Category: Archive

Music Review Music with a message

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

DICK GAUGHAN, at Towne Crier Café, 130 Rte. 22, Pawling, N.Y.

It seemed wholly appropriate for Dick Gaughan, one of Scotland’s most unflinchingly honest singers, to perform solo at a venue called the Towne Crier. For that is what he provides through song: public proclamations from the frontier of conscience.

In acknowledging his mixed Irish-Scottish (his paternal grandfather was from Ballina, Co. Mayo) blood, Gaughan jested, "There’s nothing about guilt that I don’t know about." The remark was part of his lead-in to Phil Colclough’s "Song for Ireland," and his rendition, whether on record ("Handful of Earth," an ageless classic from 1981) or on stage, remains the finest by any singer anywhere at any time. What he imparted to the lyrics was deep-seated conviction and utterly naked soulfulness, qualities coursing through his entire performance.

Gaughan sang two songs by ex-Battlefield Band member Brian McNeill: "Muir and the Master Builder" and "Ewen and the Gold," both about Scotsmen who had different experiences in America. John Muir (1838-1914), a lowlander who fled the stern Calvinism of his youth for the U.S., helped to establish Yosemite National Park and to convince Teddy Roosevelt in setting aside another 148 million acres as forest reserves. Many consider him America’s foremost conservationist.

Much less honored in memory is Ewen Gillies (b. 1825), a native of St. Kilda, the westernmost island in the Outer Hebrides, who was lured by the prospect of adventure and wealth to emigrate. He made his fortune during California’s Gold Rush, but what he sacrificed to attain it is summed up in the lines, "For all the gold Ewen ever found / Could not buy him peace or freedom." On his second return to St. Kilda, he was ostracized because of his parvenu behavior and finally left for Canada, where he died in obscurity.

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Both of these real-life characters are fleshed in feeling and thought through Gaughan’s unique interpretive skill. His singing paints flawless portraits of flawed characters.

Gaughan’s 11-song concert also included moving versions of Ron Kavana’s plea for peace in Northern Ireland, "Reconciliation," Robert Burns’s "Now Westlin’ Winds," and Leon Rosselson’s "World Turned Upside Down" (aka "The Diggers’ Song"). And two songs he wrote himself, "Why Old Men Cry" and "Both Sides the Tweed," conveyed an edgy poignancy.

I suppose it’s inevitable that music as uncompromising as Dick Gaughan’s won’t please all listeners. But it certainly will make them think — and provide blessedly unsoothing relief from the blandness blighting so much music today.

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