Hamish Henderson

Hamish Henderson (1919-2002) was a Scottish communist, intellectual, poet, and songwriter.

“Hamish Henderson (1919-2002) first heard the name of Antonio Gramsci mentioned when he fought alongside the Italian partisans during the liberation of Florence in 1944. The Italian communist would become a major influence on the work of Scotland’s preeminent folklorist, poet, songwriter and political activist of the twentieth century. Not necessarily, or primarily, the Marxist theoretician, but rather the Sardinian soul mate, whose fate in Mussolini’s prisons reminded Henderson of the similar martyrdom of one of his other great heroes, the Glaswegian socialist and home ruler John Maclean…. Henderson could immediately bond with Gramsci, seeing the linguistic, cultural and political parallels between Sardinia and Scotland, in their relationship with Italy and Britain, respectively. For Henderson, who used the prize money of the Somerset Maugham Award (1949) he received for his Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (topped up with a fortuitous win on the horses) to return to Italy and finish his translation of Gramsci’s Prison Letters, the Italian’s interest in culture as an agent, and particularly his interest in popular and folk culture, established an immediate affinity with Henderson’s thinking. It was one of the misfortunes of Henderson’s life that his translation had to wait for nearly thirty years before it was published; thus, his pioneer role in introducing Gramsci to the British left is often overlooked. Gramsci helped Henderson to formulate his agenda which, after the War, was increasingly the promotion of the Scottish Folk Revival. For Gramsci as for Henderson, folk culture presented an alternative, a ‘subaltern’ view of society and history, alternative to the ‘official’, ‘bourgeois’ or ‘establishment’ version of the rulers. Folklore was to be understood as ‘a reflection of the conditions of [the] cultural life of the people,’ and thus representing ‘a conception of the world’ in opposition to ‘official’ conceptions of the world. Or, in Hamish Henderson’s words: ‘Folk art is an implicit—and in many aspects an explicit—challenge to the ruling class way of looking at the world.’ He saw folk art as the manifestation of a rebel ‘underground’.”

—Eberhard Bort, Review of Corey Gibson's The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics, The Bottle Imp (Issue 19, June 2016)

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