“I’m sure this is similar to a lot of folk clubs you’ve been in,” grins MP and musician Kevin Brennan as he greets the gathered MPs and arts world representatives to the launch of Sweet Liberties inside Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster. The State Rooms’ high-vaulted ceiling and imposing portraits of House of Commons Speakers through the years is a far cry from the low-key back rooms of most folk clubs, but it is a fitting space for the launch of a project that reflects on 800 years in pursuit of democracy since the sealing of Magna Carta.
Commissioned by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), Folk By The Oak and partly funded by the PRS for Music Foundation as part of Parliament in the Making’s anniversary programme, Sweet Liberties tasked leading UK folk musicians with writing new songs in response to milestones in the fight for and acquisition of key civil rights. Over the summer BBC Folk Singer of the Year Nancy Kerr and singer-songwriters Martyn Joseph, Sam Carter and Maz O’Connor pored through the Parliamentary Archives and Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, researching movements or legislations of personal interest and writing songs about them, a few of which make their debut tonight ahead of the six-date tour of England and Wales next week. While they only had the morning to work up full band arrangements to the individually penned compositions, the results are rousing and made all the more pertinent following the attacks on Paris only three nights earlier.
Joined by Patsy Reid and Nick Cooke, the Sweet Liberties band open with a full-blooded chorus of John Ball, appropriate considering the eponymous Lollard priest’s central role in Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. In response to the 1601 Poor Law, Maz O’Connor’s Rich Man’s Hill (hear it below) flows on a perky tenor guitar melody and accordion swells while satirically commenting on a broken meritocracy through the perspective of a homeless man walking the rich quarters of London “where the cars are made of gold”, believing he too will live there some day. Introducing her song as “slightly off message”, Nancy Kerr’s Written On My Skin vocalises the struggle for such hard-won documents as the Bill of Human Rights and Acts of Parliament that are still inscribed on velum.
The “Welsh representative” Martyn Joseph delivers an acoustic led number commenting on the NHS simply entitled Nye, after Nye Bevan who spearheaded its establishment. The chorus assertion “the purpose of power is to give it away / This is my truth, tell me yours” may be simple, but it is a powerful one when the stakes are medication for children and Joseph’s observation, made only half-jokingly that “if you want to know the value of the NHS, try breaking an arm in America and seeing what that costs you”. Lastly, Sam Carter’s One More River To Cross reflects on the abolition of slavery and the life of “my ancestor’s man friend”, Francis County, a former slave and campaigner from New Orleans, bolstered by Carter’s rolling acoustic rhythm and the chants of his bandmates.
Rounding off the evening, the band return for another round of John Ball, this time joined with more confidence by the audience. And while this is only a small taste of what is in store when the fully prepped Sweet Liberties takes to the road next week, it has been a powerful reminder of our valuable civil liberties and, more importantly, the collective struggles that won them in the first place.
Review by: James MacKinnon
24th November – Cambridge Junction
25th November – Colston Hall, Bristol
26th November – The Met, Bury
27th November – St David’s Hall, Cardiff
28th November – Cecil Sharp House, London
29th November – The Sage, Gateshead
The Sweet Liberties band will also perform at Folk By The Oak festival on 24th July 2016 in the grounds of Hatfield House.
Main Post Image: (from L-R) Nick Cooke, Sam Carter, Nancy Kerr, Martyn Joseph, Maz O’Connor and Patsy Reid
Photo Credit (all images above): Roswitha Chesher