In 1897, at a place called the
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
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
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
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 (“
Years later I opened for Dick Gaughan at a folk festival in the
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