I should have watched Scotland play Holland. Normally that’s what I’d do. Instead I spent the evening in the local Masonic hall at a tribute to Hamish Imlach, the Scottish folk singer.
Imlach came to prominence, along with Matt McGinn, the Fishers and Alex Campbell, in the 1960s when I attended the Attic Folk Club in Paisley, a smokey dive at the top of a condemned tenement. A mixture of blues, Scottish and Irish ballads, contemporary American material, including Dylan’s, anti-war songs, Irish Republican songs, even Scottish Republican songs, brought together diverse audiences. Imlach was one of the stars of that setting. My abiding memory is of his singing the powerful, mythic Scots ballad, Johnny O Breadislea.
He was a hard-drinking man whose insatiable appetites built his 20-stone frame and hastened his early death on New Year’s Day, 1996. He was a mentor to the young Billy Connolly, he taught John Martyn guitar and he was a friend of Christy Moore. I last saw him in the Black Bitch in Linlithgow in the 1990s, still raucous, humorous, demonically enthusiastic, wild and unrepentantly anti-establishment.
Imlach’s best known recording, Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice, is a Rabelaisian pastiche on the American spiritual The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy, but one in which Hairy Mary, the floo’er o’ the Gorbals, finds herself pregnant after a night at the Dennistoun Palais. The most requested song on the British Army of the Rhine’s radio programme, it reflects the same robust attitude to sex as the bothy ballads or Burns’s Merry Muses.
He could be bitterly satirical as in The Cumbie Boys:
Now the Derry Boys are devout Christians
That’s plain baith tae hear and tae see,
Their Language is really religious,
‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Oh my God,’ ‘FTP’.
Imlach’s music was driven by many forces none more than his commitment to social justice, his sympathy for the under-dog. He sang wonderful anti-capitalist ballads such as If It Wasnae For The Unions. He popularised the work of Hamish Henderson, especiallyThe D-Day Dodgers and The Men of Knoydart. Roddy McMillan’s Let Ramensky Go was another favourite, the tale of the former safe-breaker and war-time hero who returned to safe breaking, jail and escaping.
His instinctive empathy with the under-dog was not reserved for the poor. A regular performance item was Carter and McEwen’sMarilyn Monroe.
I hear the hounds behind my back, I know my voices well
But how the hunt will end, she said, is more than I can tell.
I hear the hounds behind me, no matter where I go
Good luck to every hunted thing, said Marilyn Monroe.
Ewan McColl’s anti-capital punishment Ballad of Timothy Evans was tailor-made for Imlach’s voice, powerful but with rich depths of tenderness.
They sent Tim Evans to the drop
For a crime he did not do.
It was Christie was the murderer
And the judge and jury too.
Like Matt McGinn, Imlach, a natural rebel, was never part of the Communist party cohort of singers. The Communist party latched on to the traditional music scene, both as a source of propaganda material and of recruits. As Dick Gaughan, a CP member, said, ‘Although (Imalch’s) repertoire regularly included songs commenting on political issues and he was certainly well to the left of centre, he was never what would be called a “political” performer…’ Imlach was a natural anarchist.
As a teenager my football idol was Jim Baxter, sensitive, skilled, entertaining and a virtuoso. Although no Slim Jim, Imlach was the Baxter of the folk scene. He was a hugely flawed man who pressed the self-destruct button time and again until, finally, the button worked. Like Burns who could produce both the tender and the bawdy, Imlach could cover the full gamut of emotional singing. Like both Baxter and Burns he was bigger in every way than those around him. Although he would be abhorred by the politically correct, by the health police and the po-faced anti-alcohol brigade, we could do worse than aspire to a sensitive, skilled expression of rebellious anarchy and support for the economic and emotional under-dog. I’m glad I missed the international. The ghost of Imlach at the Masonic hall was a better bet than the total absence of a Baxter at Hampden.
The above article was first published in The Scottish Review on 16 September 2009: http://www.scottishreview.net/AWood142.html