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Last week I attended a tribute concert to Matt McGinn. It was the 13th year that Linlithgow Folk Festival has started its year with a fundraiser based on McGinn’s music. Several of the Scottish folk scene’s well-established singers and groups joined local talent to entertain a packed audience, many of whom remembered McGinn.
Matt McGinn, a small, pugnacious, witty Glaswegian, born in 1928, raised in Calton, graduated via petty crime, approved school, work and trade unionism to a very brief teaching career, an eclectically left-wing (and defiantly irreligious) world-view and an honoured place in the Scottish folk revival.
In the late 1960s, the days of the seamen’s strike, the Aldermaston and Holy Loch marches and protests against the Vietnam war, I first heard McGinn in Paisley’s Attic Folk Club. It was a dive, an attic atop a slum tenement, without licence or comfort, but buzzing with the rebellious impulses of the epoch. Alex Campbell, Paddy Bell, Hamish Imlach and Matt McGinn were regulars.
The Easter Rising’s 50th anniversary had revived Irish political songs. The anti-war movement added its local collection (including Thurso Berwick’s the ‘Glasgow Eskimos’) to Guthrie, Seeger and Dylan’s work. Imlach mixed traditional Scottish ballads with contemporary political protest and some modern nationalist anthems.
McGinn brought his particular dimensions: an uncompromising distaste for status and wealth, a committed identification with the solidarity of working class families and communities and a pawky humour and disdain for every convention, even those of the political left with which he identified.
His work has a recurring tenderness but he could also be sharp and harsh. Few left-wing songs are as scathing of members of the working class as ‘Three Nights and a Sunday Double-Time’:
Three nights and a Sunday double time,
I work aw day and I work aw night,
Tae hell wi’ you Jack, I’m all right:
Three nights and a Sunday double time.

If he could excoriate the worker contemptuous of his fellow workers, he was even more scathing of the exploitative boss-class:
Get up, get up, ya lazy lout
Get intae yer workin claes
Up to yer knees in oil and grease
And dae whit the gaffer says.

McGinn had a profound sympathy for the under-dog and life’s casualties and victims; he had a gallus pride that typifies a Glasgow now substantially gone, and these two seemingly contradictory approaches came together in his elegy to Benny Lynch, the boxer.
To Manchester City young Benny went down
To fight Jackie Brown, he picked up the crown
He came back in triumph to old Glasgow town
And the city sang, Benny has been

Lynch, one of the finest boxers of his era, from the Gorbals, rose through the fair booths to a world title, but he fought more than other boxers. After losing his world title, he battled with alcoholism for the rest of his life. He died in 1946 from malnutrition, aged 33. There was a prophetic aspect to McGinn’s adoration of Lynch.
McGinn’s songs spanned the gamut of human emotions. He could pen one of the Scottish folk revival’s most uproariously funny ditties, ‘The Dog’s Party’. He also wrote ‘Janetta’, the heart-rending anthem to the wife from whom his behaviour had estranged him, without whom he was an empty vessel but for whom he could not amend his self-destructive behaviour.
The poet and folk-lorist, Hamish Henderson, said of Matt McGinn that he ‘was a very, very complex and in some ways rather difficult bloke himself. Underlying his talents, and he had abundant talents, there was a deep fund of melancholy in Matt’. Henderson also saw McGinn as continuing the great ballad-singing (and ballad-creating) tradition, one of the great singers ‘whose ears were attuned to the tradition, but could contribute something more to it’.
On 5 January 1977, having fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand, a fire destroyed Matt McGinn’s home and he was killed.
The Matt McGinn tribute concert was jam-packed. A filmed message from his daughters illustrated the affection with which he is still remembered. The cause for which funds were raised was a fine one. The concert was a communal event, reminiscent of stair-heid parties from the 1950s or 1960s, Hogmanay sing-alongs in which every participant had to perform their turn. For me, and I guess for many others in the audience, the entertainment was intrinsically enjoyable but it also offered an irresistible nostalgia trip.
It also took us back to an epoch when the urban working class dominated Scottish politics, class divisions were perceived as separating right from wrong and a vibrant urban working class culture still thrived. It reminded us that our generation felt it had finally jettisoned political deference to protest against the great powers and their capacity to destroy the world with nuclear weapons or to destroy a tiny south-east Asian country with napalm and conventional weapons.
There were perhaps also deeper, more troubling memories stirred: of melancholic men who valued a warm affection for children and dogs and a rough comradeship with other men, a self-destructive, macho world in which men hardened in pits and shipyards silenced emotions which might have served fine ends and voiced them only when alcohol dissolved inhibitions.
Matt McGinn’s Scotland is gone. Some aspects of that vanished Scotland are worth mourning; some are not. Perhaps what have disappeared most decisively are the living links between the past and the present exhibited by the troubadors of the 50s and 60s folk revival, Guthrie and Dylan, Jeannie Robertson and the ballad singers, and Imlach and McGinn in their own kailyard.
Who is alive today to the tears and humour of humanity, who hears and articulates the unheard voices, links history to modernity, offers Scotland a popular culture that rises above the trite, the banal and the commercial? And surely contemporary Scotland needs precisely such figures as we move to a historic decision on our national future?

The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 21 March 2013:

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