Of the twenty-some albums that Dick Gaughan has recorded, Handful Of Earth is generally held to be his best. That’s tough, given that it was his fifth solo record and is almost forty years old. Personally, I lean towards Parallel Lines, his collaboration with Andy Irvine, but Handful Of Earth has more than stood the test of time since its release in 1981.
I remember remarks made by Dick at a couple of gigs – where and when I can’t recall – but what he said stuck with me. The first was about the Scots language which he employs here. It’s not Gaelic nor is it, as he explained, English with some unfamiliar words but a unique tongue. Sadly, its use gained him the reputation of being hard to understand but like all good art his music requires a little work by the listener and these days we wouldn’t even think such a thing.
The set opens with ‘Erin-Go-Bragh’ featuring Brian McNeill’s fiddle and Phil Cunningham’s whistle. It’s essentially about racism and its narrative is akin to asking a young British Asian where in Bangladesh he was from. And if you think that doesn’t happen… Next is ‘Now Westlin Winds’ from the pen, at least in part, of Robert Burns. It’s become very familiar now but Gaughan’s version is remarkably unsentimental for what is essentially a love song. ‘Craigie Hill’ is probably Irish in origin despite there being a Craigie Hill near Perth and another near Kilmarnock but Gaughan mixes Scottish, Irish and even English songs with little regard for geography.
The other remark I remember is to the effect that the first victims of the British Empire were the English, an opinion he expresses in his notes introducing ‘World Turned Upside Down’. It may turn out that the English and the Welsh will be the last victims, too. Scotland will have enough sense to get out in time. ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest’ is another song that has perhaps been over-sung but here again, Gaughan delivers an unsentimental reading, one of the few I still care to listen to.
Dick Gaughan was as famed for his guitar playing and so the first side of the original pressing closed with ‘First Kiss At Parting’ – his own composition – and the second begins with ‘Scojun Waltz/Randers Hopsa’ again featuring Brian McNeill on fiddle and bass. The second tune is Danish – I forgot to mention them earlier. The last three songs are all “contemporary” for want of a better word. The first of them is Phil Colclough’s ‘Song For Ireland’, ostensibly a hymn in praise of the beauty of that country but with a sting in the tail as the singer looks to the north. Ed Pickford’s ‘Workers’ Song’ gives the album its title and is still terribly relevant today. Finally, Dick straps on his Telecaster again and is joined by Phil Cunningham and Stewart Isbister for his most famous song, ‘Both Sides The Tweed’. This was a traditional song but, as Gaughan explains in his notes, he didn’t like the tune and rewrote the words!
I suspect that most of you have a copy of Handful Of Earth but if it’s lost or worn out you can scarcely make a better purchase than this Topic Treasure.
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‘Now Westlin Winds’ – live from 1983: