Time for the weekly Alasdair Roberts entry in Music Arcades — though this is arguably the second this week, after the Yeti zine. This is the third album released in the last couple of months to which Alasdair contributes a track or two (1, 2).
I confess I knew nothing of Alistair Hulett until this year and this CD. The combination of personal and pointedly political in his songs makes me think of Rob Dawber, a kindred spirit, whom I found out about via a couple of his ex-colleagues on the railways. Both died before they reached old age — long before in Dawber's case.
The album is smartly put together, with the first half featuring mostly individual personal narratives and the second being more up-tempo rabble rousing. Among the former, June Tabor stands out in her performance of He Fades Away, a song about a worker dying from exposure to asbestos — as Rob Dawber did. It's no surprise that Roy Bailey's another to have made Hulett's songs his own. The second half feels closer to The Pogues or The Men They Couldn't Hang, so it's no great surprise to find that Hulett led a band in the eighties, Roaring Jack, that supported both the other two.
Alasdair Roberts' performance lies between these two halves, and, to my ear, slightly apart from them. He takes a song, The Dark Loch, about the Highland Clearances, dramatised through the fate of either death or radicalisation that befell the children of one clan:
The church at Croik near Glencalvie in Ross stands as a testament to the sheer brutality of the Highland Clearances. It was here in the graveyard that ninety members of the Clan Ross, twenty-three of them children under the age of ten, took shelter when they were driven from their homes in 1845 by British troops. The methods of eviction bore all the hallmarks of a modern-day 'ethnic cleansing'. The Rosses camped in the churchyard for a week before departing. Where they ended up is not known, but as they left they scratched their names and a few words in English onto the glass windows of the church. What they wrote is still visible to this day:
'Glencalvie people was in the church here May 24, 1845…Glencalvie people the wicked generation…John Ross shepherd…Glencalvie people was here…Amy Ross…Glencalvie is a wilderness blow ship them to the colony…The Glencalvie Rosses.'
Thousands of evicted clansfolk were crowded into disease ridden refugee camps such as the ones on Glasgow Green and at Finnieston. Many of their children, including great John Maclean himself, went on to lead the workers revolt in Glasgow we call Red Clydeside. [source]
Alasdair is accompanied by his friend, the piper Donald Lindsay (who Alasdair explains first introduced him to Alistair Hulett). As with Alasdair's contribution to last year's Life of Birds album It's a haunting, or haunted, performance with an otherworldiness amidst some worldly, earthy material. It even includes hints of the ornithology-and-esoteric-theology that recur in Alasdair's own songs.
Wikipedia entry for Alistair Hulett
Listen to this album in full at Spotify