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Rab Noakes: an appreciation

The unexpected passing of Rab Noakes on November 11, age 75, has left an irreplaceable void in the trade union movement as well as in the cultural landscape of our country, write Stephen Wright and Bill Sweeney

WITH over half a century of live performance, more than 20 albums, broadcasting, production, song writing, and much more besides, Rab Noake’s contribution as an artist has been unique and unrivalled.   

His dedication to the Musicians’ Union (MU) 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 and Northern Ireland regional committee. He represented the MU on the STUC 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 multifaceted career broke right through that cliched mould. I 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, 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.   

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 such a genuine wisdom, but he selflessly dispensed it so 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, an approach that we all learned so much from. Around Rab everyone raised their game. 

He was great company. I had the pleasure of working with Rab many times over the past 15 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 US 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. 

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 is chair of the MU and Bill Sweeney is a former MU executive committee member and emeritus professor of music at Glasgow university.

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