I’m sometimes asked whether there is any point to lyrics that nobody can understand.
My answer always is… “it depends” (I’m known for being decisive like that).
For example, I don’t speak Spanish, but I love Latin music. Although I can’t understand the words, I get a sense of the emotion of a song just from the singer’s performance…is it fast or slow, tearful or joyful, upbeat or sombre, and so on.
There are of course other songs that have seemingly unintelligible lyrics, even though you can hear the individual words perfectly well. The 40 year-plus mystery of just what the lyrics of “American Pie” are all about is a good example of that phenomenon.
And then there are songs where the lyrics are very powerful, but it’s just hard to make out the words or understand the message they’re trying to convey. “Letter From America” by The Proclaimers falls firmly into this category…at least for non-Scots.
A combination of obscure dialect, strong accents and references to historical events that would almost certainly not have resonated in the slightest with most of the world’s record-buying public somehow came together to make “Letter From America” an unlikely UK Number Three single in 1987 thanks to the quality of its composition and the energy of The Proclaimers’ performance.
When you go, will you send back
A letter from America?
Take a look up the rail track
From Miami to Canada
This somewhat unlikely hit was produced by Gerry Rafferty (of “Baker Street” fame) and Hugh Murphy, Rafferty’s long-term collaborator.
I suspect that had “Letter From America” not been, firstly, so well-written and, secondly, about Gerry Rafferty’s Scottish homeland, an all-star production team like that would not have been producing the debut album of a pair of folkie twins. But I’m glad they did…you can really tell the difference it made to the quality of the record.
“Letter From America” is from one of my favourite musical genres…the protest song…but without understanding the historical references, a causal listener might not realise that’s what it was. The video perhaps gives a greater sense of the protest than listening to the song itself, but if all you had to work with was the audio, you might be forgiven for being a bit baffled by the lyrics.
“Letter From America” starts with a tale of the Highland Clearances, without doubt one of the most disgraceful episodes in Scottish history. That was when aristocratic landlords, pretty much en masse, evicted the poor tenant farmers who had tended their land for generations. The landowners raised their own sheep on the land instead, banking massive profits in the process but destroying the Scottish Highlands’ way of life forever.
I wonder, my blood
Will you ever return?
To help us kick the life back
To a dying mutual friend
Do we not love her?
Do we not say we love her?
Do we have to roam the world
To prove how much it hurts?
That dying mutual friend was their Scottish homeland, where the rich became richer and the poor became destitute as the Clearances swept away generations and communities in the pursuit of profit for the landowners.
The Proclaimers then artfully drew a parallel with an industrial version of something very similar a century or two later.
When I was growing up in Glasgow in the 1970s and 1980s, there was massive de-industrialisation which threw people out of work in unprecedented numbers. The mines, the shipyards and the steelworks…long the mainstays of the economy of the West of Scotland…all closed at around the same time.
Often entire families worked in these large firms — two or three generations of men worked at the shipyard or down the mines together, and a generation or two of the women worked in the offices doing the paperwork or serving in the canteen. (I’m not defending this gender imbalance, just reporting how it was at the time.)
When these vast industrial complexes shut down, it wasn’t just thousands of individuals who were thrown out of work, it was entire families and communities, many of whom never worked again.
This wasn’t all the companies’ fault, although many handled this episode insensitively and didn’t fully consider the impact they were having on the local economy, in my opinion.
The world was changing rapidly and some of the historic working practices in the steel mills and shipyards had made it easy for firms overseas to significantly undercut the cost of, say, a Clyde-built ship.
Much of the workforce was too slow to recognise the winds of change headed their way before they ended up on the dole queues, although in some cases inept leadership at the companies they worked for didn’t help either.
Lyrically and politically “Letter From America” contrasts the Highland Clearances of the 1800s with the de-industrialisation of the West of Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s a neat bit of observation. Pretty much the same experiences,100 years or more apart, yet with much the same consequences for families and communities.
Both economic shock-waves led to the better educated and better qualified Scots emigrating to where they could use their skills to earn a decent living. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, yes, certain parts of the United States are chock-full of Scots and people with Scottish ancestry today for that reason…
Broke off from my work the other day
I spent the evening thinking about
All the blood that flowed away
Across the ocean to the second chance
Families sacrificed themselves to give one of their number a second chance in a land far away. They pooled what little money they had to pay the passage to the Americas for one of their number young enough, talented enough and determined enough to make their own way in a foreign land, far from the support of friends and family, in the hope their family name would endure and that, one day, they might have the opportunity to join their relatives in the Promised Land.
The title of “Letter From America” is a nod to the practice of Scots who left for America sending a message back to their families in Scotland to let them know they’d successfully completed the arduous journey across hostile seas.
Relatives waited eagerly, for months on end, praying their loved ones had reached their destination safely.
Even in the 1980s when I upped sticks and went to England, never to return, there was none of the minute-by-minute status updates to Facebook and Twitter we take for granted today.
So it’s impossible to overstate the sense of relief that families would have felt back in the 1800s when a grubby letter turned up months after a loved one had left the only home they’d ever known to say they’d arrived safely in a strange country halfway around the world, ready to give that new life their best shot.
We can only imagine a Scottish family gazing out over a stormy winter sea, wondering if their son, or brother or husband had made it safely to the other side of that raging ocean…and trying to imagine the courage it took for them to leave everything behind in the hope of building a better life for themselves and their families…
I’ve looked at the ocean
Tried hard to imagine
The way you felt the day you sailed
From Wester Ross to Nova Scotia
Admittedly at this point, The Proclaimers go slightly off-base…perhaps the old sailing boat was blown off course a little, because we Scots use “America” to mean the US and Nova Scotia isn’t in the US, it’s in Canada.
Either way, Wester Ross was a part of Scotland heavily affected by the Highland Clearances and Nova Scotia, as well as being part of the east coast of Canada popular with Scottish incomers due to its many similarities with their home country, literally means “New Scotland” in Latin.
Nova Scotia, or New Scotland, symbolises the opportunity for a new life for the people who had thrown out of the Highland farms their families had tended for generations.
The other locations mentioned in the early part of “Letter From America”…Sutherland, Lewis and Skye…were similarly devastated by the Highland Clearances.
The Proclaimers then switch tack and compare the devastation of the traditional way of life in the Scottish Highlands in the 1800s with the devastation wrought on the industrial West of Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s.
They draw a parallel between the events in Wester Ross, Sutherland, Lewis and Skye a century beforehand with the modern-day closures of major employers in Bathgate, Linwood, Methil and Irvine.
Just to hammer the point home, the video was filmed, in part, at a shuttered former steelworks at Gartcosh in Scotland, with the young girl dressed in the style that Highlanders would have worn in the mid-1800s.
I’ve often said to people that they can pick up the entire economic history of Scotland in about 3 minutes just by listening to The Proclaimers sing “Letter From America”.
Of course, The Proclaimers went on to fame and fortune with songs like “500 Miles”, which achieved worldwide recognition following its use in the Shrek movies.
But for me, The Proclaimers (brothers Charlie and Craig Reid) have never written a better set of lyrics than they did for “Letter From America”.
And few other people have either. The lyrics are even better if you understand the historical events The Proclaimers sing about.
So, here’s a lesson in the economic history of Scotland, delivered in about three minutes, and one of the more distinctive and unusual songs ever to reach the upper reaches of the pop charts.
If you hear this song on the radio, it doesn’t blend in like so much of the modern world’s manufactured, pre-packaged pop music which can be hard to tell from one another.
There’s no mistaking what song this is…it’s The Proclaimers with “Letter From America”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/2AQZ89Q1ZZWsJNWwXZpLtY