By Jimmy Kerr
I am embarrassed to say that up until a couple of months ago, I had never heard the song Freedom Come All Ye. Having been involved with anti-nuclear activity and being an SSP member, I had been aware of, but had never actually heard Hamish Henderson’s most famous song. It is, I think, a real testament to how the whole independence referendum debate has sparked interest in Scottish history and culture that someone like me, whose musical taste so far has consisted exclusively of guitar based indie bands, the more obscure and unpopular the better, could become excited and inspired by a folk song from 1960.
It’s a strange thing, but the indie scene, which is slightly pretentious, with aficionados considering themselves to be “musos” have always turned their noses up to the folk tradition, tolerating perhaps Billy Bragg, maybe even Dylan, but drawing the line at overtly populist singers like Matt McGinn and staying well clear of anything politicised. In America, where what they call the “alternative” scene is dominated by college radio, it’s even worse with sometimes shameful hostility expressed towards great “cultural activists”, to borrow Irvine Welsh’s phrase, like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In Scotland Dick Gaughan is probably our equivalent of Woodie Guthrie, but no-one I know outside of political activism has ever heard of him.
This heightened political atmosphere, which has seen our country, for the first time in living memory take part in an amazing and inspiring flowering of real democracy in the form of meetings, debates and discussions has opened the door to the folk tradition. In fact, it was when I had fancied a wee listen to the famous “Workers Song” by Dick Gaughan that I stumbled on Freedom Come All Ye, which I remembered from September’s Indy Rally in Edinburgh and from an SSP article a few years ago. Interestingly, it was thanks to the previous independence rally in 2012 that I got turned on to another cracking Scottish folk song, the Bleacher Lassie O Kelvinhaugh. If I am being turned on to this music having no interest in it previously, then it must be happening to others.
The Cohen Brothers recently did a great film, called Inside Llewyn Davis, about the folk scene in Greenwich village, New York, in the early sixties, just around the time freedom Come All Ye was being written in Scotland and the filmmakers explore the sniffy attitudes towards folk musicians at that time. An important meta-narrative of that film is that there exists a similar inverted snobbery against class-based storytelling in the film world, again towards anything that is overtly political, with film makers like Ken Loach often on the receiving end of a certain negative attitude from professional film critics.
Freedom Come all Ye is already a well-known song, at least amongst activists and has been partially adopted by sections of the Scottish Left. This essay calls on the wider independence movement to adopt the song as our anthem, with the hope that the song might replace the awful dirge that is the Flower of Scotland as the people’s anthem.
Before discussing the case for adopting this song, there are a couple of problems that need to be raised, not least the fact that the writer never wanted the song to compete with Scotland the Brave, as the “official anthem” of Scotland. This raises issues about the nature of anthems and what they represent, but the important point to note is that Hamish Henderson was writing when independence was not a realistic prospect. Now that we have a fighting chance of building not just any independent Scotland but a progressive independent Scotland that would, whatever the political make-up have to some extent social justice at its heart, the need for a fitting anthem, surely trumps the wishes of one individual even if it happens to be the author of that anthem.
The other problem is that the song doesn’t really outline the case for a progressive independent Scotland. There is no heart tugging images of poverty, or fiery tirades against corporate power. It has nothing to say about the environment, or gender or any policy areas like health or education. In terms of issues the song has a seemingly narrow anti-imperialist focus. Whilst this may be seen by some as a weakness, in fact it is the great strength of the song, that it confronts the people of Scotland with our role in the most shameful aspects of the British empire, before laying down the challenge to take our place amongst the nations of the world.
One of the most interesting things about Freedom Come All Ye is the tune, not so much that it’s from an old standard about the horrors of the Great War, but that it is a melody that is very adaptable in terms of its timing and speed. However the biggest selling point of the song is its wonderfully rich and layered lyrical content. Easily able to stand alone as a poem, the textures of meaning and imagery, draws not only on the deep well of Scottish history and a heart-felt anti-imperial and internationalist message but by borrowing phrases and imagery from the Scots tongue and older folk songs becomes part of the great living tradition of folk music itself as a means of passing knowledge, wisdom and history down through the generations.
In essence the song denounces the British Empire and from the outset delves deep into history and meaning by borrowing phrases. “Roch the wind in the clear days dawnin’, Blaws the cloods, heilster-gowdie ow’r the bay, but there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin through the great glen o’ the worl the day.”
Translated into English, this reads “Rough the wind in the clear days dawning, blows the clouds, head over heels across the bay, but there is more than a rough wind blowing through the Great Glen of the world today.” The references to winds blowing are a kind of response to Harold MacMillan’s famous 1960 Winds of Change speech during his tour of South Africa about the independence movements that had swept across the continent. Henderson is saying that imperialism is being swept away by a rough wind, social unrest, with the image of clouds tumbling across the sky, giving the image of Scotland looking out across the sea at the storms of social upheaval gathering. The Great Glen of the world adds several layers of meaning comparing the Great Glen that geographically divides Scotland to both a social division in Scotland, created by the existence of the British union and the divisions stirred up by the British Empire makes the point that this imperialism has been a negative and divisive force.
The lyrics are shot through with this rich imagery and layers of meaning, with phrases like “Gar oor rottans”, or “make our rodents”, referring to social elites having the brilliant effect of creating an image of the powerful as disease-spreading creatures to be hated and despised, a notably Scottish sentiment that fits nicely with certain deeply held cultural attitudes towards the concept of aspiration that true or not have often been associated with Scotland. The second verse offers more rich imagery and more attacks on imperialism and social hierarchy, talking about “braggarts” that “crusely craw” in the context of the kinds of jingoism and xenophobia frequently employed to brainwash people into buying into the idea of warfare. It is however the third verse that catches the ear and eye most, imploring all who are “at hame wi freedom” to ignore what the “houdies croak for doom” before invoking the image of Scotland’s socialist saint John Maclean and the emancipated African, “frae yont Nyanga” striking the “fell gallows of the burghers doon” which has sometimes been interpreted as a reference to Nelson Mandella and the struggle against apartheid, but most likely just refers to the wider struggle against imperialism in Africa generally.
At one and the same time, the song makes the comparison between Scotland and a subjugated nation, whilst with lines like “Broken families in launs we’ve herriet, will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair” admitting that Scots have played a part others’ subjugation. This gives the song a certain humanism, pathos and authenticity that most triumphalist anthems lack.
Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin
Blaws the cloods heelster gowdie ow’r the bay
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin
Through the great glen o the warld the day.
It’s a thocht that will gar oor rottans
A’ they rogues that gang gallus, fresh and gay
Tak the road and seek ither loanins
For their ill ploys, tae sport and play
Nae mair will the bonnie callants
Mairch tae war when oor braggarts crousely craw,
Nor wee weans frae pit-heid and clachan
Mourn the ships sailin doon the Broomielaw.
Broken faimlies in lands we’ve herriet
Will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair, nae mair;
Black and white, ane til ither mairriet
Mak the vile barracks o their maisters bare
So come all ye at hame wi Freedom,
Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom
In your hoose a’ the bairns o Adam
Can find breid, barley-bree and painted room
When MacLean meets wi’s freens in Springburn
A’ the roses and geans will turn tae bloom,
And a black boy frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o the burghers doon.