Review: Eleanor Bell and Linda Gunn (eds.), The Scottish Sixties: Reading, Rebellion, Revolution?

Image source: Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame (Hands up for Trad) – on The Clutha.  

This year marks the 10th anniversary of this book on a critical decade in Scotland’s politics, history, writing, art – and music.  This is an important collection of essays, well-worth a read by those interested in Scottish music.

The 60s were a decade of rapid cultural change.  Tom Devine’s introduction to this book frames the wider historical context, illustrating this with vivid personal memories of his own coming of age in the period.  Scotland saw a rapid contraction in employment in traditional areas of heavy industry (especially shipbuilding in Glasgow), and a rise in new kinds of employment.  Populations were on the move, with new towns coming into being in central Scotland, and slum clearances transforming the older urban landscapes.   The nationalism of the early 20th century – connected with the ‘Scottish Literary Renaissance’ of the 1920s to 50s – now seemed limited and elitist; a more popular, grass roots approach was called for, better attuned to the interests of younger people.  This generation’s cultural ‘Scottishness’ was also more international in outlook.  Not only was Scotland at the receiving end of new immigrant workers from former colonised areas of the globe; we are reminded that the post-war period saw a new wave of emigration from Scotland to other English-speaking regions not only in the UK but also overseas, with these emigrants experiencing new modern influences.  Scottish identity was thereby entangled with global, popular modern movements. Devine calls Scottish identity in this period ‘restless’; this was clearly reflected in its music (p,36).

The book makes it clear that the 1960s were a fertile period across all the arts, including a period of transformation in the use of Scots language in literature both on the page and in oral performance.  Chapters with particular interest to musicians include those summarised below, with later chapters dedicated to theatre, media and film infrastructures also signposting potential outlets for music performance and new composition.

  • Angela Bartie, ‘Explorer: Into the Sixties with Tom McGrath’, pp.47-67. McGrath was a writer and a jazz musician, and this interview with him is particularly useful for its description of the richness of the cultural scene in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and how these benefitted from the experiences of figures such as McGrath who travelled around the UK.  Bartie highlights the value of BBC radio in disseminating new sounds (p.50); the contribution of the international Edinburgh Festival to wider Scottish cultural renewal (p.52); the place of modern ‘folk’ music alongside left-wing, socialist politics (p.53); the roll of jazz in connecting musicians with international avant garde.
  • Margery Palmer McCulloch, ‘Culture and the City: Poetry, Painting and Music in 1960s Glasgow’175-192. This chapter discusses the place of classical music alongside other forms of ‘high art’ in modern Glasgow. McCulloch argues that the 1960s marks the point when Glasgow’s citizens realised they were no longer at the ‘heart of empire’, which promoted a reappraisal of the value of ‘high art’ in connecting modern Scotland to international cultural developments. The decade sees the growth of a more professional infrastructure for classical music creation and performance.  Particular attention is given to the role of Alexander Gibson in developing the Scottish National Orchestra and Scottish Opera; the establishment of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, with local sections in Glasgow and Aberdeen; and the consolidation of music and drama higher education in 1968 in the Royal Scottish Academic of Music and Drama (today, the Royal Scottish Conservatoire).
  • Bob Anderson, ‘Clan Balls, Luvvers and Incredible Strings: Popular Music in 1960s Glasgow’, pp.193-208. The author, who is himself a drummer playing with groups such as the Tenementals, is well-placed to write about developments in Glasgow’s popular music scene.  Anderson discusses the commercial nature of rock and pop compared with folk music of the period. Radio, once again, is credited with playing a strong role in this area; here, the ‘pirate’ Radio Scotland (a precursor of the BBC version), which took up and played local artists with a cavalier disregard for licensing niceties.  Glasgow entered the 1960s with a tradition of popular entertainment, including dance halls and music halls, stretching back into the 19th century; per head of population, Glaswegians were better served in this respect than even Londoners (p,194), and rivalled Liverpool, home of the Beatles (p.200).  As the decade progressed, traditional dance halls were augmented by new venues and more flexible arrangements for dance bands and music genres.  Dance culture led the way in pop and rock, with new local bands and artists springing up to play international top hits and, increasingly, their own new music.  This was the world of Lulu, Alex Harvey and his Band, George Gallacher and The Poets.  Later Glasgow bands of the 1960s focussed on progressive rock, and moved from larger venues into clubs and pubs, which mirrored aspects of the intimacy and in-group fandom of contemporary folk clubs.  At the interface of rock and folk were songs engaged with political issues by artists such as Matt McGinn.
  • Corey Gibson, ‘The Folkniks in the Kailyard: Hamish Henderson and the ‘Folk-song Flyting’, pp.209-226. This chapter discusses the 1964 debates in the Scotsman newspaper between Hamish Henderson, by then a leading figure in the folk music revival, and Hugh MacDiarmid, the grand old man of the earlier Scottish Literary Renaissance, over the place of folk music in modern Scotland.  MacDiarmid saw folk as old-fashioned and “parochial”, and increasingly tainted by commericialism; Henderson saw it as the vital life blood connecting past, present and future Scottish musical culture.  The debate was sparked by a letter by David Craig about the under-representation of folk music in BBC Scottish Home Service programming.  This was, said Craig, encouraged by the ‘snobbery’ of established poets, who undervalued traditional ballads, which he suggested to be the Scottish equivalent of Homeric epic.  Hugh MacDiarmid weighed in on the side of new poetry rather than older ballads.  Henderson joined the fray, from his position in the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, where a considerable archive of traditional material was being laid down attesting to the quality of the traditional material. Henderson had the balance of public opinion on his side.  The growth in local folk clubs, both in Scotland and North America, demonstrated that folk music was now a mainstream interest, and the time was ripe also to bring on board a new generation of makars to rival MacDiarmid.  The controversies became known as a modern ‘folk’ flyting, in an ironic shot against MacDiarmid’s support of Renaissance forms earlier in the 20th century: “where MacDiarmid deemed ‘popularity’ under the prevailing socio-political structure to be a negative force, Henderson sought to harness it in his efforts to bring about the kind of class-consciousness and public politicisation that both poets desired”. (p.217)  Henderson called on modern ‘folk’ to be as politically engaged as first-Renaissance poetry, citing new songs such as those in Ding Dang Dollar (1962), an anthology of anti-polaris, Scottish Republican, songs, and the broadly radical Rebels’ Ceilidh Songbook (1950s to 1960s), as proof that it could play a part in the nation’s modern politics.  CND supporters, he thought, were the new ‘Jacobites’ in radical protest.  Henderson’s famous song, ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’ (1960), shows what Henderson himself intended.  This song “melds traditional ballad Scots, various ballad motifs, and pipe music composed during the First World War, with direct and indirect references to the nuclear deadlock of the Cold War era, Apartheid South Africa, Red Clydeside, and Scotland’s complicity in the horrors of British Imperialism” (p,221).

*a ‘flyting’ was a medieval and renaissance form of oral ‘battle’ between rival poets, often in courtly circumstances.

Further Reading / Resources

  • Eleanor Bell and Linda Gunn (eds.), The Scottish Sixties: Reading, Rebellion, Revolution?   (New York and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013)
  • Simon McKerrell, ‘Modern Scottish Bands (1970-90): Cash as Authenticity’, Scottish Music Review 2(1), (2011), 1-14
  • Kate Molleson (ed.), Dear Green Sounds: Glasgow’s Music Through Time and Buildings (Edinburgh: Waverley Books Ltd, 2015) – an accessible pictorial survey of the historical architectural infrastructure for live music in Glasgow.
  • Ailie Munro, The Democratic Muse: Folk Music Revival in Scotland (Aberdeen: Scottish Cultural Press, 1996)

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