Topic Records and the GFTU (General Federation of Trade Unions) have released a double CD compilation of songs about working lives and struggles. Amongst those who appear are Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Roy Harris, Anne Briggs and a host of others. Twenty- nine tracks in all encompassing a wide range of traditional and modern songs all performed with passion, honesty and integrity.
Highlights for me are Roy Bailey’s rendition of ‘Hard Times of Old England’, a song which always puts me in mind if The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Reading it many years ago the book stood as a condemnation of the world in which my grandparents had grown up; re reading it recently it is now a terrifying vision of a future that is not too far away. Roy Harris is here with a great performance of ‘Poverty Knocks’. Many of us will remember Roy singing this at clubs in the 1960’s. Then it seem that poverty was on the brink of defeat; now it knocks ever more insistently at the door.
One of my favorites comes from the incomparable Paul Robson. His version of ‘Joe Hill’ towers above others and it from him that many of my generation in the Labour Movement learned the song. I recall being told by one of the projectionists at the Odeon Cinema in Nottingham how Paul had performed there in the late 1950s and on being told that there was a large crowd outside who had been unable to get in went out on to the pavement and sang for them! This is the man who had his passport removed by the Champions of Freedom in the White House who more lately have turned our own Parliament into its poodle.
Paddy Ryan’s uproarious ‘The Man that Waters the Workers Beer’ richly deserves its place. Just as true now as when he wrote it in the 1950s ( £3.00 a pint for chemical garbage, we’d never pay that would we….but we do, we do and the landlords and brewers still have their cars and aeroplanes and with the convenience of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Camoron have managed to avoid the tax on meths and water!!) Join CAMRA and persuade them all to buy a copy of this CD.
Not all the tracks work completely for me. The version of ‘General Ludd’s Triumph’ by M.G. Boulter is not a patch on the magnificent and defiant version by Roy Harris which can be found on his Topic album The Bitter and the Sweet. The version of ‘The International’ by the Topic singers does not really come off. This is a big song and needs a choir of hundreds to do it justice; though at the other end of the spectrum Robert Wyatt makes a good job of it. The problem with things that are in the middle is that they tend to fall down the middle. These views are of course subjective and others will listen and make up their own minds. Whilst we’re on with subjective views its a pity that room couldn’t be found for Dick Gaughan’s version of the ‘Workers Song ‘and/or ‘Revolution’. Perhaps this is the start of an argument for a Voice and Vision Volume 2! This would be a good idea but will only happen if the current one sells well; do your bit brothers and sisters!
These slight criticisms aside overall the CD is a remarkable production and Topic and the GFTU are to be congratulated for having the vision to reaffirm the power of song and the role that it has, does and will play in the fight for a better future, a fight in which like it or not circumstances conscript us all! At £9.99 a copy it is also real value for money.
Like any good night out at a folk club or a concert the evening should go out on a high and this CD goes out on a bang and a whoosh! It starts with ‘Saltley Gates’ which combines oral history, real people from Birmingham talking about the impact of that historic day in real Birmingham accents (something which eludes the media community who can only conceive of working class accents as parody and for whom any ‘northern’ accent descends into a sort of Sheffichesterpool insult). I remember seeing the news of Saltley Gates on the BBC news just after I’d got in from work and literally leaping out on my chair. This track has the same effect. Then there is Norma Waterson with ‘Coal Not Dole’. Thirty years after the great strike and twenty-five after the criminal destruction of the industry this song raises the hairs on the back of your neck and is an eloquent reminder of the damage done to us all by a cynical government act for which they have yet to be brought to account. Peggy Seeger turns in an amazing performance with ‘If You Want a Better Life’. It rolls along beautifully and it obvious purpose and commitment puts the wind in your sails and takes you out into the world to face and overcome any challenge that might be thrown. I’ve never heard this track before and I’m wondering where I’ve been for the last fifty years. The final track, ‘War’. a reggae number, yes oh yes. What a way out.
The Bookshop has this CD in stock and will shortly have a good range of Topic and ECM CDs on sale.