There is an old and noble tradition in folk music of ordinary people writing and singing about political events and struggles. It’s a strand of folk music which still exists todday, even though it sometimes may seem less overt and lost in the flood of mainstream blandness. Thankfully, we have labels like Topic Records who are currently celebrating their seventy-five years in existence with a range of fine releases across a range of styles and sounds, from Martin & Eliza Carthy’s wonderful The Moral Of The Elephant (FRUK review here) to traditional music from Orkney, Ulster, Northumberland and Cumberland and all points in between.
Topic Records’ latest release, Voice + Vision: Songs Of Resistance, Democracy + Peace, is a co-operative project with the General Federation Of Trades Unions and funds raised will contribute to the GFTU’s education work. Tagged as being “In appreciation of Bob Crow and Tony Benn – patriots, socialists, internationalists”, Topic has compiled an essential selection which cherry-picks some of the best it has in its archives to produce a 2CD set which provides a unique sampler of the music of resistance.
The depth and breadth of the material on offer is breathtaking, not least because it reminds us that folk music is not about some nostalgic wish to return to a romantic vision of (non-existent) simpler days full of ploughmen homeward plodding their weary way and cheery agricultural labourers quaffing quarts of ale in the local tavern. One of folk music’s enduring features has been the way it moves with the times and reflects the changes happening in society, although listening to Anne Briggs’ cover of the eighteenth century The Recruited Collier side-by-side with Norma Waterson’s solo version of Kay Sutcliffe’s 1985 post-miner’s strike poem Coal Not Dole, it’s hard not to be struck by the realisation that the industrial revolution was breaking hearts, minds and bodies for 150 years or more.
While there are contributions from what you might call ‘the usual suspects’ – Ewan MacColl (To The Begging I Will Go, based on the seventeenth century Scottish song The Beggars Chorus); Pete Seeger’s cover of the Almanac Singers 1941 Talking Union Blues and Peggy Seeger (If You Want A Better Life) – newer voices are also to be heard. Fran Morter and Adam Rees continue the tradition of updating older songs with one of the album’s highlights, a lovely cover of the nineteenth-century Song of the Lower Classes. It’s a long way from Martin Carthy’s 1982 multi-tracked a cappella version but no less emotionally resonant (or relevant) for that. Jack Forbes borrows the multi-tracked a cappella technique for the twentieth-century sea shanty Rolling Down The River, a song he wrote in 1982 for a radio programme about Tilbury Docks.
Kiti Theobald’s contribution, a cover of Alan Bell’s Alice White, is worthy of note for its look at the lives and times of the nineteenth-century railway navvies from a woman’s perspective. However, it also makes me wish that more women musicians would write from an overtly feminist viewpoint. The slogan “The personal is political” is generally accepted as originating with the feminist movement of the 1960s but in my view it’s no less relevant to women today and in the highly unlikely event that Topic Records are looking for a theme for another compilation, then consider this my ‘umble request for one which foregrounds women singers, writers and musicians and songs which reflect and recount the experiences of the largest oppressed minority of them all: women.
Finally, I can’t close this review without mentioning Piers Haslam. Possibly the youngest musician here and a self-confessed fan of Fairport Convention, his version of the nineteenth-century Free & Easy has a confidence and maturity that belies his tender age. His playing shows the influence of Richard Thompson without slipping into pastiche and, to my mind, not only is this the standout track on an album full of them, it also marks Piers out as a definite ‘one to watch’.
Topic Records have rarely, if ever, seemed to put a foot wrong throughout their seventy-five years and Voice + Vision: Songs Of Resistance, Democracy + Peace is another sterling example of that consistency. We’re fortunate to have such a truly great record label and this compilation is not only the icing on the cake, it’s also the sponge, the jam and the candles on the top. Many happy returns, Topic Records!
Review by: Helen Gregory
Order via Topic Records: www.topicrecords.co.uk/tscd774d-voice-vision
01 Dick Gaughan – The World Turned Upside Down
02 Chumbawamba – The Diggers’ Song
03 Roy Bailey – The Hard Times of Old England
04 Ewan MacColl – To The Begging I Will Go
05 Anne Briggs – The Recruited Collier
06 Shirley Collins – The Rigs Of The Time
07 Copper Family – The Month of May
08 Bob Davenport – Jerusalem
09 Brian Denny – Captain Swing
10 M G Boulter – General Ludd’s Triumph
11 The Oldham Tinkers – Four Loom Weaver
12 Roy Harris – Poverty Knock
13 Fran Morter & Adam Rees – Song of the Lower Classes
14 The Topic Singers and Band – The Internationale
15 Louis Killen – Black Leg Miner
01 Piers Haslam – Free & Easy
02 Leon Rosselson – Bringing The News From Nowhere
03 Kiti Theobald – Alice White
04 Paul Rebeson – Joe Hill
05 Pete Seeger – Talking Union Blues
06 Paddy Ryan – The Man That Waters The Worker’s Beer
07 Martin Carthy – Dominion of the Sword
08 Martin Simpson – Palaces of Gold
09 Banner Theatre – Saltley Gates
10 Norma Waterson – Coal Not Dole
11 John Tams – Harry Stone – Hearts of Coal
12 Jack Forbes – Rolling Down The River
13 Peggy Seeger – If You Want A Better Life
14 The First of May Band – War