Norrie MacIver and the Glasgow Barons, with their brilliant folk album, Songs Of Govan Old, manage to disprove (the great) Thomas Wolfe’s novel title comment, You Can’t Go Home Again.
Of course, this is a concept record that conjures the memory of Glasgow’s Govan – once a shipbuilding soul of Scotland -and now a treasury of many melodic echoed footsteps that still vibrate, even after all those jobs are gone, in the grooves of these lovely photographic tunes.
Put simply: These songs tap Dorothy’s ruby Wizard Of Oz shoes that thrum with a one way (and very certain) ticket home. And this one goes home to Scotland. Sure, but despite the lovely accent and pulsing Scots’ acoustic beat, it also sings with some universal desire for the warm drink in a hand-spun melodic quilted hometown (anywhere) haven.
‘Lizzy’ is a strummed delight, as Norrie’s passionate voice chronicles a Govan woman’s life who “did it her way” with “gray khaki overalls” and “worked seven days a week and eighteen-hour shifts” for the munitions war effort. And Lizzy’s simple strength is juxtaposed to the visiting King George V who visits “sixty-thousand Scotsmen all piled in like cattle”. This is a brilliant glance at a portrait oiled with dignity’s pallet. The emotive punch is equal to the grace of (the great Teesside singer) Vin Garbutt, who could glide a butter knife through the tough skin and sing the praise of each and every “Man (or woman!) of the Earth”.
There are other portraits of strong women. ‘Mary’ is a simple melodic ode in praise of Mary Barbour who “always thought of others” and was also “a member of the Women’s Peace Crusade”, and of course, she “stood up for Labour”. That’s a nice resume! And the quiet ‘Lady Elder’ gently unfolds (with ‘Bridget O’ Malley’ beauty!) the tale of a wealthy woman—Isabella Elder–who gifted her wealth to the education of the people of her beloved Govan. Again, that’s a saintly resume! Then, ‘Betsy’ is a tragic story of a woman left at the altar; yet after she is ‘locked away for believing in love”, she is “bullish” while her “beauty is still a gift from the heavens above”. That’s a tough resume.
Quite frankly, Songs Of Govan Old is a bit like Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology – Glasgow style – but without any mention of the mean people.
Then there is more local history. ‘The Clyde’ (with lyrics by Bass Kennedy) really does get into the orbit of Dick Gaughan’s Handful Of Earth defiant beauty. This is urgent love for Glasgow’s river of life. A similar reverence is shown in the reflective ‘Pride Of The Clyde’, a song in which Norrie’s heart explodes with home town joy. And ‘Soldier Boy’ is the tragic tale of Private Lawrence Nealis, who at fifteen “said he was eighteen” and well, he was killed aged seventeen, but listed as twenty in death. Odd: There is no name given to ‘The Soldier Boy’, which again, touches a universal pathos of all the annual kids in any perennial war. It’s a brilliant song.
There are Gaelic versed songs. ‘Cha Tig an Latha’ (The Day Will Not Come) is a sweeping and powerful song. Norrie’s vocals echo his work with Skipinnish–or of his days with (the very great) Manrun; and they also conjure the melodic power of (the also very great) Capercaillie, circa their Sidewaulk album. This is ancient beauty rebirthed! Then ‘Baile Ghobainn’ (Ghobainn Dance) is epic in its stringed-bathed beauty, that despite the impossible odds, manages to orbit in the very same rarified air as (the before mentioned) Dick Gaughan’s ‘Both Sides Of The Tweed’. Big time complement!
Now, just a comment about the Glasgow Barons, with their orchestrated musical linn: They complement a really nice cup of tea and a snack in the Saint Giles Cathedral café, with the majesty of the saintly construct that hovers like a nice melodic halo, or an impassioned votive candle prayer, over all these songs—felt sincerely in the optimistic ‘Govan Boys’, where “the government sang (in the good old days!) build boys build”, which, by the way, echoes the deep pride of a Silly Wizard song written by Andy M. Stewart. Ditto for the absolutely gorgeous ‘Neilson And His Bride’, which sets poet John Murry’s words to music.
John Murry also contributes the words to ‘A Flea In The Lug’. Unfortunately, that colloquial expression escapes this Midwest Wisconsin boy’s understanding; although, the Dictionary Of Scots Language (aka Dictionar O The Scots Leid) suggests lug as a “slang synonym for ‘ear’”. Well, that’s fair enough. And truly, the brisk melodic tune is a really nice counter balance to the other more serious songs. It gives an air of self-deprecation, and it certainly has the glint of a Robert Burns glance.
The final song, ‘Latha Na Feille’ (Feast Day), finishes the album with the adictive firepower of Norrie’s voice, which marches proudly on sacred Scottish soil, while The Glasgow Barons soar (with stringed beauty!) into the blessed Scottish skies.
To give credit, it’s important to mention the stellar string ensemble work by those Barons: Artistic Director, Paul MacAlindin, (and five of the GB’s fifteen members): Seonaid Aitken and Katrina Lee (violins), Patsy Reid (viola), Alice Allen (cello) and Ben Burnley (bass).
That said, Songs Of Govan Old is, indeed, a warm familiar drink and a hand quilted hometown memory. The great band Scottish band Ossian once sang, “I’ll tak’ the road that is dearest to me/The road to Drumleman that winds tae the sea”, where “we’d have a good dram” and ‘folks always greet me with a wave and smile”. There’s a universal heartbeat pulsing here. You know, I’ve never walked to Drumleman, and I’ve never been in Glasgow’s Govan; but, thankfully, these songs can be sung by everyone: They are a welcomed pint in a familiar pub; they are a pair of hand knitted mittens; they are a warm cup of tea and a nice snack in some big cathedral, all of which contribute the soundtrack to a glorious ruby-slippered trip, a cozy musical trip, and a trip that always goes, despite the words of Thomas Wolfe, right back home.
There are no videos available from the album but here’s a burst of The Glasgow Barons: