THE date for the annual Matt McGinn tribute has been announced. It will take place in Linlithgow’s Academy theatre on 4 March.
The 40th anniversary of McGinn’s tragic early death has just passed and the tribute will reflect his work and influence both in his lifetime and in the years since his passing.
McGinn had a close association with Linlithgow Folk Club, run by the late Nora Devine, for 30 years. Proceeds from the tribute night go towards an outdoor music event on the Nora Devine Stage at Linlithgow Cross.
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Tickets for the Matt McGinn Night, which are priced £10, can be purchased from Far from the Madding Crowd, which is at No 20 High Street, Linlithgow; from Linlithgow Post Office at No 266 High Street; and also from Linlithgow Folk Festival Association, which can be reached on 01506 670229.
WHO EXACTLY WAS MATT McGINN?
A GRAVELLY-VOICED Glaswegian folk singer is how most people will remember McGinn of the Calton, as he was known. He was much more than that, however, as he was an author, a self-taught political revolutionary, a student of economics and political science and a powerful left-wing debater as well as a leading figure in the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s who created a thousand songs, not all of which survive, and many folk standards, which do.
McGinn was born the eighth of nine children into a Catholic family – he later embraced atheism – in the east end of Glasgow where he had a troubled childhood, being sent to an Approved School – a residential institution for young offenders – at the age of 12 after being convicted of theft.
He left the school and a friend introduced him to left-wing politics which McGinn credited with saving him from a life of petty crime. He went to work at the GKN factory in Hillington where he encountered trade unionism and attended night classes where he educated himself so well that, at the age of 31, he won a union scholarship to attend Ruskin College in Oxford from which he graduated with a diploma in Economics and Political Science. He would later qualify as a teacher in Huddersfield before returning to work in teaching in Lanarkshire and then as organiser of the Gorbals Adventure Playground, the first of its kind in Scotland.
The turning point in his musical career came when he won a newspaper competition in the Reynolds News in 1961 with the scabrous verses of The Foreman O’Rourke, about a worker who flushes his boss down a toilet pan.
He then got heavily involved in the anti-Polaris crusade and took up writing protest songs, being noticed by Pete Seeger who scored him a gig at Carnegie Hall in New York alongside a certain Bob Dylan.
WHAT WERE HIS BEST WORKS?
THE trouble with Matt is that he had no musical education and very rarely wrote things down, and in the tradition of the troubadour and raconteur, he would regale his audience with an often hilarious story before finishing with a song. You may not be surprised to learn that one of his early backing musicians was Billy Connolly.
His best known songs included The Red YoYo, The Rolling Hills of the Borders, Skinny Malinky Longlegs, The Ballad of the Q4, and his intensely moving The Ibrox Disaster.
WAS HE REALLY AS FUNNY AS PEOPLE MAKE OUT?
YOU had to be there, as they say, but when he launched into, foir instance, Willie McNamara or the Dundee Ghost, it was only after a long and humorous introduction.
Rob Roy McGregor was one of his comic standards, with its chorus “eat the breid and heid the ba’, the man that ate the bilt ham raw, he very seldom kicks his maw, Rob Roy McGreegor-aw.”
The Effin Bee is a poem of legendary repute, while the Wee Kirkcudbright Centipede should be part of the national curriculum as it cheers adults and children alike.
WHEN AND HOW DID HE DIE?
HE HAD not enjoyed the best of health and yes, he liked a drink but, on January 5, 1977, McGinn was sober when he fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand and caused a fire in his flat. A post mortem showed he died of smoke inhalation and had no alcohol in his blood. He was just 48. McGinn was survived by his wife Janette and his four children.
WHO DID HE INFLUENCE?
BILLY Connolly, for one. The Big Yin was joined at McGinn’s non-religious funeral by a host of Scotland’s best folk musicians and political leaders such as Harry McShane, last of the Red Clydesiders, and shipyard hero and Glasgow University rector Jimmy Reid, as well as Hamish Henderson whose Freedom Come All Ye was so memorably sung at the opening ceremony of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
The late Norman Buchan MP gave a moving funeral oration with evidence of how McGinn’s contribution to Scottish life had affected so many people in Glasgow and beyond.
He is remembered with great fondness even 40 years on, and people of the Left in Scotland and elsewhere owe him a great debt for the energy, passion, talent, and humour he committed to the cause of working people.