Alistair Hulett: `A truly great singer, songwriter, activist and socialist'
January 29, 2010 -- Alistair Hulett died at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow on Thursday evening, January 28, 2010. Alistair's partner Fatima thanks all those who wrote in with messages of support in the past week since news of Alistair's illness became public. The response was overwhelming, and shows just how many people cared about Alistair and his music.
* * *
Alistair, a truly great singer, songwriter, activist and socialist, will be greatly missed by us all.
Alistair Hulett was born in Glasgow and discovered traditional music in his early teens. In 1968 he and his family moved to New Zealand where he established a reputation on the folk circuit with his large repertoire of songs and his interpretation of the big narrative ballads.
In 1971, at the age of eighteen, Alistair moved over to Australia. For a couple of years he sang his way around Australia's festivals and clubs before "going bush" for several years. During this time he began to write his own songs and, following a two-year stint on the "hippy trail" in India, he returned to Australia in 1979 to find the punk movement in full swing. He joined in with the garage ethos in a band called The Furious Chrome Dolls.
In the early 1980s Alistair was again performing folk material around Sydney and was a founding member of a five-piece punk folk outfit called Roaring Jack, which specialised rocking Celtic reels and radical and revolutionary lyrics. Alistair was an active revolutionary socialist, with the International Socialist Organisation, and he and Roaring jack offered their talents for many benefits, rallies and demonstrations, in support of the antiwar movement and solidarity with workers in struggle.
For the next five years the Jacks made a startling impression on the Australian music scene. Their first album, Street Celtabillity, was released in 1986 and reached No. 1 on the local indie charts. By the time the second album, The Cat Among The Pigeons was released in 1988 the band was headlining in major Australian rock venues, as well as opening for overseas acts including Billy Bragg, the Pogues, and The Men They Couldn't Hang. The The Cat Among The Pigeons was nominated for an Australian Music Industry Association (ARIA) award and was released in Europe by the German label Intercord.
Alistair's solo work was always a part of the Jacks' live shows and offers to appear at festivals and clubs in his own right drew him further back into the folk orbit. By 1989 his songs were being extensively covered by several stalwarts of the Australian folk establishment. The demise of Roaring Jack coincided with this period and after the release of their third album, Through The Smoke of Innocence, the band decided to call it a day despite another ARIA nomination.
Alistair's first solo CD, Dance of the Underclass, was recorded in 1991. Completely acoustic, with contributions from other members of Roaring Jack, the album was instantly hailed as a folk classic and proved to be the turning point in Alistair's return to the folk fold. His position as one of the most influential musicians on the Australian scene was now beyond dispute. In the UK his song, "He Fades Away", was picked up by Roy Bailey and by June Tabor and later by Andy Irvine. All three performers recorded uniquely different but thoroughly compelling interpretations of the song.
Rather than follow with more of the same Alistair recorded his solo CD with a return to the punk fuelled energy of the days with Roaring Jack. In the Backstreets of Paradise was a collection of songs originally intended as the next Jacks' release and rather than let the songs go to waste Alistair formed an acoustic outfit called The Hooligans to complete the cycle. The album caught some of Alistair's new found admirers among the purists unawares but during the next two years The Hooligans won them over with blistering live performances at every major folk festival in Australia. In the meantime Alistair continued his solo gigs with an ever growing reliance on the traditional songs that have always formed the backbone of his writing.
In 1995 Alistair compiled a collection of songs that owed little to punk and everything to the folk revival that inspired him in the sixties. Saturday Johnny and Jimmy The Rat was originally intended as a solo affair in homage to the likes of Ewan MacColl, Jeannie Robertson and Davie Stewart, as well as an acknowledgment of the time when the folk movement was a vital political and musical force.
At the time Dave Swarbrick was living in Australia and Alistair toyed with the idea of inviting Swarb to join him in the studio. Nothing more would have come of the notion had it not been for a phone call from a friend saying that Swarb wouldn't mind working with the bloke who had written "The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away". Thus was forged a musical partnership that has won acclaim from audiences and critics alike.
Following a hugely successful Australian tour the duo returned to the UK. A triumphant perormance at Sidmouth in 1996 was broadcast by the BBC and was followed by a live in studio session a few weeks later. Since then Alistair and Dave have toured extensively in the UK, returned to Australia for another successful tour and recorded their second album together. The Cold Grey Light of Dawn was enthusiastically received and gathered some impressive reviews
Alistair, having returned to live in Scotland, continued to work solo and with Swarb. He wrote and performed three workshop presentations. "From Blackheath To Trafalgar Square" looked at "insurrection and resistance in the Disunited Kingdom" from the Peasants' Revolt to the poll tax riots. "The Fire Last Time" was a study of the protest song movement of the 1960s and "Red Clydeside" examined the working class unrest on the Clyde between 1915 and 1920.
Alistair, based once again in Glasgow, toured Australia in a double bill with US singer/songwriter David Rovics in December 2008-January 2009, playing benefits for Australia's leading radical newspaper, Green Left Weekly. Two more solo albums, In Sleepy Scotland and more recently Riches And Rags, confirmed Alistair Hulett’s position as one of the most consistent songwriters, musicians and interpreters of the tradition in Scotland. Folk On Tap called him "One of the defining voices of Scottish music" and a reviewer in the influential music magazine fROOTS wrote: "Hulett is at once an intense singer, radiating conviction, and a genuinely imaginative lyricist."
In partnership with 1960s veteran Scots folksinger Jimmy Ross, Alistair Hulett presented word and song presentations with powerpoint visual images at various events and festivals around the UK. Alistair and Jimmy shared a common political perspective, with both being deeply involved in socialist politics, and this bond was evident in the scripts they prepared together for these presentations. The three they have performed so far are titled Which Side Are You On? The Life And Times Of Pete Seeger, Ewan MacColl And The Politics Of The British Folk Revival and Ireland – A History Of Struggle In Song.
Most recently, Alistair Hulett joined with several Yorkshire based musicians to form a five-piece, semi-electric band called The Malkies. This was Hulett’s first return to working with a full-time band since Roaring Jack called it a day in 1992. Their debut album was Suited And Booted (2008).
Alistair toured Australia for the last time in late 2009, and again made his talents available to the socialist cause.
Alistair Hulett has has died.
Icon of Scottish folk music, international socialism, and Australian punk rock dead at 57.
Today is my daughter Leila's fourth birthday, and while this occasion brings my thoughts back to the day she was born, the past 24 hours have otherwise been full of fairly devastating news.
If the left can admit to having icons, then two of them have just died. Yesterday it was the great historian and activist Howard Zinn, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing many stages around the US over many years. Much has been written about Zinn's death at the age of 87, and I think many more people will be discovering his groundbreaking work who may not have heard of him til now.
And then less than a full day later I heard the news that my dear friend, comrade and fellow musician Alistair Hulett died today. He was thirty years younger than Professor Zinn, 57 years old, give or take a year (I'm shit at remembering birthdays, but he was definitely still years shy of 60). Ally had an aggressive form of cancer in his liver, lungs and stomach.
I last saw Alistair last summer at his flat in Glasgow where he had lived with his wife Fatima for many years. (Fatima, a wonderful woman about whom Ally wrote his love song, “Militant Red.”) He seemed healthy and spry as usual, with plenty to say about the state of the world as always. He was working on a new song about a Scottish anarchist who had run the English radio broadcast for the Spanish Republic in the 1930s.
I first met Ally in 2005, at least that's what he said. I seem to recall meeting him earlier than that, but maybe it's just that I was already familiar with his music and had been to his home town of Glasgow many times before I actually met him. His reputation preceded him – in my mind he was already one of those enviably great guitarists who along with people like Dick Gaughan had done so much to breath new life into the Scottish folk music tradition. I had also already heard some of his own wonderful compositions, sung by him as well as by other artists.
In 2005 the Scottish left was well mobilized, organizing the people's response to the G8 meetings that were happening in the wooded countryside not far from Edinburgh. Alistair was involved both as an organizer and a musician, and we hung out in Edinburgh, in Glasgow, outside a detention center somewhere, and out by the G8 meetings in an opulent little town with an unpronounceable Scottish name.
I asked him then if he wanted to do a tour with me in the US. He took me up on that a year or so later and we traveled from Boston to Minneapolis over the course of two weeks or so, doing concerts along the way. Many people who came to our shows were already familiar with Alistair's music, while many were hearing it for the first time and were generally well impressed with his work as well as his congenial personality, despite the fact that many people reported to me discreetly that they couldn't understand a word he was saying.
Americans aren't so good with accents at the best of times, and to make matters worse Alistair was largely doing songs from his Red Clydeside CD, which is a themed recording all about the anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist rebellion that rocked Glasgow in 1917. Naturally the songs from that CD are also sung in a Glaswegian dialect which can only be understood by non-Scottish people in written form, if you take your time.
Alistair was determined to retaliate for my having organized a tour for us in the US, which he did three years later in a big way, organizing a five-week tour for us of Australia and New Zealand from late November 2008 until early January of last year.
Our tour began in Christchurch, New Zealand. This turned out to seem very fitting, since Christchurch is where Alistair moved as a teenager, along with his parents and his sister, in the mid-1960s. He resented having to leave Glasgow, which was at that time a major hotbed of the 1960s global cultural and political renaissance -- a renaissance which had decidedly not yet made its way to little Christchurch, New Zealand. Alistair described to me how the streets of this small city were filled with proper English ladies wearing white gloves when he moved there as a restless youth.
The folk scare came to Christchurch, though, as with so many other corners of the world at that time, and at the age of 17 Alistair was in the heart of it. Our tour of New Zealand included a whole bunch of great gigs, but it was also like a tour of the beginning of Alistair's varied musical career. All along the way on both the south and north islands I met people Alistair hadn't seen for years or sometimes decades. I cringed as someone gave us a bootleg recording of Alistair as a teenager, figuring wrongly that it would be a reminder of a musically unstable early period, but it turned out to be a fine recording, a vibrant but nuanced rendition of some old songs from the folk tradition.
After two weeks exploring the postcard-perfect New Zealand countryside, smelling a lot of sheep shit, and getting in a car accident while parked, we headed to Sydney. Upon arriving in Australia I discovered a whole other side to Alistair and his impact on the world. Though his Scottish accent never seemed to thin out much, he lived for 25 years in Sydney and was on the ground floor of the Australian punk rock scene, playing in towns and cities throughout Australia with his band, Roaring Jack. The band broke up decades ago but still has a loyal following throughout the country, as I discovered first-hand night after night. In contrast with the nuanced and often quite obscure stories told in the traditional ballads which Alistair rendered so well, Roaring Jack was a brash, in-your-face musical experience, championing the militant end of the Australian labour movement and leftwing causes generally, fueled by equal parts rage against injustice, love of humanity and alcohol.
Since the 90s Alistair has lived in his native Glasgow, while regularly touring elsewhere in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. He's played in various musical ensembles including most recently his band the Malkies, but mostly his work has been as a songwriter and solo performer, also recording and occasionally touring with the great fiddler of Fairport Convention fame, Dave Swarbrick. His more recent songs have run the gamut from a strictly local Glasgow song written to support a campaign to save a public swimming pool to the timelessly beautiful song recorded by June Tabor and others, “He Fades Away.”
“He Fades Away” is about an Australian miner dying young of asbestosis, from massive exposure to asbestos, a long-lasting, daily tragedy of massive proportions fueled by, well, greedy capitalists. It is surely more than a little ironic that Alistair was taken from us at such a young age by the industrial-world epidemic known as cancer, so much like the subject of his most well-known song.
The song is written from the perspective of the wife of a miner who is dying of asbestosis. The melody of the song is so beautiful that quoting the lyrics can't come close to doing it justice, and I won't do the song that injustice here – just go to the web and search for “He Fades Away,” it's right there in various forms.
It is undoubtedly a privilege of someone like Alistair that he will be remembered passionately by people, young and old and on several continents, long after today – by friends, lovers, fellow activists, fellow musicians, and many times as many fans. And he will long be remembered also as one of the innumerable great people, including so many great musicians, who died too young.
On our last tour, so recently, he was meeting new friends and renewing old friendships every single day, so very full of life. Among the friendships he was renewing was that with his elderly parents, who came to our show in Brisbane, a couple hours from where they retired on the east coast of Australia. Though the exact causes of Alistair's illness will probably never be known, it seems to be a hallmark not just of war, but especially of the industrialized world's ever-worsening cancer epidemic, that so many parents have to see their children die so young.