It would have been just after 9:30pm, some two hours into the concert, which had been ticking along at a good pace, thanks to Margaret Walter’s highly efficient direction. The air conditioning, which probably does a good job cooling the Sydney Gaelic Club when Pat and Brian are downing a Guinness on a lazy Saturday, was being pushed to its limits with around 100 people crammed into the venue.
Miguel Heatwole had just finished a song about ‘better times’ (edit: that he wrote and won the Alistair Hulett Social Justice prize with in 2017, lyrics and link in Miguel’s comment below), possibly an old-time style parody about the living standard of working people, accompanied by some toe tapping ragtime style guitar.
After this, Miguel got up on a makeshift soapbox and sang an acapella version of Revolution as sung by Dick Gaughan on his 1997 album A Different Kind of Lovesong. The lyrics to this song were written as a poem by Joseph Bovshover, in Yiddish and published in 1919. Joseph had died in America in 1915 after fleeing oppression under the Tzar in 1891, but his poetry became tied to the Russian Revolution and other global movements for workers’ rights and fair distribution of wealth.
I start at Miguel’s performance, because for me it summed up the feeling of the evening. So many great performers contributed to this memorial event for Alistair Hulett, in Sydney, some 17 thousand kilometres away from Alistair’s native Scotland and ten years after his passing in January 2010.
The evening was opened and closed by the Sydney Solidarity Choir. I have to say, that some of my previous experiences with socialist choirs has been somewhat like Mao’s suits, dull and mostly sung on the same note. This choir was a pleasant surprise, with complex multi-voice rhythm and harmonies which were a delight to listen to, plus the rare sight of a Baroque Guitar (no, not a broke guitar).
Steph Miller, who I had a brief chat with after my set, sang a heartfelt interpretation of Suicide Town. This was one of the first songs by Alistair that I heard, sung to me around a campfire by Judy Pinder some 10 or more years ago. Judy then lent me a copy of Cold Grey Light of Dawn which solidified my admiration for the song writing, artistry and commitment to humanity that Alistair is remembered for. Steph was part of Alistair’s punk band, Roaring Jack.
I should caveat the next part by saying that I’m not a Communist or a Socialist. In my teenage extrication from Pentecostal Christianity I read widely, including Marx and Engels. But I also read Mein Kampf, Crowley’s Book of the Law, Gurdjieff and many others. I came to the conclusion that any system which replaces the power held in the hands of a few rotten people, with a few other rotten people, is doomed to fail. Success lies in a revolution inside each human heart, to overthrow greed and envy and bigotry with compassion, tolerance and truth. This is a hard road and, in my view, cannot be travelled by waving pitchforks or throwing Molotov cocktails (or super gluing yourself to the street). I sympathise with the urgent desire to see things change, but in the words of John Lennon, “if you are talking about destruction, you can count me out”.
Emma Norton and Daniel Kenny played a beautiful pair of songs. I do not wish to offend anyone, but the cognitive dissonance triggered by a couple that would look right at home at a Baptist gospel singalong espousing Marxist values and sing about Red militancy was surprising to say the least. I guess the younger generation of Communists have forgone the Che t-shirt, and camouflage pants.
A highlight of the night for me was getting to follow Margaret and Bob Fagan. It was their performance of Factory Lad at the 2008 National Folk Festival by Margaret and Bob that set me on the journey which would culminate in the Factory Lad album. Bob did a brilliant acapella version of By Ibrox Park, from Alistair’s In Sleepy Scotland. Sadly there is no rendition of this song on YouTube, which I hope to remedy soon.
Other performs that I haven’t mentioned, but also contributed so well to the evening were Christine Wheeler, Darren Whitaker and Patrick Harte. There were also speeches given by Diane Fieldes, Tim Anderson and Alistair’s sister Alison Popov.
I was honoured to join such a great line-up of performers, and to sing to an audience which so appreciated Alistair and his legacy. I sang Time is Running Out, which was the last song that Alistair wrote. While it was likely written in response to his illness, the words present a stark warning for the current state of our environment and our society.
I don’t often make the four hour journey each way to Sydney to play music, but in this case it was well worth the drive to be part of this moving celebration of Alistair’s life. And also encouraging to see that ten years on, his ideals and words are still valued by so many.
Many thanks to Margaret Walters for organizing and running the event, to Sandra Nixon for running the door and also to Chris Maltby for being an impromptu stage hand.