In two years’ time Scotland will (or should) be celebrating the centenary of the birth of one of its greatest sons, Hamish Henderson, on November 11th 1919.

That Henderson was born on the first commemorative Armistice Day which marked the end of the bloody conflagration of the First World War is both fitting and ironic as matters of war and of peace were very much the subjects of his poems and songs.

They were also the fundamental issues which underlay his political commitments: from his anti-fascist student days at Cambridge, his combat duties and intelligence work during the Second World War and his fighting comradeship with the Partigiani d’Italia; through his continuing involvement in left-wing politics and his anti-militarist and anti-imperialist agitation, his life-long commitment to Home Rule, his support for Scottish Republicanism, for socialist internationalism and for the Anti-Apartheid Movement and CND.

The poet Tom Scott, who was born on June 6th 1918, once said that he’d always felt his generation were bred for war in the sense that they soon came to realise – in the shadow of the punitive Treaty of Versailles in 1919 – that another bloody conflagration was rather inevitable.

While Henderson – always the cultural, political and social optimist – never quite acknowledged a similar feeling of foreboding, he certainly sounds a note of regret over lost opportunities for his generation in his short poem “4 September 1939”:

We had twenty years – twenty years for

building and learning.

Those twenty years come back no more.

An incendiary dawn is prelude to this soft morning

First morning of the new war.

Prior to this, he was well aware of the dangers posed by Nazi Germany (which he’d visited and where he’d become involved in clandestine, humanitarian activities at the behest of a Quaker organisation) by the time he was a student at “foolish virgin Cambridge” as he calls it in “Ballad of the Twelve Stations of My Youth”; a poem in which the tragic end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) is seen as cause for deepening commitment in the face of the final fading of hope for peace in Europe:

From Spain return the Clyde-red brave Brigaders.

I clench my fist to greet the red flag furled.

Our hold has slipped – now Hitler’s voice is rasping

From small square boxes over all the world.

Now is perhaps the opportune time to begin to re-assess Henderson’s significance in the public eye, in advance of (and to help pave the way for) his centenary – or, at least, to re-adjust some traditional mind-sets where this major artist, European intellectual and cultural phenomenon is concerned.

Indeed, for those (and I suspect this may be the majority) who know only – or mainly – of Henderson as the “Father of the Scottish Folk Revival”, terms like “major artist”, “European intellectual” and “cultural phenomenon” may come as something of a surprise – because his role in the Folk Revival has been allowed to obscure his many other achievements.

In short, there have been too many cosy and couthy approaches to this seminal figure who was, among other things, a major Scottish/European poet of the C20th and whose war poems, Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948), received the Somerset Maugham Award in 1949. Notably, the rather narrow ‘Folk Father’ approach also ignores the Europhile man of letters who translated poems by such figures as Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo, Dino Campagna, Corrado Govoni, Heinrich Heine, Constantine Cavafy, Rilke, Holderlin and Fuernberg.

Moreover, it should be remembered that it was Henderson who introduced the writings of the “Neo-Marxist” philosopher Antonio Gramsci to Scotland when his translation of Gramsci’s Prison Letters was first published in 1974.

As Dr Henderson, he was the erudite folk-scholar and eminent field-collector of international renown who (with Calum MacLean, brother of the poet Sorley) helped co-found the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University where, incidentally, he operated a covert ‘open door’ policy giving young and/or new Revival singers access to its vast store of recordings although they were not ‘matriculated’ Edinburgh students.

He also wrote widely on aspects of Scottish history (such as the Highland Clearances and the Massacre of Glencoe) as well as penning incisive portrait-essays of poets like Federico Garcia Lorca, Hugh MacDiarmid and Dylan Thomas.

In 1983 he went public in refusing an OBE in protest at the Thatcher government’s nuclear arms policy and was voted Scot of the Year by Radio Scotland listeners.

And this was the same Captain Hamish Henderson who had drafted the surrender of Italy signed under his supervision by Field Marshal Rodolfo Graziani April 29th 1945.

In order, then, to appreciate fully the importance and the significance of Hamish Henderson it is necessary to see the ‘whole man’ and that means liberating him from the confines of the folk ‘ghetto’ within which some have sought to hold him; and thereby to challenge well-entrenched (and lazy) assumptions about this radical artist whose abiding philosophy, intention and vision was that (channelling both Heinrich Heine and Antonio Gramsci) “Poetry Becomes People”.

Without giving due recognition to his poetry and to his intellect, as well as to his commitment to action, we are left with a lop-sided view of Henderson which, in reality, reflects a lop-sided view of Scotland and its culture.

This is not about denying his role and/or status as ‘Father of the Folk Revival’; nor is it about undermining his importance here. But even here what is often overlooked or ‘forgotten’ is that Henderson always sought to give the Revival a political edge. He did this through the material and import of his songs (songs like “The John MacLean March”, “The Freedom Come-All-Ye”, “Rivonia” (“Free Mandela”) and “The Ballad of the Men of Knoydart”) and through his spoken poetry as well as through various ploys and strategies.

For example, through the People’s Festival in 1951 (a left-wing alternative to both the official Festival and the Fringe) he not only provided a unique Festival platform to traditional singers and musicians but also brought the socially excluded Travelling People to public attention for the first time and then worked tirelessly to record, promote and celebrate this “hidden and/or suppressed” culture of Scotland.

As the distinguished historian EP Thompson wrote to Henderson, in what would prove to be prophetic words, after the publication of his award-winning Elegies: “You, more than any other poet I know, are an instrument through which thousands of others can become articulate. And… your songs and ballads… are quite as important as the Elegies”.

Thousands have become articulate through Henderson’s creativity, example, influence and inspiration; and thousands will continue to become so whether or not they know or remember his name.

Like Robert Burns before him, he understood that poetry, music and folk song are inseparable in the Scottish Literary Tradition; and that, as he put it, “the fruitful interaction from which folksong and art-poetry have always benefited” is a virtue of that tradition.

History shows that Thompson was right in laying equal emphasis on the poetry, on one hand, and the songs and ballads on the other.

And history also shows that Henderson was intellectually ahead of MacDiarmid in seeing the later Folksong Revival as a fruitful counterpart and cultural complement to the earlier Literary Renaissance which MacDiarmid had spearheaded rather than as “the New Kailyard and a threat to his Renaissance” as MacDiarmid had come to regard it “obtusely” (the terms are Henderson’s) by the late 1950s.

MacDiarmid’s Renaissance had revolutionised Scottish consciousness and Henderson never tired of championing his genius.

But while the elitist MacDiarmid led from the front and damned all opposition with Calvinist fervour, Henderson’s essentially democratic temperament was intent upon allowing others to become articulate in their own right; and in the famous ‘Folksong Flyting’ with MacDiarmid in the letter pages of The Scotsman newspaper in the late 50s and early 60s, there is no doubt that it was Henderson who held the moral high ground and who outmanoeuvred and outgunned his opponent in their war of words – and there are not many who can lay claim to that distinction.

In spite of entrenched establishment opposition Henderson dedicated his life to promoting that democratic articulation; to pursuing a new democratic art for here and now in keeping with his vision that everyone is the embodiment of an immemorial culture which is at once their birthright and their opportunity to grasp, celebrate and renew.

Henderson understood that politics is a reflection or extension of culture (and not the other way round); and that it is the culture of a people which will largely affect, perhaps ultimately determine where its future lies.

In his valedictory poem “Under the Earth I Go”, recalling what was done to his generation, he addresses the poets and songwriters of Scotland and, indeed, all “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” as Shelley claimed poets to be, urging them not to “fail again” but to grasp the democratic imperative of freedom which is the making and sustenance of any true culture:

Change elegy into hymn, remake it –

Don’t fail again. Like the potent

Sap in these branches, once bare, and now brimming

With routh of green leavery,

remake it, and renew.

Makar, ye maun sing them –

Cantos of exploit and dream,

Dain of desire and fulfilment,

Ballants of fire and red flambeaux…

Tomorrow, songs

Will flow free again, and new voices

Be borne on the carrying stream

Henderson (who died in 2002) was a gentle giant of a man, a master of many ceremonies, formal and informal, and a latter-day embodiment of what the philosopher George Elder Davie defined as “the democratic intellect” of Scotland.

In recognising Henderson for who (and what) he was we might begin to recognise our better selves and who (and what) we might become.

Raymond Ross is the publisher and editor of Hamish Henderson: Collected Poems and Songs (2000). Theatre Objektiv’s TradFest 2017 sell-out production On the Radical Road: Enacting Hamish Henderson scripted and directed by Raymond Ross, will play The Scottish Storytelling Centre (Netherbow Theatre) Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018.