I must confess to a certain wariness over albums resulting from multi-artist commissioned projects, experience suggests they can so easily be the ultimate curate’s egg, and if you’re not familiar with that expression, it translates as “good in parts”. With Sweet Liberties, though, I need not have worried, there are so many outstanding songs in its fourteen tracks, plus, there’s a feeling of real collaboration between the musicians. You may already be familiar with the starting point for this project as FRUK reported it extensively back in April 2015 and featured a full live recording of their Cecil Sharp House Concert (recorded by London Folk Music) which is included below. In brief, prompted by the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it was commissioned by the EFDSS and Folk by the Oak with support from the Houses of Parliament’s 2015 Anniversaries Programme, additional funding coming from the PRS for Music Foundation. Launched at Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster ahead of a short tour in November 2015, the songs were next performed at Folk by the Oak in July 2016, by which time they had been recorded ready for the release of the Sweet Liberties album in October.
So, what was the purpose of this year and a bit of activity from four of our best folk songwriters? To “compose new music in response to the rights and liberties that people have fought to achieve and protect over the past eight centuries”. A rather open ended brief but one that no doubt instantly appealed to these four songwriters. Martyn Joseph has long been a writer with a quest for social justice at the heart of his work. Nancy Kerr has shown herself ever more passionate about such concerns, and also environmental issues, as her focus has shifted from being an interpreter of traditional song towards song writing with a range of idioms at her fingertips. Sam Carter and Maz O’Connor may have a shorter track record but that’s surely a function of their relative youth, they each have songs in their catalogue highlighting concerns for our world and the people in it, songs that reveal a passion that could find a focus in Sweet Liberties. The song writing mix, then, is first class and to that were added two of the best musicians one could hope for, Patsy Reid on violin and viola and Nick Cooke on melodeon. Tom Wright gets producing, mixing and recording credits and also added bass guitar and drums when needed.
With access to both the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharpe House and, more unusually, the Parliamentary Archives, there would be no lack of inspiration when it came to picking topics for songs. But, in one of the fascinating aspects of Sweet Liberties, the songs have often developed a will of their own, taking the brief into far from predictable areas. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening track from Nancy Kerr. In her notes, Nancy admits Kingdom began life as an exploration of the original intent of Magna Carta, to ensure the monarch, as much as his subjects, was governed by English law. But it’s easy to imagine Nancy, musing on the phrase “the law of the land”, quickly linking across to the concept of land as a commodity that can be owned and so we have a song examining the consequences of land ownership and management, for the people who don’t own it and even more so for the animals that need the land’s riches simply to survive as a species.
I could write paragraphs about each of the songs, some tell a very direct story, Martyn Joseph’s Nye, paying tribute to Nye Bevan and the hundreds of thousands who have subsequently worked in the health service that he was so instrumental in creating. Others are far more oblique, Maz O’Connor’s This Old House is a little bit about the Houses of Parliament, rather more an allegorical tale of democracy and compromise. But I shouldn’t write about every song, one of the joys of listening to this album is in fleshing out your own version of the pictures the songs paint. We also mustn’t forget these are songs not merely stories and very good songs they are too.
As you’d expect, the songwriter takes the lead vocal on each of ‘their’ tracks but only on a couple have they chosen to limit themselves to just the single voice with acoustic guitar. For the remainder, there’s been extensive collaboration, leading to some impressive arrangements, the contrast with the two stripped back tracks enriching the texture of the whole album. The contributions of Patsy Reid and Nick Cooke are outstanding, never more so than when Patsy’s strings and Nick’s melodeon combine. I could single out Sam Carter’s Am I Not A Man where their interplay so effectively builds behind Sam’s acoustic guitar, but in truth virtually all the songs get the benefit of the golden touch these two can bestow. Both Maz O’Connor and Sam Carter bring electric guitars into the mix, each adding a very different sound, bright and crisp from Maz on her song, This Old House, smooth and flowing from Sam on Martyn’s Twelve Years Old.
Vocally there’s also plenty of variety, choruses frequently get the benefit of two, three or four voices whilst some of the most effective passages combine a male with a female voice, Martyn’s Dic Penderyn or Sam’s Dark Days, sometimes with harmonies, sometimes unison but the female voice always a welcome addition. For Martyn’s Twelve Years Old, it is Sam who joins Martyn on the vocal, each man’s voice telling the story of one of the twelve-year-olds of the title. The final track, Sam’s One More River, one of the several songs that draw inspiration from the long fight for the abolition of slavery, has the style of a gospel song and fittingly ends in four part acapella. A musical illustration of the close understanding that must have developed during the writing, performing and recording of these songs.
There are fourteen songs on Sweet Liberties, each one well able to stand comparison with the best of the writer’s previous work. But, assembled here, they are so much more. All the sponsors of this project can be well pleased with the body of music they have enabled, music capable both of entertaining us and of reminding us of rights, privileges and liberties that we may often have taken for granted. Given the political upheavals of the last few months, the timing could hardly have been bettered.
Live Concert at Cecil Sharp House – recorded by London Folk Music:
Sweet Liberties is Out Now