January 14th, 2009


It took a nation of millions to hold back Matt McGinn

I stumbled on Matt McGinn -- communist, atheist, republican, and perhaps Scotland's most interesting satirical songwriter -- via a google image search. The starting point was this article by Ben Goldacre, which cites a staggering statistic: that life-expectancy in Calton, Glasgow's poorest area, is 28 years less than in Lenzie, a middle-class area just eight miles away. To get a feel for what these areas are like, I ran a google image search on "Lenzie Glasgow" and was soon inspecting this detached, comfortable villa:

The search on "Calton Glasgow" brought up images of high rise blocks, graveyards, tenement buildings... and this picture of Matt McGinn -- "McGinn of the Calton", as the tribute website calls him:

True to the Goldacre stats for Calton, McGinn died young -- a year short of his 50th birthday, in 1977, of smoke inhalation. I listened to a McGinn song called We'll Have a Mayday, a sort of socialist anthem, rousing and defiant. Then I turned to YouTube. The more videos of McGinn's songs I heard, the odder it became that I'd never heard his name before -- here was a Scottish Brassens, or Mani Matter, or Woody Guthrie (with, it's true, some worrying tinges of Rolf Harris and The Proclaimers).

It really does seem to have been a sort of deliberate conspiracy to keep McGinn off TV and radio and out of the newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was writing and performing his thousand or so songs. A Glasgow Herald editor more or less admits as much in this little documentary (ignore the Billy Connolly bit, please): "There are very few film clips of Matt McGinn singing, for the simple reason that television wasn't interested in him -- he was too dangerous."

Amazingly, the clip of McGinn singing here during a work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Yard is the only existing film of the singer in performance. It's a completely scandalous dereliction of cultural duty on the part of the Scottish media of the time -- and completely attributable to the "communist, atheist, republican" stuff. (McGinn did, though, appear on Scottish TV as an actor from time to time.)

McGinn owed everything, even his Oxbridge education, to the unions. It was a trade union scholarship that allowed him to study economics and political science at Ruskin College, Oxford in his early thirties. Here's a song of gratitude: If It Wisnae For The Union:

Becoming an Oxford graduate didn't give McGinn any grand ideas -- a couple of years later he was organising an adventure playground in the Gorbals. A song he wrote called The Foreman O'Rourke won a folk song contest, and McGinn was championed by Pete Seeger, who got McGinn into a concert at the Carnegie Hall (where he met Bob Dylan). "His performances in clubs and concert halls were hugely popular, often leaving the audience in tears of laughter," the short Wikipedia entry ends; "He passionately believed in the overthrow of capitalism and supported many union disputes and always sided with the oppresed and down-trodden." Hence, presumably, the radio silence and lack of film footage.

I don't know what Billy Connolly (now there's a man vastly over-exposed by the media!) means when he claims that McGinn couldn't sing in tune or in time -- listening to his songs, I was struck by his really great sense of rhythm, and the pitch is fine. Here's a catchy number called Get Up, Get Out:

McGinn was also a hell of a lot funnier than Connolly; here's I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago, which had me chuckling, anyway:

And here's the Benny Hill-ish Sugary Cake And Candy Man:

I could almost imagine Joe Howe reworking Our Wee Wean into something like The Cooper o' Fife:

Which means, too, that I could totally imagine a Momus album of Matt McGinn cover versions in which we take this material into strange new areas. Because the core of it -- the words and rhythms and sentiments -- is really solid and interesting. The songs are unsentimental, documenting working class life. Here's a tribute to the shipbuilders of the Clyde, Ballad of the Q4:

And here's one about workers' tea breaks, The Can O' Tea:

There are extraordinary topical-satirical barbs against Christianity (Ban The Beatles) and against conservative counter-revolutionary entertainers (Frankie Vaughan). There are ditties about Gay Liberation and birth control, but sometimes McGinn can be compelling just singing about a red yoyo with a wee yellow stripe:

Here's a great formalist joke, a ballad that rings the changes on the sound of words ending in "arra":

I suppose we should end with McGinn's completely outrageous and bizarre rendition of the Jewish traditional song Hava Nagila as Have A Banana:

Eight miles away in Lenzie they might live to 80, but it was Calton that produced Matt McGinn. It took a nation of millions to hide him from me... until today.