August sees the launch of the Festival of Politics at the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. As part of this broad event, billed as being an occasion where “politics meets the people”, I will be taking part in a performance titled Them And Us — a workshop exploring Scotland’s radical song tradition and its continuing relevance.
This radical song tradition forms an important part of what is commonly called “folk music”, an often maligned form of cultural expression.
Yet folk songs, and in particular the songs that arose out of labouring class revolt against an oppressive power structure, offer us a precious window into the lives of ordinary people down the centuries. They also show the way they felt about the world they lived in and sometimes struggled to change.
Of course, not all folk songs are political and sometimes they even express points of view that are backward. But most are imbued with an innate class consciousness and hostility to oppression and exploitation that every socialist can warm to.
The best of them are as musically and lyrically developed as anything produced by those higher up the social ladder. Periods of intense political upheaval usually produce politically aware folk music.
Scotland’s volatile political history has resulted in a wealth of radical songs that span several centuries.
A protracted struggle between two opposing monarchies and forms of Christianity in the 17th and 18th centuries gave rise to some magnificent political songs, particularly the ones opposing the union with England and supporting the Jacobite factions.
“Cam Ye Ower Fae France” is a scathing attack on the new Hanoverian king George that possesses an astonishing level of vitriol.
These authentic period pieces gave rise to the use of faux-Jacobite verse as a veil for promoting egalitarian ideas in support of a universal franchise and social equality. This was at a time when Britain was a virtual police state. Many of the “Jacobite” songs of the poet Robert Burns form part of this legacy.
The authentic songs from the years leading up to defeat of the Jacobite pretender Charles Stuart at Culloden in 1746 were largely created by people from the privileged classes.
But they adopted a style and language that was remarkably close to the folk tradition. Many of these songs found their way into the repertoires of peasant singers, where they assumed a radical significance well beyond their original intent.
By the time that labourer poets like Burns were using the Jacobite cause as subject matter, the “Young Pretender” had become a metaphor for a struggle much nobler than restoring a ruling class parasite to his throne.
“Wae’s Me For Prince Charlie”, written by a Glasgow weaver called William Glen in the early 19th century, tells us much more about the plight of the labouring poor than it does about Bonnie Prince Charlie. It goes, “On hills that are by right his own he roams a lonely stranger/On ilka hand he’s pressed by want, on ilka side by danger.”
William Glen’s song can only be understood as a declaration of the misery that spurred weavers such as him to take on the capitalist class.
The current anti-war movement has produced a wealth of new, political songs all around the world. The Centre for Political Song at the Caledonian University in Glasgow is the largest archive of radical songs in the world.
Songs of 19th century weavers are preserved alongside current anti-war parodies like the wonderful Glaswegian squib sung to the tune of the Italian resistance song, “Bella Ciao”.
It goes, “George and Tony, dae ye know we’re gonnae/Stop the War, Stop the War, Stop the War, War, War!/Tell George’s crony, wee Berlusconi/That we’re gonnae Stop the War!”
To find out more about the Festival Of Politics go to www.festivalofpolitics.org.uk
For the Centre For Political Song go to www.politicalsong.gcal.ac.uk
Alistair Hulett’s website is on www.folkicons.co.uk