Union Songs

Interview with Alistair Hulett 1 April 2002

National Folk Festival Canberra.
Interviewed by Nick Martin

alistair hulettRenowned folk singer Alistair Hulett is currently touring Australia with his new album 'Red Clydeside'. The album deals with the emotions and trials of a radical time in the history of the international labour movements. Nick Martin caught up with Alistair to discuss the album, the Scottish labour movement, folk music, and working class politics at the National Folk Festival in Canberra over Easter, an event sponsored by the CFMEU A.C.T.

NM: Alistair, you've been involved in many strikes and workers struggles here and many of your songs have raised occupational health and safety issues like the asbestos question in the Wittenoon mines in Western Australia. This obviously is linked into criticising an agenda perpetrated by employers in the field, but maybe you'd like to give us a run down of some of the influences and inspiration of some of these disputes.

AH: There's been a few struggles in Australia I'm very proud to have been involved in. There was a strike on Cockatoo Island back in the early 90s and we organised quite a few concerts and so forth and were able to build links with the workers. Rather than having any direct influence on the outcome of the strike it had an impact on the political struggle. What it did was politicise our audience which at the time were predominately young people unfamiliar with trade unionism and often hostile to it from an anarchist perspective. Bringing them into contact with organised labour was an educational process for us all. I think it was good for the people involved in the strike as well. It feels a bit grandiose to imagine as a political songwriter I'm actually able to shape history. I think it's the forces of organised labour which shape history. As a songwriter I stand on the sidelines and try to comment on it and celebrate it.

NM: Alistair, your new album is called 'Red Clydeside'. Could you give us a bit of background on why you chose the stories of the Red Clyde of 1915 as the theme for your album?

AH: It's a history of Glasgow that many Glaswegians are even unaware of. And I think it's a very important history to be told. 'Red Clydeside' erupted virtually with the declaration of war in 1914 and it was centred amongst the munitions workers and the shipbuilders. It began as a revolt against the level of wages and conditions and escalated, because of the influence of a number of socialists, into a revolt against the war in itself. There are a lot of very important lessons to learn from 'Red Clydeside'; lessons of how it was built and lessons of why it failed. I think they're all important and that's what I tried to explore through this album.

NM: On listening to the album, one of the big themes that came out was the power of an active and unified workers movement. The work of striking match girls and rent striker Mrs. Barbour were all a reflection of workers coming together. How do you think this level of unity came about in Glasgow?

red clydeside cdAH: Well, Red Clydeside didn't appear out of a vacuum. There was a massive depression in 1908 that politicised workers all over Britain. By 1910 through until the declaration of war there was a period known as the 'Great Unrest' and the rulers of Britain were absolutely terrified by it. It was in the words of the leader of the 'Red Clydeside', John MacLean, he said that the workers of Britain were "entering the rapids of revolution", Red Clydeside was really a continuation of the 'Great Unrest'. Elsewhere because of the patriotism and the jingoism that was being promoted, the working class elsewhere succumbed to all that propaganda whereas in Glasgow it actually intensified the struggle. The reasons for that are too complex to go into here, but I think the most significant factors were the large numbers of Irish and highland refugees who were no friends of British imperialism for obvious reasons. But I think the most significant thing was the presence of so many militant socialists and trade unionists. That was really a happy coincidence that they happened to be there at the time. If it hadn't been for people like John MacLean and Mrs. Barbour who lead the rent strike of 1915 then the anger would not have been as focused but by being there they were able to direct the anger and actually turn an industrial strike into a political strike.

NM: The linking of the industrial and the political is an important element of 'Red Clydeside', and your album isn't just stating historical facts, it also serves a political purpose. How would you describe that political purpose in rejuvenating that 'Red Clydeside' spirit?

AH: Well I think 'Red Clydeside' is a very inspiring story but we can't just leave it at that. I think it's good to reflect on the struggles of the past but the point is to learn from the past in order to make it happen in the future and in the present and to learn the lessons. For me that's what folk music is all about. It's the unrecorded histories, and folk songs are full of unrecorded histories and often that's the only way we can learn because workers don't write the history books. Folk music is actually the oral history of the working class.

Alistair Hulett's CD 'Red Clydeside' is available by mail-order at www.folkicons.co.uk

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