Topic Records have a lot to be proud of beyond their longevity. Their commitment to the folk music of the British Isles and Ireland, traditional and contemporary, has been an example that others have aspired to but never matched. Founded in 1939 with its roots in the Workers Music Association, the label’s early output chimed with the Association’s belief that music should be a tool for cultural and educational revolution and that folk music gave a voice to the people. Decades later, Topic showed it hadn’t strayed very far from that perspective when, in 1988, it launched its series of CDs culled from field recording archives using the title The Voice of the People, four more CDs in the series were released in 2012 and a further 4 this year. In parallel with this rôle as disseminator of archive material, the label has been home to many of the most respected artists performing traditional and tradition-based folk music from the likes of Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd in the 1950s through to the present day.
With this enviable heritage, it was no surprise that when Topic and Towersey Festival agreed that a concert would be a suitable way to jointly celebrate Topic’s 75th and Towersey’s 50th anniversaries, a not so orderly queue of musicians eager to contribute rapidly formed. Blair Dunlop’s first comment to me was “I’d be excited to see this gig, never mind take part”. The rôle of organizing the celebration was handed to Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson, nicely recognizing the enormous contribution members of Norma’s generation, indeed her immediate family, made to the 60’s folk revival and also engaging the generation of younger folk artists driving the present resurgence. The outline plan of the concert was for a first half with a wide range of musicians performing songs from the vast Topic back catalogue and a shorter second half led by Norma Waterson (pictured below) with daughter Eliza, husband Martin and an array of supporting musicians.
Before the concert, I was able to talk with Fay Hield who, in addition to her solo performances and with the Hurricane Party and The Full English, is a respected academic lecturing on traditional and world music courses at Sheffield University. With her professional take on how valuable Topic Records work has been, making both archive and new performance material available, she was understandably delighted to be taking part. I asked how far back her links to Topic went? Well, her fascination with folk music started back home in Keighley where bootleg tapes of Topic’s output tended to circulate around the folk clubs. Mmm, that wasn’t quite what I’d meant. So she went on, after she’d recorded the tracks for her first solo album she’d been debating which record label to approach, setting up an own label had seemed like too much hard work. Partner Jon Boden’s response was to ask, “In an ideal world, what would you want to happen?” That was easy, “Put it out on Topic”, replied Fay. Fortunately, they said yes. We had a little time to catch up on news from the Hield-Boden household – having said to me last summer that Jon was intending to take a step back, to give Fay more time to develop her career, we’ve all seen the public evidence of that, the Spiers and Boden duo being parked. So had that helped? “Yes”, replied Fay, “Jon definitely knows which days the children need their PE kit now.”
The afternoon started with Josienne Clarke taking lead vocal, supported by Eliza and Saul Rose, on The Whorly Whorl, a song that can be found on Anne Briggs’s 1999 Topic album A Collection, but which she originally recorded with Topic in 1966. Josienne then teamed up with regular partner Ben Walker for The Banks of the Sweet Primroses, or just The Sweet Primeroses as Shirley Collins called it on her 1967 Topic album of the same name. This opening beautifully set a theme for the afternoon, two of the freshest talents on today’s folk scene giving their interpretations of songs from classic Topic albums.
What followed, though, was quite different. It’s very nearly 50 years since Martin Carthy (pictured above) recorded his first solo album for Topic and he’s still travelling the country playing anywhere and everywhere, from small folk clubs to major concert halls. Solo, he sang the murder ballad, Bill Norrie, a song he’d originally recorded for Topic in 1988, and followed it with two duets, bringing daughter Eliza back on stage. The first, Died For Love, is a traditional song but one strongly associated with brother-in-law Mike Waterson. Although only ever recorded by Mike as a demo, it’s a song he performed throughout his career, right up to his death in 2011, and Martin and Eliza included it in this year’s duo album, The Moral of the Elephant. Their second duet kept the focus on Mike, they chose Jack Frost, written by Mike around 1970. It’s a grand illustration of a modern song re-telling an old tale in traditional style but giving it a fresh twist. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow was the topic of many contemporary songs post 1812 but Mike’s stands apart in lauding the bitter winter weather as the ultimate military hero.
For Worcester City, Eliza teamed up with Dave Delarre, guitarist and singer from Mawkin and Saul Rose on melodeon, long a stalwart of various bands Eliza has played with over the years. The song was collected by Percy Grainger, in the early 1900s, from Joseph Taylor a Lincolnshire singer who Grainger considered to be the finest he’d heard. He was so impressed that, at Grainger’s instigation, Taylor became the first traditional singer to have a commercially released recording when his Brigg Fair appeared on wax cylinder in 1908. Even Topic weren’t around that far back but in 1972 Brigg Fair, Worcester City and a number of other Taylor songs, were included in a collection of archive recordings Topic released under the title Unto Brigg Fair. Eliza (see image below) was so impressed by Taylor’s singing on this album that she recorded Worcester City in 2002 and chose it for this afternoon.
Jim Causley (image below) was up next, replacing Dave Delarre in the trio, a near miss for a Mawkin:Causley reunion. Jim’s connection with Eliza goes back to her 2006 album, Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man when Jim’s then current trio, The Devil’s Interval, provided vocals on the recording and subsequently toured the album material with her. Talking with Jim before the concert he’d said how surprised he’d been when asked to sing The Blackleg Miner, a Devon lad singing a North East coal miners song. But there had been a rationale, Jim took the folk and traditional music degree at Newcastle University where one of his vocal tutors was Louis Killen, well known for his singing of The Blackleg Miner. Mention of The Devil’s Interval prompted Jim to comment there was a chance they could re-form next year but in the meantime he’d be continuing his duo with Lukas Drinkwater, developing other traditional and composed material alongside their Charles Causley linked sets and he’s also planning a CD of his own songs.
Jim was then joined by Fay Hield, a contemporary of his on the Newcastle degree, to sing Barbaree, a song that exists in many versions but this was from Peter Bellamy’s 1979 Topic release Both Sides Then. Having been tasked with presenting material from two such major figures as Killen and Bellamy, Jim’s third contribution was even more of a ‘must have’ inclusion, a Copper Family song, Shepherd of the Downs, which Jim sang solo.
I’ve already mentioned that Blair Dunlop was somewhat impressed by the company he was keeping that afternoon but that was nothing compared to the excitement he’d felt when asked to cover the Nic Jones songs, Flandyke Shore and Canadee-i-o from the 1980 release, Penguin Eggs. Earlier in the weekend Blair had described to me how influential Nic Jones’s sound had been in the development of his acoustic guitar style and so, being asked to create his own versions of two of Nic’s most well-known songs was a dream come true. In the midst of this celebration of so much history, he was particularly pleased he’d been able to use twenty first century technology, YouTube, to access, and learn from, the Nic Jones originals.
Fay Hield’s first solo contribution reintroduced the work of Mike Waterson. She chose to sing the Child Ballad, Tam Lin, in an unaccompanied version that stayed close to that recorded by Mike in 1977 but also made reference to Frankie Armstrong’s 1976 version. It was a brave choice of song, a transcript of Mike’s version runs to 32 verses, but one perfectly suited to her voice and showcased the magical poetry of these truly ancient ballads that often, nowadays, we hear in reduced and modified forms. It’s also a strong candidate for the oldest song of the afternoon with a first reference to it as far back as 1549. Fay was then joined by a chorus, Jim Causley, Josienne Clarke, Eliza and Martin Carthy, bringing Peter Bellamy back to our attention with their version of Doc Watson’s When I Die, an American gospel song that Peter nevertheless imprinted with his unique style when he included it on his Both Sides Then album.
These last two broke the run of English songs, Tam Lin is undoubtedly Scottish in origin and Martin Carthy followed with another Scottish Child Ballad, Prince Heathen. Then, at last, we had a thoroughly Scottish contribution, Kris Drever singing Such a Parcel o Rogues in a Nation, a traditional song, based on a Burns poem that Dick Gaughan had recorded for Topic in 1978. As a no holds barred denunciation of the Scottish nobles who voted to accept the Treaty of Union in 1707 it had a certain resonance in the run up to the referendum. He was joined by Aidan O’Rourke for The Two Magicians and the third member of Lau, Martin Green, along with a good proportion of the afternoon’s contributors and audience came together to round off the first half with Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town.
And what a first half that was, superbly delivering on the promise of melding some of today’s best folk musicians with classic material from Topic’s back catalogue. This was about as far removed as you could imagine from a slick, record company promotional event, think more on the lines of a pub session on steroids. But Topic understands its audience and realized that was just what they needed to deliver. When I talked with Topic MD, David Suff (image below), he was at pains to stress that the afternoon couldn’t just have been about the great and the good, it had been important to engage the younger generation. He’d particularly relished Blair’s comment that he’d been able to use YouTube to learn the Nic Jones songs.
Since he took over from Tony Engle, the man who guided Topic for over 40 years, a key feature of the company’s development has been embracing and exploiting the best technology can offer. For some time, Topic’s new releases have been available for digital download but, significantly, the digital archive project is ensuring that as much as possible of the label’s back catalogue is once more being made accessible. David clearly sees his and the label’s rôle as striking a balance between preserving and disseminating the heritage and producing new material relevant to today. It’s important, he emphasised, that the company is seen to care about the music they release. Yes, they set out to entertain but, as befits the label’s origins, they should also be about informing their audience, he prefers “informing”, whilst accepting the label’s origins may have been more about “educating”. In this vein, the label’s next major release will be a 2 CD set, Voice + Vision – Songs of Resistance, Democracy and Peace, compiled in cooperation with the General Federation of Trade Unions and featuring archive material going all the way back to the label’s first release, Paddy Ryan’s The Man That Waters The Workers Beer.
And so to the second part of the afternoon’s concert and centre stage for this was Norma Waterson, accompanied by Martin and Eliza, Saul Rose, Dave Delarre and others as needed! But they hardly were needed; it felt as if Norma could have carried the session on her own. The last time I’d seen Waterson:Carthy was not long before Mike Waterson died and it was clear that both he and Norma were having to work very hard to overcome their respective illnesses and keep performing. For Norma at Towersey things could hardly have been more different. The strength of her voice, the sparkle of her chat were there in full force and the audience lapped it up. By the time it came to the last song, originally a funeral hymn, Sleep on Beloved, emotions were running high both on and off the stage. The applause that greeted the end continued right through the short thank you speech that David Suff had wanted to give and so it all moved on to the encore, Stars in my Crown, a song that everyone could join with.
One of those afternoons that will long be talked about, whenever three or more folkies are gathered together, one will eventually say, “you just had to be there”.
Review by: Johnny Whalley