Hamish Henderson and the Liberated Life
His most famous work, the ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ is a song of liberation and international reconciliation. Out of a past riddled with imperial injustices, Henderson conjures a world of global solidarity, ecological harmony, radical love, dignity, humanity and the flourishing of life in all its forms – a vision that is more vital now than ever. Faced with the threat of the ultimate destruction of the biosphere that supports all life on this planet, his poem of elemental conflict, the ‘Flytin o Life and Daith’, speaks more than poetically to our time.
Henderson was was a soldier, poet, scholar, folklorist and folk revivalist, songwriter, translator and activist. He was an internationalist, with strong connections with Europe and beyond. Characterised by his aims of ‘resolve, transformation and insurrection’, his activism was a fusion of cultural politics and social justice – campaigning with CND and with the Peace movement, against apartheid in South Africa and championing the causes of cutlural equity, equality and gay rights.
Overlooked and sidelined in his own time, enthusiasts are keen to see Henderson’s status as one of Scotland’s ‘most influential cultural figures’ fully recognised. Just this week, an anthology of new poetry (‘The Darg,’ edited by Jim Mackintosh, published by The Poet’s Republic) was launched at a sell-out show at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Poetry Becomes People
It would seem customary, when writing about Henderson, to start with a personal anecdote. Sadly, I never actually met him – although I did study and go on to teach for several years in the university department that was formerly the School of Scottish Studies, where Henderson was a founding member. This place and this community has gifted me so much. Henderson’s cultural imagination has been a huge influence on my own; I was delighted, then, to be invited to share my thoughts on ‘why Hamish matters’ in our time, as part of a wider conversation.
Henderson’s biographer Tim Neat (2010) suggests that his credo ‘Poetry Becomes People’ captures the essence of his beliefs and life’s work. This phrase comes from a poem series called ‘Freedom Becomes People,’ published in 1985, inspired by the German poet Heine:
‘Freedom, which has hitherto only become man here and there, must pass into the mass itself…and become people’.
Henderson believed that what applies to freedom also applies to poetry; the idea being that people are resourced, liberated and sustained by poetry. ‘Poetry’ here, however, goes beyond the literary form of self-expression; it speaks to a deeper understanding of creativity as ‘poeisis,’ the poetic act of constantly ‘making the world new’. For Henderson, it is a timeless and universal truth that both freedom and creative expression must be continually sought out and reaffirmed. Henderson’s metaphor of the ‘carrying stream’ of tradition is understood as a constant source available to and necessary for artists of all kinds to ‘remake and renew’, where each new generation has the potential to create new meaning in dialogue with what has come before.
A live culture is rooted but always in motion, open-ended, always unfinished, always in the process of becoming.
Henderson is perhaps best known for his involvement with the Folk Revival, which began with the Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidhs in the early 1950s. He saw folk art as a manifestation of a rebel underground, a subaltern view of history and society as opposed to the official or establishment view. Bringing together traditional singers and musicians from Scots speaking and Gaelic Scotland, these ceilidhs were a radical challenge to the Bing’s Edinburgh Festival and the elite 20th century ideals of cultural democracy from which it emerged: the idea that the masses could be civilised by giving them access to culture that wasn’t their own. This debate between ‘high art’ and ‘folk art’, of course, played out in the famous flyting between Henderson and MacDiarmid.
Henderson was very much a part of the ‘folk process’ he championed. For some, this position was problematic and riddled with contradictions, but these were contradictions that Henderson himself embraced. His affinity with the cultural politics of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci is important here. A constant theme in Henderson’s writing, like Gramsci’s, is the role of the intellectual in society. Gramsci famously ‘hated indifference,’ believing that ‘living means taking sides.’ ‘Those who really live’ he wrote, ‘cannot help being a citizen and a partisan.’ In this spirit, Henderson refused to separate his life, scholarship, art and politics – writing,
‘There’s no principle in the world that says if you sit back and spectate, things will come right.’
A Heelster Gowdie Force
Henderson’s affinity with Gramsci went far beyond a shared interest in folk culture. Gramsci criticized the suffocating and conservative influence of religion in Italy, and with it, the failure of Italian intellectuals to align with the social and cultural realities of the mass of the population. Here Henderson saw linguistic, cultural and political parallels with Scotland, particularly in Gramsci’s view of the relationship between Sardinia and Italy.
Henderson railed against the negative influence and controlling reductionism of Calvinism on Scottish society, decrying it a ‘dreadful life-destroying creed’. Calvinism, he believed, with its distrust of human capacity, capability, freedom and fulfillment, had undermined Scotland’s wholeness, culture, creativity and confidence. He felt too that both the elite and the servile middle classes had aligned themselves not with ‘the people’ but with the power, values and privileges of ‘Britishness’, of state and Empire.
The ‘heelster-gowdie’ force of Henderson in upending the establishment through his challenge to such orthodoxies – in politics, education, culture and broadcasting – led to many hostile reactions and attempts to sideline him in his own time.
In my lifetime, the ascendent neoliberal agenda of globalisation has deeply transformed the material conditions of our world, and may yet bring about our ultimate destruction.
‘New managerialism’, the organisational arm of neoliberalism, is a mode of governance driven by a market logic of efficiency, productivity and competition where a class of ‘professional managers’ wield control.
This creed justifies itself by calling for ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ to the taxpayer, but it operates with a perverted sense of these words – what it really means is ‘discipline and control’ and ‘value for money’.
Donald Smith and others have suggested that materialistic managerialism has become an orthodoxy of its own, a ‘secular continuation of the rationalistic, controlling reductionism of Calvinism’ railed against by Henderson. At its very heart, ‘there is a distrust of human capacity – teachers to teach, doctors to heal, artists to create – management takes priority.’
Those who seek and manage to climb the ladder are granted a certain privileged status, reflected both in wealth and financial security, but also in a misplaced assumption of wisdom and leadership. What is actually rewarded here is the ability to conform, and often unthinkingly; those who ‘succeed’ must succumb to bureaucratic direction rather than vocation.
The notion of a professional managerial class of box tickers, bean counters and rule followers wielding power and influence over others was antithetical to Henderson’s thinking – a death knell to creativity.
There is an insidious power in this creed; once you’re ‘locked in,’ there is no reference point from which to challenge it, precisely because it presumes to measure everything. It has been argued that such practices have been used to ‘spearhead a permanent revolution in the public sphere.’
Our national and local government, healthcare, education system and cultural institutions have all been captured by this way of thinking.
To give one example; universities are forced to conform to the norms of efficiency, value for money, audits and metric standards of ‘quality assessment’. No longer primarily the seat of learning, they belong to a service industry for ‘customers’ formerly known as students. Academics have little – if any – say on whether departments should continue to exist or what degrees and courses should be on offer. Researchers are forced into competition with an ever-tighter funding regime that values short-term instrumental usefulness rather than deep, long-term understanding. The existential and financial precarity experienced by those in casualised employment undermines a sense of dignity.
It is always despite this suffocating bureaucratic system that people find ways to support each other and their students, to collaborate, to share knowledge, to produce vital and creative work. We are lucky that there are many for whom generosity of spirit is more important than personal success.
On reflection, it is hard to imagine that an institution as radical as Henderson’s early School of Scottish Studies – so vital for the cultural life of the nation – would ever emerge in today’s landscape.
The Liberated Life
Through his critique of the deadening ‘ideology of professionalism,’ Merriweather (2017) reclaims the revolutionary spirit of the ‘amateur’ – from the French, ‘to do what you love’ – as a figure who seeks independence and advocates urgently for the liberated life. He celebrates those artists, writers and thinkers who have carved out a path of unconventional wisdom and freedom.
The revolutionary and insurrectionary spirit of radical love is very much present in Henderson, a wanderer at the creative edge, forever pushing back against the domineering discourses of officialdom. Here, the idea of the carrying stream takes on new meaning: as amateurs, as new voices, our role is not to stand in the mainstream but to open out fresh conduits of the imagination, to do what we love and do it well, refuse to be complicit and stand up passionately for what we believe in.
Will flow free again, and new voices
Be borne on the carrying stream.
For Henderson, when it came to the folk tradition, it was not so much about the songs themselves – although these were of course important – it was the singing of them that was vital; for in the sharing of the song, it is reborn. He championed the ‘lived moment’, with the belief that poiesis only occurs when people gather together in the joy and liveness of shared experience.
Many of us will be able to bring to mind a moment or experience in our lives that has stuck with us – that has caused us to see the world in a new way. Such moments embody an ineffable creative power, an organic energy, a life force. For Henderson, these are the very moments of ‘resolve, transformation and insurrection’, the ‘proving ground for emotional and political truths’ where the impulse and catalyst for resistance and change are to be found. Conviviality gifts us our common humanity.
The carrying stream can be understood as an ongoing string of these moments. This is the life force that is at the heart of the ceilidh spirit and at the heart of Henderson’s partisan and poetic art.
The Myth and the Man
Through the collective act of mythologising such a figure, there is a risk that the expansive world of Hamish Henderson becomes foreclosed and self-referential. The past can be a vital resource for the future, but too much nostalgia distracts us from the vital work – the darg – that we must do in the here and now, with an eye to the future. We must continually check our blind spots; Henderson had his blind spots too.
The ground under our feet is shifting very fast. Right now is the time when the transformational change must begin. Indifference is not an option. To understand that we are always unfinished gives us radical hope that things can change, that poetry can ‘become people.’ Henderson leaves us with an inexpressible human resolve to continue:
‘We must start here, where we stand – we can do no other.’