a.k.a. Thurso Berwick: Doon Amang the Eskimos

The Glasgow Herald: 28th March, 1961: Three anti-Polaris demonstrators yesterday boarded the U.S. submarine Patrick Henry at the Holy Loch. Michael Nolan (26) made the most strategic approach by climbing up onto the top of the vessel’s after-fin jutting 7 feet up in the air. U.S. naval ratings offered him a cup of coffee if he would join them, but he politely refused and for three quarters of an hour remained cold and damp on his perch. A U.S. naval launch with civil police on board then drew alongside and brought his escapade to an abrupt halt.
The Glasgow Herald: 22nd May, 1961: U.S. sailors turned fire hoses on demonstrators who tried to board the submarine depot ship Proteus in the Holy Loch from kayaks, dinghies, launches and a motorised houseboat. The houseboat, bearing a red cross and the words “Life Not Death”, bore down on the Proteus. Giving chase, two Police launches collided, one of them carrying senior police and naval officers.
The Glasgow Herald: 25th May, 1961: Anti-Polaris demonstrators today lost the last of their 13 kayaks in the Holy Loch. The depot ship Proteus was held up as she entered the loch by lone canoeist Sean Edwards from Dublin who put out from Kilmun where the demonstrators are encamped. Edwards evaded pursuing launches and got within 20 yards of the vessel before being tipped into the water by naval frogmen.
Ma Maw’s a millionaire (hiv a banana)
Blue eyes and curly hair.
Doon amang the Eskimos,
Playin a gemme o’ dominoes
Ma Maw’s a millionaire
Glasgow Children’s Street Song—Tune: “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”)

Despite the comic opera overtones of events following the first arrival of the Proteus at the Holy Loch on March 3rd, 1961, there was no doubting the serious commitment of the anti-Polaris movement. These events had been preceded by vast marches and demonstrations throughout Europe, and, perhaps most notably, at the British Atomic Weapons Research Institution at Aldermaston. The captain of the Proteus, however, declared himself, (with hindsight unwisely) to be unmoved by the anarchic goings-on at the Holy Loch. “They don’t bother us” he scoffed dismissively “They’re just a bunch of goddam Eskimos”. At this time the most influential group of political song writers in Scotland was The Glasgow Song Guild … they seized gleefully upon Lanning’s remarks … and almost overnight, it seemed, they had transformed themselves, by some mysterious weegee alchemy, to become The Glasgow Eskimos:

It’s up the Clyde comes Lanin, a super-duper Yank,
But doon a damn sight quicker when we cowpt him doon the stank,
Up tae the neck in sludge and sewage fairly stops yuir swank
—We are the Glesca Eskimos.

CHORUS:
Hullo! Hullo! we are the Eskimos,
Hullo! Hullo! The Glesga Eskimos,
We’ll gaff that nyaff caa’d Lanin
We’ll spear him whaur he blows
We are the Glesga Eskimos.

It’s in an oot, an up an doon, an on an aff the piers,
There’s councillors, collaborators, pimps an profiteers,
The hairies jook the polis, an the polis jouk the queers,
—We are the Glesga Eskimos.

There’s dredgers and there’s sludgie boats tae keep the river clean,
Ye lift yuir haund, an pu the chain—ye ken fine whit ah mean,
But how in the hell has the Holy Loch been left outside the scheme?
—We are the Glesga Eskimos.

We’ve been in mony a rammy, lads, we’ve been in mony a terr,
We’ve sorted out this kind afore, we’ll sort them onywhere,
So get your harpoons ready, boys, he’s comin up for air,
—We are the Glesga Eskimos.

(TUNE: Marching Through Georgia)

The Glasgow Eskimos had not, however, sprung fully-formed into the political arena. Previous incarnations of the loose groupings of Scottish political poets and songwriters from the early 50s onwards (The Bo’ness Rebel Literary Society; The Glasgow Song Guild) had produced a steady stream of low-cost chapbook-style collections of rebel songs, including early publications of the celebrated Rebel Ceilidh Song Book series.

There is little doubt that the seminal event in the development of Scottish Republican songwriting had been the removal of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in 1951, described at the time by the Dean of Westminster, in a radio broadcast on the British Home Service, as “a senseless crime carefully planned and carried out with great cunning … a truly squalid deed”. The London Times thundered that it had been “a coarse and vulgar crime”. Popular opinion in Scotland subscribed to an entirely different view. John McEvoy’s “The Wee Magic Stane”, set to the tune of “The Ould Orange Flute”, captured the exuberant combination of farce and derring-do that was abroad at the time:

Noo the cream o the joke still remains to be telt,
For the bloke that wis turnin them aff on the belt,
At the peak o production wis sae sorely pressed,
That the real Stane got bunged in alang wi the rest.

CHORUS: Wi a toora, li oora, li oora, li ay.

So if ever ye come on a Stane wi a ring,
Juist sit yourself doon an proclaim yourself King
For there’s nane will be able tae challenge yuir claim
That ye’d croont yourself King on the Destiny Stane.

The core Eskimos were five in number: Trade Unionist Jackie O’Connor, singers Josh MacRae and Nigel Denver, and songwriters Jim Maclean and Morris Blythman. MacRae was then decidedly better-known than the other members. He had enjoyed considerable popular success through his television appearances, as well as through frequent performances at Folk and Jazz clubs. His repertoire was, for the most part, (though not exclusively), taken from American political song, especially the dustbowl ballads of Woody Guthrie. To this day, however, perhaps his most enduring popular recording remains “Messing About on the River”.

The Young Turk of the group was Jim Maclean. Arguably the most gifted songwriter, and certainly the most prolific, he was possessed of a sardonic talent for parody, producing a succession of waspish anti-monarchy polemics. Best known of these was, perhaps, “Maggie’s Waddin”. Written to the cornkister tune of “Mairi’s Wedding”, Maclean’s song offered a mock celebration of the marriage of Princess Margaret to Anthony Armstrong Jones. (Though written some fifty years ago, a handful of his verses might illustrate some unnerving parallels with much more recent royal nuptials):

Sing a song o tax an woe,
Empty pooches in a row,
The Chancellor’s collectin dough,
Aa for Maggie’s Waddin.

Silk an satin, gold lame,
Tony weirs a lum hat tae,
Ma suit’s in the pawn sae whit’ll ah dae
At the Royal Waddin.

Whaur d’ye think they’ll honeymoon?
Gay Paree or on the moon?
Without a doot it’s no Dunoon!
Efter sic a Waddin.

Royal mince is awfy dear,
Tony needs a rise next year,
Up’ll go the tax on fags and beer,
Efter Tony’s Waddin.

The Eskimos’ main ideological ordnance was provided, however, by Morris Blythman, who had already, under his pen-name Thurso Berwick, established himself in Scottish Republican Socialist circles as a published poet and songwriter. Fuelled by his personal brand of heterodox Marxism, Blythman was committed to the process of communal authorship of the Eskimos’ repertoire. It was a process that was executed not only by the immediate core Eskimos, but by the “collective mincer” of a handful of creative contributors that oscillated around the Blythman igloo located up in the hostile Arctic wastes of Balgrayhill Road in Springburn, Glasgow. Blythman described the workings of the process:

One of the most unusual features of this whole movement was the way in which many of the songs were born. Workshop techniques were employed, and as a result, many of the songs had a communal authorship. In at least one song as many as twenty people contributed to the final production … I have always believed in mass creation. That is why I adopted the pen-name Thurso Berwick. My hope was that other poets could be persuaded to write under this name which was chosen as the name of the people, from Thurso in the north to Berwick in the south.

He went on to give a concrete example of the collaborative process at work. Glaswegian songwriter John Mack was present at a public meeting at which one of the speakers, George McLeod of the Iona Community (later Lord McLeod of Fuinary) declared that, “Of course, you cannot spend a dollar when you are dead”. Much struck by this remark, Mack came up with an embryonic chorus (to the tune of “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountains”)

You cannot spend a silver dollar when you’re dead. In fact it might as well be made of lead.

In the hands of the extended Eskimo tribe, however, these lines were rapidly “gallusised” (i.e. made more “gallus”) emerging reified as “Ye cannae spend a dollar when yuir deid”. The tune remained ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain”, but the final text of “Ding Dong Dollar” owed a much greater debt to the Glasgow street song “Ye Canny Shove your Granny aff a Bus”.

CHORUS: O, ye canny spend a dollar when ye’re deid.
O, ye canny spend a dollar when ye’re deid.
Singin Ding Dong Dollar, everybody holler.
Ye canny spend a dollar when ye’re deid.

Noo the Yanks have juist drapt anchor in Dunoon.
And they’ve had their civic welcome frae the toon.
As they cam up the measured mile
Bonnie Mary o Argyll
Wis wearin spangled drawers ablow her goon.

O, the Clyde is sure tae prosper noo they’re here.
For they’re chargin wan and ten pence for a beer.
And when they want a taxi, they shove it up their jersey
An they charge them fifty bob tae Sandbank Pier.

An the publicans will aa be daein swell,
For it’s juist the thing that’s sure tae ring the bell.
O the dollars they will jingle, there’ll be no a lassie single,
Even though they’ll maybe blaw us aa tae hell.

But the Glesga Moderator disnae mind.
In fact he thinks the Yanks are awfy kind.
For if it’s heaven that you’re goin,
its a quicker way than rowin,
An there’s sure tae be naebody left behind.

There is, then, no doubting Blythman’s commitment to the collaborative process of song writing. Indeed it is as well to bear in mind that beyond the confines of the immediate political coterie surrounding the Eskimos, there existed an even broader creative pool in the form of the countless vigorous oral transmissions of the songs that must have taken place at demonstrations, concerts and ceilidhs. In oral transmission, songs, like rumours, can usefully be compared with so many pieces of plastic material passed from hand to hand: the item is received, given a gentle squeeze, and passed on, emerging subtly changed from each successive transaction. A new word here: a changed phrase there.

Nevertheless, the “house style” of the great majority of the printed sources of the Eskimo songs (The Rebel Ceilidh Song Book and Ding Dong Dollar Song Book) bear the unmistakeable imprimatur of Blythman’s editorial hand: the chapbook format, the final choice of materials to be included; the commitment to the crackling Glasgow dialect, together with an orthography that broadly matches that favoured by Blythman in earlier poems, such as are found in “Fowrsom Reel”. Collaborative creation then, but with a firm directorial hand in the background: a minor folksy vindication perhaps, (from an unexpected source), of Truffaut’s “La Politique des Auteurs.”

Being himslf a teacher (of languages) in Glasgow, Morris Blythman was perfectly aware of Scotland’s long and honourable tradition of “dominie makars”: a 500 year tradition stretching from Robert Henryson to many of Blythman’s teacher contemporaries, with whom he doubtless shared a pint: Iain Crichton Smith, Robert Garioch, Norman McCaig, Hamish Henderson, Sorley MacLean, Edwin Morgan. Blythman greatly admired the work of the Scots Makars of the renaissance period, particularly Dunbar. While none of the Eskimo songs matches the scatological excesses of the likes of “The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie”, they nonetheless occasionally indulged in a similarly broad sense of visceral humour:

Doon at Ardnadum, sittin on the pier,
When ah heard a Polis cry: “Ye’ll no sit here!”

CHORUS: Ay, but ah wull sit here!
Naw, but ye’ll no sit here!
Ay, but ah wull! Naw but you’ll no!
Ay, but ah huv sat here!

(Tune: Ye’ll No S*** Here)

Again, with the benefit of liberal-left hindsight, a number of the pejorative phrases used in the Eskimo songs are perhaps ill-considered, inescapably unacceptable by today’s standards. References to “hairies” and “queers” can scarcely be thought of as politically correct. In defence of such solecisms it should be allowed that “that was then and this is now”. (As an ironic footnote, the very term “Eskimo” is no longer always tolerated … ask any passing representative of the Inuit peoples). Yet it is precisely this employment of the reckless salty humour of the streets that distinguishes the Scottish political songs of the period from those originating south of the border.

Songs Against the Bomb, issued by Topic Records in 1960, contained a number of the songs sung by demonstrators on the enormous anti-nuclear marches from Aldermaston, Berkshire to Trafalgar Square, London. Anthems such as “The Family of Man” (Karl Dallas), “Song of Hiroshima” (Ewan McColl) and “The H-Bomb’s Thunder” (John Brunner) were indeed resonant, worthy, serious-minded, well-intentioned … but perhaps fatally flawed by a weakness for homily … in the end, just a little bit po-faced … anthems of “the joyless left”:

The H-Bomb’s Thunder (Tune: Miner’s Lifeguard—American Trade Union song)
Shall we lay the world in ruin?
Only you can make the choice.
Stop and think of what you’re doing.
Join the march and raise your voice
Time is short: we must be speedy.
We can see the hungry filled,
House the homeless, help the needy.
Shall we blast, or shall we build?

CHORUS: Men and Women, stand together.
Do not heed the men of war.
Make your mind up now or never.
Ban the Bomb, for evermore!

Where the English songs offered measured hymn-like language, the Eskimo songs unashamedly pursued the Glasgow vernacular. Where the English songs set out to confront the moral issues of the times, the Scottish songs went neck-and-crop for the caustic “agit-prop” humour of the factory gate: the problems might be of the most serious order possible; but never so serious as to stifle laughter. The demands of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, the Eskimos reasoned, were not the proper arena for ideological debate. Instead the Eskimo songs should be driven by the ad hominem approach: attack not the idea … but the man: and left wing radicals of the day had little difficulty in identifying favoured targets. The main author of “Boomerang” was Matt McGinn (known to friends and Eskies as Mahatma Ginty):

CHORUS: Boomerang! Boomerang!
Juist send them back whaur they belang.
Alang wi auld Adenauer, Kennedy’s pal,
Signor Fanfani and Chairlie de Gaulle.
For we dinna like gifts that go bang,
Juist try wan an see if ah’m wrang.
The banners are wavin; wha’s next for the shavin?
So open the boom; boomerang!

Behind the narrower confines of the political struggles of the 1950s, however, lay broader-based social upheavals. The immediate post-war decades had witnessed a dawning realization, especially among working class folk, that the professional classes—medicine, religion, the law and education—were no longer to be regarded as the sole custodians of knowledge: perhaps, occasionally, “sir” might not know best. Challenges to the previously perceived natural order of things were writ largest of all, however, in the sphere of popular culture.

Driven by Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, the 1940s and early 1950s had seen the import of a relentless diet of anodyne drip-fed pulp culture. With some honourable exceptions, the movies, together with the emerging medium of television, had become dominated by frothy comedies and turgid sentimental dramas: dopes and soaps. Popular music was saturated with an apparently inexhaustible succession of suffocating rechauffés of Moon-in-June love songs: pace Doris Day, Pat Boone, Perry Como, Jim Reeves. Not surprising, therefore, that a growing impatience with transatlantic crooners (mostly of a certain age) was soon to be making itself known.

In Scotland, as elsewhere, minor surges of a more genuinely based popular song culture had begun to bubble up from the cultural broth. The skiffle movement was quickly followed by the trad fad, accompanied by a growing interest in the blues that was to lead to the emergence of primitive rock and roll. From the perspective of political song, however, there is little doubt that the crucial development turned out to be the post-war folk revival. By the end of the fifties the tap roots of a new popular song culture had become well established. In Scotland many young singers were already turning decisively towards native Scottish materials, including political songs. Further afield, Bob Dylan was waiting in the wings.

The earlier years of the musical counter culture were times of exhilarating intellectual chaos: chaotic because no-one had a clear idea as to what they were attempting to create on the hoof … experiment … suck it and see … reinvent the wheel … the triumph of empiricism. The following topsy-turvy litany of early Eskimo musical influences is taken from Morris Blythman’s sleeve notes for the seminal LP Ding Dong Dollar, issued in America in 1962 by Folkways Records:

Everything was thrown into the pot: the missionaries first to give it the bite, army ballads from World War II, football songs, Orange songs, Fenian songs, Child ballads, street songs, children’s songs, bothy ballads, blues, skiffle, Australian bush ballads, calypsos, McColl and Lomax, Ives and Leadbelly, Dominic Behan, S.R.A. songs, I.R.A. songs, Guthrie and Houston, pantomime and vaudeville, Billy Graham, Scottish Land League songs, Gaelic songs, mouth-music, Wobbly songs, spirituals, mountaineering and hiking ballads, Elliot and Seeger, mock-precenting, the Royal Family, Roddy McMillan and Matt McGinn … and as a result of this genial eclecticism, we finished up with a banquet.

It would be grand indeed to be able to report that when the U.S. nuclear warships left the shores of the Holy Loch in 1992, they did so bowing to the will of the Glasgow Eskimos. History, alas, has a different tale to tell. They finally departed (amid the tears of publicans, taxi drivers and ladies of the night) in response to the changing imperatives of global nuclear strategies. The many thousands of young men and women who swelled the ranks of the Eskimos are since become distinctly grey about the temples. And the Special Branch has long since ceased to be interested in their comings and goings.

It has been possible to quote from only a handful of the Eskimo songs. Yet in their prime they produced a blizzard of vibrant political songs, chants, squibs and slogans. At their best the songs were purpose-built, driven by a streetwise humour; the texts possessed of a fierce demotic energy, contributing vitally to the emergence of a Scottish folk-based alternative song culture.

Some of the demonstrators liked to style themselves, somewhat fancifully, as “bohemians”. The popular press decreed instead that they were actually “beatniks”. In fairness, perhaps there was always a grain of truth in this perception. Certainly, not a few of the Eskimos hit the road with Kerouac; howled with Ginsberg. Be that as it may, their oppositions to a perceived imported cultural and military hegemony, together with the songs that accompanied them, are now consigned to history—to be replaced by different times, different struggles; and doubtless, different songs. Perhaps Honorary Eskimo Hamish Henderson’s majestic “Freedom Come-All-Ye”, written for the peace marchers, best captures the spirit of the times. Now, as then, there is indeed “mair nor a roch wind blawin through the Great Glen o the Warld the day”.

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Gordon McCulloch

Weegee Gordon McCulloch has maintained an involvement in the folksong-revival since the fifties, with particular interests in political song, the verbal genres of industrial folklore, and contemporary legend. He was a founder member of the Critics Group, and took part in several of the BBC Radio Ballads created by Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker.
bowregard@ntlworld.com


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