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He has been referred to as the most important Scots poet since Robert Burns and was a catalyst for the folk revival in Scotland. He was also an accomplished folk song collector and discovered such notable performers as Jeannie Robertson, Flora MacNeil and Calum Johnston.
Born to a single mother in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Henderson eventually moved to England with his mother. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Dulwich School in London; however, his mother died shortly before he was due to take up his place and he was forced to live in an orphanage while studying there.
He studied Modern Languages at Downing College, Cambridge, in the years leading up to World War II, and spent spare time running messages for the German resistance. He also worked to smuggle Jews out of Nazi Germany right up until the outbreak of war.
World War II
Although he argued strongly for peace, even well into the early years of the war, he became convinced that a satisfactory peace could not be reached and so he threw himself into the war effort. Joining as an enlisted soldier in the Pioneer Corps, he later applied for and received a commission in the Intelligence Corps. He was quite effective as an interrogator due to his command of six European languages and deep understanding of German culture.
He took part in the Desert War in Africa, during which he wrote his poem Elegies For the Dead in Cyrenaica, encompassing every aspect of a soldier's experience of the sands of North Africa. On 2 May 1945, Henderson personally oversaw the drafting of the surrender order of Italy issued by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani .
Henderson collected the lyrics to "D-Day Dodgers," a satirical song to the tune of "Lili Marlene", attributed to Lance-Sergeant Harry Pynn, who served in Italy. Henderson also wrote the lyrics to "The 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily", set to a pipe tune called "Farewell to the Creeks".
Folk song collector
Henderson threw himself into the work of the folk revival after the war, discovering and bringing to public attention Jeannie Robertson, Flora MacNeil (see Flora MacNeil, Gaelic singer), Calum Johnston (see Annie and Calum Johnston of Barra) and others. In the 1950s, he acted as a guide to the American folklorist, Alan Lomax, who collected many field recordings in Scotland. (See Alan Lomax, Collector of Songs).
People's Festival Ceilidhs
Henderson was instrumental in bringing about the Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh in 1951, which placed traditionally performed Scottish folk music on the public stage for the first time as "A Night of Scottish Song". However, the People's Festival, of which it was part, was planned as a left-wing competitor to the Edinburgh Festival and was deeply controversial. At the event, Henderson performed a song, to the tune of Scotland the Brave, which glorified John Maclean, a communist and Scottish nationalist hero.
However, the event marked the first time that Scotland's traditional folk music was performed on a public stage. The performers included Flora MacNeil, Calum Johnston, John Burgess, Jessie Murray, John Strachan, and Jimmy MacBeath. The event was extremely popular and was regarded as the beginning of the second British folk revival.
Henderson continued to host the events every year until 1954, when the Communist ties of several members of the Peoples Festival Committee led to the Labour Party declaring it a "Proscribed Organisation". Losing the financial support of the local trades unions, the Peoples Festival was permanently cancelled.
Dividing his time between Europe and Scotland, he eventually settled in Edinburgh in 1959 with his German wife, Kätzel (Felizitas Schmidt).
Henderson collected widely in the Borders and the north-east of Scotland, creating links between the travellers, the bothy singers of Aberdeenshire, the Border shepherds, and the young men and women who frequented the folk clubs in Edinburgh.
From 1955 to 1987 he was on the staff of the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies which he co-founded with Calum Maclean: there he contributed to the sound archives that are now available on-line. Henderson held several honorary degrees and after his retirement became an honorary fellow of the School of Scottish Studies. For many years he held court in Sandy Bell's Bar, the meeting place for local and visiting folk musicians.
He died in Edinburgh on 8 March 2002 aged eighty-two, survived by his wife Kätzel and their daughters, Janet and Christine.
Henderson's complexities make his work hard to study: for example, Dick Gaughan's commentary on the song-poem The 51st Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily, while insightful, does not take into account the traditional divide between pipers and drummers in the Scots regiments, the essential key to one reading of the text.
In 2005, Rounder Records released a recording of the 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh as part of The Alan Lomax Collection. Henderson had collaborated heavily with the preparations for the release.
In August 2013, Edinburgh University announced that it had acquired his personal archive of "more than 10,000 letters from almost 3400 correspondents, plus 136 notebooks and diaries", dating from the 1930s to the end of his life. These will be kept in the Special Collections department of the main library.
- Neat, T. (2007, rep. 2009), Hamish Henderson - The Making of the Poet, Volume I, p. 165.
- Norman Buchan on Hamish, Tocher no 43, School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, 1991, p 19-21
- Antonio Gramsci, Prison Letters, translated and introduced by Hamish Henderson, Pluto Press 1996.
- Hamish Henderson Archive Trust Press release, August 2013, retrieved 8 August 2013