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.


Reviews of Alistair Hulett in Green Left Weekly:
Revolutionary music from 'Sleepy Scotland'
Album puts Hulett among the best

A red salute to Alistair Hulett. Over the years he consistently used his music
to build the movements of working class struggle. I cannot take a ferry trip on
Sydney Harbour without recalling a memorable harbour cruise in the 1980s with
Alistair's blasts drawing the attention of the water police, workers from the
then occupied Cockatoo Island shipyards forcing us to make an emergency stop for more supplies of beer...



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.


saddened by the passing of the passionate socialist alistair hullet ... I will never forget ... ...many years ago when Alistair was working with the band roaring jack I and another young man were thrown out of a certain st kilda pub by the throat by over zealous bouncers ... Alistair stopped the music untill we were allowed back in ... since then he has been a great hero of mine ... a committed socialist whose actions follow his words ... Rest In Peace Alistair ...


he is now resting in peace - my sympathy to Fatima and all who knew him. A gem now lost.


While Alistair was living in Australia I travelled to as many gigs as possible to get my fill of his music and I also had the absolute joy of organising some concerts. He had an amazing knowledge of history, cultures, music and politics - anyone who witnessed his performance entitled "From Blackheath to Trafalgar Square - Insurrection and Resistance in the Disunited Kingdom" could not help but be blown away by his passion and commitment to the workers' cause. I treasure my memories of speaking with him, and hearing him sing. Alistair was a truly good person, great writer and musician, and comrade, and those who loved him will ensure that his songs continue to roar out against injustice. My sincere condolences to Fatima.

Adieus my old comrade,
We are already missing you and remembering the way you touched our lives.
A great man, a tremendous human being, thank you for your wonderful music.
Sympathy too Fatima, family and friends.

With all our live. Brian Preston & Family.


I only came to Alistair and his music through his collaboration with Dave Swarbrick. I have always been in awe of Swarbrick and for someone to share the stage with him it is an achievement in itself, but Alistair managed through his talent as a songwriter and singer to be Swarbricks equal when they shared the stage together. The thing that was always obvious to me whenever I saw him perform was the passion he had for the music and the stories he told. Both the humorous and politically passionate songs were equal in quality and expressed a feeling of a man who not only loved the world he lived in but who genuinely cared for his fellow man and was angered with the many injustices in the world.
My sympathy goes out to his family and friends, at this very sad time.


I'm heart broken to hear of Ally's death. One of the most talented and sincere men I've had the pleasure of meeting and hearing. There is a big hole today in the world after losing one who spoke out and worked tirelessly for those who found themselves under the boot of tyranny. Be at peace, my friend.

It was with a great deal of sadness and stunned disbelief that I heard of Alistair Hulett's death of cancer in his beloved Glasgow. It was too soon for such a man to die, with so much ahead of him. I used to share house with him in Sydney's Inner suburb of Glebe in 1988-89, and remember meeting him in 1987 at the Sando, Newtown's famous Sandrigham Hotel in King St.

That first time I met him in the Sando, he and the rest of Roaring Jack were playing Lads of the BLF. I didn't know Roaring Jack was a political band and just went into the pub for a drink. I was an organiser in the Builders Labourers Federation, the union deregistered/outlawed by Bob Hawke's ALP federal government, the first Thatcherite Labor Party government in the world. This is where hated Australian Building Construction Commission was born by John Howard Conservative government and kept and refined by Kevin Rudd's government.

I lost track of how many gigs I asked Alistair and the lads in Roaring Jack to play at, and they always played: whether it was for the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody campaign that ended up in the Royal Commission, the BLF Christmas picnic or during the three month strike/occupation at Cockatoo Island Dockyard occupation in 1989 or benefits for community radio's Radio Skid Row.

And of course Alistair and Roaring Jack were playing outside Sydney's Long Bay Goal in 40 degree heat for Tim Anderson, when he was framed for the Hilton Bombing and performing Alistair's song Framed on Australia's MTV show. We won that fight and the Royal Commission into Police Corruption came out of Tim's three convictions of murder being overturned and quashed.

I had Alistair play live to air many times when I did my radio show Radio Solidarity on Radio Skid Row studios. If there was a cause to fight Alistair would be there with a song he wrote about it. Also Alistair and Roaring Jack performed on the first Green Left Weekly Sydney Harbour cruise where we had to make a stop the boa tfor more beer.

The last time I saw Alistair was two years ago at Katoomba's Blue Mountains Folk and Blues Festival.

To all of us that knew him, his Comrades in Socialist Alternative and all of us on the Left whether here in Australia or in Britain and his beloved Scotland, the words about Joe Hill are fitting,

Don't Mourn Organise and Socialism Here We Go!…


Thanks for living, but you'll be sadly missed. You set a wonderful example to us more wobbly-kneed socialists. Thanks for the songs, so inspiring. Condolences to your nearest and dearest.


till we meet in folkheaven old fighter, comrade and...first of all...friend.
geordie and familie, jürgen, steven and sigi


To the memory of that man whose words lit up our skies like acetylene. The workers united will never be defeated. History honours you who rallied to the call. Mate, we'll sing your songs in this new age of the fist. Forget me not? we never will, comrade. John W


Alistair you gave more to this world than all the elected politicians in the UK combined. An inspiration that thankfully will live on through your music and our memories,you were loved by so many because of your commitment to peace and justice.Like so many others I was in awe of you, you were just such a cool, charming and talented guy. I will keep up the fight against capitalism and the stuggle for peace in your name and in the same dignified manner. My thoughts are with my lovely friend Fatima and Alistair's Mum, Dad and sister Alison.The sky is brighter tonight another star has been lit and it shines with a red hue.
Geordie Boyd


Fatima said it most eloquently - Alistair was a kind, gentle man who was committed to fighting for a better world – a world based on the principles of justice, equality, love and respect for all of humanity. The world was a better place for knowing him and is a sadder place for his loss. He leaves a great legacy in his music that will continue to bring inspiration to many who, like him, believed a better world was possible.
Alistair made a difference in many people's lives - his version of "The Internationale" has inspired me for 20 years.
Only a man with a heart as big as Alistair's could have written "They Fade Away" and "Maralinga".
Only a true socialist could have written "The Swaggies have all Waltzed Matilda Away".
Only a true friend could have cared about individuals, as he did.
And only a true comrade could have renounced fame and fortune to stand on the picket line, attend the demonstration (even when he was not in the limelight performing) and devote his life to a better world.
So very sadly missed, but very fondly remembered.
Vale Alistair Hullett.
Marg Perrott


Was lucky enough to catch Alistair recently at the Majors Creek Fest - his performance was so spirited and elightening it didn't occur to me (or anyone present i guess) that he was so ill - he'll be sorely missed.


I always considered it a privilege to listen to Alistair. There are few that can render their heart with such clarity and leave a collective legacy that time won't dim. Passionate, professional and motivating; a debt owed by many from Timor to Bouganville, by workers and ordinary folk to someone who cared and made a difference. Truly a bright light.


Alistair with Roaring Jack live at the Sandringham in the late 80's was a force of nature, and while I never shared his politics you could never fail to be overwhelmed by the burning conviction of a truly talented musician and an exceptional man.

In reply to by Tony (not verified)


Wholly agree! We spent an awesome few years attending those Sando gigs and the community that was generated has been hard to match. My kids love his music and it is sad that they will never see him perform, but the legend of Alistair Hulett will live on. Uisge! and farewell.


Here on Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, a little band of four old farts, The Coathangers, has been rehearsing "Destitution Road" for several weeks. We're not very good, but we sing with passion, especially the two Celts. Having just read of Alistair's passing, we will redouble our committment and sing out full-throated, with humble gratitude for the gift of such a song from such a man.
I will never forget hearing him sing "He Fades Away" at the Kapunda Folk Festival. There wasn't a dry eye.
Indeed, there's "a den for the fox, a hedge for the hare, a nest in the trees for the birds of the air" and may I suggest, "where e'er ye be, there's a love right rare, ye Gael o' Caledonia."
Go well and thank you.


It was with shock and sadness that we heard the news of Alistair's passing recently. The members of the Newcastle and Hunter Valley Folk Club Inc in Australia have asked me to send their condolences but it has taken me some time to come to terms with this. We have seen many of our friends 'move on' recently. There must be one fantastic concert taking place on the other side about now. It wasn't so long ago that Alistair graced us with a performance at our club and we were looking forward to another visit soon. He has been a friend and favourite of our members for many, many years and we all have our own special memories of him. There is nothing I can say that hasn't already been said about this wonderful, inspiring and talented man. Gone but not forgotten, we will remember him and continue to fight the good fight against all forms of injustice. His spirit and his music live on.
Cheers mate, until next time we meet.


I read all these goodbyes for Alistair but i only just have come to know his passionate music. I heard your tribute Alistair on the ABC RN Auzzie, and the lyrics once seaches of past heros and heroine that you brought back to life in your music. I am looking for the name of a song that you wrote that I can only remember the chorus

“Betray your country serve your class dont sign up for war my friend” can anyone enlight me about this?

Your legacey for us to treasure and share.

Andrea Gustavsson


I only found out about Alastair's passing last night... yet for the last few months his song 'Everyone I Know' has continued to pop into my head. For such a political firebrand he was an incredibly nice man, a true gentle-man. I did sound for Alastair several times in the early 90's in Sydney and he never failed to thank me both publicly and in private - yet mixing the Hooligans and listening to his songs and witnessing his passion at close quarters was always a privilege. Thank heavens for You Tube - he's been on high rotation this morning and my three year old daughter has already chosen 'Among Proddy Dogs and Papes' as her favourite. Such a talented songwriter, singer, guitarist and humanist... he'll be sorely missed. Vale Alastair.


I hope that all these wonderful tributes are a comfort to you, Fatima and to Alistair's family - not that you need reminding of his great humanity, sincerity and talent - but it's good to hear it. He packed more into his life than most, left a unique legacy in his songs and his commitment to the causes he felt strongly about was inspiring. I was shocked to hear of his sudden death, but glad, in a way, that it wasn't long or painfully drawn out. Shocking for those left behind, I know, but we'll all remember him at his vibrant and triumphant best. I worked with him in schools in West Lothian and on Orkney doing songwriting workshops. I recall his joy and wonderment going round Skara Brae commenting that it looked as if Fred and Wilma Flintstone had just popped out for milk - and how comfortable and inviting these waterfront properties looked. We also visited the crofting museum together and our mouths watered as Harry Flett described the home brew he was not allowed to give away to visitors any more. How we craved a glass of the beer he described. And it was only 10am!
how you must miss him....
much love to you Fatima


thank you alistair, the world is poorer for your passing... will keep the red flag flying...
thank you.


Wonderful and very sad to hear of Ally's demise. Luke. Floss and I shared an inspired time together in New Zealand during the late 70's. We knew him well, those were the days.