Celtic Connections: honouring Jim McLean, a man of principle in the mould of Ed Pickford and Alex Glagsow
February 27, 2023
Andrew Curry's retrospective reports from the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow have been much appreciated and widely read. I am glad to say there is more to come after this look at the work of Jim McLean ...
THE SONGS OF JIM MCLEAN
Jim McLean is a radical Scots songwriter, whose songs have been recorded by everyone from The Corries to The Dubliners. He doesn’t perform himself, but he was an integral part of the Scots folk scene as it flowered in the 1960s, with songs about everything from Scots history to topical songs about Scots issues, to Polaris.
He’s in his 80s now, and Fraser Bruce—who has also written a history of that ‘60s folk scene — wanted to bring together the best of McLean’s songs in one place, both to honour McLean’s career and contribution, and to help younger singers find the songs.
The concert at Celtic Connections, in the low-key setting of the National Piping Centre, was to launch the resulting box set, The Songs of Jim McLean, of some 60 songs. The performers were Alistair McDonald, on guitar and vocals, who has championed McLean’s work down the years; Fraser Bruce, on vocals; Gavin Paterson, on keyboard and vocals, and co-compering; Sylvia Barnes on vocals; and Fraser’s brother Ian, on guitar and vocals. McLean, who has lived in London for many years, was sitting quietly at the back.
McLean was one of the first to write about the Highland Clearances, at a time when there was little published about this unforgiving history. He also has a set of "history" songs about William Wallace and Robert Bruce, among others, that place him firmly in the independence camp well before that was a mainstream idea in Scotland.
’Hush Hush’, by Jim McLean, sung by Hicks and Goulborne)
As a pacifist he was jailed for refusing to do National Service, then compulsory, so he’s not fond of the nuclear missile base on the Clyde. Some of these songs are politically very direct, written as agit-prop that could be sung on marches, borrowing familiar tunes, most recently one called ‘Yes, Yes, Yes, The NHS’.
But this all makes him sound a bit one-dimensional. There are also some fine if unsentimental songs about Glasgow here. ‘Farewell Tae Glesga’ takes on idealised notions about how nice it was to live in the Gorbals, Glasgow’s notorious tenement district. The Exiles Song, is a Scottish version of a Brendan Behan lyric. It’s apparently about the joys of Glasgow, but it comes with a punchline that undercuts what has gone before. The Barras is a funny song about Glasgow’s famous flea market. And the love song to his late wife, For Alison, is a thing of beauty.
The combination of the personal, the political, and the local reminded me of the songs of the North East’s Alex Glasgow and Ed Pickford. Like their songs, McLean’s work is also steeped in dialect. Non-Scots listeners might need to play some of these a couple of times to tune in to some of the words.
I didn’t know much about Jim McLean’s work before I went to the concert, and it was a thoroughly entertaining evening — entertaining enough to buy the box set, certainly. And it’s worth saying something about the box set, because it has clearly been a labour of love. It’s well produced and well designed, and the overall sound is fuller, with the addition of the accordionist Yvonne MacLeod, Pete Clark on fiddle, and Alistair Morrow on drums.
The box set is available from Rickety-Rackety Records, through Fraser Bruce’s website. It’s also possible to buy digital versions of each of the four discs. If you’re interested in Scots’ folk music I’d recommend — at least —a download of Disc 1.
And here’s a playlist of versions of McLean’s songs by Scottish performers —with a bit of a bias towards the history songs.