Feature Article - "The Boston Globe" July 1995

The new "Rough Guide to World Music" includes a five-paragraph history of the contemporary Scottish folk revival. Two of those paragraphs are about Dick Gaughan, whose "passionate artistry towers over three decades". That may seem surprising to Stateside listeners, as Gaughan has not released an album or toured on this side of the Atlantic in a dozen years, but it is a fair indication of Gaughan's talent and influence on his home turf.

Gaughan, who appears Tuesday at Johnny D's in Somerville, is a small, scrappy Scot whose committment to traditional music has in no way kept him from being one of Britain's most innovative and contemporary voices. Starting out with the Boys of the Lough in the early 1970s, he went on to form Five Hand Reel, then went solo, mixing medieval ballads with original songs and the work of friends like the anarchist songwriter Leon Rosselson.

The combination is typical of the British scene. While the American folk world has tended to polarise into traditionalists on one side and singer-songwriters on the other, British singers like Gaughan, Martin Carthy and June Tabor have managed a comfortable blend of old and new material. Indeed, Gaughan says he finds such distinctions rather silly.

"I have this problem with the use of this word 'traditional'," he says, speaking from a St Louis tour stop. "I grew up in a family of traditional singers and musicians, and to me those are just songs. This idea of dividing things into 'This is traditional and this is not traditional,' I don't understand those concepts. I know what other people mean by them, but I don't accept them myself. There are songs I sing now that I've been singing since I was a kid, and I didn't make any real distinction between them and rock and roll. I mean, I was aware that I hadn't heard them on the radio, but they were just songs that nobody else sang; they were just our songs, you know?"

That possessive feeling is a key to Gaughan's work. He sees himself as carrying on the musical tradition of the Scottish working class, and by extension the working class of Britain and of the world. He grew up in the era of the skiffle craze and his father, along with the old Scottish ballads, sang songs by American left-wing folksingers like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. While the music was different, the themes and outlook were similar and fitted with Gaughan's perception of the world around him.

"To me, the politics and the music are inseperable," he says. "It doesn't make sense to me that any human beings could be singing about what they see, what they experience and what affects their lives and ignore politics - to me that's ludicrous. Scottish and Irish traditional music always had a large part of itself which would now be regarded as political. Folk music is dangerous stuff." Gaughan laughs, then catches himself. "In its own way it is dangerous," he says firmly. "It's subversive to admit that ordinary working class people have actually got a culture and artistic merit. This flies against the vested interests of those who would have us believe that the poor are poor because they are stupid."

Gaughan's politics have been a factor in his American obscurity, leading to years of annoying visa problems. Despite the seriousness of his committment, however, his concerts do not feel like musical lectures. He has the black humor of his Celtic forebears, a tradition that produced comic songs about massacres and famine, and his work has a bite and directness that is a long way from the sentimentality of much topical songwriting. He is also a superb musician, one of the finest guitarists in the British Isles (Carthy has called him the best player on the folk scene), and a brilliant all-around entertainer.

Indeed, Gaughan is a craftsman in a world where too many performers separate themselves from their listeners by invoking the secular talisman of Art. Asked what keeps him going despite his somewhat limited commercial success, he uses the language of a workman proud of his abilities, an unalienated laborer. "This is my trade, it's the set of skills I have spent my lifetime learning," he says. "I want to put them to use, and I want to do that in such a way that I am contributing something to somebody else rather than just doing a job - if I was just doing a job I would play some other kind of music and make a lot more money than I am doing. Basically, what I'm trying to do is to stand up and say, 'Look, this is how the universe appears to me and to my people over the last thousand years.' And to do that in a way that is musical."


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