Tramp ships and turntables
John McLaughlin looks out of place at a campus radio station. McLaughlin is 72 years old, with white hair and a gut that makes him look on the stronger side of chubby. Anywhere else, no one would give him a second glance. Wandering around the WMUC suite, though, he might as well be from another planet.
One DJ, junior journalism major Emily Thompson, figured him to be one of the homeless people who are occasionally found wandering the studios. Others know slightly more and identify him as the community member who has Friday’s 6 a.m. radio show they’ve “heard a little bit of.” Between his thick Scottish accent, his mumbling and his no-man’s-land time slot (this is college), McLaughlin is a mystery to most.
They don’t know, for example, that he emigrated from Scotland and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, or that he is a published scholar on Middle English literature, or that he has sailed through both the Panama and Suez Canals. He’s done a lot in his seven decades, but to them he’s just the Friday morning DJ.
McLaughlin is a member of a special segment of the college campus populace: He pays no tuition and neither takes nor teaches any classes — he’s at the university purely for the extracurriculars.
McLaughlin was born in Glasgow, Scotland in April 1939, five months before Britain entered World War II and about a year before the German Luftwaffe would begin bombing his city as part of its Blitzkrieg campaign. His father, Stirling, was in the British Army, one of the “desert rats” of Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army. His mother Margaret worked nights as a cleaner. He was the sixth of eight brothers; he didn’t have any sisters — “we didn’t believe in ‘em,” he says.
McLaughlin dropped out of school when he was 15, worked random jobs and, like every other 15-year-old, chased girls. And just like today, it was all about your clique — and McLaughlin hung with the Teddy Boys.
If the Fonz had been English, he’d have been a Teddy Boy. The UK’s version of rock ‘n’ roll rebels, they drove fast and partied hard: There are multiple accounts of Teddy Boy riots breaking out in theaters when Blackboard Jungle and its rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack came to town. Instead of ripped jeans and leather jackets, though, they wore a revival of the fashions of the reign of King Edward — hence the name “Teddy.” McLaughlin’s trademark was a gray suit with black lapels.
“If you didn’t dress fancy, if you didn’t dance fancy, you didn’t get the girls. And the girls are the key,” he said. “Everybody knows that.”
He spent his spare time boxing, a sport he picked up when he was 14 in a small gym in Glasgow. He describes it as “chess with sledgehammers,” and by the time he was 16, he was Scotland’s amateur boxing champion.
In 1956, after a brief but unpleasant stint in a paper mill, he entered the British Merchant Navy, doing odd jobs on tramp ships — his boats had no set itinerary; they just went where the deliveries took them. He started with a simple monthlong trip from England to Montreal, then another trip around the Mediterranean for almost six months. But his final trip, starting just after his 18th birthday, would be the longest journey of his life: He left England in November 1957 and traveled across the Atlantic, making stops in Virginia, Venezuela and Mexico before cutting through Panama and continuing to Japan, Singapore, South Africa and Egypt, among others.
He returned home in July 1958, a 19-year-old who had circumnavigated the globe.
He never did go back to high school, and when he left the shipping business in 1958, he expected to take a job as a laborer.
“I wasn’t expected to go to college,” he said. But his mother had other plans.
During the war, McLaughlin’s family had made a connection with a wealthy British woman whom McLaughlin only calls “Mrs. Hooper.”
“During World War II, Mrs. Hooper’s hairdresser knew of my mother’s situation, bringing up five boys in Glasgow during the bombing,” McLaughlin said. “She was fascinated and got in touch.”
Mrs. Hooper, he said, wanted to “do her bit” and help his family, corresponding by letter and shipping clothes to the boys.
“She’d send boxes,” McLaughlin said. “We were walking around Glasgow in fancy American T-shirts.”
And then, while McLaughlin was sailing the world, his family was convincing Mrs. Hooper that he should go to college.
“They were my press agents,” McLaughlin said. “And I wasn’t there to defend myself.”
Afterward, McLaughlin passed equivalency tests to qualify him for admission nonetheless, and crossed the Atlantic once again — this time to attend Boston University. The seafaring high school dropout had become a college man.
But after a year and half at BU, McLaughlin started to get restless. He transferred to Harvard in 1960 to take advantage of better scholarship money.
“I was scared shitless at Harvard,” he said. “It was a different universe.”
He elaborated in a speech he delivered at the 34th Annual International Conference of Medievalists in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1998.
“As a transfer student on scholarship, I was pretty dogged about getting somebody’s money’s worth out of Harvard, so I don’t think I can have been much fun to be around,” McLaughlin said. “The other elegant lads had different plans in mind, I think, probably having to do with the Harvard Lampoon and maybe some Wellesley girls.”
Wellesley girls or not, his strategy worked. He graduated with high honors two years later and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, declared two years earlier by TIME magazine to be “the domestic version of the Rhodes Scholarship.”
And McLaughlin hasn’t lost the work ethic he honed as a self-described “cabin boy” and Harvard undergraduate — like everyone else at the station, WMUC’s general manager Mario Pareja-Lecaros didn’t know about McLaughlin’s history, but pointed out immediately that McLaughlin works hard.
“We were cleaning [the station] and he asked if we had a mop. And we said, ‘Well, we did at one point, but we can’t find it.’ He went out and bought a mop and a bottle of Pine-Sol and moved the furniture and mopped the whole lobby,” Pareja-Lecaros said.
But McLaughlin seems to have an impatient side, too: Until earlier this year, he was a regular poster on “All Across the Universe,” an Internet forum (very loosely) based around music, literature and movies. He was one of the most active of the group’s 164 members, averaging almost five posts per day in his 18-month tenure. Some posts are personal — at one point he discussed, somewhat ambiguously, a close connection to the treatment of people struggling with bipolar disorder — but many entries are just him henpecking other users. He called one person a “pompous fart,” and when another called him stupid, he called her a “batty broad” and a “stupid, quarrelsome drunk.”
And when someone — username “pinhedz,” with whom McLaughlin regularly feuded — was foolish enough to post lyrics in “Olde English,” McLaughlin went into Harvard mode, throwing around references to the Oxford English Dictionary and at one point writing, “it’s boring talking to non-academics pretending to know linguistics, you know that?”
Although McLaughlin (or, as some of the posters called him, “J-Mac”) might have been a grumpus on the forums, there were occasional indications that he might have actually liked the people he spent so much time conversing with. Despite his academic posturing and occasional condescension, he wished them a Merry Christmas and euphorically told them when his grandsons Teji and Alaric were born two days apart last year. McLaughlin doesn’t post there anymore. He says he got bored.
After graduating from Harvard, McLaughlin studied at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his master’s in English in 1963, before the famous free speech protests at the campus. But McLaughlin said anyone who was there could have seen it coming.
“It was a very bad school. … Bad library, the kids didn’t know nothing,” he said. “And they felt cheated. The place was set to blow.”
Even before he got to Berkeley, McLaughlin was dabbling in what would later become a full-on habit of protesting. Almost immediately after arriving in the United States, McLaughlin became an active participant in the civil rights movement. It all started when he saw a group of black protesters outside of a Woolworth’s department store in Boston in 1959.
“I asked them what was going on and they said ‘Woolworth’s is segregated. They won’t serve us down South,'” McLaughlin said. “So I picked up a sign.”
Almost a full year before the famous civil rights sit-ins, McLaughlin was there, picketing in front of a lunch counter in the rain. The manager retracted the portable awning in front of the store in an effort to get rid of them — it didn’t. McLaughlin and the rest of the protesters continued to march, chanting that they would be dry soon enough.
McLaughlin said growing up in Scotland gave him a unique perspective on race relations.
“I grew up in a society with very heated Catholic, anti-Catholic sentiment. I think that would have carried over into racism,” he said, “if there had been any black people.”
When his time was up at Berkeley, McLaughlin left California to get his doctorate at Harvard. After eight years of study and a dissertation on “a comparative analysis of the nativity sections of the Middle English Corpus Christi cycle plays,” McLaughlin, former Teddy Boy and flyweight champion of Scotland, had a doctorate in medieval drama.
He spent the early 1970s teaching at Boston, La Salle and Temple universities, among others. But not Harvard — “the money’s rubbish at Harvard.” While in Philadelphia, he also started getting involved in folk music for the first time, as an organizer of the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
But there was a serious speed bump in the teaching game. He believes his active involvement in the anti-war movement led him to be labeled a “communist troublemaker” in a confidential letter of recommendation, and that his involvement with “a bunch of shitheads” kept him from being employed as a teacher.
“I was tagged,” he said. “It was bullshit. It cost me seven years of my career.”
Unable to teach, he founded The Folk Life, a folk music magazine, with his wife Jamie Downs. They published monthly between 1976 and 1979, and it’s existed ever since as a part-time hobby.
“She took the pictures and I wrote the words,” he said.
The magazine was also his way into radio — inundated with albums to review, he approached Radio Free Temple, the station at Temple University’s Ambler campus, to play them on the radio instead. He eventually settled on the name “Roots and Wings,” still the name of the show 33 years later. It’s a genealogical term relating to the branches of a family tree.
“I only have two things to give my children and grandchildren,” McLaughlin regularly says on his show. “Roots and wings.”
He finally got another teaching job in 1982, at East Stroudsburg University, where he left behind a wake of colorful prose. At the Kalamazoo conference, for example, he used at least three different euphemisms for “inadvertent cunnilingus” in one speech alone and then said that a woman’s “backside” hanging out of a porthole window would make “a lovely picture in the early morning light.” He retired two years later.
He stayed on as a DJ at WESS 90.3 FM for an extra four years after that, until he moved to Takoma Park in 2004 to help his daughter raise her children. That’s also when he brought his show to this university.
The program has grown more subdued since last semester, when McLaughlin teamed up with WMUC DJ Sean-Christopher Riley for a four-hour weekly show. They were remarkable foils to each other: Riley, who now has his own show after McLaughlin’s, sounds like the prototypical jazz/blues DJ, speaking almost comically slowly in a deep, gritty voice. He streeeeetches out his voooowels, baby. McLaughlin, on the other hand, is almost unintelligible. He meanders around in his head, loosely discussing his thoughts on the music in an accent not commonly understood this side of the big pond. To an American, hearing him repeat the word “record” is like listening to a blender try to process mulch.
This semester, McLaughlin is flying solo, his ponderings on love no longer accented by Riley periodically chirping in with “mmm”s and “yeahs.” But he plays the same tunes — classic folk songs by Dave Van Ronk, rhythm & blues from The Clovers — and has the same problems with unreliable record needles and lopsided song selection.
During one show, for example, as McLaughlin’s time slot comes to a close, he notices a quirk in his playlist that he has to rectify.
“But before I leave you with the impression that everything is Irish on this program, let’s just change your mind a wee bit,” he says.
A song starts with a dramatic drum hit and, as the Scottish bagpipes of Dysart & Dundonald begin to play, McLaughlin, the boxing sailor-turned-DJ with an Ivy League pedigree, laughs.