Album of the Week, July 5: Handful of Earth by Dick Gaughan

GaughanHandfulBy 1981, Dick Gaughan was a well-known fixture of the British folk scene. A talented singer and guitarist with an ear for great traditional and contemporary songs, he released a handful of solo discs as well as albums with the Boys of the Lough and Five Hand Reel. A family crisis caused him to take a break from recording. During this time he wrote reviews for Folk Review and continued to research music. When he returned to the studio, conditions in the UK had sharpened his political voice, and  his break from recording had allowed him to refine his approach. He collected ten songs, most of them traditional folk, and produced a masterpiece.

Title Handful of Earth
Act Dick Gaughan
Label Topic Release Date 1981
Producer none listed; engineered by Robin Morton
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Erin-Go-Bragh
  2. Now Westlin Winds
  3. Craigie Hill
  4. World Turned Upside Down
  5. The Snows They Melt the Soonest
  6. Lough Erne / First Kiss At Parting
  7. Scojun Waltz / Randers Hopsa
  8. Song For Ireland
  9. Workers’ Song
  10. Both Sides the Tweed

Erin-Go-Bragh is a fitting opening. It has been recorded by dozens of stellar performers, but Gaughan truly makes it his own. A story of confused identity, it’s struggle between Scots of differing backgrounds captures the tensions in the British Isles nicely. He’s in finer voice than ever, singing with determination and grit while his stunning guitar work drives the track along. In the liner notes, Gaughan observes his reason for choosing this track: “Being brought up with  Irish grandparents and a Highland Scots mother, I find the irony of the song the best antidote to racism.”

Gaughan embraces those Scots roots with a lovely interpretation of Robert Burns’ Now Westlin Winds, learned from Geordie Hamilton. A loving tribute to nature with a clear-eyed look at man’s often savage interactions therein, it’s a complex song that Gaughan delivers with precision and care. Craigie Hill is a song of emigration, a wistful look at the need for new hope and the cost to nations of losing the powerful resource that is their new generation. Gaughan stays true to the potent political edge in these songs while fully embracing the beauty of the music, achieving a stunning balance.

Up next is a song by the peerless political and satirical songsmith Leon Rosselson. The World Turned Upside Down is the story of the Diggers, a communal group who were wiped out in the 17th Century. It’s a stinging indictment of government oppression in the face of peaceful opposition, demanding that “the vision lingers on.”

The Snows They Melt the Soonest is another traditional tune, popularized by Anne Briggs and then by Archie Fisher. Gaughan credits Fisher for his interpretation of the song. It features a beautiful melody with a fairly cynical lyric, a nice tension that Gaughan invests with quiet power. Lough Erne, sometimes known as the Rambling Irishman, is another song of emigration, with the central character leaving Ulster for America. It’s bittersweet but ends on a note of hope for his future in the new land. Gaughan wrote a pretty tune, First Kiss At Parting, to end the song, inspired by another Burns work.

He shows off his instrumental proficiency with the charming medley Scojun Waltz / Randers Hopsa. His guitar work is impeccable and the pair work together nicely, despite their quite different origins. “The first was [my] attempt to prove that Cajun music originated in Leith. The second is Danish and I learned it from Danish-based group McEwan’s Export.”

The haunting Song For Ireland was written by Phil and June Colclough. It’s a beautiful tribute to the island nation and Gaughan invests it with deep passion. “I love this, and I love singing it,” he writes. It certainly shows.

Politics returns to the fore with the final two songs, some of the finest in Gaughan’s rich catalog. Workers’ Song is an angry rebuke of rich politicians who make use of the poor and downtrodden to fight their dirty wars. Presented with real fire, it’s one of Gaughan’s most stirring deliveries and a clear repudiation of Thatcherite policies. After that amazing delivery, Gaughan chooses to wrap things up with a meditation of hope. Both Sides the Tweed was written as a commentary on the Act of Union in 1707, but it serves as a reminder that people can work together in harmony despite their differences. Gaughan gives a rare Telecaster performance while Phil Cunningham provides a regal keyboard line. The electric approach gives it an anthemic quality which serves it well as potent secular benediction. “The only way forward,” the singer writes, “is by mutual respect and understanding.”

Dick Gaughan made an amazing return with Handful of Earth. It’s a powerful, intimate album of universal themes delivered with care. His voice is finer than ever and his playing supports the songs with just the right emotion. Melody Maker declared it Album of the Year for 1981 and Folk Roots declared it Album of the Decade. Over 30 years later, it remains a standout in the modern British folk canon.

FURTHER LISTENING: Gaughan delivered a real one-two punch, following Handful of Earth with A Different Kind of Love Song. A more overtly political album, it’s equally compelling. Few artists manage one real masterpiece, let alone two. Dick Gaughan could rest well on the strength of just these two amazing discs.

Of course, he hasn’t. He has an impressive set of albums in his catalog, with three others standing out. Gaughan, from 1978, is a wonderful array of traditional songs. Parallel Lines, recorded with Andy Irvine of Planxty, finds the pair bouncing musical ideas off each other with joyous abandon. Redwood Cathedral is a perfect balance of traditional and modern songs. Sadly, Gaughan’s rich career hasn’t been anthologized particularly well; the best overview is the 2006 Definitive Collection, a nice teaser but hardly a thorough introduction.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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