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Dick Gaughan’s ‘Handful of Earth​’: Deep roots in other people’s soil

The cover for Dick Gaughan’s 1981 album “Handful of Earth.” (courtesy of Topic Records.)

By Ted Olson

(Featuring an interview with British music journalist Ken Hunt.)


Among the most influential folk musicians living in the U.K. today, Dick Gaughan was born Richard Peter Gaughan in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 17, 1948. He has recorded a dozen solo albums and has participated in several collaborative projects over the years, but he is primarily known for one album: Handful of Earth (1981). 


The album has much to offer Americans. I know this to be true because Handful of Earth has taught me much about Scotland and the conflicts that Scottish people have endured. I originally learned about this Scottish musician from an American musician — singer-songwriter Steve Young, the composer of the beloved song “Seven Bridges Road.” Young revealed to me, during a 1992 interview, that he, a native of the hardscrabble Appalachian foothills of Georgia and Alabama, felt kinship with Gaughan’s radical agrarian view of Scotland. Gaughan’s album may have reflected a Scotsman’s reactions to sociopolitical circumstances unique to the U.K. (including the ongoing rifts between England and the other nations — Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales — historically absorbed into the U.K. as well as the 1979 rise to power of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party). But Young closely identified with Gaughan’s experience of cultural marginalization and political and economic subjugation; and the two musicians shared a belief in the possibility that music might unify people. Young’s praise of Handful of Earth in 1992 resulted in his covering one of its standout tracks, “Workers’ Song,” on the 2000 album Primal Young.


Handful of Earth was both the capstone of Gaughan’s productive first decade of recording and the crowning achievement of his half-century-long career. Debuting in 1972 with the solo album No More Forever, Gaughan during the next few years would release three solo albums, Kist O’ Gold (1977), Copper and Brass (1977), and Gaughan (1978), as well as several albums with leading revivalist ensembles: The Boys of the Lough (Gaughan appeared on that group’s eponymous 1973 album) and Five Hand Reel, a folk rock group founded by Gaughan — he appeared on three albums: Five Hand Reel (1976), For A’ That(1977), and Earl O’ Moray (1978). All of Gaughan’s 1970s albums featured distinctive performances and showcased his potent skillset: passionate vocals, virtuosic guitar-playing (usually on acoustic guitar — Gaughan often cited Doc Watson as influencing his take on the instrument — but occasionally on electric guitar), and a distinctive repertoire balancing familiar and obscure traditional songs alongside contemporary songs composed by some of the U.K.’s leading folk songwriters. Throughout this period, Gaughan demonstrated equal ease when performing in acoustic settings as well as in arrangements incorporating electric instrumentation. When addressing controversial cultural changes within the U.K., he expressed political perspectives consciously and unapologetically through the songs he sang and through his on-stage banter. 


By the time Gaughan launched his music career, two folk music revivals had come and gone. During the first British folk revival (circa 1890-1920), music scholars documented and contextualized the music associated with traditional musicians and made in noncommercial, mostly rural, environments. The perception at the time was that traditional music was in danger of decline or elimination in the wake of industrialization and urbanization. Scholars (including Cecil Sharp, who during World War I famously travelled from England to Appalachia to document British ballad survivals in the New World) perceived that their responsibility was to preserve and curate expressive culture, which (it was assumed) was infused with uncompromised British cultural values and which could be utilized as a key to unlocking national identity. 


A second British folk revival, underway shortly after World War II and reaching its peak in the 1960s, helped boost postwar morale for the British; that revival also energized a generation of youths alienated by bourgeois modern values, presenting them with tangible connections to a constructed but comforting past. Inspiring the documentation of traditional music wherever it endured (whether in rural or in urban locations), this revival inspired many archival and commercial sound recordings of traditional ballads, songs, and tunes; and, by the late 1950s, a new generation crafted its own interpretation of traditional music on recordings as well as in folk clubs, and this decidedly contemporary folk music often reflected political sophistication and involved social protest. Several folk musicians with ties to Appalachia (such as Jean Ritchie, Hedy West, and Peggy Seeger) performed extensively in the U.K. during this period and thus served to draw attention to the historic connections between Old World and New World cultural heritages.  


By the 1970s, folk music was increasingly becoming a niche genre of appeal to a specialized audience. Nonetheless, Gaughan and other acts across the U.K. (including Archie Fisher in Scotland, Nic Jones in England, Paul Brady in Northern Ireland, and the group Ar Log in Wales) made a living through performing and recording folk music.  Being far from the mainstream may have limited economic opportunity for these musicians, but they were free to make music unencumbered by corporate pressures and artistic compromises.  

Photo courtesy of Topic Records.

Originally released in November 1981 by Topic Records, the oldest active independent record company in the world and a revered label dedicated to British folk music, Handful of Earth rivals any British folk album released before or since. On this album, Gaughan perfectly balanced his skillset, interpreting traditional and contemporary songs and instrumentals with stylistically sophisticated if at times quite understated arrangements (accompaniment was provided by several of Scotland’s leading acoustic musicians, including Phil Cunningham, Stewart Isbister, and Brian McNeill).


Although Gaughan was not a singer-songwriter, he didn’t need to be, as he exercised keen instinct when selecting and interpreting traditional material as well as songs by his songwriter peers. On Handful of Earth, for instance, were definitive covers of two contemporary classics: Leon Rosselson’s “World Turned Upside Down” and Ed Pickford’s “Workers’ Song.” Yet, while the album favored songs with a social, even Leftist conscience — songs that spoke with compassion to the plight of the underclass — Gaughan also included apolitical, or at least unpolemical, songs that were performed with great tenderness, such as his cover of Phil Colclough’s “Song for Ireland” (Gaughan’s version is widely considered the definitive version of this anthemic song). Two other album tracks celebrated Scotland’s glorious past: Gaughan’s magnificent reading of Robert Burns’ song “Now Westlin’ Winds” and his recasting of James Hogg’s early 19th Century poem about the 1707 Act of Union as the album’s closing song, “Both Sides the Tweed.” Certainly, Handful of Earth featured smart sequencing (thanks no doubt to the album’s producer, Robin Morton) and constructed an engaging tapestry of sound and meaning in which a modern-day pan-Celtic consciousness was conveyed through the alternation of historical narratives with songs exploring contemporary themes.


Photo courtesy of Topic Records.

Given the close affinities between the folk music communities within the U.S. and the U.K., reintroduction of this masterpiece of Scottish folk music is of more than antiquarian interest. And a case can certainly be made that Handful of Earth is as relevant today as in 1981.


Not many albums released during “the Album Age” (that is, after the 1948 introduction of the 33 1/3 RPM LP format) can be said to be perfect, Handful of Earth might merit consideration for such an accolade. Melody Maker​ magazine named it “Folk Album of the Year.” The reverence only deepened, and toward the end of the 1980s Folk Roots​ magazine named Handful of Earth “Album of the Decade.”


In 2019, approaching the 40th Anniversary of its original release, Topic Records reissued Handful of Earth in a deluxe edition within the Topic Treasures series. This edition replicated the original track-order while offering state-of-the-art remastering of the recordings, previously unpublished images from the original album photo-shoot, and an authoritative essay in which British music journalist Ken Hunt discussed the enduring achievement of the album. 


With the new edition offering an opportunity to better understand the alchemy involved in the creation of Handful of Earth, I requested an interview on this topic with Tony Russell, who created the album’s original design concept. A renowned music historian who was immersed at the time in a book project, Russell recommended I interview the aforementioned Hunt, who generously agreed. Excerpts from my June 2022 interview with Hunt were incorporated into an academic presentation I gave at the 23rd Ulster-American Heritage Symposium at East Tennessee State University. The below transcription, featuring the full interview, communicates Hunt’s discernment regarding the lasting power and significance of Handful of Earth.       


How would you characterize Dick Gaughans role in British folk music before the release of Handful of Earth?


Everybody gets on the merry-go-round at different times. My memory of becoming dimly aware of Gaughan came after moving back to England after working in West Germany. Because it was on a major label, it was probably around the time of Five Hand Reel’s For A’ That that I became semi-aware of him. Call me shallow, but its cover image caught my eye. I didn’t own any LPs by them or Dick at that point in the late ’70s. I don’t recall him appearing, for example, at the local folk club in Sutton which Graham Chapman was then running at the Red Lion until I saw him touring Handful of Earth there. I talked to him after the gig about doing a big interview for Swing 51.


Me getting into music journalism was down to ZigZag. In a nutshell, like ZigZag’s editor Pete Frame, I was dissatisfied with what I was reading in the mainstream music press. I felt the music I loved deserved better, more detailed and more informed articles than the crap I was finding. I launched Swing 51 at the end of 1979. It meant I was getting free records to expand my musical palette. That was how Dick’s releases on Topic and Trailer entered my life. After a visit to Topic’s office in Finsbury Park, I walked away with an armful of Gaughan and went on a crash course. The music was a real education.


Dick was a force of nature. Handful of Earth was a milestone release and we knew it. The writers talked about it a lot. I remember interviewing Peter Rowan with Tony Russell and he was enthusing about it.


Can you share any anecdotes about the recording sessions for Handful of Earth, the design of the album cover, etc.?


Neither his old Boys of the Lough colleague Robin Morton nor Gaughan ever shared anything specific about the Temple sessions. When they were happy with it, they delivered it as “finished product” to Tony Engle and Tony Russell in London, and Topic brought it in. The original press release, which I tucked into the LP, ended with a quote from Tony Engle: “This is a record that actually advances music.”

Photo courtesy of Topic Records.

Tony Russell told me that Robin delivered the artwork including the Mick Campbell cover. That image is pretty low-key, not to say duff, for an album cover. It’s hardly a classic Topic cover by a long chalk. Just Dick, the man in black, standing in a golden cornfield with an anonymous industrial plant behind him in the distance. Maybe it was for grain? That backdrop reminds me of the Soviet bloc industrial plants I encountered after the Berlin Wall came down when I began working as a music journalist in what had been the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia. It’s kind of anywhere universal. Could be somewhere in Ukraine or Kansas. Why the slipcase for the reissue has Gaughan auditioning as a slightly bored chipmunk or hamster from the photo shoot I have no idea. It turned out, we learned, he was wearing blue jeans, though.


Could you describe the immediate and long-term impacts of Handful of Earth on British folk musicians, fans, reviewers, radio folks, etc.?


At a distance I think my overwhelming memory of the LP’s reception in the months after it came out was the shared buzz about it among writers. Many of the London-based ones met at the same gigs. Some of us socialised and drank together. I can’t remember any dissent whatsoever about Handful of Earth being other than something special.


What facets of the album stand out to you today as being particularly noteworthy?


Its ripples keep rippling out. The repertoire of songs and instrumentals he chose is matchless as a snapshot of where Dick’s head was at, not just when Handful of Earth came out but at a certain point of time. The connections and correspondences running through it work brilliantly. It now seems like the perfect ending to a chapter.


Are you aware of significant impacts of the album on international musicians/music scenes?


Dick’s track record of international collaborations goes back to Five Hand Reel working with Alan Klitgaard. There are East German recordings released of him with the Sands Family and Wacholder, and with performing with Eric Bogle from the Festival des Politischen Liedes in East Berlin, then in the German Democratic Republic. His first appearance was in February 1983 at the 13th Festival Des Politischen Liedes. The state record label Amiga released his performance of the Ed Pickford song where he got the line “handful of earth” from on that year’s commemorative LP. The only album of his that Amiga put out, to my knowledge, was A Different Kind of Love Song. That album is a two-way street. You can hear how his German experiences influenced him. Back the GDR though, Handful of Earth itself was a word-of-mouth and pirated cassette affair. I have never met an Ossi who had the record before the Fall of the Wall.


I know for a fact that musically and politically he made an enormous impression on East German musicians because I became the translator-writer for the Tanz&FolkFest Rudolstadt, nowadays the Rudolstadt Festival. I write lyrics that Jürgen Ehle sets for Scarlett Seeboldt (who used to be in Wacholder) and we’ve talked about it.


Do you have any additional thoughts you might be willing to share about Gaughan as an artist and/or about Handful of Earth as an album?


Dick and I kept in touch. We bided our time until the time was right to do the interview. He certainly reviewed Ian Watson’s book Song and Democratic Culture in Britain for the magazine. When I finally interviewed him at the Cambridge Folk Festival in August 1987, it was after the Miners’ Strike. He was illuminating and candid. For example, I’d yet to come to an intellectual accommodation about Burns’ ‘Now Westlin’ Winds’ with its “slaughterin’ guns” and images of romantic love and natural beauty. He gave me the steer.


In July 2017, Yorkston Thorne Khan were on the Scotland bill of the Rudolstadt Festival, and they performed an embryonic interpretation of that Robert Burns poem there. James Yorkston originally had “Now Westlin Winds” from Handful of Earth. They paired it with a love poem beginning with an image of sarson mustard greens which their sarangi player and vocalist Suhail Yusuf Khan brought to the table. It has developed into something wondrous. Suhail wasn’t able to organise his visa for the May/June 2022 YTK tour and the Hindustani singer Ranjana Ghatak stepped in. She carried the baton beautifully.

Dick Gaughan performs in 2006. (Photo by Markus Grobmann, Wikimedia Commons.)

Dick is a staunch internationalist, a staunch, ardent socialist and a man of extraordinary political insight. After the Brexit shambles, his rendition of “Both Sides The Tweed” has grown ever more pertinent as renewed talk about Scottish independence renews and swells. In 2014 he told me: “I think that ‘Both Sides The Tweed’ is in line with contemporary thinking within Scotland. Although it’s 30-odd years since I resurrected it as a song, edited with my amendments to it, the reason I leapt on the song even back then was it was a counter to the racism I had felt on both sides of the border. I had experienced anti-Scots feeling in England and I’d experienced anti-English feeling in Scotland. I thought this is not the way. There is more to it than that. It is not about Scotland being anti-English or England being anti-Scottish.” He paused, “There is something much more fundamental than that, which is a nation’s self-sense of itself, how we view the rest of the world and how we relate to the rest of the world. That has to be free of prejudice. Otherwise, why bother? If the only thing you’ve got in your favour is to be anti-something, then you’ve got nothing in your favour at all.” It’s from my RnR article in the March/April 2014 issue.


It was a milestone release. Handful of Earth was a real before-and-after affair. Its power, passion, and fury still steal my breath away.


Ted Olson is a professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies at East Tennessee State University.




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