If there were to be a top table in the Scottish folk music pantheon – not that he’d hold with any such hierarchical nonsense – then Hamish Henderson would surely be seated at its head. And it’d be where the very best of the craic was, a happy hubbub of carousing, debating, singing and playing, with Hamish at its heart.
Any career as long, diverse and distinguished as Hamish’s clearly defies easy summation, but the eminent left-wing historian E.P. Thompson identified the essence of the man as long ago as 1948, writing to Hamish following the publication of his first poetry collection, Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica: “You, more than any other poet I know, are an instrument through which thousands of others can become articulate.”
In defining his own approach to his life’s work – as a folklorist, poet, songwriter, philosopher, scholar, linguist, critic, teacher, translator, broadcaster and activist – Hamish himself would often quote his beloved Gramsci: “That which distinguishes folksong in the framework of a nation and its culture is neither the artistic fact nor the historic origin; it is a separate and distinct way of conceiving life and the world, as opposed to that of ‘official’ society.”
For Hamish, this alternative way of seeing – originally inculcated by his musical, Gaelic-speaking mother – was crucially catalysed by his experiences during World War II. In Italy, particularly, where he served as an army intelligence officer, he not only first encountered Gramsci, but also fell in love with the living folk culture that inspired the local partisans to fight in its defence.
It was the living folk culture of Scotland, then generally thought (when anyone thought of it at all) to be in its death-throes, that Hamish introduced to the wider modern world, through his landmark 1950s collecting trips with US musicologist Alan Lomax. These expeditions mined the fuel on which the Scottish folk revival is still going strong today, both by bringing exceptional tradition-bearers like Jeannie Robertson, Jimmy MacBeath, John Strachan, Willie Scott and Flora McNeil to the international stage, and by presenting their music not as any quaint museum-piece, but as part of a living, evolving process feeding vitally into the here and now.
Through his decades of legendary scholarship at the School of Scottish Studies, his lifelong political and humanitarian commitment, his outstanding original contributions to the Scottish folk-song canon, and his parallel belief in both nationalism and internationalism, Hamish substantially helped to shape the contemporary Scottish folk scene in his own complex, expansive, gloriously contradictory image. And our world is all the better for it.