The very first time I consciously heard “Freedom Come All Ye” was at the close of my first Dick Gaughan concert, in Glasgow in 1985. “Hamish Henderson called this the song of the century,” Gaughan introduced it, “and it’s the song I want to be our national anthem when we become independent.”
I had become a great fan of Gaughan by that time, both of his political songs and his more traditional material, so those comments struck me. I already knew and loved another Henderson lyric which Gaughan had recorded, “The John McLean March”.
Two elements of “Freedom Come All Ye” immediately engaged me: the tune, and those English words which I could discern from that first listen: the lines about the ships sailing from the Broomielaw and about John McLean meeting with his friends in Springburn.
What I didn’t realise at first was that the music of the song was traditional and not Henderson’s own composition – he followed the Robert Burns practice of writing words to traditional tunes – so that reduced somewhat my initial awe for the song. Later again, I became a little less patient with the use of the Scots language as a medium. That first visceral impact of the song (of which a large part came from Gaughan’s unique delivery) began to dilute.
More recently, having heard the song regularly in various recorded and live versions, I have scrutinised its lyrics more closely. It is still greatly loved by more than one generation of left-leaning folk music fans. But is it as great as Gaughan first said?
My present opinion is that it is perhaps three quarters of a great anthem.
The first stanza is mostly good. The song starts with references to weather and climate, good classic lyrical openings, as Burns himself applied in “Now Westlin Winds”. Even an ear unused to the Scots language might pick out that the song is commenting on events of “the world the day” and that the actions of “rogues” are being criticised.
The second stanza is a bit more confusing. A reference to the ships sailing down the Broomielaw might be expected to be a heroic one but actually these ships are not the newly-launched Clyde-built products of working-class craftsmen but departing troop carriers mourned by onlookers. “Scotland the Brave”, also usually a reference to heroism, is here explicitly described as a “curse”. In fact, the stanza is supporting equally the plight of Scottish soldiers forced to fight unnecessary wars abroad and the inhabitants of the countries they invade.
It seems that Henderson was being critical and ironic with language which is often taken at face value, the language of national and imperial martial success. Rather in the way Bruce Springsteen was angry that his “Born in the USA” was misread by US Republicans as a jingoistic flag-waver rather than as a statement of anger at the country’s betrayal of its war-veteran working-class.
Henderson’s lyrics clarify again at the start of the final stanza. The “freedom” of the title is signposted at the start and there is a clear exhortation not to listen to voices of fear and reaction. The reference to John McLean is indeed one of celebration, about his revolutionary ideas being put into practice. However, the phrase “painted room” is surely too flimsy to represent such ideas as a home fit for heroes or the 21st century Americanism of homeland. The final image of pulling down gallows is a powerful one but the reference to “a black boy” now sounds uncomfortably close to the colonialism which Henderson was challenging. It’s also a weak phrase for the song’s big finish. And why the specific naming of “Nyanga” at the end? Apparently it was a location of anti-apartheid protest but is certainly now rather less well-known than Sharpeville or Guernica or Auschwitz.
Of course the delivery of a song is all-important. Most versions of “Freedom Come A Ye” which I have heard present it in a dramatic, martial way from start to finish. Maybe it should be sung more delicately and gently, with differing emphases as the imagery shifts from heroic to bleaker. I don’t remember enough of the details of Gaughan’s performance in 1985 but You Tube has a TV performance from 1989 which is excellent. His delivery is sweet but manly and measured and I note he changes that penultimate line from “black boy” to “black lad”, slightly less horrible as a phrase plus more assonant to the ear. Of course Gaughan would be the first person to admit he can’t quite sing like that any more!
Scotland now sits a little closer to the political situation which Gaughan envisaged in his 1985 comments but I think today’s Scotland is a little less attached to the Scots language than Hamish Henderson hoped we might be. It will be intriguing to see whether the political and cultural discussions which continue during this year will give the song a higher profile.
A man is entitled to change his mind over time. Gaughan’s most recently reported views on the song, when he performed it in Edinburgh on 1 January this year, show a slightly different attitude to it. In an epithet which was apparently first coined by the late Labour MP and folk music aficionado Norman Buchan, Gaughan said, “The best way to kill a song is to make it a national anthem.”