By Joe Keenan
Dick Gaughan has been one of the big figures in the British folk scene now for four decades and it was a privilege to see him at the Saltburn Folk Festival. The Scottish singer song writer who mixes traditional music with his political values has just returned from a tour of Canada and we were lucky to have him. In his own words, “the last time I was in Saltburn it was Redcar!” referring to the fact that it’s a long time since we had seen him in these parts at the old Redcar Folk Festival.
I was very nervous to meet him. His music has played a big part in my life and in fact, from the age of 16 as a child of the miners’ strike, it acted as a great source of political education. Without Dick I wouldn’t have been introduced to Thomas Paine, Victor Jara, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, and a whole host of subjects ranging from the Spanish Civil War to the Diggers. I met him at the Spa Hotel, out the back where he was having a cigarette post sound check. “Step into my office,” he joked. He put me immediately at ease.
His reputation as a passionate protest singer and exceptionally talented guitarist has not diminished, despite the years. However, Dick has had one of the most beautifully lyrical voices in British folk but age is taking its toll on that. His voice is changing and sounds a bit harder nowadays and this is something that many of his fans are sad about, but not Dick. “It’s natural, I feel no sense of loss” he says as I put it to him. “Technique is just a tool kit, I’m interested in the job of getting people to feel emotion. Give me the full power and the emotion of what people are saying and I would take that every time. Having a good singing voice is irrelevant. Too many people focus on the how instead of concentrating on the what and the why. The latter two are what are important.” He has still got a fantastic voice nonetheless.
He has released so many albums and collaborations over the years it’s also hard to see where he gets his energy from. In his latest venture he has just been involved with a project which fuses Scottish Folk with Reggae. I asked him if he still had the creative zeal. “I’ve never seen this as a career, I’m not a careerist,” he says “I may release another record but there has never been a master plan. What’s next is what’s next”.
We inevitably got onto politics and how it motivated his music. I asked him what his take was on the riots that gripped the country this month. “It all goes back to the Thatcher era” he said. “Thatcher proclaimed that there was no such thing as society – that results in people rioting in the streets. You treat people like an underclass, they will behave like one.” Dick pulls no punches.
Dick Gaughan is a firm believer that his music is there for a purpose and he expanded on what he means by this. “Music should challenge you. It should make you think. It should be story telling with a substance.” he said. “I don’t recognise some folk music today, I don’t understand the definition. You need to get above the tidal wave of bland wallpaper.”
His set at the Spa Hotel was full of emotion and substance and laced with storytelling. He included Robert Burns, Thomas Muir and ship wrecked bankers in the package as well as some more traditional music. Personally though, I would have paid just to watch him tune his guitar and ramble between songs. He was totally right of course. The what and the why win every time. This man has passion in abundance.