The songs of Alex Glasgow

The singer Alex Glasgow seems to have vanished from the shared memory since his death a bit more than a decade ago, which is a shame because he was a sharp observer and a fine songwriter. Even those songs which seem now to be of their time, in the ’60s and ’70s, are keen bits of social observation and social history.

Alex Glasgow was born in Gateshead in 1935, in the north-east of England, and worked much of his life in the area, at least until he emigrated unexpectedly to Australia in 1981. Certainly his most memorable work, such as the music for Alan Plater’s Close The Coalhouse Door, is deeply rooted in the culture and the history of the region. He wrote ‘Dance To Thi Daddy’ (at the top of the post) as the title song for the ’70s television series When The Boat Comes In, set in the region. He was also one of life’s radicals, with a caustic view of politics and politicians.

Plater wrote a fine obituary of Alex Glasgow in The Guardian in which he observed that the singer – described in Wikipedia, completely wrongly, as a folk singer – was in fact a chansonnier – more like European singers such as Jacques Brel. In an English context, he’s closer to a theatre and music hall tradition; certainly a lot of his songs tell stories and many have punchlines – such as ‘Geordie Broon‘ or ‘Mummy Says‘ or ‘Festival Time.’

And although I first came across his work in Close The Coalhouse Door — for example ‘When It’s Ours,’ about the nationalisation of the British coal mines, which is a family favourite in my house – he also wrote a fine musical play about the 19th century north-eastern music hall star Joe Wilson. Since the words of 19th century music hall have often survived, but usually not the music, I think that Alex Glasgow must have put new settings to songs such as ‘Sally Wheatley.’

One of the the reasons I think Alex Glasgow’s work has disappeared from view was that it has been almost impossible to find. Last year, when I wanted to share his wonderful song ‘Socialist ABC’ with some younger colleagues, they said, ‘It must be on Youtube,’ only to find that it wasn’t.

Well, it is now – which is the reason for this post. Someone (it’s not clear whom) uploaded a selection of his records to Youtube last November, including some that I thought had been deleted. I’d start with Songs Of Alex Glasgow Volume 3/Now And Then, and then move on to Songs Volume 1 and 2, which starts with the Coalhouse Door songs. Northern Drift/Joe Lives! opens with a live recording of his live show with his long-time collaborator Henry Livings, which has good things in it, but is maybe more of an acquired taste. It closes with songs from his show about Joe Wilson.

Update (3rd February 2015): because the Youtube uploads were labelled “Alex Glasgow – Topic”, I assumed in the original post that these had come from Topic Records. It turns out I was wrong about that. I have amended the post accordingly.



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