Sail On by Dick Gaughan

1996

I’ve just got off the phone to Pete and we were saying how disappointed we both are that we are not going on another road trip across America this year because of Covid-19. There are many wonderful things about these trips and one of them is having a good soundtrack to our driving. Two old geezers driving along Highway 40 from Amarillo to Flagstaff singing “Desolation Row” at the top of our voices with at least one of us in tune. What could be better? Music can provide an incredible enhancement to driving.

I’ve only recently (in the last four years) started supporting Brighton And Hove Albion Football Club and my friends with long term affiliations to Wolves, Burnley, West Ham, Charlton, Tottenham, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Crystal Palace etc quietly chuckle to themselves when I am annoyed at yet another dismal performance. They are too polite to tell me that I need to experience 50 years of hurt before they can fully empathise with me. However, having supported Kent Cricket Club since 1967, I am fully experienced in the lows, the very lows and the deep deep lows of supporting a team. The last 40 years have been so much worse because as soon as I started supporting them, Kent had a decade of triumph which has been largely followed by disappointment, failure and despair.

The intense emotions that I have described in these two paragraphs used to coalesce when I drove with my Dad to and from Kent matches. We were driving back after one game when I had the memorable feelings that I want to write about here. I used to live in Essex, then Cambridgeshire and, since 1995, West Sussex. There were many occasions when I drove from one of these counties to Orpington, popped in for a quick cuppa with my parents and then drove my Dad to Canterbury, full of anticipation of a glorious victory. And then reversed everything at the end of the game.

On one occasion, my Dad and I were driving home along the M2 which, as it gets nearer to the M25, is a very dull road. I can clearly remember driving up a long straight hill on the M2, looking directly into the setting sun and asking my Dad if it would be okay if I played some music. He acquiesced and I played “The 51st (Highland) Division’s Farewell To Sicily” by Dick Gaughan.

My Dad had been a navigator in the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War. He wasn’t one of these people who you hear about that “never discussed the war” but on the other hand he didn’t talk about it all the time. There were many stories, some funny, some grim and it goes without saying that it had a profound impact on him. I’m sure lots of people who went through what he went through didn’t cope with civilian life as well as he did. On the other hand, there were times when we could all see that he was strongly affected by his experiences.

So I thought he would be interested by the song. He was. He talked to me about the historical context of the song which he knew about. Although he was a classical music geek, he was broad minded enough to listen to my music and he liked this song. He liked the sound of it. No wonder because it is majestic.

The song was written by Hamish Henderson who has achieved his status as the founding father of Scotland’s twentieth century folk renaissance by collecting, translating, composing and writing in a wide variety of poetic and lyric forms. During the Second World War he was an intelligence officer attached to the Eighth Army, of which the 51st Division was a part. Following on from the desert campaign in North Africa they took part in the invasion of Sicily. He wrote the song while watching the troops preparing to leave the island. They were going back to the UK to prepare for the D-Day invasion. The pipe band were playing the tune “Farewell to the Creeks”, (a popular pipe tune written by Pipe Major James Robertson) and the words of the song came almost ready formed as he fitted them to the music. The lyrics are in a Scots dialect.

The song starts with a beautiful guitar part (played by Dick Gaughan) which magically invokes the sound of bagpipes. After two minutes Dick’s vocals start. To describe the way he sings this beautiful song is hard. What words spring to mind? Sad? Resigned? Weary? Proud? Fatigued? All of those and more. And all the time, the beautiful droning, intricate guitar work provides a perfect accompaniment. The song is nearly 12 minutes long and the last three minutes is a showcase for Dick’s beautiful guitar work.

It’s not the only song on this album. There’s another Hamish Henderson song (“The Freedom Come-All-Ye”), covers of The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday”, Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” and Richard Thompson’s brilliant “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” 11 songs altogether. It’s mainly in a folk style although there is an electric guitar and drums on a couple of tracks. The album is really worth a listen to all the way through but it’s “Farewell To Sicily” that I keep coming back to.

So, yes, my Dad enjoyed this song. I can still feel the warmth and empathy between us as we drove along the M2 in companionable silence listening to this beautiful song.

The pipie is dozie, the pipie is fey
He wullnae come roun for his vino the day
The sky owre Messina is unco an gray
An aa the bricht chaumers are eerie
Fareweill ye banks o Sicily
Fare ye weill ye valley an shaw
There’s nae Jock will murn the kyles o ye
Aa the bricht chaumers are eerie
Fareweill ye banks o Sicily
Fare ye weill ye valley an shaw
There’s nae hame can smour the wiles o ye
Aa the bricht chaumers are eerie
Then doun the stair an line the watterside
Wait yer turn the ferry’s awa
Then doun the stair an line the watterside
Aa the bricht chaumers are eerie
The drummie is polisht, the drummie is braw
He cannae be seen for his wabbin ava
He’s beezed himsell up for a photie an aa
Tae leave wi his Lola, his dearie
Fareweill ye banks o Sicily
Fare ye weill ye sheilin an haa
We’ll aa mind shebeens an bothies
Whaur kind signorinas were cheerie
Fareweill ye banks o Sicily
Fare ye weill ye sheilin an haa
We’ll aa mind shebeens an bothies
Whaur Jock made a date wi his dearie
Then tune the pipes an drub the tenor drum
Leave yer kit this side o the waa
Then tune the pipes an drub the tenor drum
Puir bluidy swaddies are wearie

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

2 thoughts on “Sail On by Dick Gaughan

  1. It’s a beautiful, haunting song. His stirring, heartfelt vocals and that slow, chiming guitar are mesmerising. It’s incredibly moving to hear about how you shared it with your Dad on that journey and how it inspired him to share his knowledge about its wartime context with you. Dick Gaughan always sounds as if he feels deeply about his subject matter (even though the lyrics can sometimes be quite hard for a mere sassenach to understand) and you’re right, it’s hard to pin down exactly what those qualities in his voice are, but your description comes pretty close. Thanks, I really enjoyed listening to that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting to read the story about your Dad and his war experiences. My Dad died when I was 10 so never really had the chance to talk about things like this with him. Know he was in the RAF and out in Italy for part of the war but no details. It seems his was not a good experience and he subsequently experienced some mental health issues which seem to be consequential.

    Anyway good to be reminded about Dick Gaughan whose music I hadn’t listened to for some time. So have just binged not just on Sail On but also A Different Kind of Love Song. The only two albums of his I have. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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