Radical Glasgow Songsters

Can history be taught through song?  Well yes, according to a new band, The Tenementals, who are working on their first album of songs celebrating Glasgow’s history of social protest. The band premiered some of this material in Glasgow’s Trades Hall, during the Open Doors Festival, where on 17th November, they received the ‘Outstanding Event’ prize from Glasgow Building Preservation Trust. What is notable about this group is their combination of musical and academic interests.  Members include David Archibald (senior lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow), who discussed his belief in a recent interview given to The Glasgow Herald that music might bring history to life more vividly than textbooks:

“The Tenementals are a group of artists, academics and musicians who are trying to do an experimental project or work out whether you can tell a history of a city through songs, that rather than history being understood as academic textbooks or popular historic accounts in the written word, we wondered whether you could work out how the history of a city might sound like, how it might feel like if you watched it or experienced it.  We are trying to approach history in a different way by telling a series of songs which look at fragments of Glasgow’s past. It’s a critical history that celebrates the dissidents and the dissenters and works out whether you might be able to find hope in the past that we might blast into the future in some way.”  

Song topics for this new album will include:

  • A biopic of Jimmy Reid, trades-union activist, writer and politician, whose career took him from the Clyde shipyards to become Rector of Glasgow University, and whose politics ranged from Communist to Labour to Scottish Socialist to SNP;
  • “Pentimental”, a song about the Glassford tobacco merchants, whose 18thc family portrait hanging in the People’s Palace in Glasgow Green was painted over in a way that for a time was thought to have deliberately tried to erase the figure of a black servant.  Conservation showed that the black servant boy was ‘merely’ obscured by layers of dirt, although the face of a previous wife had been painted over elsewhere on the canvas; this, says the song, reflects the way in which Glaswegians have marginalised memories of empire and entanglements with slavery.
  • The ‘La Pasionara’ statue on Clydebank, a monument to Glaswegians who fought for the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
  • The demolition of the Glasgow high-rises in recent times.

This is a new chapter in Glasgow’s long and distinguished history of radical song.  Rapid growth during the industrial revolution, followed by periods of post-industrial economic decline, have generated amongst other things a rich tradition of popular songs that speak from the point of view of the socially and economically disadvantaged.   Robert Burns, back in the revolutionary 1790s, published poems on democracy anonymously in the Glasgow radical press: ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’ stems from this period (see Leask).  Burn’s legacy in Glasgow was considerably more radical than his poetry of pastoral Scotland celebrated in Edinburgh’s drawing rooms (Whatley).

Glasgow’s hugely successful musical hall culture also allowed songs of a potentially radical nature to surface.  And in the later 19th century, Gaelic songs printed in Glasgow added their weight to protests against the Crofter’s Act of 1886 (see Donald E. Meek).  However, it was the period of ‘red Clydeside’ politics from the end of WW1, which dominated the 1920s, which saw new kinds of industrial, urban ballads appear, songs which helped to generate a modern working class Glaswegian identity (Maggie Craig, and Elspeth King, below).  Singing now would have included international material alongside indigenous songs about about local workplaces, rent strikes and unemployment crises, connecting with trans-national working class politics.  One study by Iain McLean finds accounts of The Red Flag being sung alongside the Scottish metrical setting of psalm 124, a Calvinist “song of deliverance”, in a 1922 protest (McLean).

The mid century folk revival movement produced another wave of radical songs, and in recent times, Glaswegian musicians have continued to use song to raise the heat on many social debates (Dossena).  Groups such as the Glasgow Song Guild have created particular spaces for radical song – often in pubs and non-traditional performance venues – which helped to cement this repertoire into the foundations of urban west coast Scottish identity.  Robert Anderson – who plays drums with The Tenementals – has himself written a phD on the social history of Glasgow’s popular music scene in the contemporary era: it’s interesting to see that he is one of those with musical-academic crossover credentials.

For those wishing to explore radical song using more conventional academic archive resources, Glasgow University hosts the Political Song Collection of material from 1792 to 2018, with a particular concentration of 20th century material. Formerly known as the Janey Buchan Political Song Collection after the donor of the original core holdings, the University has continued to gather in new material, including in 2018 a bequest from John Jordan of the Workers Music Association.  The materials include sheet music, recordings, journals, meeting minutes and much more and is obviously a first stop for anyone interested in further research in this area.

And…. look out for The Tenementals album when it appears – hopefully early in 2023.

Further Information

Glasgow University:

Glasgow Museums and Collections – on the Glassford Family Portrait

The Tenamentals


Maggie Craig, When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside (2011) (Birlinn, reprinted 2018)

Marina Dossena, ‘”And Scotland Will March Again”: The language of political song in 19th and 20th century Scotland’ in After the Storm: Papers from the Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster ed. Janet Cruickshank and Robert McColl Millar (Aberdeen, 2012)

Elspeth King, ‘Popular Culture in Glasgow’ in R A Cage ed. The Working Class in Glasgow 1750-1914 (Routledge, 1978)

Nigel Leask, ‘The Pith O’ Sense and Pride O’ Worth’: Robert Burns and the Glasgow Magazine (1795), in Before Blackwood’s: Scottish Journalism in the Age of Enlightenment ed. Alex Benchimol, Rhona Brown and David Shuttleton, eds. (Routledge, 2015), 75-89

Donald E Meek, ‘Radical Romantics: Glasgow Gaels and the Highland Land Agitation, 1870-1890’, Baile Mòr nan Gàidheal. City of the Gaels, ed. Sheila M Kidd, (Department of Celtic, University of Glasgow, 2007), pp.161-185

Iain McLean, The Legend of Red Clydeside (John Donald Publishers, 2000)

Christopher A. Whatley, ‘”It is Said that Burns was a Radical”: Contest, Concession and the Political Legacy of Robert Burns, 1796-1859’, in the Journal of British Studies 50(3), (2012), 639-666

Craig Williams, ‘Academics form band to recount radical history of Glasgow through song’, The Glasgow Herald, 7th December, accessed 21 Dec 2022

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