Sunday, June 03, 2007

"100 Greats in 100 Days" #055, Dick Gaughan: Gaughan and A Handful of Earth

In 1897, at a place called the Dargai Heights, during the Second Afghan War (yet another Middle-Eastern imperial war fought by poor men’s sons against an indigenous population on behalf of rich men’s stock dividends), the piper George Findlater, leading the charge of the Gordon Highlanders, was shot through both legs. He dragged himself behind a rock halfway up the steep slope, and played “The Haughs of Cromdale” even though his pipes, and his legs, had been shot to pieces, until he lost consciousness. George McDonald Fraser, whose politics haven’t aged well but who is one of the great historical novelists (creator of the inimitable Harry Flashman), wrote a very funny story about the sergeants’ mess dispute over the tune, but which also captured the grim realism—and sadness—behind old soldiers’ war stories.

More than anyone else, old soldiers understand the hypocrisy behind all rationales for war, they understand the magnitude of the suffering that war brings, and they understand who pays the price for that suffering. No matter who is the aggressor, no matter what the coordinates of the current “Axis of Evil,” old soldiers know that war trades poor men’s lives for rich men’s profits.

I come from a long line of opinionated anti-authoritarian loudmouths, mostly violent men who were prone to choosing the wrong side; the Roundhead cavalry commander whose 1650 land grant from Cromwell planted both Smithtown, NY and my father’s family; the Tory horse-thief, the “Terror of the Ramapos,” who was hung (in his stocking-feet, to give the lie to his mother's claim that he was sure to die "with his boots on") in 1792, and the barely-remembered MacGregor ancestors who fought at Bannockburn, were banished by James VI, were massacred at Glencoe by the Campbells, chopped General Sir John Cope's troops to pieces at Prestonpans (inspiring the fantastic tune, song, and GM Fraser story "Johnny Cope in the Morning") and chased him all the way back to London, and piped for Bonny Prince Charlie (one more spoiled rich-man’s-son, of whom Dick Gaughan said “Charles Stuart did about as much good for Scotland as a dose of cholera”) when the clans died at Culloden. And then fled, changing their names, to Ulster, and then to America [and, evidently, to South Africa: see "100 Greats" post #36]. But, no credit to me: character is about about nurture, not nature: I get no credit and no blame for whatever those maniacs did.

Nevertheless, it would be nice, 250 years later, to believe that maybe the genes might provide me a little extra sand to stand up to the lies of the powerful. If my people picked the wrong sides (and there’s an old, old story there about history being written by the winners), at least they fought their own battles and their own convictions. But, given all those ancestors who fought on the wrong side, it might be even nicer, 250 years later, to be for once on the right side.

The 2006 Congressional elections might just have been that watershed moment when, in a nation careening toward fascism, the wildest and widest and most internally-contradictory coalition of Americans stood up on the right side. By the narrowest margin, and against the lies, theft, intimidation, and strong-arm tactics of the thugs and apologists in power, they turned out the quacks and demagogues and greedy swine who’d formed a rubber-stamp majority for every contemptible authoritarian imperial choice the Boy-King made.

James Webb of Virginia was part of that November 2006 blue wave, and I saw him walk into the room after he’d administered a much-deserving public caning to that cowardly abusive phony George Felix Allen. Even though he’s authored a book on the Scots-Irish, Webb is not much of a historian (his favorite president is Andrew Jackson, for God’s sake), but he is a fighting man: descendant of five generations of borderer-soldiers, a decorated Vietnam veteran himself, and the father of an Iraq II active soldier. He wore his son’s combat boots through the whole campaign (the Scots have always understood the power of a martial gesture), and he made Macaca Allen look like the posing prep-schooled asshole that he is.

Webb won. And he walked in with the Scottish warpipes playing in front of him. And at that moment, that whole campaign, for me, snapped into focus. Because that was the moment that made it clear that Webb understood, even if 95% of his staffers and 100% of his handlers didn’t, that this was the latest battle in an old, old campaign--but a very real victory.

Webb is no liberal: he was Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, he still believes there were sound strategic reasons to go into Vietnam, and he was a lifelong Republican until the day-before-yesterday. But at the real crunch, the real divide between those-who’ve-served and those-who-haven’t, he understood who wins and who loses in an elective war, he made his choice, and he’s stood by it: later introduced to another spoiled smirking draft-dodger, George W himself, Webb said “It was all I could do not to punch his lights out." That’s the borderer talking to the Anglican there; the Highlander talking to the English laird. For 250 years, they fought rich men’s wars. But every so often the historical worm has turned, and the poor men, who knew damned well how they were being exploited, have been brave enough to stand up and refuse to die for rich men's sons.

Dick Gaughan is likewise one of the braver men I’ve ever met, and certainly one of the bravest folksingers—a breed not always known for political acuity or physical courage. Brian McNeill of Scotland’s Battlefield Band said of him “Gaughan is so red he’s purple,” and Gaughan has never backed down from the convictions that drove these, his first solo recordings. He’s sung against the arms race and against the Thatcher government, in favor of Scottish devolution and ‘Net neutrality. He played with the Boys of the Lough and Five Hand Reel, and wrote orchestral compositions and agitprop plays (Ewan MacColl is an obvious inspiration and forebear), but for me his very greatest performances were just his own virtuosic acoustic guitar, his titanic gravelly voice (he and Greg Allman are easily the funkiest white male singers ever), and his astonishing, impeccable song choice and delivery.

I first heard the songs on these great first recordings around 1978, when I had moved back to the Greater Boston area from Chicago, New Orleans, and Texas (the first time), and was living in a basement apartment in Brookline Massachusetts. I didn’t have any money at all—I was working in a bookstore at the time—and my roommates and brothers-in-music Larry and Kevin didn’t either. But I look back on those times (cold, damp, and poor) and think that might have been one of the most fortunate eras in my life. Because it was then that I met many of my greatest teachers and many of my (still) dearest friends, and heard much of the music that would shape my life. That’s when Larry and Kevin, two of my great teachers, introduced me to the Bothy Band and Planxty, Paul Brady and Robin Williamson, and to the great Scottish folk- and traditional-singer Dick Gaughan.

Virtually every single song on these records is definitive, an astonishingly perfect, if overwhelming, template for political folk song. I learned these songs from hearing Larry and Kevin learn them, and Gaughan is still my own model for the power of traditional song: the historical protest songs (“Crooked Jack”; “The Recruited Collier”); the new or modern tales of labor strikes and union-busting (“The Pound a Week Rise”); the staggering “muckle sangs” and traditional pieces (“Willie o' Winsbury”; “Such a Parcel O Rogues In A Nation”).

Handful of Earth is even greater, though that seems impossible. Every single song on the record is a masterpiece, from the mournful (“Now Westlin Winds”) to the defiant (“The World Turned Upside Down”), from the traditional (“The Snows They Melt the Soonest”) to the contemporary (“The Workers' Song”) to the grimly comic (“Erin Go Bragh”). I can’t imagine any way in which this record could be improved—it’s essentially perfect.

Years later I opened for Dick Gaughan at a folk festival in the Midwest, reciting Middle Irish stories, quaking in my boots to think that he’d be looking on (come think of it, that was the same festival where I met Roger Landes, John Whelan, and Zan McLeod, three desperate gentlemen, for the first time. It was a Rather Intense Weekend). In the event, he was a kind man, and accepted my stumbling encomia with understated grace. I wish there’d been time enough and opportunity for me to share with him all the years in which his music had provided a lodestar for my own essays into traditional song.

There wasn’t time, but if there had been, I would have told Gaughan about that One Perfect Day in 1978, after I’d started sitting (or standing) in with Kevin and Larry for their gigs in the Boston subways and streets, when we found ourselves on a cloudless afternoon in Government Center Plaza, playing fiddle tunes and singing traditional songs, as the Tall Ships sailed into Boston Harbor for the very first time. I grew up in a town founded in 1629, whose men had been going down to the sea in ships ever since, usually for the sake of rich men's profits, and it all felt very familiar. We were where we were supposed to be, that day. That’s also the first time Dharmonia heard us play—which led in turn down another long road.

We played Gaughan’s version of Leon Rosselson’s great Diggers Song “The World Turned Upside Down” that day. And 28 years later, as I watched Jim Webb being piped into the victory hall, I had tears in my eyes. And Dick Gaughan's voice ringing in my ears. And, at least on those two days, I could actually feel proud to stand with my people.
They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feeds the rich
While poor men starve

1 comment:

Mistykalia said...

YES! Definitely a great.