Tag Archives: culture

“Green Fields of France”


As politicians prepare a ‘celebration’ of the First World War, Bill Scott looks at a song which remembers the horrors of the trenches.

Green Fields of France

Words & Music: Eric Bogle

Well, how’d you do, Private Willie McBride,
D’you mind if I sit down down here by your graveside?
I’ll rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
Been walking all day, Lord, and I’m nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean,
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

CHORUS: Did they beat the drum slowly, did they sound the fife lowly?
Did the rifles fire o’er ye as they lowered ye down?
Did the bugles sing “The Last Post” in chorus?
Did the pipes play the “Floors O’ The Forest”?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you forever nineteen?
Or are you a stranger, without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?


Well, the sun’s shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, the red poppies dance.

The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land;
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.


And I can’t help but wonder now, Willie McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “the cause?”
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it’s all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.


David Cameron is planning a “celebration” of the First World War next year on the centenary of its start in 1914. For once we can all agree with Establishment cynic Jeremy Paxman that this demonstrates once and for all that Cameron is “a complete idiot”. What next? A celebration of the anniversary of the Black Death’s arrival in Europe?

The truth is that the First World War was one of history’s greatest tragedies – the sacrifice of a generation of, mainly, European young men at the altar of imperialist hubris with absolutely no underlying redeeming rationale. The causes of the Great War were not an assassination in Serbia but an ever escalating arms race by all of the “Great Powers” coupled with an imperialist lust for more land, resources and power that could only ever have had one outcome.

In the first three months of the war the ‘Allies’ (Britain, France, Russia) suffered a million casualties. By the spring of 1915 both sides were bogged down in trench warfare on the Western Front, the muddy and bloody fields of Flanders.

The military commands of both sides were employing the tactics of a mid-19th century war with troops armed with 20th century weaponry. Yet it had been evident since the time of the American Civil War, some 50 years earlier, that sending masses of men across open ground against well defended positions would simply lead to massive casualties. Since that time barbed wire, machine guns and quick loading rifles had made the already costly tactic of frontal assault a suicidal one – but still the old duffers in overall command, safely sited miles from the front where the actual fighting was done, commanded their troops to “go over the top”.

The Battle of the Somme, where “Willie McBride” most probably fell, epitomises the horror and futility of trench warfare. The Battle started in July 1st 1916 and lasted until November of that year. Douglas Haig the British commander had come up with the battle plan to relieve the pressure on the French army which had suffered horrific casualties of its own, and was on the point of mutiny, after the German “Spring offensive” at Verdun.

Now Haig intended to prove that Britain was as prepared as Germany or France to sacrifice its young men’s lives for the sake of national pride. On the first day of the battle the British suffered 60,000 casualties – probably more than all the casualties that the British army has incurred in the near 70 years since the end of the Second World War. By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties. The French lost another 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000. The gains – at the end of the Battle the Allies had advanced just over 6 miles from where they had started at a collective cost of 200,000 young men for each mile of the advance. Yet the Somme marked only the mid-point of the First World War. Another 2 years of useless slaughter were still to come.

The First World War may seem like ancient history today nearly a century later, but its impact on people’s view of the world and on Scotland itself is still being felt. The sheer scale of the slaughter is staggering. There were over 37 million casualties (military and civilian) directly attributable to the war with over 15 million deaths and 22 million wounded. This includes almost 9 million military deaths and about 6.6 million civilian deaths.

The support to their home countries’ involvement in the war given by the Labour Party (and other social democratic parties in Europe ) split the socialist left. Throughout Europe a few principled socialists stood out – in Scotland, McLean, in Ireland, Connolly, in Germany, Luxemburg & Liebnecht and in Russia Lenin & Trotsky. All suffered for their beliefs and activity – in prison, exile or death. However as the scale of the slaughter became clear many of those in the working class who had at first supported the war were sickened by it and began to resist its continuance. This opposition to the war led to the Easter Rising, Red Clydeside, the Russian Revolution and the German Army’s mutiny – which effectively ended the war.

The impact of the First Word War in Scotland was profound. A total of 147,609 Scots were killed during World War One. That means that a fifth of all Britain’s war dead came from a nation that made up only 10% of its population. In total, when including the maimed and wounded, Scotland suffered a quarter of all British casualties. That’s more dead and wounded per head of population than any other country involved in WW I other than Turkey & Serbia – which were actual theatres of war where land armies clashed and civilians became caught up in the fighting.

Scotland was a country in mourning in the aftermath of the war. Its steady population growth throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, which had taken place despite the Clearances, was halted and reversed. Virtually no Scots family was left untouched by loss and the massive outpouring of grief that the Great War occasioned is captured in stone in the National War Memorial which was built in Edinburgh Castle. Visit it and read the seemingly unending list of the names of the fallen and weep at the absolute waste of human lives and national potential. Scotland has had no difficulty in remembering the fallen of the First World War but perhaps David Cameron should be careful that he doesn’t stir up memories of the unfairness of the scale of our needless sacrifice when compared to other parts on the “United” Kingdom. In WWI, 27% of Scottish troops mobilised were killed, compared to 12% for British forces overall. One might ask why that difference exists. It couldn’t have been because Scots troops were seen as more expendable by the British High Command, could it?

This song was written by one of Scotland’s greatest exports Eric Bogle, the folk singer and writer now located in Australia. It sits alongside another of his compositions, “Waltzing Matilda”, as one of the great anti-war songs set in the aftermath of World War I. Read Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong” to get a picture of the living hell that was the Somme and if you can try to catch a screening of “Joyeux Noel” this Christmas. Based on real incidents it captures the camaraderie of Scots, German and French troops during the unofficial Christmas truce that broke out in the trenches in 1914 and the efforts that the military command made to crush the truce and its memory. It’s a true commemoration of an unnecessary tragedy rather than a grotesque celebration of an immense bloodbath.

Naked: Institutional fear and bodies in public spaces

The Naked Soul (1)Argentinian artist Syd Krochmalny’s recent project ‘The Naked Soul’ explores different ideas of ‘nakedness’, public space and justice drawing on the case of the Naked Rambler here in Scotland. Dr Sarah Wilson of the University of Stirling writes in this article about some of the surprising responses to Krochmalny’s project and some of the issues it raises in terms of access to ‘public’ space and the fear and self-censure provoked by risk management practices in the workplace.

A recent art performance involving the projection of a video in a public place in Edinburgh raises key questions regarding freedom of expression, ‘public’ space and how it is controlled in contemporary Scotland. The video (‘The Naked Soul’) was made by Argentinian artist, Syd Krochmalny. Syd was invited to Scotland to give two seminars (one at the University of Stirling and one in the University of Edinburgh), an exhibition and to create this art work. After months of discussion, the resultant video draws on Biblical and philosophical texts, poetry and Scottish history to reflect on the case of Stephen Gough, the ‘Naked Rambler’, who spent over 6 years in Scottish prisons. It highlights different ideas of ‘nakedness’, attitudes to the body, imprisonment as a response to bodies seen as out of place, and ultimately of the kind of society Scotland is and could be. Do we want a society in which debate and ideas are valued as, we are often told, during the Scottish Enlightenment? Or one in which notions of ‘freedom of expression’, the ‘public’ and of dialogue are decaying in the wake of an all-encompassing institutional fear of controversy and the bureaucratisation (and potential criminalisation) not only of protest, but of any public gathering?

In the beginning was the word. And the fears provoked by the word. The ‘Naked Soul’ refers to the Greek myth of the origins of justice recounted by Plato. But the inclusion of the word ‘naked’ on our application for permission to project in public was ‘alarming’ to Council officials though I assured them no naked genitalia would be shown. Indeed, much less of the body than in many television programmes and advertisements, than on the covers of lads’ mags freely displayed in most supermarkets, than in the flesh during stag or hen party antics. In conjunction with the word ‘naked’ however, even arms and legs can become dangerous. A visceral fear of ‘offence’, of something ‘inappropriate’ seemed to pervade. It seemed an excuse to veil the fear of nakedness itself.

Don’t Push the Boundaries

Yes ‘freedom of expression is important’ but we don’t want anything that ‘pushes the boundaries’ said one official awkwardly, anything ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’. Our first idea was to project the video onto the statue of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in the centre of Edinburgh in front of the High Court of Justiciary.  This attracted an aggressive response from the sculptor (backed up by implied threats from Edinburgh artistic and legal Establishment ‘heavies’  based on interpretations of Copyright Law that ignored established Scottish customs of hanging traffic cones on public statues and of rubbing Hume’s toe.) The sculptor’s representative suggested that if we didn’t believe in the aura of a work of art such as this sculpture, we should consider projecting onto a poster with the words ‘David Hume’ on it. In spite of having accepted a commission from an organisation with a definite political purpose (the Saltire Society), the sculptor himself employed Kant’s argument of the ‘Kingdom of ends’ and ‘art for art’s sake’ against the idea of temporarily projecting anything not only onto ‘his’ work but also onto the space around it.

Political Debate

The idea of political debate in a public place, or even of public space itself, seemed to be disturbing for artists, public bodies and others. It was suggested that ‘as a matter of courtesy’ we should ask the permission of the courts if the projection were to hit ‘their’ walls. Naïvely, we suggested that the walls of public buildings might be seen as ‘public’ property and not ‘theirs’. ‘That sounds like sedition’ was one response. Commercial suppliers were also frightened of causing ‘offence’. A company of equipment suppliers suggested we do something less ‘political’, concerned that they might lose contracts if they were seen to be ‘involved’. A Council official then suggested that one way to appease local artists and the ultimate local commandment of ‘Thou shall not interfere with the traffic even minutely… except during the commercially successful Festival’ was to transfer the projection to a local cemetery in which no one had been buried for over a century. Of course, this would also be a transfer to a less visible public place. This official in a public institution happily engaged in discussion around the project, but was afraid of censure from superiors concerned to ‘manage’ risk rather than encourage freedom of expression or dialogue. ‘I don’t want to get a call from the local newspaper about this’. No one was unhelpful. Most were interested in the project and wanted to chat. But as employees they knew well the contemporary concern of institutions to avoid anything ‘controversial’. They were scared and preferred to pass the decision onto someone else.

Monument to Thomas Muir, democratic martyr in New Calton Cemetery
Monument to Thomas Muir, democratic martyr in New Calton Cemetery

But the cemetery which contains David Hume’s tomb was, we realised, a good location for a project related to myths around death and judgment. A liminal place, for souls banished from too public places: Jews originally, transported activists such as Thomas Muir, prostitutes, Naked Ramblers perhaps, and artists wishing to explore certain issues (while still not offending against another British commandment ‘Thou shalt not show willies in public places ..at least not outside of a commercial context’). Sorted we thought, with the blessing of two Council departments. But unbeknownst to us, the cemetery took us outside of the invisible boundary lines of these two departments and inside those of another, according to whom, even though Old Calton Cemetery functions more now as a tourist attraction than as a ‘live’ cemetery; ‘The families of the dead might be offended’. The idea of offence takes multiple forms and multiple spaces then.  We’d seen no sign of mourners in amongst the detritus of local drinkers, which we offered to clear. How many people might be the descendants (or the potentially offended) of these people buried over century ago?  What kind of offence related to never known ancestors might this be? How far might such offence travel over time? The project was coming to resemble its subject: the banishment of the (nearly) naked body to the margins, the fear of sexuality and death. But still there was no official response, yes or no. The official processes left us hanging despite several phone calls; with the blessing of some departments, but passed to others who did not respond. Was this silence the result of miscommunications….or a type of silence intended to silence, to lead us to self-censure? …..better to not engage in anything ‘controversial’, right? An effective silence too. It was beginning to get to me. I realised that I, too, was scared.

Managing Risk

Our final no came through an unexpected but revealing source. The afternoon before the projection, a university press official phoned the Council media department which suggested the Council did not know of our previous negotiations, or that we had been directed to the Cemetery by Council officials, and stated that the cemeteries’ department’s response was a definite ‘no’ (not that anyone had told us this). Rather than questioning this process or broader theories of freedom of expression or notions of public space, the increasingly cautious and commercialised university, too, preferred to avoid anything ‘controversial’, anything that might tarnish its monolithic, clean ‘brand’.  A university officer suggested that the video would be better shown in a more ‘private’ space, such as, in his view, the university itself. The Council media department’s gratitude to the university press office was obvious in an email ‘thanks for the heads up’; two institutions managing the risk posed by employees and their pesky, creative ideas.

Furious, and animated by an Argentinian who could not quite believe that this was happening in the country of Hume and Smith, we went ahead. After the cemetery we projected in the AugustineCentralChurch. In contrast to other institutions, this church honoured its tradition as a place of public dialogue and welcomed us with open arms. Here, at last Syd was shocked and impressed by an Edinburgh institution!

Is Another Scotland Possible?

We are left though with many broad questions at this crossroads in Scottish history. Is another Scotland possible? One in which the body provokes less official fear and revulsion, and in which children are not taught that the naked body is exclusively sexual or something perverted? One in which the many intelligent, creative workers within institutions –whether in the public or private sector- are allowed space to engage with ideas and spaces around them without fear of censure? One in which dialogue is welcomed, rather than ended by risk management practices in institutions relating to (potential) ‘offence’ to a few and the reaction of powerful media outlets? More broadly, can a society administered, explicitly or otherwise, through such a state of fear and self-censure, in which words such as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘controversial’ are used to close down rather than to open debate, be truly democratic? If democracy is constructed through dissensus, then does the aversion to such debate within some Scottish institutions reveal a latent timidity, and from an Argentinian perspective, proto-fascist, spirit at their heart? The spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment may still haunt CaltonCemetery, but it seems to be well buried in today’s institutions and (increasingly privatised) public spaces.

Which Side Are You On?

Womens Support Group, Miners Strike.
Women’s Support Group, South Wales, 1984. Image http://www.flickr.com/photos/museumwales/

Bill Scott on a song of workers struggle which has lived on across the decades.

Come all of you poor workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell
Which side are you on?

If you go to Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

They say they have to guard us
To educate their child
Their children live in luxury
Our children almost wild

Gentlemen, can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

My daddy was a miner
He’s now in the air and sun
He’ll be with you fellow workers
Till every battle’s won

 Harlan County

Mining originally brought relative prosperity to the poor hill farming communities of Harlan County Kentucky.  By the 1920’s two thirds of the county’s labour force worked in the mines and just prior to the Great Depression the county had risen to become one of Kentucky’s wealthiest. However the onset of the Depression saw the mine owners cutting wages and crushing any signs of resistance in order to maintain their profits.

The mine owners in Harlan were industrial giants US Steel, Edison and Ford. They not only owned the mines but company stores, housing, schools and even churches. Moreover through bribes and patronage they also effectively owned local police forces, Sheriffs, judges and politicians. To make absolutely sure of control the mine owners brought in hundreds of armed thugs of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency as mine guards. This same agency had been responsible for the Matewan Massacre in the neighbouring mining area of West Virginia (for a brilliant account of this earlier organising struggle see film director John Sayle’s masterpiece “Matewan”). Known as “gun thugs”, by locals the “guards” protected scab labour during strikes and evicted union miners from company housing. Due to their control of local sheriffs the mine owners were even able to have these private guards deputised.

The Coal mine owners fired, blacklisted and evicted any miners that even talked of unionisation. Union organisers were beaten and shot by mine guards, in many cases with the backing of the local sheriff.  As a result of falling wages and severe unemployment, 231 children died of malnutrition in HarlanCounty between 1929 and 1931. The coal companies then imposed a 10% wage cut on their workers in early 1931. Almost spontaneously the, as yet non-unionised, Harlan miners decided to strike, feeling that they “might just as well die fighting as die of starvation.”

Some 18,000 miners walked out. Hundreds of miners were fired and their families evicted for even discussing joining the United Mine Workers union. Most of these sacked workers moved to Evarts, one of only three non-company towns in the county. Sacked miners began raiding company-owned stores to feed their families. Baldwin Felts thugs abused miners’ wives and children and openly carried guns to cower any opposition. Sheriff John Henry Blair reported that during the strikes of 1931-1932, “I did all in my power to aid the coal operators’ Sheriff Blair, responding to a reporter’s questions regarding the use of guns, said, “Hell, yes, I’ve issued orders to shoot to kill”. The strikers responded by arming themselves.

As tension mounted the “Battle of Evarts” took place on May 5, 1931. Three guards and a miner were killed. Two days later, the Governor of Kentucky mobilised the National Guard, ostensibly to neutrally police the County – in practise the Guard disarmed strikers, broke up picket lines and guarded the mines and company stores.But sporadic strikes and armed conflict continued and by May 1932, eleven people had been killed: five deputies, four miners, a Young Communist League organiser and a local storekeeper sympathetic to the strikers.

Sheriff Blair arrested and imprisoned most of the known UMW organisers on trumped up charges related to the Battle of Evarts. One night Blair and Baldwin Felts’ “deputies” raided the home of Florence Reese, the wife of one of the few UMW organisers still at large. They wrecked the family’s furniture and put Florence and her small children in fear for their lives. But Florence, showing tremendous courage, demanded that they leave.

Eventually they did so but Florence wanted to set down on paper how she felt about the struggle that she and her family were engaged in.  She ripped a calendar from the wall and on its back poured out her anger and defiance –  the song she wrote was “Which Side Are You On?”. She set it to the tune of an old British ballad called “Lay the Lily Low”. The song is a call to all workers to support the struggle. As ever there can be no neutrals in such a contest – either you side with the strikers or effectively side against them. The song is also very much from her own viewpoint as a mother and daughter –concerned with the future for her children and for her father, already blacklisted by the mine-owners.

The Harlan County coal miners continued their struggle throughout the 1930s, and the violence also continued. More workers were evicted, beaten and killed. For the UMW the struggle took on national importance as previously unionised mines in other counties and states threatened to break their union contracts as they were unable to compete fairly with the low wages paid in Harlan. Kentucky folk singers Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland took up Florence’s song and popularised it at benefits for the HarlanCounty miners throughout the States. It became an organising song throughout the US as the new more militant unions of the Congress of Industrial Organisations fought recognition battles in mines, auto-factories and shipyards.

Union organisers finally succeeded in Harlan after another strike in 1939.A fifteen week all out strike by 9,000 miners culminated in the “Battle of Stanfill,” when the Kentucky National Guard shot and killed two miners and wounded several others. This prompted national press outrage directed at the mine owners and the Roosevelt Administration intervened to enforce Federal Law (introduced via the New Deal) which guaranteed workers the right to seek unionisation. The UMW signed an agreement winning recognition for itself and large wage increases for its members.

Civil Rights

But the story of the song does not end there. Aunt Molly Jackson recorded it and Pete Seeger, whose father was a folk song collector, took it up and recorded a version with the Almanac Singers (a group that sometimes included Woody Guthrie) and the Weavers. Then in the 60s the nascent Civil Rights movement adapted the song for its own use including new verses such as –

Come all you people
Lift up your voices and sing
Will you join the Ku Klux Klan
Or Martin Luther King?

Then in the 1972 struggle broke out again HarlanCounty. Miners at the Brookside mine went on strike over the Duke Power Company’s attempt to insert a No-Strike clause in their contracts. As ever local law enforcement sided with the owners. Threatened and harassed by armed deputies the miners were eventually barred by court order from mounting picket lines. Instead their wives, girlfriends and daughters mounted pickets on their behalf – and armed themselves to resist gun thug intimidation.

All of this is caught in the moving Oscar winning documentary “Harlan County USA” made by the women’s liberation activist and director Barbara Kepple. The strike ended after a year and the death of a picket with a, limited, win by the strikers. Kepple made a point of capturing the by then 70+ year old Florence Reece on film singing her inspirational song in support of the strikers and their militant female supporters.

1984 Miners Strike

The song again came to the fore during the 1984 Miners Strike. After six months of enforced silence due to vocal chord problems Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan made a triumphant return to performance at the Queens Hall in Edinburgh. He sang several songs in support of the striking miners and their families (the performance can be heard on the album, “Live in Edinburgh”). Amongst several additional verses of contemporary relevance was this –

Thatcher sent MacGregor
To smash the NUM
And break the workers’ unity
And I ask you once again

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

See here for the lyrics of Gaughan’s full version –http://www.dickgaughan.co.uk/songs/texts/whichside.html

Billy Bragg appeared at several miners benefits with Gaughan and heard him singing his version of “Which Side Are You On?” prompting Billy to record his own version which like Gaughan’s had many new verses including –

This government had an idea
And parliament made it law
It seems like it’s illegal
To fight for the union any more

Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

A feature of the year long Miners Strike was the role played by the “Miners Wives”. The women of the coalfields, like their predecessors in the States came to the support of their husbands, fathers and sons. The Miners Wives Support Groups raised money, mounted pickets and sought solidarity from other workers. So great was their contribution that they had the support of the NUM’s President, Peter Heathfield, and General Secretary, Arthur Scargill, in seeking full membership of the NUM after the strike ended in defeat. Ironically only the unity of Euro-Communist officials such as George Bolton of the Scottish area with the NUM’s right wing prevented the women from winning full membership. Nevertheless many women, politicised by the strike, went on to make careers outwith the domestic sphere as community workers, councillors and MPs.

The Song Lives On

The song continues to be adapted and used in new struggles throughout the world. It has to my knowledge been used by striking workers in Japan and South Africa.  Natalie Merchant, the Dropkick Murphys and Rage Against the Machine have all recorded new versions of the song.

Perhaps the  most relevant up to date recording was Ani DiFranco’s which is featured in her 2012 CD of the same name.

DiFranco first performed the song in 2009 at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert in MadisonSquareGardens.   Di Franco’s version starts traditionally but then adds Occupy-style drumming and opens out to address current issues including environmental destruction, corporate greed and imperialist wars. Significantly it re-genders the song away from a call to men to struggle on behalf of their families to one where women fight on their own behalf –

My mother was a feminist
She taught me to see
That the road to ruin is paved
with patriarchy

So, let the way of the women
Guide democracy
From plunder and pollution
Let mother earth be free

I can’t help but believe that Reece and the women who won the Brookside strike would have no problems with these sentiments that are so applicable to the labour and socialist movement of today.

Paul Robeson – Ol’ Man River

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson

Bill Scott on one of the greats of working class culture

Ol’ man river, Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’, But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’ keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’ plant taters, He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants’em is soon forgotten,
But ol ‘man river, He jes keeps rollin’along.

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain,
Tote dat barge! Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk, An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary, An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’, An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river, He jes’keeps rolling’ along.
Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi,
Let me go ‘way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan,
Dat’s de ol’ stream dat I long to cross.

O’ man river,, Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’ know sumpin’, But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.


You might well ask how a show-tune written in a white lyricist’s approximation of 19th Century US Southern States Negro patois could ever be considered “radical song”.

The lyrics of Ol’ Man River were written in 1927 for the musical “Showboat” by Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein, who went on to write many more successful musicals in partnership with Richard Rodgers consistently wrote anti-racist themes into his work – particularly in the musicals “South Pacific” and “Carmen Jones”.

Thus despite “Showboat” being a commercial musical based on a, then, best-selling novel it had, for its time, radical and progressive themes. It questioned the Southern States’ “miscegenation” laws that forbade marriage between Black and White Americans.  It also bestowed a stoic dignity on the character of “Joe” a black ex-slave who acts as the musical’s “Greek chorus”. Such themes and serious roles for Black actors were new to American theatre and saw the otherwise highly successful musical’s performance banned in parts of the South.

So far so good but a song about stoic acceptance of one’s lot in life is hardly radical. But that can depend on the singer and the performer most associated with this particular song was black activist Paul Robeson.

Robeson, the son of a freed slave, was the first black man to qualify in law (cum laude) from Rutgers College in the USA and the first African American to play as an All American college football player.  He was also a world-renowned singer & actor, a leading civil rights activist and socialist. Robeson also had strong associations with the workers movement in Britain and Scotland.

Robeson first came to Britain to star in the London production of Show Boat in 1928. While performing there he met a group of unemployed miners who had walked to London to draw attention to the hardship South Wales had endured in the aftermath of the General Strike. This began a long association between Robeson and the miners union.

Robeson settled in Britain during the 30s and starred in a number of British films returning to the US to star in the first film version of Showboat (1936). He also starred in a number of plays in Britain such as Eugene O’Neil’s “Emperor Jones” including one production at Edinburgh’s Playhouse.  In 1938 Robeson sang in Glasgow at a benefit concert for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Robeson also travelled to Madrid that year.  When he sang at the front for Republican troops the guns on both sides fell silent to listen to his magnificent bass voice.

1938 was also significant in that from that year forwards Robeson performed a version of Ol’ Man River that was radically different from Hammerstein’s original. Except for very minor changes the lyrics of the song as Robeson performed it in the 1936 film version of the show were those that Hammerstein wrote in 1927. But, when appearing on Broadway, Robeson and Hammerstein had violent arguments when, during a rehearsal, Robeson changed the line, “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail…”, to ““Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit / And you lands in jail..”.

Hammerstein objected to any mere performer, even one as gifted as Robeson, questioning his artistic creation. Robeson conversely objected to what he saw as a demeaning portrayal of Negroes getting drunk as an escape when they were more likely to be punished by the white “boss” for showing spirit and talking back. Robeson persisted though and sang his new lyrics in performance

However by 1938, and probably inspired by the resistance to Fascism shown by the Spanish and international working class,  Robeson made far greater changes to the lyrics that completely changed its meaning and delivery.

Instead of “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!”, Robeson now sang, “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!

The changes made by Robeson shift the portrayal of Joe away from the resigned, stoic character who resents, but ultimately has to accept, the White Boss world that he lives in, to a character who will persevere, however great the challenge, to change that world.  Moreover Robeson not only changes the character of Joe but also the metaphorical nature of the “River” that he sings about. The river changes from an impassive, uncaring fixture of life to a massive force of nature representing the flow of time that will ultimately sweep away the White Boss system and the unjust laws like miscegenation that underpin it. In a few words Robeson transformed the song from tragic acceptance to heroic resistance. That’s entirely fitting because it was also how Robeson henceforth  lived his own life.

“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative,” – Paul Robeson

Robeson first became a hero to the British mining community, in 1940 when he starred in the film Proud Valley as an American sailor stranded in Cardiff who finds work in a Welsh colliery.  In a story, suggested by Robeson himself, his character then leads a delegation of miners in marching to London to demand fairer working conditions from the Government.

In 1949 Abe Moffat, Communist  leader of the Scottish Miners Federation, invited Robeson to Edinburgh where he performed in a benefit concert for the miners at the Usher Hall. Afterwards Robeson visited Newcraighall pit canteen and sang the great American organizing song, “Joe Hill”, for the miners there.

Because of Robeson’s left-wing views the U.S. government denied him the right to travel (1952-57) and he was blacklisted from performing. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to repudiate his views and told that if he was a communist he might as well live in Russia he said –My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you”.

Robeson was subsequently banned from TV and performing in theatres or concert venues – not by law but by their owners. Even Robeson’s film and records were withdrawn from circulation to deny him royalties. But the Scottish miners were amongst those who did not forget Robeson’s past generosity.  They and the South Wales area rallied to his cause by staging pithead collections which raised several hundred pounds to send to the near destitute performer and his family.

Denied his passport Robeson defied the authorities and managed to participate in the 1957 Welsh Miners’ Eisteddfod, by singing via a transatlantic telephone link. In the concert’s finale the Miners movingly responded by singing -“There’ll Be A Welcome in the Hillside”.  He defied the US authorities again that same year when he sang from a park in Washington (State) to a paying audience of 40,000 over the border in Canada.  After an international campaign – called appropriately, “Let Robeson Sing!” – the Supreme Court was finally forced to reinstate Robeson’s passport in 1958.

Robeson then toured internationally both singing and acting (including singing opera in Moscow and playing Othello at Stratford Upon Avon).  But one debt was outstanding.  In 1960 he returned to Scotland at the request of Abe Moffat’s daughter, Ella Egan. He first sang from the Queen’s Park Bandstand to the crowd who gathered at Glasgow’s May Day Rally and later that month appeared in front of a rapturous audience of 20,000 at the Scottish Miners Gala in Holyrood Park. It was to be his last public appearance in Scotland as, scarred by the racism and blacklisting he had experienced, he suffered from depression and was a virtual recluse between 1963 and his death in 1976.

However Robeson’s influence permeated the Scottish, and American, folk revivals and the 1960’s Black Civil Rights Movement. Robeson’s long and happy association with the Scottish workers movement was also remembered fondly by his son, Paul Robeson Jr., when he accepted the invitation of Colin Fox and the Edinburgh May Day Organising Committee to visit Scotland and speak at Edinburgh’s May Day Rally in 2002. One can only hope that Robeson, his singing and his version of ”Ol Man River” go on to influence further generations of black and working class activists.

Both Sides the Tweed

Both Sides the Tweed

What’s the spring-breathing jasmine and rose ?
What’s the summer with all its gay train
Or the splendour of autumn to those
Who’ve bartered their freedom for gain?

 Chorus: Let the love of our land’s sacred rights

To the love of our people succeed
Let friendship and honour unite
And flourish on both sides the Tweed.

No sweetness the senses can cheer
Which corruption and bribery bind
No brightness that gloom can e’er clear
For honour’s the sum of the mind

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

Bill Scott on a folk classic with a little known literary origin – a stirring, beautiful song about events of over three hundred years ago, written by two of our most talented artists, whose lyrics and sentiments are exceptionally relevant to the campaign for Independence today.

James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd

Image: shirokazan on flickr

“Both Sides the Tweed” made its first known appearance in “Hogg’s Jacobite Reliques” published in 1819.  James Hogg (1770 -1835) himself was born into rural poverty in the Borders of Scotland. He worked as a shepherd until he discovered the works of Robert Burns. Thereafter he began writing poetry in emulation of his literary hero. Taken up, like Burns, by the Scottish intelligentsia, Hogg won a contemporary fame as a poet and essayist (with Blackwood’s Magazine) that rivalled that attained earlier by Burns himself.

James Hogg

Whilst his fame as a poet has dimmed Hogg retains a place amongst Scotland’s literary giants as the author of the novel, “Confessions of a Justified Sinner”.  A magnificent, modernistic novel on the duality of “Man” (humanity) and the hypocrisy of Calvinism it is a must read to this day for anyone who wants to understand Scotland’s collective psychology.

In 1817 Hogg was commissioned by the Highland Society of London to collect songs relating to the Jacobite period (1689 to 1746) of Scottish history. He collected many great songs from the rural poor that he knew so well and also included songs earlier collected and/or written by Burns (such as “Ye Jacobites by Name”). However it is widely suspected that several of the songs in the Jacobite Reliques were not collected at all but instead written by Hogg himself. One of those songs was “Both Sides the Tweed” whose lyrics refer to the events leading up to the Act of Union in 1707.

As folk singer and songwriter Dick Gaughan has said the song has, “Hogg’s fingerprints all over it”.  The song asks if any real beauty and honest sentiment can truly be experienced in a land where corruption has been allowed to flourish and steal its people’s liberty.

Union and Scotland’s Parcel of Rogues

When political union of Scotland & England was proposed by the English Parliament in 1706  there was massive opposition from Scotland’s ordinary folk. Every one of Scotland’s burghs opposed union; the Church of Scotland and Scotland’s legal profession opposed it; there were near daily demonstrations and disturbances in the streets of the capital in opposition to it and Glasgow’s citizens rose in spontaneous armed rebellion.  Two groups until then inimically opposed, on political and religious grounds, Highland Jacobites and Lowland Covenanters, also found common cause in opposing Union.

Initially there was also a substantial majority against Union in Scotland’s Parliament.  But Scotland’s aristocracy and mercantile classes, having lost massive amounts of capital in the “Darien Disaster” (Scotland’s attempt to establish a colony in Central America), were open to persuasion. Eventually a majority were bought by the promise of having their Darien debts paid off. Thus despite massive public opposition the Act of Union was signed and passed.

So corruption and political preference was at the heart of Union from the outset.  This meant that after Union was achieved the Scots ruling class and politicians were held in contempt, on the grounds of their corruptibility, by the very same English ruling class that had bribed them! As Hogg saw it the only way that mutual respect between the peoples of England and Scotland could be restored was through achieving Scotland’s freedom, and thus equal standing, with our neighbours south of the Tweed.

A Classic Collection

Hogg’s collection of songs was popular when published and preserved many fine folk songs for later generations. When the Scottish Folk revival came along in the 1960s the Reliques were raided for material and songs like “Cam Ye Ower Fae France” and “A Parcel of Rogues” were recorded and given a new lease of life by the Corries and others. However “Both Sides the Tweed” lay unused until 1979.

The Folk revival was part of a rediscovery of Scottish culture and national identity that also took a political form at the polls. Following the 1974 election and the SNP’s greatest electoral success, thus far, the Scottish Labour Party rediscovered its commitment to a national parliament for Scotland.  This was something it had adopted as a policy some 60 odd years earlier but had done precisely nothing to implement in the intervening years – until the success of the SNP forced its hand.

But the sop granted was a grudging one and a 40% threshold was set for the referendum which meant that although a majority voted in favour of establishing an Assembly the dead and those who did not vote were counted alongside NO voters to deny the Scots’ electorate’s will.

 Gaughan and the referendum

In the aftermath of the referendum, perhaps our greatest modern folksinger/songwriter, Dick Gaughan, looking for a way of expressing his frustration at Scotland being cheated out of its own Parliament rediscovered “Both Sides the Tweed”.  It encapsulated both his anger at the continuing perfidy of Scots politicians (Labour and Tory in this case) but also his view that support for self-rule should not be confused with hatred for the English people.

Let friendship and honour unite
And flourish on both sides the Tweed.

 Dick made a few small changes to the lyrics and wrote a new and beautiful melody for the song.  It was then included in Gaughan’s album, “A Handful of Earth”. The song has since been covered by Capercaillie and Mary Black  amongst many others.

So the song recalls two seminal moments in Scottish history – the ending of Scottish independence with the passage of the Act of Union and the denial of the Scottish people’s will in the 1979 Assembly Referendum. But it also looks forward to that day when we will rediscover our own self-worth (“For honour’s the sum of the mind”) by achieving independence once more.

Hogg’s last verse echoes the sentiments of his hero Burns’ great hymn to international brotherhood, “For A’ That”.  Virtue and honour are not to be found in riches but in the courage of those who fight for freedom.  Not bad watchwords for Scottish socialists as we enter the independence campaign.

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

Muhammad Ali – Black activist and 60’s icon

Bill Scott looks at a sporting star who played a significant role in the civil rights struggles of the US in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Muhammed Ali
Image: Olebrat on flickr under Creative Commons licence

“A Change Is Gonna Come”

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like that river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
Cos I don’t know what’s out there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie
And I go down town
somebody keep telling me don’t hang around
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

There were times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gone come, oh yes it will

Muhammad Ali is 70.  For those who did not see him box in his prime or hear his denunciations of the racist, white American state that might not mean much.  But for those who were witness to his personal struggle he remains much more than a great sportsman. He was an inspirational figure for a generation of activists.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay, in January 1942, to a poor, black working-class family in Louisville, Kentucky. Kentucky was in the upper South but scarred by the racist Jim Crow laws that prevented Black Americans from accessing decent homes, jobs and services or even drinking from the same water fountains as Whites. From his teenage years Clay strove to escape the poverty that the vast majority of Black Americans were destined to by becoming a boxer.  He proved a highly skilled one winning the Gold medal as a light heavyweight at the 1960 Olympics.


Clay then set out on a professional career.  But boxing and other sports had also been scarred by America’s racism. When Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion in 1908 white America was horrified. How could a cowardly “nigger” have beaten the flower of white manhood? Jim Jeffries, the ex-world champion, came out of retirement ‘for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro’.  Johnson reacted by giving Jeffries a boxing lesson and inflicting a crushing defeat, whilst the crowd chanted ‘kill the nigger!’ Blacks celebrated across the US, but racist reaction resulted in lynchings and white race riots. Johnson was eventually forced to flee the country after he was basically charged with sleeping with a white woman. There would not be another Black American permitted to fight for the heavyweight title until the “Brown Bomber”, Joe Louis, some 20 odd years later. But it was not only boxing where racism flourished. Baseball was segregated until after the Second World War and American Football imposed a ban on black players until the 1950s.

The price of being allowed to compete and win against whites was that the Black sporting champions had to show respect and deference to whites. No uppity Black sportsmen were tolerated. For example Jackie Robinson, the first Black baseball star, was forced to prove his loyalty to White America by testifying against Paul Robeson to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was told that if he failed to do so his career would be over.

Civil Rights Struggle

This was the sporting world that Clay had entered.  But other things were happening in America during this period.  A black seamstress called Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man beginning the Montgomery bus boycott. From this struggle a new Black leader emerged in the form of a local minister, the Reverend Martin Luther King.  By 1956, the Montgomery buses were desegregated, and the boycott tactic spread into retail settings like restaurants and shops and even industry.

The young Cassius Clay was influenced by these events and attended a number of civil rights demonstrations but after a white woman soaked him on a march, he declared “that’s the last one of these I’m coming to”.

However Clay became attracted to another emerging Black movement in the form of the Nation of Islam. Its founder Elijah Muhammad taught that Blacks should have pride in themselves and that Whites were evil. Unsurprisingly Clay kept his interest in the Nation secret – otherwise he might never have been given a chance to fight the then world heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. But his pride in his ethnicity was given an outlet.  He developed a bombastic, boastful, public persona which expressed itself in rhyming couplets such as “Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee”. In fact he has a real claim to being the progenitor of Rap as his popularity and rhyming surely inspired others. Even in his early career Ali seemed the antithesis of his quiet, respectful predecessors – boxers such as Joe Louis and Floyd Paterson.

The Nation’s most popular spokesperson and radical leader was Malcolm X. Popular with young Blacks that is but reviled by the white press and media. Malcolm became a close friend of Ali’s.  On the night that Clay first won the world championship in 1964 he did not party the night away but instead spent his time discussing his and Black America’s future with Malcolm X and the singer and activist Sam Cooke.

Malcolm X

The next morning Cassius Clay met the press in the company of Malcolm X and told them that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and henceforth wished to be known by his free name of Muhammad Ali and not his slave name, Cassius Clay. This stunned and infuriated White America. Here was a Black champion not deferential and god-fearing like a good Coloured person who knew their place but instead proclaiming that he was not even Christian but a Muslim who disowned America’s racist slave heritage.

Elijah Muhammad vehemently opposed members of the Nation of Islam participating in the civil rights movement, calling instead for separation of blacks from ‘White’ America.  But events were already making Malcolm X question that stance and his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad.  In 1962 Los Angeles police invaded a Nation of Islam Mosque shooting and killing one of its members. Malcolm X quickly organised an alliance of black groups and workers’ organisations to defend Black Muslims from further attacks but was ordered by the Nation’s leadership to desist.

Malcolm X began to think that he and other Black radicals should become directly involved in the struggle for black rights and that economic justice for Black Americans might mean forming alliances with progressive white workers. Malcolm then expressed open criticism of Elijah Muhammad and the idea of black separation.  Malcolm X’s developing political ideas strained his close friendship with Mohammed Ali as Ali remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad. However Ali was devastated by Malcolm’s assassination in 1965. Probably an act colluded in, if not carried out by, the FBI and Nation of Islam.

Because of his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad Ali initially opposed the struggle for Civil Rights but over time his views changed.  The key issue in Ali’s evolving political consciousness was the Vietnam War.


The war was massively opposed by Black Americans who were disproportionately more likely to be drafted into the army and even more disproportionately represented at the frontline. Responding to this the young Black activists of the Civil Rights Movement, SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) came out against the war. So too did the Civil Rights Movement’s leader, Martin Luther King. He did so against the wishes of the rest of the Movement’s more moderate leadership who feared being seen as unpatriotic. It was only after he expressed his opposition to the war that King was described by arch-reactionary Edgar J. Hoover as “the most dangerous man in America”.

King like Malcolm X was being radicalized by events. Race riots erupted in America’s black inner city ghettos between 1964 and 1968. The repression of rioters was massive –  nearly 250 black protestors were killed, 10,000 were injured, and 60,000 were arrested. In the rubble left after the Los Angeles Watts riots in 1965, King declared this, ” …was a class revolt of the under-privileged against the privileged”. In 1967 he concluded: “We have moved into an era which must be an era of revolution…”

Early in 1966 Ali became eligible to be called up to fight but he refused to be conscripted, saying that he was a conscientious objector. His vocal response to the draft – “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.  They ain’t never called me nigger” – thrust him into the forefront of the infant anti-war movement. Ali then took part in speaking tours around the college campuses often sharing the same platform as Martin Luther King.

Ali was the best known and most eloquent opponent of the war and more influential amongst Black youth and  anti-war activists than any politician. In 1966 Ali came to Britain to fight Henry Cooper. But he also came to give his support to the infant British Black consciousness movement. He toured playgrounds and spoke to crowds of adoring black youngsters in Brixton and Notting Hill. He was also a source of pride to Britain’s growing Muslim population.

In 1967 Ali was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and stripped of his title for refusing to be drafted. Ali refused to be cowed but instead continued to speak out against injustice.  He not only continued to speak on anti-war platforms but in 1968 also marched alongside his friend King and striking cleansing workers the day before King’s assassination. He faced death threats and hardship for his anti-war stance. He was at the very peak of his prowess as a boxer but was prevented from practicing his craft by the boxing authorities – losing millions of dollars in potential prize money. Because of his previous generosity Ali was not particularly wealthy and was quite quickly reduced to near poverty.  His future boxing opponent Joe Frazier generously helped him out financially during this period.

Back to Boxing

Eventually, in 1970, Ali’s conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court (which upheld his right to be a religious conscientious objector), and the World Boxing Association had to reinstate him. Ali by then had become a folk hero to Black America, genuinely the “People’s Champion”. Eventually allowed to box again, he fought his way back into contention for the official world title – though it was far from an easy process as several powerful, younger Black boxers such as Joe Frazier and Ken Norton had emerged during Ali’s hiatus.

In 1974 Ali became only the second heavyweight ever to recapture the heavyweight world title when he beat the apparently invincible and fearsome champion George Foreman.  He later became the only boxer ever to regain the world heavyweight title for a second time.

But like many other Black sportsmen Ali’s escape from poverty came at a bitter price.  Grueling contests with Frazier, Norton and Foreman damaged Ali’s brain and body.  Since 1984 he has suffered from Parkinson’s Syndrome brought on by repeated blows to his head and vital organs. For much of every day this extremely intelligent and articulate man is a voiceless prisoner of his own body. That is why so many of us who remember him in his prime shed a silent tear when he took faltering steps to light the Olympic flame in 1996.  His enduring pride and courage was there for all to see. At the end of 1999 Muhammad Ali was named the athlete of the century but he was, and is, so much more than that.

Sam Cooke: The enormously talented singer and song-writer Sam Cooke had 29 top-40 hits in the U.S. between 1957 and 1964 and is recognized as one of the founders and pioneers of Soul Music.  He was also very active in the Civil Rights Movement.  He was shot dead by his manager just months after Ali won his heavyweight title. “A Change is Gonna Come” is one of his most moving and political songs.