Shake the Chains: Nancy Kerr, Hannah Martin, Greg Russell, Findlay Napier, Tim Yates
Quercus Records – 15th September 2017
Following The Elizabethan Session and the wonderful Sweet Liberties, Shake the Chains is the latest commission from the Folk by the Oak festival, with support from Arts Council England, Help Musicians UK and Folk Alliance International. Inspired by Greg Russell’s recent undergraduate dissertation on the importance of song in protest movements, it brings together a wealth of talented musicians to craft an album with real punch and resonance. It serves as a vital example of how protest song is needed as a tool of both catharsis and communication in these troubled times.
The live album was recorded during its first tour in February this year (new shows along with some special guests are to be announced for January/February 2018). The core line-up for Shake the Chains is both extensive and impressive – Nancy Kerr, Findlay Napier, Hannah Martin, Greg Russell & Tim Yates. Between them, they cover a range of topics from nuclear disarmament to Alan Turing and Nigel Farage. More well-known protest songs are scattered throughout the album alongside original compositions, including ‘If I Had a Hammer’, ‘Ding Dong Dollar’, ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ and the renowned ‘We Shall Overcome’. These are well done, sounding fresh and powerful, and sung with an enthusiasm which means that you can’t help joining in. Of course, the instrumentation is accomplished and clever, and the vocals talented, but it’s the lyrics that really make this album shine, and it’s those that deserve your time. Without exception, each topic is handled with a blend of respect and honesty that makes this album something incredibly special.
The first track is ‘Through the Trees’ from Nancy Kerr; a tribute to women like her mother who fought for nuclear disarmament at Greenham Common. Sound-wise, it’s an upbeat opening, and a light instrumentation leaves plenty of room for Nancy’s wonderful vocals and chilling lyrics at odds with the jaunty tune. “upon barbed wire around the base, our mothers twined our baby lace”. A lovely acoustic final verse shows off everyone’s vocal abilities and sets the tone for what’s to come. This theme of strong women is woven throughout the album, including ‘Yarl’s Wood’ (Hannah Martin), which was motivated by the ‘Set Her Free’ campaign to end the detention of women in the UK, and ‘E.G.A’, from Greg Russell, inspired by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor. The latter track features another rousing chorus “They say you’ll never have your day/Your magic and your ideals we’ll drive them all away”, and this is just one of the refrains on the album which you could easily imagine becoming used at protests.
There’s More to Building Ships is the song I left singing after seeing Shake the Chains live (after a few rousing choruses of “Ye Cannae Spend A Dollar” of course…). Written by Findlay Napier following a conversation with his retired father, it addresses the unseen consequences of withdrawing government support from large industries. Following in the tradition of those many powerful songs that deal with the legacies of mining, the beautiful twisting melody acts as a background to lyrics which address the inherent contradictions of the decline of shipbuilding – a career that had serious medical consequences for many, but that’s still a vital part of many livelihoods. These lyrics are cutting, and “there’s more to building ships than a nostalgic ache and pride” reminds the listener that the romance of many industrial songs hides a darker truth.
Among the bleak truths, there are moments of humour, and one of these is the wittily crafted ‘Bunch Next Door’, which plays on the comments made by Nigel Farage in 2014 regarding multicultural neighbourhoods, and wonders what it would be like to live in a neighbourhood with Nigel. This review isn’t the political space to go into what he had to say about a thinly disguised ‘Don’, ‘Tone’, ‘Paul’ and ‘Nige’, but there’s talk of walls and all-inclusive holidays in the Middle-East, which makes for a hilarious and well-crafted take on a traditional blues style. In ‘Side by Side’, Tim Yates deals with similar material in a very different way. It’s a sparse song of the tensions within communities, initially written from the point of view of a child. “Oh, father why can’t I play with my neighbour/you say that we are divided” is set perfectly over the double bass, and reminds the listener of the searingly simple and far-reaching consequences of human prejudice. In its simple and heart-breaking message, this is my favourite track of the album. Another unflinching personal story is “Poison Apples”, a moving tribute to Alan Turing, the WW2 codebreaker who faced vilification from the government because of his homosexuality, and committed suicide using cyanide in 1954. The apple tree imagery is both beautiful and affecting, and there is a raw power to the lyrics, which juxtapose the cosiness of a seaside café with the harsh realities of homophobia. The final chorus may well have you in triumphant tears. “But I’ll walk along the promenade with whomever I choose/and all the twisted trees can keep their poison apples”.
Moving from the personal to the natural, ‘Glory of the Sun’ is a song that both highlights and provides hope for the environmental crisis that ‘still we could lift the blinds, still we could say/there is glory in the sun’. Hannah Martin borrows words from Robert Macfarlane’s 2015 publication ‘Landmarks’ to create a beautiful ode to the natural world featuring throbbing string instrumentation used to great effect. ‘Song of the Jay’ is another of Hannah’s offerings inspired by the natural world, and the western scrub jay, which seems to ‘hold funerals’ for other birds, regardless of species. It’s a gentle arrangement, but nevertheless, there is no let up in the emotional intensity of the album.
In terms of intensity, one of the most graphic offerings is ‘Musician from Chile/Victor Jara of Chile’; the musical setting of a poem about the brutal murder of a member of the New Chilean Song Movement. It’s a poignant reminder of the power of song to communicate messages of freedom and political change, and the gentle vocals are undercut by lyrics of torture and electric shocks. This might sound heavy-handed, except it’s anything but, and the track encapsulates the album’s ability to deliver a strong message in a flawless musical package.
‘Shake the Chains’ was crafted as the project anthem by Findlay Napier, borrowing parts of Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’. Findlay writes in the album notes that he needed ‘something to shout myself awake and inspire me to get active and get marching’, and this track certainly delivers. It’s a pithy statement of the views many people hold about those they think of as today’s unengaged youth. “What’s the point of voting, nothing changes anyway…all of our energy dissipates on the screen, and we’re too tired to go out marching in the street”. Findlay’s angry growl may well prove a jolt of reality for many. This reality check is one of the central goals of the album, and one that it achieves in spades. With passion, respect, and immense musical talent, Shake the Chains have created a powerful and inspiring album, which deserves to be heard on the streets as well as indoors. Listen, sing, and go and change the world.