The Centre for Political Song

A report from the new Centre for Political Song in Glasgow Caledonian University.

In much of Europe, with many of its citizens now relatively comfortable, and those left out often having basically given up expecting any better life, traditional politics seems at a low ebb. Elections are attracting fewer and fewer people as politicians seem to merge into a grey blur. Apathy is said to rule, particularly amidst the young.

Of course, the whole continent isn’t complacent and torpid. The French periodically mount one of their traditional riots, Yugoslavia has been aflame, and then there are the anti-capitalist spectaculars that rocket around the place. On Europe’s western edge, meanwhile, there has been the ‘little war’ in the six counties. But maybe these are all exception — with regard to overt political involvements at least.

Europe doesn’t equal ‘the world’, however. Elsewhere, politics still means mass participation and high drama (or low farce, as in the case of the US presidential elections), and with the great movements and events goes one of their oldest confederates, song.

Recording and celebrating this venerable association is the new Centre for Political Song, based at Glasgow Caledonian University. Functioning, but not yet formally opened, the Centre is the brainchild of Janey Buchan, ex-Labour MEP and ex-communist. With her late husband Norman (a pioneer of the Scottish folk revival), she has been at the heart of West of Scotland radical politics for five decades. Their house became famous as a meeting point for activists, musicians and intellectuals. Inevitably, it gradually silted up with books, recordings and pamphlets on every protest movement going, whether anti-racism, Chile, anti-nuclear weapons, factory closures, South Africa, Ireland. unemployment, whatever. All of this material Janey bequeathed to Caledonian in 1993: ‘I’m delighted it’s gone to a new university, there’s often so much snobbery from the old ones,’ she says, characteristically.

‘It isn’t a collection,’ she continues. ‘I’ve never collected anything in my life. This is just what people gave us or we picked up. Nor is it an archive. And it absolutely isn’t a “museum”, which I’ve heard it called. That idea horrifies me: political song is alive, not bloody well dead.’

The Centre has been able to develop only in the last two years, now that the University has finally put in resources. Yet these are tiny so far, just the salary of the Development Officer, Caroline Cochrane, a purchasing budget of only £2000, and 0.1% of the normal university time of the Project Manager, John Powls. Caroline’s own job officially runs out in September unless further funding can be found. ‘Applications for funds are currently being made to the Lottery,’ she explains, ‘and possibly to the Scottish Arts Council. Also, we’ll be looking to international bodies.’

Such a move seems fitting for something whose content will span the world. And so far, the Centre seems to be the only one of its kind anywhere. ‘I’ve been to many places in the States, for instance,’ says Janey, ‘places like Philadelphia where you might expect to find something like this already — but to my amazement, nothing. I’m surprised, given their tradition of political song: spirituals, blues, Woody Guthrie, The Levellers, through to Tom Paxton and well beyond. But I don’t want to push the “Scotland’s-got-the-first-place-like-this-in-the-world,” that’s not my line. This material is everybody’s.’

Unsurprisingly, most of the songs are more-or-less nationalist or leftist, but not exclusively leftist. There’s an album of Nazi marching songs, for example, and Janey is hoping to find some Spanish fascist songs to go alongside the Republican ones. ‘We’re not bothering to define what’s “political”. It’d be impossible. You can find politics everywhere. As an instance, Dr Warwick Edwards from Glasgow Uni. has shown how William Byrd’s motets could be sung as an act of defiance by Elizabethan Catholics. The words look harmless, but they’re actually about executed Jesuits. And from our own time, George Michael’s ‘Freedom’ was sung by Kosovan refugees leaving the camps. Technically, the song isn’t political at all, apparently it was just about a dispute with his record company. Did the people know this? Does it matter?’

This very broad view of ‘political’ could eventually cause problems, if only at the level of space. For instance, the Centre holds a fair bit of punk. Some punk fed directly into political movements like Rock Against Racism, but much of the genre just shouted ‘Up yours!’ That’s a message alright, but however appealing, it offers no solutions nor even makes demands. Is it then ‘political’? ‘Such doubts don’t appear to bother the Japanese at least,’ says Caroline. ‘We’ve told our story on Radio Tokyo, but all they seemed to want to hear about was Punk!’ At the quieter end of the ‘what’s political?’ spectrum, the Centre has several Irish songbooks in which political ideas aren’t obvious amidst the laments and general Paddy-wackery, like Irish Fireside Songs (Dublin, 4d) and Songs of Irish Ballad Singers, with its complement of Tom Moore (Walton’s 132 Best Irish Songs contains a good Padraig Pearse ballad, however).

Mention of Moore exposes the difficulty of ‘the political’. Was Moore, with his maidens keening all over their harps for Poor Erin, no more than a tunesmith with a gift for sumptuous lyrics? Or was he a mere Seoinín, and therefore highly political? Fortunately, there’s no such issue with some of the Centre’s other material, like Desmond Greaves’ The Easter Rising in Song and Ballad. Nor is there a problem about The James Connolly Songbook, published by the Cork Workers’ Club. This has an interesting song by Connolly himself, ‘The Call of Erin’, which he wrote in 1909 on 1eaving Scotland for Ireland. Rather appropriately, it links the two countries by using the tune of ‘Rolling Home to Caledonia’. This is a very popular song in Scotland today, if slightly sentimental. ‘The Call of Erin’, however, whilst undoubtedly big on weeping, doesn’t avoid the larger picture:

Oh! ye waters bear us onward
And ye winds your task fulfill,
Till with Irish eyes we feast on
Irish vale and Irish hill.
Till we tread our Irish cities
See their glory and their shame
And our eyes, like skies o’er Erin
Through the smiles shed tears of pain

These Ireland-Scotland connections, actually, might stand for Janey Buchan herself, product as she is of parents who came to Glasgow in the first place because as a Protestant and a Catholic, couldn’t cope with Belfast.

The oldest material in the Centre (pace Burns, whom Woody Guthrie — who should know — called ‘the greatest political songwriter ever’) is the 1845 English Songs of Freedom. There’s also the splendid 1888 Songs of a Revolutionary Epoch, translated German songs edited by J. L. Joynes. Here’s a verse of the positively gleeful ‘Free Press’ by Ferdinand Freiligrath

Firmly to his fellow workers, ‘Mates’ the master-printer said
‘Lo, to meet tomorrow’s signal, nothing need we but lead
What, while type here is handy! March tomorrow in your sets,
But tonight for ammunition, melt down your alphabets!’

Bang up to date are songs by Benjamin Zephianiah the performance poet and, Glasgow being Glasgow (political protest has never left the city), there’s brand-new local song. The Council (April 2001) means to close a swimming pool in the Govanhill district, strongly identified with the lrish, incidentally. Local people have occupied it and are singing songs. Here are two verses of ‘Govanhill, It’s Getting Grim’:

In Govanhill it’s getting grim, the Cooncil says we cannae swim
If they willnae dae oor biddin’, pit the Cooncil in the midden,
People power is gonnae rule — Gie us back oor swimmin’ pool.

For auld men in battered Sunday suits, for weans in shorts an’ welly-boots,
If ye havnae got a motor car, Bellahouston’s awfy far
But Cherlie, that won’t trouble you, ye’ve got a BMW!

(Charlie Gordon — local councillor; Bellahouston — another pool).

There’s antipodean material like Australian Bush Ballads, edited by Stewart and Keesing and, of course, a great deal of music from the USA. Amongst it, there are true gems: a 1944 recording of the Glen Miller Orchestra with songs in German, part of a BBC propaganda broadcast; a boxed set of Woody Guthrie singing and talking to Alan Lomax, and Winners and Losers — Campaign Songs from Critical US Elections. (This, perhaps, could complement Paxton’s new song performed at Celtic Connections 2001: ‘They’re Counting The Votes In Florida’.)

The call to Ireland for material has recently gone out (in March), via newspapers, RTÉ and Radio Ulster. ‘Ireland may completely swamp us,’ says Janey, evidently pleased at the prospect. So it may: there could be a Christy Moore sub-section alone, never mind one for the Troubles. ‘Things have started corning,’ says Caroline. ‘A Dubliner called Fergus Fleming recently phoned us, saying once he’d taken his dog to the pub, he’d send us a song … He did too, plus twenty punts … A lovely gift; and though our Finance Dept. says it’ll cost twenty-five pounds sterling to convert it, I don’t care.’

As far as Caroline, Janey Buchan and the others are concerned, they just hope that songs like that and many more will just keep on rolling in.

The Centre for Political Song, Glasgow Caledonian University, City Campus, Cowcaddens Road, Glasgow G4 OBA
Tel: 0141 331 3000 Fax: 0141 3001



Published on 1 July 2001

Steve McGrail was a singer, musician and writer from Scotland. He wrote several articles for The Journal of Music and was a great supporter of the magazine from its very first issue. Steve sadly died on 11 May 2016, aged 69.

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