An obscure anniversary

By Mike Phipps

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Dick Gaughan’s seminal album Handful of Earth. This is obscure as anniversaries go, and for those not in the know, Gaughan is a Scottish singer and songwriter. His guitar playing is extraordinarily accomplished and his interpretations of traditional songs have a singular intensity and draw on influences from Irish traditional music. But what makes Handful of Earth so worthy of reconsideration is its radical politics.

The album is all the more remarkable as it followed a terrible time in Gaughan’s life. He had been recording and performing for over a decade, both as a solo artist and in The Boys of the Lough, a legendary Celtic music group that is still performing, and other bands, such as Five Hand Reel.  While on tour in 1978, his daughter was knocked down by a car and seriously injured. This event, combined with the unhealthy living and heavy alcohol consumption associated with life on the road, precipitated depression and a complete mental breakdown the following year. Gaughan spent the next two years doing very little except focusing on getting well again.

The year 1979 was a challenging one for Scotland. A referendum on Scottish devolution was passed, but not by a sufficient majority, so the voters’ desire for greater political autonomy was thwarted. A few months later, Margaret Thatcher’s government was elected – without a majority or mandate in Scotland. Devolution would be off the table for a generation – and worse, Tory policies would wreak havoc across Scottish industry, setting the nation on a course of steep economic decline.

As Gaughan himself noted, “People in Scotland, particularly on the Left, were reeling under the economic consequences of the Thatcher strategy for solving inflation by crashing the economy and creating mass unemployment. What seemed to be required was to openly stand up and be counted. Although all my solo albums prior to this had included songs which reflected my political ideas, they had been more as chronicler than as protagonist. It was quite clearly time to stop reporting and start participating.”

Handful of Earth is a considered blend of contemporary and traditional folk songs. Gaughan lists Karl Marx as one of his foremost influences and recalls how the murder of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara by the Pinochet dictatorship which seized power in 1973 spurred him into putting his music where his heart already was. “I knew then I couldn’t just play old tunes. You had to speak out,” he said.

The contemporary songs on the album are highly political. These include The World Turned Upside Down, by the great and prolific songwriter Leon Rosselson, about the Diggers revolt in the English Civil War, which has also been famously covered by Billy Bragg. There is also a stirring rendition of Ed Pickford’s Worker’s Song, which gives the album its title:

“And when the sky darkens and the prospect is war

Who’s given a gun and then pushed to the fore

And expected to die for the land of our birth

Though we’ve never owned one handful of earth?”

But the traditional songs also pick out political themes. The opener, the musically stunning Erin Go Bragh, deals with anti-Irish prejudice in Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Craigie Hill is about forced Irish emigration and the pain of leaving one’s homeland, as is another Irish song, Lough Erne. Gaughan’s anthem-like arrangement of the traditional song Both Sides the Tweed, which was written to attack the Acts of Union of 1707, closes the album with the message that the human spirit will triumph over adversity:

“Let virtue distinguish the brave

Place riches in lowest degree

Think them poorest who can be a slave

Them richest who dare to be free.”

All the songs on the record are carefully chosen and have real power. But what makes the record so repeatedly playable is the sheer quality of musicianship, particular Gaughan’s intricate guitar work and vocal ornamentation. Handful of Earth is Gaughan’s masterwork, intense, political, yet beautifully musical.

Handful of Earth was critically acclaimed, and was named Folk Album of the Year by Melody Maker. Later, Folk Roots readers and critics named it the greatest album of the 1980s. Billy Bragg describes it as “incredible” and ranks it as one of his favourite albums ever, as does left wing comedian Stewart Lee, who hails Gaughan as “an inspiring performer”.

The record was also a turning point in Gaughan’s career. Although he rarely performed the complete set live over the next two decades, because “just about every song demands a precise retuning of his guitar,” it galvanised the singer into action. He instigated the setting up of Perform, an organisation which aimed to facilitate co-operation across the folk music world, he joined the agitprop theatre group 7:84 and during the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-5, he was Chair of the Leith Miners’ Support Group.

Gaughan continued to record and perform for many years. After suffering a stroke in 2016, he pretty much stopped playing live – a great loss, given that, as one reviewer commented, “”in live performance he generates the sort of voodoo intensity you expect from the rawest blues, but hardly from the cosily insular world of British folk”.

Handful of Earth remains not only a landmark for Dick Gaughan but one of the greatest folk records of all time. On its 40th anniversary, it deserves to be celebrated.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Dick Gaughan, 2006. Author: Markus Großmann, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

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