From The Living Tradition Magazine, Issue 34, September 1999
Warwick Festival on a warm and sunny Sunday lunchtime – time to chat over a pot of tea and a chance to find out a bit about recently-returned emigrant Alistair Hulett before he left to visit Dave Swarbrick.
Alistair first got involved in folk music way back in the mid-sixties, following what seems to be a surprisingly common entry route – “Yeah, I was Glasgow’s pimpliest Bob Dylan clone !” – but he went along to folk clubs and was exposed to traditional Scottish music. Having been “accustomed” to the likes of Andy Stewart and Kenneth McKellar, the real sounds of his homeland came as a surprise, hearing traditional Scottish ballads, the strange cadence, and the modality of the tunes he was “gob-smacked”. By the age of fifteen he was visiting The Attic Folk Club in Paisley and taking a strong interest in the music, but just a year later he was to become a reluctant emigrant to New Zealand travelling with his parents on an assisted passage. However despite not being eager to go, he was able to break straight into the folk circuit – it was very welcoming to what it regarded as the genuine article, and here was a Scottish kid singing traditional Scottish ballads.
After two years in New Zealand he was a seasoned performer, and when ex-Glaswegian Gordon MacIntyre came from Australia to tour, Alistair was a support act. At the end of the week Gordon said that there was a thriving folk scene in Australia and that Alistair should go over there, so he did! Gordon introduced him to the right people and soon Alistair was established, and played around the folk circuit for a few years before drifting into other forms of music. It was the time of peace, love, and flower power, and he went on the hippy trail for about ten years, before coming back to traditional music via punk!
Alastair had already started writing his own stuff in the seventies, travelling around with a guitar, playing round campfires, jamming with other musicians, and needing to expand a limited repertoire of songs, but it wasn’t until he was playing with Roaring Jack that he began to write seriously. The Jacks were an electric folk punk band, “We screamed our way through traditional folk ballads with great gusto, whilst the audience had a scrum at the front of the stage, but that got me back into folk music again.” He neglects to mention the stage-diving from the top of the speaker stacks, but the band was popular, even getting invited to folk festivals. They were usually put in a tent a long way off from everybody else and their audience was mostly punks – but they wouldn’t have been there otherwise, so the festival organisers were happy to have the Jacks because they brought along an audience. The band did two albums and an EP, plus an awful lot of touring, but Alistair was quietly(-ish) gaining a reputation as a songwriter of some note. “People more from the mainstream of folk began to do my songs – in a less frenetic style than the Jacks, and a few people recorded them.” Alistair also started doing more solo work, playing acoustic, rather than electric guitar, and eventually recorded his first solo album “Dance of the Underclass” in 1991. This album included twelve of his own songs, including “He Fades Away” and “The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away”, plus a rousing version of the “Internationale”! Roaring Jack eventually split up after some six years together, but by this time Hulett was well on his way and had a second solo album, recorded with temporary band The Hooligans, issued in 1994 and titled “In the Back Streets of Paradise”.
The strength of his songwriting is obvious on hearing the material, but besides the very accurate and precise observation which underpins the lyrics from this fine wordsmith, there is also a common thread of a deeply felt political and social awareness. It was June Tabor’s recording of “He Fades Away”, on “Against The Stream” in 1994, that first made me aware of Alistair’s writing. “I love the way June sings it! It was weird really, but when I wrote it, especially when that middle eight section was coming to me, I was thinking of her music as I was writing that chord progression. I didn’t know her or anything but after I recorded it I asked my record label to send her a copy, but it didn’t ever reach her”. Happily, by the strange forces of serendipity, June was given a tape to play in the car whilst travelling between gigs in the US, and there it was. The song tells of a man dying from asbestosis, contracted whilst working in the Wittenoom blue asbestos mine in Western Australia, and is one of two songs written by Alistair about the horrors of the mines, the other being “Blue Murder”. “A lot of the people that worked in the asbestos mines came from fairly remote parts of Europe, coming over on government assisted passages. They had to sign up to stay and work for two years in the mines, and they weren’t aware of what they were getting themselves into. It was a hell-hole, and highly toxic too, but if they left before the two years were up, they were tracked down by the Western Australia police and forcibly returned to the mines. It was almost like indentured labour.” Both songs contain extremely moving and powerful imagery, demonstrating the skill, and the passion of the writer. They were originally written as part of a project to produce a play based on “Blue Murder” – a book about the mines by Ben Hills. The project never reached completion due to circumstances surrounding the Free Tim Anderson campaign where Alistair was actively involved in clearing the name of left-wing activist Tim Anderson. “He was accused of a particularly horrendous crime – planting explosives outside the Hilton Hotel, where a summit meeting of the Commonwealth heads of state was taking place. Two bin-men and a policeman had been killed and Tim was being framed as the culprit. He was completely innocent, as was later proved, but Ben Hills wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald defaming Tim, and I felt I couldn’t continue to work with Ben after that”.
It isn’t possible to talk about Alistair without being aware of his social and political stance, and his standpoint is made quite clear by his singing, his writing, and the introductions to his songs. “I see myself as a Socialist in the Marxist tradition – I believe that the way forward in society is for the producers to take control of the means of production – for the Working Class to take political and economic power”. These beliefs lend a great deal to both his own songs and his choice of other material. His version of “The Weaver and the Factory Maid” is quite a revelation, putting it into the context of hand-loom weavers (who had been at the pinnacle of their society) being driven into abject poverty by the advent of the steam shuttle, which mechanised the weaving process and almost at a stroke totally devalued the skill, the craft of the hand-loom weavers. “Their response was to band together in the night and go and smash the looms, out of sheer desperation”. The Luddites, as they were known, failed, and progress inevitably overtook them, but between the skilled weavers and the relatively unskilled factory hands there was a major conflict, and a marriage between the two was almost unthinkable. “At the end of the song the weaver is saying to his father that if a young man is going to find a partner it will be in the factory, that is where everyone is going, it’s inevitable. When you understand the social context, it’s really a formidable song.”
However, don’t get the impression that a Hulett gig is all politics, far from it, he doesn’t only sing about his political beliefs, he presents an interesting and well balanced set, but like several folk luminaries before him, he is politicised. “I’m not alone in this; a lot of singers on the folk scene in the sixties were card carrying Communist Party members – Bert Lloyd was; so was Hamish Henderson, and Ewan MacColl.” And MacColl was an early influence on his music, with one of his current repertoire being “Chylde Owlett”, using the Lydian mode, and learned from the singing of MacColl. “He was a huge influence. A lot of people have influenced me, but he would be at the top of the list.”
Twenty-odd years in Australia fostered in Hulett a taste for the “old” Australia, and its politics – and in his song “The Siege Of Union Street” there is a case of direct action from the times of the depression. “Somebody gave me a pamphlet and said that I might like to read it ‘cos it was about the street I was living in at the time! I read it and it amazed me. There had been a struggle to prevent the eviction of a war widow and her children, and over a thousand people had fought in the streets for three days against the police and the landlords, and managed in the process to ultimately get the law changed.” Alastair was given a copy of a taped conversation with a man by the name of Jim Monroe who had been a founder member of the Unemployed Workers Union, the organisation which had waged the Union Street campaign. “One of the things he said was about the solidarity amongst the people fighting to prevent this unjust eviction – they were grand old days on the barricade! – and I knew that that was the angle I wanted to write from. After that, the song just wrote itself.”
Another aspect of Australia’s past was the violent and bloody oppression which characterised the last two hundred years history of the continent: “The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away” tells of the brutality shown to the original settlers, the transportees, and also to the indigenous Aboriginal people:
“You caused the poor blacks to suffer the same Imprisoned on missions or hunted for game Blood stained the soil of Australia.”
This song was the catalyst which brought together Alistair Hulett and Dave Swarbrick. “Dave had moved to live in Australia, in the Blue Mountains, and whilst on tour he was staying with a fella called Rob Bartlett, a fine English singer and guitarist living in Adelaide, who played him ‘The Swaggies’ on my CD ‘Dance of the Underclass’ and he liked it.” Alistair was already working on a new album, which he had intended to ask Swarb to play on, but then he got a ‘phone call saying Dave had heard the CD and would like to work with Alistair. “So we call that our song!” After hearing the demos for the new album Dave said that rather than play on it for a session fee, he would prefer it to be a collaboration. “We recorded ‘Saturday Johnny and Jimmy the Rat’ and we had such a good time playing together that we toured Australia with it. Personal circumstances then meant that both of us were returning to the UK at the same time, and so the collaboration continued.” That was in 1996 and Alistair, on his return, went to live in Herefordshire where a strange coincidence led to him meeting June Tabor, due to them both using the same health food shop. “The shop owner mentioned to June, another customer, that a folk singer had arrived from Australia and told her my name. She didn’t know that I was living there, only about twelve miles from her place, but I got a ‘phone call and went over for dinner one night. She’s lovely!”
“Saturday Johnny…” was released in the UK and Swarb and Alistair toured extensively, doing clubs and festivals to wide acclaim. Several reviewers admitted not knowing Alistair’s name, and going to the gigs purely on the strength of Swarb, but all came away raving about the duo, and Hulett’s songwriting. The comparisons with the Swarbrick/Carthy pairing were bound to be made, and not without validity. “If he (Swarbrick) was to play with any guitar player, especially one who plays finger style as I do, then it’s an obvious comparison to make. I have to say that I’m quite in awe of Martin’s guitar playing – not only his playing, his whole artistry. He is definitely the business as far as I’m concerned.” But whilst Alistair readily admits to being influenced by Carthy, there is something more to it; that distinctive percussive style so difficult to define but immediately recognisable. “We use the same tuning, he (Carthy) passed that on to me. With it you can play in lots of different keys, with an obviously modal tuning. I like that modal sound. I was previously using DADGAD, C modal, and G modal, and it meant either re-tuning 6 or 7 times during a set, or carting 3 or 4 guitars around. But Martin’s actually devised a way of tuning that is as versatile as standard tuning, but where you can still get that modal sound. It’s a tricky one – you’ve got to commit to it! You can’t really go back into normal tuning again without so altering the tension of the neck that the entire guitar goes out of tune! The tuning means that strings are tuned down from standard and a fairly heavy gauge of string is required. It’s really ‘sloppy’, but I like that. Some of the strings are so slack that you get a lot of vibrato, and they also become quite ‘rattley’, but I like the sound of the string hitting off the fret – I like to yank at the strings a bit!” His playing is deceptive – understated, camouflaging his skill, but allowing him when paired with Swarbrick to produce a sound which is much fuller than would be expected from just the two instruments.
After their successful tour they both returned to other work with Alistair taking up solo work and Swarb working with other people, but they also continued to develop material together and their second CD, “The Cold Grey Light of Dawn” was released in 1998, again to great critical acclaim. “The Siege of Union Street”, the bleak “Chylde Owlett”, and “The Swaggies…” are to be found here, plus some other very powerful pieces of writing. The album also has a song written in Australia, but recalling the Glasgow he’d left behind him; “Among Proddy Dogs and Papes” is no nostalgia trip, instead it concerns itself with the sectarian violence which was endemic in the city at that time. “It has been a real joy to return and find the sectarian animosity and the violence so greatly reduced.” Other changes in the city have also been welcomed by Alistair. “I’d always thought that the buildings were made out of black stone, but they’ve been cleaned, and everywhere now is this beautiful blonde and red sandstone – I didn’t even know it was there!”
The second CD led to another tour together in 1998, but by this time Alistair’s reputation in the UK had grown, and people had picked up on the first tour and the solo work as well. Additionally, 1998 saw Hulett at the Isle of Bute, “Bute Experience!” with the debut performance of “Red Clydeside” a presentation in word and song of a chapter of his home city’s history. “Around the time of the start of the First World War, Glasgow was the home of the dispossessed – the Irish and the Clansmen.” This led to a very politically aware, and politically active, population, which resulted in a rent strike in 1915 led by a Govan housewife, and which forced the British government to legislate against wartime rent increases. “The Rent Strike was the first upheaval in a working class revolt that came to be known as Red Clydeside. Its leader was a man called John MacLean who would address meetings of workers outside the factory gates and exhort them to be true to their class not their country, and not go to war.” This was obviously unpopular with the government of the day and twice MacLean was imprisoned, but twice he was released due to the level of public pressure. “When he was released the second time he was very weak and unwell, he had suffered terribly during his imprisonment, but on his release he was taken to speak at what was possibly the largest political meeting ever assembled in this country.”
Alistair had been working on this project with Swarbrick with the intention of bringing out a CD. “All the songs are written , we’ve even got the track order for the CD, and we were due to go into the studio to record it before Dave’s illness.” Ah yes, the period spent in hospital which resulted in a glowing, albeit thankfully premature, obituary in the Telegraph, to which Swarbrick responded with a statement that he’d “died in Coventry before!” But how is he now? “He was very ill, but although he’s lost quite a lot of muscle tone, he’s getting stronger day by day and he’s playing again now.” Besides the delay on the recording of the new CD there were other rather more pressing implications. “We had a thirty date tour booked, and then Dave fell ill. I’d just taken out a mortgage and I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the bank manager. So, I went to Roy Bailey and said that I needed a big favour!” Roy, who had recorded “He Fades Away” in 1994, obliged, and eventually went out on half the dates, with the two of them essentially doing a song-swap. “Roy would do a song, then I’d follow with one which was somehow related to it, and so on – but we both kept the option of changing the subject without notice!” For the rest of the gigs Alistair was partnered by ace squeezer John Kirkpatrick. “I spoke to Martin (Carthy) about the other gigs, and he suggested John.” Despite the two pairings being quite different both came up with a successful and interesting format, helping Alistair expand his audience base – and pay the mortgage!
Alistair Hulett is a singer of intensity, integrity, and conviction, but although much of his writing is hard edged social and political commentary which challenges any hint of passivity in his audience, he doesn’t let the ideology overpower the imaginative lyricism of his writing. He combines rich vocal tonality, deceptively understated guitar style, and articulate, incisive introductions in a relaxed presentation. He is a singer and writer of stature, and Australia’s loss is most definitely our gain.