Music to poets' ears

13th December 1996 at 00:00
THE ARMSTRONG NOSE:SELECTED LETTERS OF HAMISH HENDERSON. Edited by Alec Finlay Polygon Pounds 14.99

THE DEMOCRATIC MUSE:FOLK MUSIC REVIVAL IN SCOTLAND. By Ailie Munro Scottish Cultural Press Pounds 15.99

Both of these books are essential for any teacher - or anyone else - wishing to extend their knowledge of folk studies and music in particular and of Scottish culture in general.

Hamish Henderson's letters, with their kenspeckle title referring to a popular poem about the facial features of the Border Armstrong clan, makes a suitable companion piece not only to Ailie Munro's new book, but also to his own collected essays which were published under the equally individualistic title of Alias MacAlias.

Widely regarded as the "father of the folk revival" in Scotland, Dr Henderson has spent a lifetime collecting, editing and teaching folk-studies as a former senior lecturer at Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies and as a roving lecturer around Europe.

A poet and song-smith in his own right, he has collected thousands of songs, many from Scotland's travelling community, which have been handed down orally, and he lays great store by having brought the traveller-singer, Jeannie Robertson, to public attention and, indeed, acclaim.

The book includes a great deal of correspondence between Henderson and figures such as Jeannie Robertson, Ewan McColl, Arthur Argo, Alan Lomax, Norman Buchan (folk enthusiast and Labour MP), Dominic Behan and Jimmie MacGregor as well as the famous "Folksong Flyting" which took place between him and Hugh MacDiarmid (and sundry others) in the letters pages of the Scotsman in 1964.

It was during this hard-hitting debate (with very few holds barred) that Henderson accused the father of the Scottish literary revival of "a kind of spiritual apartheid" and spoke of him as "an acid anti-humanist". And yet, for a' that, as much of the private correspondence published here for the first time shows, Henderson had always been, and remained, a tremendous advocate of MacDiarmid's "genius", even helping him get out of trouble on more than one occasion.

With similar exchanges of letters contained in The Armstrong Nose featuring such figures as Sorley Maclean, Douglas Young, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Tom Scott, Robert Garioch and Helen Cruickshank, the book also provides an insider's view into much that is going on in 20th century Scottish literature as well.

It shows Henderson's struggles to publish The Prison Letters of Antonio Gramsci, the Sardinian socialist intellectual often regarded as the father-figure of Euro-Communism, and demonstrates this travelling Scot's life-long commitment to democratic education as well as his involvement in CND and the anti-apartheid movement.

That Henderson was a pivotal figure in Scottish culture is easily demonstrated by reference to Munro's The Democratic Muse in which he not only figures largely but for which he has provided the foreword. The book is, in fact, a revised and updated edition of her 1984 study The Folk Music Revival in Scotland.

Also covering the folk revival in Gaelic song (courtesy of Morag MacLeod), this is an important cultural record and a rich quarry of songs for any teacher wishing to expand the Scots musical repertoire of their pupils. Accessible and highly readable, it also lists a great many publications and recordings to complement the material in the book.

Giving due credit to the important American influence on the Scottish folk revival, Munro's book is, as Henderson himself puts it, a "masterly 'update' of her already celebrated account".

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