Socialist Worker

Interview with Alistair Hulett: folk heroes for a new generation

Acclaimed folk musician Alistair Hulett spoke to Socialist Worker about the revival of protest music

Issue No. 1917

Alistair Hulett

Alistair Hulett

How are folk musicians responding to political events?

The reaction on the folk scene to the current crisis in the system, and to the war on Iraq in particular, has been the same as in other forms of popular music around the world.

Political song has moved from the outer fringe right onto centre stage. Many artists who have never really been associated with songs of protest are coming out with musical statements against Bush and Blair.

To check this out, visit the website of the Centre For Political Song at Caledonian University in Glasgow, »

The list of anti-war songs on this site is incredible, covering every genre possible – folk, country, jazz, rock and hip-hop.

At one folk festival I sang at recently there were workshops on non-violent action alongside the usual instrument teach-ins and singing sessions.

And the Left Field at the Fringe attracted large crowds to their political discussions at the Edinburgh Festival.

I took part in a panel discussion titled “Scottish political music – alive or dead?” The room was packed, which in itself made the argument in favour of “alive” very convincing.

Has folk music always had a political edge?

In the 1950s and 1960s many of the leading lights of the folk music movement in Britain and the US were members of the Communist Party (CP).

Songwriters and folk musicians in Britain like Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger were part of this aspect of what the CP called the Cultural Front. In the US it included people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Out of this came a wave of young singer-songwriters who moved well beyond the political agenda of the CP. The best known of these is Bob Dylan.

In Britain there were political songwriters from the anarchist tradition such as Leon Rosselson and Trotskyists like Alex Glasgow.

Throughout the 1970s folk music continued to be linked with the struggle for social change.

But as that struggle got diluted, the heritage industry wing of the folk movement kind of took over.

Folk music has always had a political dimension, but it ebbs and flows along with the rise and fall of political struggle itself. Right now it’s back on the rise again.

What is unique about folk music?

Two things stick out – the sense of tradition on one hand and the DIY spirit on the other.

Most popular music puts a strong emphasis on “the new”, whereas in folk music we also tend to place a lot of importance on a sense of belonging to a chain of creativity that stretches back through centuries.

There’s also the notion that people can make this music for themselves, rather than buying it ready packaged from the corporate world.

That DIY attitude shone through in the punk years as well, but you also find it in other music forms like blues, skiffle, reggae and rap as well. I think of all these styles as being forms of modern urban folk music.

The sense of tradition is very important to the young folk artists who are getting some media attention right now. People like Eliza Carthy in England and Karine Polwart up in Scotland draw heavily on folk traditions.

A few years ago Kate Rusby recorded a song called “The Recruited Collier”.

It’s a 19th century folk song about a woman lamenting that her lover has been conned by a recruiting officer into signing up to fight against Napoloeon.

Some people might wonder what attracts a young singer like Kate Rusby to record a song like that.

But the other day I saw Michael Moore’s film Farenheit 9/11, and it shows army officers doing exactly the same thing to young black men in the US.

These old songs belong to an era long gone, but the issues they address are still relevant today.

Tell us about your latest album

Red Clydeside is the title of my latest CD, and it’s the name given to the massive anti-war movement that shook Glasgow during World War One.

The leader of Red Clydeside was John Maclean.

When the war was declared he said, “It is the task of socialists to build class patriotism, to convince workers not to slaughter each other for a sordid world capitalism.”

The Red Clydesiders set out to build an anti-war movement, and to turn it into a movement against the capitalist system that created the war in the first place.

We need to do exactly the same thing and, if we understand the lessons of the past, maybe we’ll finish the job John Maclean and the Red Clydesiders started.

Last year I was booked to perform Red Cydeside for six nights at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow.

The show sold out every night. I think that is an indication of the interest there is out in the world for political folk music today.

The CD of Red Clydeside is available by mail order. Send cheques for £13 made payable to Alistair Hulett to Flat 2L, 66 Kenmure Street, Glasgow G41 2NR or visit Alistair’s website at »

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Sat 4 Sep 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1917
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