Shake the Chains at Sheffield Firth Hall opened with a reading in a rich Scots braw by Findlay Napier:
“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy
So began a remarkable and moving exploration of the common ground between folk music and the politics of protest.
What followed was an evening of protest songs old and new; played and sung by some of the very best voices in folk music at the moment, more than ably led by guitarist and singer Greg Russell. Greg is best known for his work with Ciaran Algar and as a part of Nancy Kerr’s Sweet Visitor band, but Greg also has a keen interest in the role of the protest song in these divergent times as he revealed in his recent interview with Folk Radio UK here.
He has assembled an enviable cast of singers and musicians to chart some of the history, and also the here and now, of protest songs, as well as some special guests for each of the concerts.
Joining Greg was Nancy Kerr, whose most recent album, Instar featured a number of songs that dissect and describe the times we live in; Hannah Martin, best known for her work with Philip Henry; Tim Yates, bass player with Blackbeard’s Tea Party; Nancy’s Sweet Visitor Band; and Findlay Napier, who I had not seen before, but who really impressed.
For the Sheffield gig, the special guest was the local legend and national treasure Martin Simpson.
The evening had songs that were both familiar and also many specially written for the project. Greg started the evening with a reworking of the classic ‘If I had a Hammer’, popularised by Pete Seeger, and perhaps seen as hackneyed and clichéd by many, probably through over familiarisation and a million dull retreads. Russell takes the song and strips it back to its roots as a call to arms, and adds some delicacy and subtlety, whilst retaining its strident hope and passion.
This was not an evening of hectoring or sloganeering but an evening of stories. Sometimes funny, sometimes angry, often moving, always human.
The Immigration Centre at Yarl’s Wood was brought into focus by Hannah Martin. She sang mournfully, with a barely concealed anger, of someone who found themselves behind those walls awaiting deportation, incarcerated in spite of not having committed a crime.
‘I came to Yarl’s Wood
And I dreamed no more of trees’
Nancy Kerr sang a specially written song about mathematician Alan Turing, code breaker and one of the fathers of computing, who ate an apple laced with cyanide rather than dealing with the shame of living as someone whose love broke the law.
[he] turned cypher into song
And mystic into music
All he got for his reward
Was Poisoned Apples
Beginning with the human cost of building ships, to people and communities, Findlay Napier sang an old CND march song Ding Dong Dollar. He also delivered a driving, hard, bluesy Freedom Come All Ye, a song specially written for Shake the Chains about how ‘action’ is not sharing stuff on Facebook alone. A modern generations answer to Billy Bragg’s ‘wearing badges is not enough, in days like these’.
And then there was the special Shake the Chains guest Martin Simpson, whose songs included Ridgeway, a new song about the complex relationship between humanity and the land, and how the mystic, artificial landscape relates to our modern world.
His performance was bookended by two of the angriest and most moving songs in the protest canon: Leon Rosselson’s Palaces of Gold and Bob Dylan’s Masters of War. The latter was an extraordinary performance that captured the anger and seething contempt for those who would take us to war. It was stark, raw and visceral.
So many songs, so many ideas, so much positivity. From Victor Jara’s hands, broken by his captors, prior to being machine gunned to death; birds who hold funerals for other birds (the Californian blue jay); Dublin dockers refusing to unload apartheid South African oranges; the first female doctor; Greenham Common Peace Camp, through to the Buffalo Springfield classic For What It’s Worth, this was an evening to lift the most sullen heart in these trying times and to point the way to a better future.
The evening proved that politics and protest could be articulate and delicate as well as straightforward and strident. The songs contained anger, sadness, humour, righteousness and humanity. And not a little harmony and melody too.
Shake the Chains finished with an a capella We Shall Overcome, the Pete Seeger theme bringing everything full circle. All gathered around a single mic, all of the performers, Martin Simpson included, took the song back from overwrought and over pronounced cliché, and gave it power and resonance. As an audience, we all joined in. And that is the point: together we can be harmonious and unvanquishable.