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Rab Noakes: an appreciation from Bill Sweeney and Stephen Wright

The unexpected passing of Rab Noakes on 11th November, aged 75, has left an irreplaceable void in the cultural landscape of our country.

Rab Noakes at a gig to honour Gerry Rafferty in 2014 Photograph by Alex Kyle Photography from Flickr

A world-class musician, Rab had an unsurpassed knowledge of music; his song introductions at live performances always informed, often amazed, and frequently amused.

He not only possessed genuine wisdom, but selflessly dispensed it freely in a way that encouraged others, particularly young performers.  He was a joy to play with, and a natural leader, with a professionalism, style and approach that so many learned from. Around Rab everyone raised their game.

His interest in culture went beyond music. He was a regular and enthusiastic visitor to the theatre, though his lovely, generous nature never prevented him from offering some honest criticism where it was merited. Any visit to his home produced both admiration and quite a bit of good-natured envy of his collection of guitars (a lot of Gibson!) and his collection of original art.

With over half a century of live performance, recording (over 20 albums), broadcasting, production, songwriting, and much more besides, Rab’s contribution as an artist has been unique and unrivalled.

Rab was a member of The Ivors Academy for 46 years, and mostly recently Deputy Chair of its Scottish Council. His dedication to the Musicians’ Union was exemplary.  Rab served for many years on its National Executive Committee and after standing down in 2020 took up a role as Vice-chair of the MU’s Scotland & Northern Ireland Regional Committee. He represented the Musicians’ Union on the Scottish TUC General Council – fighting tirelessly for creative workers, the rights of women and young people, and for fairness in the workplace.

The music industry often tends to pigeonhole people: a singer-songwriter is supposed to be a wild spirit with not much sense of business or responsibility to those around them. Rab’s multi-faceted career broke right through that clichéd mould. I (BS) remember Rab beginning to get involved with the Glasgow Branch of the MU about 20 or so years ago. An artistic legend, of course, and well known as a straight dealing and imaginative producer, but he quickly grasped the nature of the problems facing the MU at that turbulent time in its history and played a great part in shifting attitudes and forging solutions.

Dealing with current realities and preparing for the future were Rab’s stock in trade, never relying on worn out slogans. In debate he charmed opponents while subverting their arguments with a few, but perfectly weighted, words.  It was a privilege to work alongside him.

He was great company.  I (SW) had the pleasure of working with Rab many times over the past fifteen or so years.  I last saw him a couple of weeks ago when he came out to visit me at home.  Over a cup of tea, we firstly sorted out the national political situation (obviously!), then chatted about his future plans and projects – new albums, live shows, May Day 2023, and much more.

My favourite of all his back catalogue remains Jackson Greyhound – a song he wrote while on holiday in the States with his wife, and love of his life, Stephy.  It is, quite simply, a perfect song: a celebration of life, struggle and freedom. Its construction, like all great design, has a deceptive simplicity masking its complex creativity.  Rab Noakes is a masterful songsmith.

Unimaginably, Rab is no longer with us. Both music and the trade union movement have lost a legend and a friend. A void doesn’t even begin to describe it.

I guess now we’ll have to be content with his music and his inspiring legacy – but I wouldn’t mind accompanying him on Jackson Greyhound one more time.

Farewell comrade.

Stephen Wright and Bill Sweeney

This tribute was originally published by the Morning Star.


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