In the epilogue to his 2011 '33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs' book, author Dorian Lynsky somewhat pessimistically wondered whether he had written a eulogy. He need not have worried, on tonight's performances alone his concerns were well and truly blown out of the water.
Commissioned by Folk By The Oak Festival, with support from Arts Council England, Help Musicians UK and Folk Alliance International, and inspired by Greg Russell's history dissertation on the importance of song in the protest movement, Shake The Chains made their first live appearances in February 2017, followed by the release of an eponymous CD. Brought together by the aforementioned Greg Russell, (Ciaran Algar, The Transports), the group comprises a further four alumni of the folk world, with Nancy Kerr, (James Fagan, The Sweet Visitors, The Full English, The Transports), Hannah Martin, (The Roots Union, Phillip Henry/Edgelarks, Wake The Union Band, Gigspanner Big Band), Findlay Napier, (Chris Sherburn, The VIPs, Rebecca Loebe) and Tim Yates, (Albion Band, The Sweet Visitors, Blackbeard's Tea Party) adding their considerable talents to proceedings.
In the fairly recently refurbished surroundings of The Met, in Bury, Greg espoused the view, from the outset, that an aim was to inspire togetherness and community through protest in song, drawing not only on seminal songs in the history of the relationship between music and politics, but also through contemporary offerings, some of which have been specially written for the project.
Thus the opening song, If I Had A Hammer, the Pete Seeger/Lee Hays classic, was a perfect choice, engaging the audience from the off and a reminder just how popular some songs of protest have become, in this case on a global scale, not to mention probably being sung in virtually every British primary school. Whilst the overall timbre of the evening was tending towards the reflective, humour was also evident, with healthy banter between the group members; confusing Arnside with Arndale might just have been a first.
Taking the lead on songs is undertaken on a rotational basis with Shake the Chains, thus as on the CD, Greg's opener was followed by Nancy taking centre stage to deliver a moving rendition of her 'Poison Apples', a song which reflects on the story of Alan Turing, the famous World War 2 Enigma codebreaker, who committed suicide in 1954 having been vilified for for his homosexuality. Nancy added further resonance in explaining her pride, being half-Australian, in the recent, December 2017, decision to legalise same-sex marriage over there.
Hannah Martin then gave us a plaintive reminder of the detention of women seeking asylum in Britain, in particular the immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, 'Yarl's Wood'. Her voice seems to get sronger with the passage of time, and this song was particularly well received. (For further information and awareness raising visit http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk)
Step forward the mighty Findlay Napier. A seemingly natural story teller, with humour and wit to match, we learnt much about his domestic proximity to Faslane, before delivering, a cappella, The Glasgow Song Guild's 1960's anti-nuclear 'Ding Dong Dollar'.
One of the many features of the evening was the contexualisation of the songs given during their introductions, for me that is a plus. Thus, Greg explained that his 'E.G.A.' was a song inspired by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a medical Doctor in Britain, and also, later in life, the first female mayor. With Nancy's 'Whitechapel Reel' appearing mid-song, this fairly chugged along, with dual fiddles and guitars underpinned by Tim's double bass, providing the perfect accompaniment to Greg's powerful voice.
Not all songs played tonight appeared on the group's CD, however. Nancy's 'Defiance Of Mountains, was 'new' in the context of the STC project, although it has previously been aired live when she has appeared with The Sweet Visitor Band. Nancy wrote this song for her auto-harp playing activist mother, who was inspired by her meeting with a Cuban soldier in the 1960's. Having been informed that the revolution in Britain was not imminent, the soldier asked if there were mountains in the UK, because if there were, then everything would be alright, because, as was explained, throughout history, dictators have had a fear of wilderness. Given the richness of this song, one can only wonder what inspiration Nancy might draw if indeed she manages a visit to Castro's Comandancia de la Plata mountain hideout in the Sierra Maestra.
Sound gremlins meant that the quintet stepped stage front in order to begin to deliver Hannah's 'Song of the Jay' sans amplification, but this was not, ultimately, necessary, as presumably one of Findlay's spare dollars was found for the meter. What a great song it is too. Relating to the 'compassion' thread of the project, the song's subject matter concerns scientists' research which shows that Californai scrub jay 'hold funerals' for other birds.
Inspired, as he informed us, by multi-cutlural neighbourhoods such as the one in which Nancy lives, together with an episode of South Park, Tim took lead vocals on his own composition 'Side By Side'.
With lines such as
'Oh mother, why can't I sing with my neighbour
You say that we are divided
The laws you pas will not come between us
Love is a tide, side by side
We sing united'
he seems to embody the spirit and essence of the project, and I, for one, can't wait to hear more of his song writing.
Following an amusing capitalist pitch encouraging the purchase of a vast range of merchandise, the first set came to a musical conclusion with Findlay's superb reworking of Hamish Henderson's epic 1960's 'Freedom Come All Ye', in his words, "One of Scotland's four unofficial national anthems"
The second half began with the opning track from the CD, Nancy's 'Through The Trees', another song written for her mother and all those involved in the Greenham Common protests of the 1980s. With 'Building Ships', Findlay paid homage to all those involved involved in the shipbuilding industry. although he could not resist a bit of self-deprecation, (or was it tongue-in-cheek critiscism of his proof readers?), in admitting that the opening line 'There's more to building ships than smashing champagne off the stern', would actually require the ship to be launched backwards!
Announced as a song for Trump, May and the Conservative Party in general, Hannah's 'Glory Of the Sun' was a comment on repeated cuts to renewable energy subsidies, the abolition of The Department for Energy and Climate Change and the general scorn shown towards the natural world.
On this tour, as on the previous one, different guest artist(s) appeared at each venue. Tonight, Commoners Choir, (no apostrophes, please note, grammar police), more than capably filled the role, to paraphrase the tee-shirt,'The Commoners Choir certainly put the 'Oi' in Choir'. Led by fell-running polymath Boff Whalley, their short, sweet and harmonious contribution was described thus in Boff's handwritten setlist - Arse Angry Jeremy Woody Shanty Hope. Thus opener Get Off Your Arse, a song imploring one to do exactly what it says on the tin, epitomised the raison d'etre of this self-confessed 'bunch of ne'er-do-wells in Yorkshire', a piece, incidentally which earlier in the evening Findlay had somewhat enviously conceeded had communicated in four words what he had tried to say in an entire song! At least he had the pleasure of leading a verse in Citizen Shanty, a glorious celebration of welcome with its 'And you're more than, more than welcome welcome here 'cos you're citizens of the world' chorus, whilst not removing the roof as hoped for, at least shook the tiered-seating. If you have not seen them perform I strongly urge you to do so, it is truly an uplifting and exhilarating experience, yes, there is rage and anger but, ultimately, one is left with a feeling of hope. Their eponymous CD, released in 2017, is also a must-have. (Read Dave Kidman's FATEA review here http://www.fatea-records.co.uk/magazine/reviews/CommonersChoir/)
The return of STC for the final section of the evening saw the second new song, Line Two, an ode to High Speed Two and its impact on Mexborough and surroundings, before Nancy introduced one of the centre-pieces of both the live set and the CD, the Musician From Chile/Victor Jara Of Chile, reminding us that International issues should be on the agenda as much as domestic. Denis Kevans's poem, set to music by Nancy's sister Kate Fagan, bookends Adrian Mitchell's words commemorating Victor Jara, is a hauntingly chilly indictment of man's inhumanity to man, and the performance delivered tonight was utterly stunning. Nancy's crystal clear vocals, enhanced by both echo effects and Hannah's fiddle, made for a 'hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck raising' scenario.
The penultimate offering, a song which is recognised as the group's anthem, the cunningly titled Shake The Chains, possibly encapsulates the project, with its chorus
'No one will do it for you
We are many they are few
Shake the chains'
A certain symmetry was established with the encore, as Commoners Choir returned to join STH for We Shall Overcome, which, whilst written by Charles Albert Tindley, was made famous by Pete Seeger. Tonight's rendition was memorable; with the choir obviously adding both volume and emotion from the stage, but the audience too, were also in full voice, and once again one could physically feel the seating move. Live highlight of the year so far for me.
An overview of the evening? If one agrees that protest in song is needed both as a tool of catharsis and communication, then tonight's performances delivered on this. If aims of the project included to inspire, inform and celebrate protest, then, once again, mission accomplished. For some, protest through song seems to require levels of vitriol and mordancy, Dave Rovics and Keegan McInroe spring to mind, for me, Shake The Chains show that there are differing routes to achieve the same ends.
This is the third time that I have seen STC, and whilst the previous two occasions were both excellent and most enjoyable, I'm glad I made the trek up from Kent, for tonight they seem to have reached another level, both musically and in their interactions as a cohesive unit. There is an obvious synergy and full-on enjoyment that comes from familiarity.
What a pity then that this may be their last tour together. I sincerely hope not, but if it is to be the case, thanks for the memories and legacy, and thanks too to Neil Pearson. The only other possible crumbs of comfort, (straw-clutching mode engaged):-
1. Get the CD (reviewed here http://www.fatea-records.co.uk/magazine/reviews/ShakeTheChains)2. With the possible exception of Tim's Blackbeard's Tea Party, (correct me if I'm wrong Tim), all of the others involved sing songs from the project when performing in their other capacities.
See Commoners Choir video from the concert here:- https://youtu.be/pYsmMBiYHBU
Words and pictures David Pratt
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