Alistair Hulett: Scottish songwriter whose work was suffused with his radical politics
Monday 03 May 2010
In a music world that thrives on shallowness, Alistair Hulett was always destined to be an outsider.
A socialist, often likened to one of his heroes, Ewan MacColl, he wrote passionate and caring songs confronting the issues and injustices he saw around him. His uncompromising approach never made him rich or especially famous, but he was a true folk hero revered by his peers, who included his regular touring partner/collaborator, the great English fiddle player Dave Swarbrick.
The son of an aircraft engineer, he was born on the edge of Glasgow. An uncle gave him a guitar and he absorbed himself in the burgeoning 1960s Scottish folk scene. In 1965, when he was 14, his family emigrated to New Zealand. There he made his first public appearances, playing traditional and contemporary songs. He moved to Australia, where he met his first wife, Jane McDonald, with whom he formed a ballad group, Croodin Cant. Neither group nor marriage lasted long and after a couple of years on the hippy trail he returned to Australia to write songs. He embraced the mood of punk dissent, forming the Furious Chrome Dolls, while teaming up with the American mandolin player Hunter Owens in a Celtic/rock-abilly/bluegrass fusion called Galliard.
This natural eclecticism laid the groundwork for the rip-roaring band Owens and Hulett went on to form, Roaring Jack. Owens left in 1986, but Roaring Jack became a success in Australia, their folk-punk mix providing a vibrant backdrop to Hulett's radical songs. As other artists started to cover Hulett's radical songs, he left Roaring Jack, and his first solo album, Dance of the Underclass (1991), underlined his significance as a documenter of social issues.
In 1995 he met Dave Swarbrick, who was living in Australia, and they became a duo. Hulett and Swarbrick made two fine albums together, Saturday Johnny and Jimmy the Rat (1996) and The Cold Grey Light of Dawn (1998).
Hulett returned to the UK, and after making another fine solo album, In Sleepy Scotland, he worked with Swarbrick on perhaps his crowning achievement, Red Clydeside. Hulett's song suite told the story of the Glasgow workers' revolt and their attempts to form a republic in response to conscription in 1914.
When Swarbrick, the album's producer, became ill, Hulett galvanised support with "Swarb Aid" events, and their partnership resumed when Swarbrick recovered. "It's hard to be principled when you're trying to make a living," Swarbrick said, "but Alistair wouldn't compromise his ideals for anyone."
Alistair Hulett, singer, songwriter and activist: born Glasgow 15 October 1951; married firstly Jane McDonald (divorced), secondly Fatima Uygun; died Glasgow 28 January 2010.
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