave”).

Hulett is a truly wonderful songwriter and a great asset to the progressive movement. His tours to Australia are consistently successful due to his loyal following among left activists and the mainstream “folk scene”. This is despite the fact that he pulls no political punches in his performances.

Special mention must be made of the song “Behind Barbed Wire”, which Hulett recorded on his 1996 Saturday Johnny and Jimmy the Rat album when the federal Labor government was still in power. It is a passionate protest against the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers introduced by Labor.

The song shows clearly that the Coalition today is recycling the same arguments used then by Labor: “Why are we locked up like rats in a cage/ And treated like the dregs of humanity?/We learned our lesson well/They bombed us into hell and made hell freeze/Now the same self-serving crew/ Say we're jumpers of the queue, not refugees/Behind barbed wire/We watch your city lights spread out like stars/Behind barbed wire/You call us aliens/As if we came from Mars.”

[Alistair Hulett will be touring Australia in March and April.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 6, 2002.
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