The Laggan,
I am the Common Man
(Lochshore, 2002)

Much of the music in the Celtic world -- and the broader folk world, for that matter -- derives from the sweat and toil of working people. They sang songs to pass the long days of labor, they sang songs to relax and socialize on their precious off hours. They told stories about their jobs and those who did them.

The Laggan has recorded an album that demonstrates the common traits of working-class ballads. I am the Common Man was sponsored by the Scottish Trades Union Congress for distribution within the union, but public demand led to a general release through Lochshore so that everyone could join the song. And singing along is requested, by the way -- according to the liner notes, the band was "determined that these songs shouldn't just be heard; they should be sung. That is why the words of the songs are included."

The band (which sadly parted ways shortly after finishing this album) is Arthur Johnstone on lead vocals, John McDermott on banjo and harmonica, Tony Paton on guitar, mandolin, harmonica and vocals, and Billy Paton on fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, bouzouki and vocals.

The songs strike a range of moods, beginning with "The Work o' the Weavers," a traditional song celebrating a trade with foot-tapping enthusiasm, and then sliding into Eric Bogle's melancholy "The Railwayman," which mourns an aging man's uselessness in the eyes of his employers. "The Old Man's Song" (trad.) casts a weary eye over a life of toil and war, while Bogle's work reappears with the immensely sad war song, "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda."

The album progresses through a litany of working man's woes, including "I am the Common Man," "A Man's a Man," "Men o' the North," "Rosa Luxembourgh" and "The Ballad of Joe Hill." The CD ends with a departure from the Scottish-American tone with "Bandiera Rosa," which veers the singer into Spanish and German.

The band makes an effective point with this album, singing songs with weary resignation and the aches of back-breaking labor or, at times, unflagging optimism. This is a concept album that works very well -- and with the band's dissolution, I regret not hearing more of their work on other themes.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 25 January 2003