"SONGS are dangerous things.” The words are made all the more powerful by being said without threat, without edge by a 74-year-old man tucking briskly into a full Scottish breakfast at 8am of a Glasgow morning. The speaker is an entertainer who welcomes whimsy, never shied from the subsequently derided tartan shows and even flounced in panto. Yet Alastair McDonald appreciates the heft, the substance of words. He weighs them carefully, his cheery disposition failing to disguise his seriousness about his specialist subject: songs and songwriting.

He is a mercurial, vibrant companion. He tells stories both in song and conversation. His development as an artist provokes gratitude to Pete Seeger, Josh MacRae, Morris Blythman and others. His associations in his TV heyday day include popularising the songs of Matt McGinn and working with Andy Stewart, “a genius”.

McDonald pauses over a dod of bacon before saying: “He was one of the most creative human beings I have ever met. Andy created a niche in the world market and he was criticised for that. Yet now we are all told to celebrate Tartan Day in New York."

He grins again and then invokes Prince as a guardian of the songwriter’s legacy before admitting he was never a country and western fan until he met George Hamilton IV at a concert in Kirkintilloch and subsequently toured with him.

This, then, is Alastair McDonald, once a hardy perennial on the goggle box in the corner of the sitting room, still an extraordinary force and one who is far from being blown out. “I had more fame in the 1970s than any artist has a right to expect in a lifetime,” he says, “but I knew it would end and it did.” This judgment is harsh. McDonald remains both known and visible on the live music circuit. He still plays with a Dixie band, he still takes the acoustic guitar to folk clubs. He is eager to protest that he has not gone anywhere, simply that the spotlight has strayed from him on to other subjects.

“The public perception is a strange one. If you are not on the telly, then they think you have retired. If they see you doing jazz, for example, they presume you have given up folk. It’s as if they cannot believe you can do several things,” he says in gentle bemusement rather than rancour. “I am still playing live … when asked."

He also entertains on National Trust for Scotland cruises and has just produced another CD. “I am often asked how many CDs I have released. I haven’t a clue. Dozens? Probably,” he says. “Prince noted that the record companies own your voice so you can find me in the bargain buckets in the supermarkets.” Beyond Mere Words deserves a better fate, encompassing the gospel, trad jazz, folk, whimsy and protest genre that marks a career that stretches back to the 1960s. “I suppose it is a typical record of mine because I don’t tend to do thematic albums. I don’t see any difference between Dixie jazz and folk. I don’t label folk solely as traditional music. Music hall is traditional music, too. Basically, songs are about the words. It is either communication or it isn’t. Songs are dangerous things.” He adds: “I don’t see myself as having being away.”

HE has, of course, been away. At least in the geographical sense. McDonald was born in Ibrox in October 1941, moved to Mosspark and then took a slightly larger step to Australia as his parents opted for a new life after the Second World War. It was an experience that influenced him heavily. His sister and brother were much older than him and when his mother struggled with a breakdown through homesickness he went into the bush to live, to play, to think. “I was on a home correspondence course but I did not do too much of that. I had a horse, I had a great outdoors, so studying was not a priority,” he says. Like almost everyone of that generation, he was influenced heavily by Lonnie Donegan and the advent of skiffle. “We eventually came back to Scotland and I bought a guitar,” he says. He talks quietly of “time bubbles and happenstance”: his mother’s homesickness, the avoidance of working in a local mine that produced asbestos.

He was 12 when he returned and slowly music became a way of life rather than a means of home entertainment. “I left school at 14, much to the regret of my father, but he was a hospital porter and he met someone who recommended me for the Post Office, where I became an engineer. I enjoyed it but my heart was somewhere else. Apart from stealing or falsifying times sheets, you could not be sacked at the Post Office. I am sure if that was not the case I might have been jettisoned,” he says.

The gigs became regular, there was more than the odd piece of work on TV and radio. “Bill Tennant [Mr STV in the 1960s] once told a gathering at a party that they had phoned me once to do a show and I took the call up a telephone pole and immediately raced in. It is a nice story but not true,” he says.

The transfer to full-time entertainer was risky not romantic. He was married, to Anne, and had two sons. “I was slinging myself into the darkness and had doubts about whether I should subject my family to this.” He admits it was “a trying time” but success came quickly. He immediately pays his dues. “Robin Hall and Jimmie Macgregor paved the way for guys like me. They were learning songs off a page and we were learning them off them,” he says. Morris Blythman, writer and folk enthusiast, initially and crucially gave him an opportunity in an unlicensed cafe off the Trongate in Glasgow.

McDonald then moved in television. It was the early 1970s. “I did a lot of tartan shows and they were infra dig in the folk community. In 1992, I was at an art festival in Dundee with the Stewarts of Blair, the great singers of the travelling community. I expected them to be uneasy with me, if not hostile, but they were really warm. Belle Stewart was brilliant. She was surrounded by earnest types going on about this verse and that and when they went away she just told me that traditional music does not mean one thing. Traditional music does not have to be written around a campfire or by poets in an attic. Songs can be written by people who just want a buck. That doesn’t make them any less significant or less powerful.”

THE breakfast is almost finished. It has taken him more than hour, bites interrupted by soundbites. He extols Seeger, the catalyst for much of the folk revival, and he mentions the traditional patriotic Cuban tune Guantanamera.

“Folk singers won’t do that now and they associate it with the anodyne. But it is a wonderful political song. The words by Jose Marti are powerful and moving. I sang it last night at a folk club but it gets a poor press because it is normally sung badly by Spanish waiters,” he says.

Typically, given McDonald’s diverse activities, he once did a show on the Fringe with Theatre PKF that interspersed the work of Marti with that of Hugh MacDiarmid. “It led to an interesting discussion with one of the audience,” he says. “He was from Cuba and interested in our take on Marti. It did not take him long to approach us after the show. There were only five in the audience and that was a busy night.”

This interaction with the audience is at the heart of his work. “It can be saddening at times,” he says. “You sing a song and people will say to you: “Good on you, Alastair, we hate the English too,’ That is a chilling line to hear. You can be pro-Scottish without being anti-English.” He has changed lines to songs in an effort to rob them of sentiments he deplores. “Heroes are aggressive, I understand that. But they are aggressive against a stance, against an issue rather than a person. I have just done a presentation on James Connolly. There were lines about hate and hatred. They sprang off the page as just wrong so they were changed.”

He does not shy away from controversy, however. His latest CD includes a rendition of Easter Rising (Foggy Dew), the Republican ballad, and a condemnation of President George W Bush and Tony Blair. He admits his selections of songs have caused him trouble in the past. “I was presenting a show on Radio Clyde on the night Tom Clancy died. I wanted a song with him singing without his brothers so I found The Patriot Game. I followed it with Connolly Was There, because it was sung by Dominic Behan, writer of The Patriot Game. When I came out of the studio, the newsroom informed me that I had been reported to the police by at least two callers who believed I was inciting a riot.

"But I believe The Patriot Game is not a rebel song but a song about a rebel. There is a difference. I believe Behan was talking about the dangers of radicalisation and that is an issue that has not gone away. But I learned from it. I have learned that people take songs in different ways and sometimes are not attuned to the nuances. People have fallen foul of that and have been shoved into a category they cannot get out of.”

He has an ear for a bit of fun, however. “I have to have whimsical songs in my set. It is for the poor audience. They have to a rest from what I am beating them over the head with,” he says. It is why he is seen as one of the best singers of the works of Matt McGinn. “The Wee Kirkcudbright Centipede was one of those gifts that life just presents,” he says. “Matt phoned me up and sang it to me over the phone. I asked him: ‘When did you write this?’ He said: ‘Just now and that is the first time I have sung it.' I did it on Songs of Scotland and had to repeat it later in the series. I still do it 40-odd years on.”

But if the songs vary between light and dark, if the message is one of fun or of danger, then McDonald stands sure and steady. “Any political stance I have today is informed by music. The people I have worked with over the years have had the most enormous integrity and I have tried to take from that,” he say.

Could he be described as a socialist, a republican and a nationalist? “I would hate to be tied down to any of these labels because I can find fault with them all,” he says. “I really believe in individualism. I am suspicious of the party line. Parties have a drum to bang.”

McDonald’s music is more textured. “I like to leave them with a thought, something they can latch on to, something they can reflect on. I love gospel music because it can talk about bad times but maybe offer some hope. We need that.”

Songs can be dangerous things but they can be healing, too.