"Dick Gaughan - a troubadour with attitude"

Review / Article : "The List", 1995

Review, Dick Gaughan at The Lobby, Cork

I was in The Lobby, in the smoky upstairs bar, with its interesting views of the bridge and the City Hall. The atmosphere was expectant but a couple of notches down from the almost reverential tension I remember from his gig here last year - doubtless the modestly agnostic Gaughan was the happier for this. Relaxed and droll between songs, and never preachy, he lets the music express his fiery commitment, both by choice of material and interpretation. The guitar playing is muscular, accomplished and expressive, and the singing BIG with a finely-controlled range of pitch and emotion. With the crowd in the palm of his hand from the start, Gaughan nailed his socialist and humanist colours to the mast with lines like "what's the use of two stong arms if you can't help those you love?"

He sang of exploitation, of workers in peace and war, with a fine rendition of Ewan McColl's 'Schooldays' End', and that savage and funny song about high command in low places, 'The Big Muddy', got an airing. He played a Scots lament with strong bagpipe tones to the guitar. A more lyrical and pastoral vein was explored with Robbie Burns' 'Westless Wind', but here too is an edge of outrage; following an account of the habits of various wild birds we hear "The sportsman's joy the murdering cry, the gory fluttering pinion . . ." - a wonderful play of tension between the generative and destructive forces of nature and of man, beautifully sung and played.

Gaughan's music is that of affirmation, of the struggle to transcend the idiocies and savagery of which we are capable and seek common ground and common aims.

As Louis McNeice puts it in 'Babel': "Exiles all as we are in a foreign city Can't we ever, my love, speak in the same language We cut each other's throats out of our great self pity - Have no aims in common."


An unseasonably bitter east wind was buffeting along the quays at teatime the following day. I was early and sitting at The Lobby's downstairs bar when Gaughan appeared, shorter than he looks onstage, and bespectacled. In person, so to speak, he had the unmistakable shyness of the gifted, and the didactic quality of those who have already wasted too much time on the unappreciative. Gradually overcoming these barriers to communication, we talked. He explained that an interview was not a conversation. True. Also that, from bitter experience, he was wary of being misquoted.

Born in Glasgow, Gaughan has spent most of his life in Edinburgh. He has a wife there, a grown-up daughter, a 14-year-old son, and shared ownership of a recording studio where he spends most of his time, when not on the road, working on his own material and on collaborations with, and productions for, other musicians. Gaughan's prodigious output comprises 9 solo albums and about 15 in various bands (he describes himself as a "band animal" and "creature of the night") and collaborations. He sees himself primarily as an interpreter of others' songs rather than a songwriter and draws on a wide-ranging taste (anything from sean nós to Nirvana) and musical influence. At least half Irish, with grandparents from Sligo and Mayo, all his forebears seem to have been musicians, both Scots and Irish. He grew up with many kinds of music in the house; rock 'n' roll, jazz and country and western, as well as traditional.

Gaughan sees musical categories largely as marketing labels and prefers to focus on the human experience driving a song and the feelings and aspirations it can express. He questions the validity of the term 'protest song', saying he focuses on issues as obstacles in the way of progress to the positive (a pretty fine distinction, perhaps a tinge of Scots prickliness here), and emphasises that he sings not to change the world but to stop the world changing him. Fair enough.

Gaughan explains how traditional music has emerged from the ghetto in the last 30 years, in terms of widespread popularity and numbers of good musicians, without losing its way or becoming over-commercialised. He sees it as a living tradition which can adapt to change and continue to express who we really are as well as constituting an ongoing heritage.

For Dick Gaughan music is a full time occupation. He cannot conceive of any other and is happy and grateful to have a profession which is also an abiding passion. He finds little time for other pursuits, though son apparently manages to drag dad away from 'work' to the odd football match.

The interview draws to a natural close and Gaughan goes upstairs to check his guitars. Anyone with an acoustic Martin that sounds like his would do well to keep a close eye on both its tuning and its real presence. The word pitch has many meanings. In several senses Dick Gaughan's pitch is the world and, if Neil Young is a miner with a heart of gold, Gaughan is a miner for the rights and brotherhood of man; a troubadour with attitude. Buy his recordings and you'll not be disappointed whatever your politics.

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