Three Score & Ten, A Voice to the People: 70 Years of the Oldest Independent Record Label in Great Britain
[Topic TOPIC70 (2009), 7-CD + book]
This folk omnibus includes several pictures of Pete Seeger and one of his recordings of Woody Guthrie’s “Talking Union Blues.” Seeger urged unionization alongside Guthrie in the 1930s, promoted civil rights in 1950s with Odetta, protested the Vietnam War in 1960s with Phil Ochs, and crusaded for the environment for decades on the sloop Clearwater. Through the years, Seeger led assemblies through a catalog of traditional songs and compositions that Ochs liked to call “topical songs.” For Seeger, protest and music were inextricable because songs bound people together, and together the people could change the status quo.
On the other side of the Atlantic, protest and music were wed, as well, in the service of many of the same causes. The cast of characters recorded by Topic Records included some known to Americans, but many more who are known primarily in Great Britain and Ireland. In 1939, the Workers’ Music Association (WMA) founded Topic Records to distribute “topical” songs. Seven decades later, the company has decided to celebrate its longevity with a seven-disc set. The history of Topic is told in a handsomely designed (albeit indifferently edited) 108-page coffee table book with the discs embedded in the inside covers.
“The WMA was founded in 1936 as an educational offshoot of the British Marxist Party, when five London Socialist choirs met to perform together,” the anonymous author writes. “The composer Alan Bush, with support of many like-minded people, founded the WMA as part of the general movement to encourage international solidarity in the struggle to contain the menace of fascism and to provide workers with a home to express their hopes and wishes through music.”
Bush and A.L. “Bert” Lloyd were the giants of Topic’s early years. Bush was a Royal Academy- and university-trained musician and scholar who joined the Communist Party in 1935. Like Bush, Lloyd was a Communist. Unlike Bush, he was almost entirely self-educated, working as sheep farmhand, a whaler, and a journalist before being acknowledged as a folk scholar. Born to the urban working class, Lloyd emphasized the tradition of industrial workers’ songs and was an accomplished singer and arranger. His influence at Topic increased after Bush’s death in 1955.
Through the first 30 years of the label’s existence, most of its recordings were done in makeshift spaces in pubs, private homes, churches, and even a crypt. Given these circumstances, the quality of the recordings is nothing short of remarkable. Engineers Dick Swettenham and Bill Leader are (properly) lionized as modern-day wizards, sandbagging windows, arranging microphones, and working around the schedules of passing trains.
This collection includes five thematic CDs bookended by two CDs that serve as grab bags from the label’s catalog. “England Arise!” includes 19 traditional songs and one contemporary composition, “A Place Called England,” sung by June Tabor. In a world where Scottish and Irish music dominates the folk racks under the label of “Celtic music,” this disc introduces the listener to the quieter drama of Albion. Every corner of the small country is represented, and every type of arrangement. Tabor and Martin Carthy (with Brass Monkey) have full bands loaded with horns and strings. Louie Fuller and Walter Pardon have only their own voices. On the immortal “Blackwater Side,” a darkly compelling Anne Briggs accompanies herself on guitar and introduces a vocal style that became a model for the folk revival.
“Ireland Boys, Hurrah” features tracks recorded in London, Ireland, Edinburgh, and New York. Again, an impressive variety is presented on one disc. The many-noted dance music that most people under 40 think of as “Irish music” is represented by Jackie Daly and the Irish Country Four. But there are also sean nós singers here, including Sarah Makem and Joe Heaney; haunting solo uilleann pipe tunes from Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy; pub singers such as Margaret Barry and Frank Harte; and even an old-fashioned fake Irish ballad (“My Irish Molly O”) from the Flanagan Brothers.
“Scotia the Brave” employs a strategy similar to the Irish disc to provide a cross-section of Scottish traditional music. The Battlefield Band and Kentigern rollick through the jigs and the reels; Belle Stewart, Cilla Fisher, and Isabel Sutherland thrill you with their voices alone; and Dick Gaughan and Ray and Archie Fisher define the Scottish folk style that contributed so much to American balladry and eventually country music.
“The Singer and the Song” finds pop encroaching on folk territory. John Tams’s “Unity (Raise Your Banners High)” expresses time-honored Topic sentiments, but in a musical style that falls somewhere between late Fairport Convention and Southern California. This disc explores the evolution of the folk song, an expression of a group sentiment, into the pop song, an expression of individual sentiment. At one end of the spectrum, Bob Davenport’s “Police Patrol” describes living with the IRA in the neighborhood; at the other, Martin Simpson’s “Never Any Good” is about his own unhappy relationship with his father.
With “The People’s Flag,” the archivists at Topic bring you full circle to their beginnings, even kicking off the disc with “The Man That Waters the Worker’s Beer,” the label’s first release. Although there are well-known songs throughout these discs, upon hearing Ewan MacColl’s versions of his own “Dirty Old Town” and the traditional “To the Begging I Will Go,” you will almost see Shane MacGowan (Pogues) and Jim Malcolm (Old Blind Dogs) crouched over their phonographs as kids, making the songs their own. Which also makes the point that not all topical songs are hectoring; some are just iconic depictions of hard lives.
Something this big and sprawling creates an elaborate context, a veritable landscape of sound. Alongside promontories like MacColl, Carthy and the Watersons, Battlefield Band, and Archie Fisher you will find fertile valleys such as Sam Larner, the Cheviot Ranters, and John Burgess. Many of these latter folk performers made the music as an expression of their own vernacular cultures learned from their family and neighbors. Also present here are fog-shrouded peaks like Briggs and Lloyd, whose names are perhaps more famous than their own voices.
This monumental portmanteau of music is nothing less than a grand tour of seven decades of British and Irish folk: pastoral and industrial, personal and political, acoustic and electric, male and female, and all very peculiarly of these islands. Compared to the unvarnished earnestness of the Hudson River folk of my youth, a weariness and melancholy permeates and colors this music. Although the Brit tradition influenced American folk (e.g., Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”), the Americans tend to careen between angry-to-sardonic fingerpointing and solipsism in natural fibers. Topic preserves the records of folk musicians living with history, documenting the dignity of the past and longing for grace, for themselves and for everyone.
—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)
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[Editor’s note: An editorial error drastically changed the intent of the penultimate sentence. The author’s original has been restored.]