Celebrating John Maclean at Celtic Connections
MacLean was a socialist, an educator, and an organiser. He was an internationalist who advocated Scottish and Irish independence, a Glaswegian from a protestant background, and a Gaelic-speaker whose parents fled the clearances. As a figure he embodies the strengths and the contradictions of Scottish socialism like no other.His heroism has inspired countless artists in the century since, and so it was fitting for the centenary of his death to be marked by an all-star performance of poetry and song at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall.
This spectacular show defied all expectations. Organised by folk singer Siobhan Miller and poet and biographer Henry Bell, it saw an ensemble cast troupe on and off one of the country’s finest stages. The likes of Billy Bragg, Karine Polwart, Eddi Reader, and Jackie Kay gave magnificent performances, but perhaps the greatest moments came from crowd interactions.
When Scottish folk hero Dick Gaughan, now 75, joined the stage, he had to wait through s long standing ovation before he and Bragg could lead the crowd in singing the Red Flag to its original tune of Robert Burns’ The White Cockade.
Thanks to Celtic Connections for inviting me to be part of the John Maclean centenary concert last night. Many highlights, but singing The Red Flag with my old pal Dick Gaughan was a special moment. He was on great form and received a standing ovation when he took the stage. pic.twitter.com/DJJKcKzUvD
— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) January 20, 2024
Irish singer Karan Casey caught the mood when she remarked that it was good to be in a room where she could say what she really thinks. There was power to being in a room with several thousand comrades, raising their voices in song together. A power I had almost forgotten, between pandemic lockdowns and so much of our lives moving into sterile online spaces constructed not as gathering places but as marketplaces.
The media’s most powerful weapon against radical organising is to make us feel isolated, even while our neighbours face the same challenges as we do. Social media, more insidious still, can make us feel alone in a virtual crowd, afraid to speak up for justice. It can divide us, presenting comrades as competitors and foes.
As the concert closed on a mass rendition of The Freedom Come All Ye, a man in the row behind offered me his hand in solidarity. The unalienated solidarity of direct human contact, communal singing, looking around to see thousands of people united in the timeless cause of peace, justice, and human flourishing. Perhaps John MacLean’s method, speaking to the people in the streets, has not yet had its day.