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Hamish Henderson, folk songs, and the building of Scottish left-wing identity

Does some of the recent success of the Scottish left lie in musicology?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
7 March 2016
Hamish Henderson.jpg

Hamish Henderson: http://calumimaclean.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/when-hamish-henderson-met-calum-maclean.html

For me, he was the polyglot communist who first translated Antonio Gramsci into English. For my singer sister, he was Scotland's great musicologist, the iconic folk song collector who left thousands of recordings now found on Tobar an Dualchais. For my Dad, he was the charismatic founder of Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies and its folk society, and the rumoured son of the philandering husband of his great-aunt Kitty, the Red Duchess.

What he is most famous for, though, is probably his verse – said to have been described by EP Thompson as the best WWII poet, and writer of the internationalist and anti-imperialist anthem The Freedom Come All Ye (see below). Or maybe, it's for the bust of him in Edinburgh's famous folk pub, Sandy Bells. Or perhaps it's the fact that he has a good claim to be founder of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the inspiration of the Scottish and British folk revivals.

Hamish, the new film about the life and magic of Hamish Henderson, manages to capture all of these fragments of this exceptional man. It starts with his role as a soldier in Italy in world war two. A communist and linguist, he was responsible for the liaison between Italian partisans and the British army, capturing senior enemy officers and interrogating both Italian and German prisoners of war: getting more out of them than others by singing their native songs with them, or so the film tells us. 

For me, some of the film's appeal was perhaps personal – or, at least, I was in its target audience. The soundtrack was the music I grew up with. Henderson's childhood was spent in the same corner of rural Perthshire as mine, and the film used wonderful archive footage of Blairgowrie's berry fields and of Glenshee. But this story of an Italianophile internationalist has a much broader appeal than that.

Hamish is a collage of archive footage and interviews with friends and relatives; a suitably kaleidoscopic tribute to a multifaceted man, as seen through a hundred pairs of loving eyes. It gives a sense of him in his complexity: a pacifist who took up arms against fascism, a child-like father, a poet and a communist, a private school scholar living in an orphanage, an internationalist and advocate of independence, a singer, an academic and a drinker. And though interviewees seemed unwilling to criticise the drink problem across Scotland's folk scene, they looked his bisexuality in the eye and smiled, in a way I've not come across in previous discussions of him. 

Though the film held together well, it gave viewers a collection of jigsaw pieces and allowed us each to assemble our own image of the man. But a scene towards the start hinted at the idea that there was more than a thread holding together his eclectic interests and activities. In slightly surreal footage, presumably dug out of some ancient archive, he is crossing a beach on a horse and cart, with an old TV set flickering on the back. As it draws past, he says, mysteriously “there's method in my magic”.

And I like to assemble the pieces of his life in a particular way. Because I find it hard to believe that Hamish Henderson's musicology was solely the product of a passion for the finest folk songs, though it was certainly that too. He was a communist, and a scholar of Gramsci. And if the great Italian theorist teaches one thing, it's that culture is key, that you win in politics by understanding institutions and identity, who gets to shape how people and societies see themselves and what they think of as common sense: success comes from developing counter-hegomony.

If a young student of Gramsci were to return home to Scotland after the war, it seems to me that collecting and promoting the traditional music and culture of the working class would be an obvious way to follow his ideas: if politics follows culture, then the first step must be to try to build a shared cultural understanding that to be Scottish is to be left wing.

Since the election last year, I've gradually been piecing together an argument, which I'm only half ready to make, but which goes something like this: while the majority of England's left has long followed an essentially Fabian strategy of trying to win power in existing institutions, the Scottish left can be better understood as Gramscian: it has built its own institutions (from campaign groups to theatre companies the Scottish Parliament itself), and ensured it dominates civil society (a term, by the way, first posited by another anti-capitalist-former-soldier-polyglot-Perthshire-theorist, Adam Ferguson, the 'father of sociology') and, most of all, organised through culture as much as through explicit politics.

Certainly, more than I ever found on the English left, the Scottish left sees itself as Gramscian. Walking into the Common Weal office a year ago, one of the first things a young staff member there said about themselves is that they were a devotee of the Italian theorist. In that context, I wasn't particularly surprised: most of the active pro-independence left is.

Is it a coincidence that Gramsci's first translator into English was Scottish, and that you are more likely to find his enthusiasts in Scotland? I don't think so. Scotland is small enough that the influence of this one man – along with his good friend and fellow Italianophile Gramscian Tom Nairn – over its community of political activists can be significant.

And I suspect some of the recent relative success of the Scottish left as against the English left can be put down to this strategic divergence: after-all, people in Scotland and England aren't intrinsically different. On the whole, we have similarly left wing attitudes on individual policy questions. So the cause of the difference in voting habits must come down to something else.

While no individual should be credited with bending history to their will, Hamish Henderson's meticulous song collection and the resulting revival of Scotland's folk scene must be seen as having had a profound impact on the identity of huge numbers of Scots: building a confidence in working class culture, history and intellectualism which is harder to find in England. And knowing what we know about the man, this surely has to be seen as an intentional strategy, a Gramscian plan, to steer nation to self-identify as open, inclusive, left wing and internationalist, and so who are more likely to vote for those who at least dress in that clothing: an attempt to construct a left wing Scottish hegemony.

And so for me, Hamish Henderson wasn't just a polymath with eclectic interests who excelled in the plethora of areas he turned his fine mind and famous charm to. He was a great political strategist, whose life's work should be credited as key to much of the success of the Scottish left today. He should be seen as one of the great Scottish political theorists of the 20th century: not as opposed to a great cultural figure, but as well as: after-all, Gramsci would tell us they are one and the same.

"Freedom Come All Ye" performed by Karine Polwart in The Italian Chapel, Orkney August 2013. from Andy Crabb on Vimeo.

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