At first glance there would be very little to link one of England's greatest houses with the story of popular protest beyond the fact that the inhabitants of Hatfield House would have been the object of the British Vox Populii's ire. However, in recent years, the park at Hatfield House has become home to the annual Folk By The Oak festival, the organisers of which have a proud track record in commissioning one off projects to draw attention to aspects of this nation's past and, in these tumultuous times, it is perhaps appropriate that their latest project explores and celebrates the role of song in social change, resistance and protest.
For Shake The Chains, Folk By The Oak has brought together five supremely talented performers and songwriters, namely Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell, Findlay Napier, Hannah Martin and Tim Yates interpret existing songs of protest and write material that reflects the nature of protest over the last two centuries.
Before we look at the original material on Shake The Chains, what can you expect from the cover versions? Well, I am sure that If I Had A Hammer and We Shall Overcome need no introduction, but their inclusion here shows just how well they have stood the test of time and how integral both have become in the protest movement even today. What may be of more interest though, is the inclusion some less well known, although equally well established, material. Of those, two are from Scotland whilst the other has its roots somewhat further away. Ding Dong Dollar is a product of the Glasgow Song Guild and is a song born out of the Anti-Polaris movement and delivers it's message, set to the tune of She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain, with a healthy dose of Glaswegian humour. Greg Russell's delivery gives the listener a feel of how the song would have sounded when sung on protests across Clydeside. Its recognisable tune and clever, yet memorable lyrics making Ding Dong Dollar a song that would be easily picked up. Findlay Napier takes the lead on the other Scots song. Freedom Come All Ye was written in 1960 by Hamish Hamilton as an anti-imperialist song and is now widely regarded as the alternative Scottish National Anthem, with Roy Williamson's Flower Of Scotland seemingly having taken the official position by default.
The final cover version is, for me, one of the highlights of Shake The Chains and is an object lesson in how art can be viewed as a threat by those in power. The song itself is Adrian Mitchell and Arlo Guthrie's Victor Jara Of Chile. Nancy Kerr takes the lead for this song of oppression and murder. The bookending of the song with Denis Kevans' poem Musician From Chile coupled with the understated score only serves to add to the impact of this powerful and moving arrangement. Not an easy story to tell but a very compelling telling.
Which brings us on to the new material written for the project. All the members of Shake The Chains have contributed at least one song, drawing on inspiration that comes for personal experience as well as what is being reported (or not, as the case may be) in the media.
The album opens with two tributes to inspirational women, first up is Nancy Kerr's Through The Trees is both a celebration of the women of Greenham Common and their fight for nuclear disarmament and protest at the fact that these weapons of mass destruction are still a threat to all our existences. That is followed by Greg Russell's E.G.A, a tribute to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who was not only the first woman to qualify as a doctor but also Britain's first female mayor. Nancy Kerr also draws on a historical figure for another highlight from this excellent album. Alan Turing's vilification by the state for his homosexuality led to the Enigma code breaker committing suicide in 1954. The gentleness of Poison Apples belies the power of its story of how the outrage and tears of everyday people can be the fuel for protest and change.
Given it's prominence in certain sections of the news and from particular rabble rousing politicians, it is perhaps no surprise that Immigration has given the inspiration for three very different songs on this album. In Yarl's Wood, Hannah Martin has chosen to highlight the alleged ongoing human rights abuses at the immigration removal centre of the same name and, in particular focusing on the Set Her Free campaign to end the detention of women who seek asylum in the UK. In The Bunch Next Door, Greg Russell has penned a humorous response to a certain former stockbrokers comments about Eastern Europeans moving in next Door, listen and see how many characters you can identify coming to the party. For his composition, Side By Side, Tim Yates has taken inspiration from the unlikely source of a South Park episode as well as multicultural neighbourhoods everywhere to examine through a child's eyes the inflammatory words of a right wing press, rational thought and the fact that we are all of the same species and, given the opportunity, we can all get along and muddle through together.
For her contributions to Shake The Chains, Hannah Martin has chosen to focus on matters environmental. Glory Of The Sun examines our current government's attitudes to renewable energy and the distain for the natural world shown by one particular world leader while Song Of The Jay asks what we can learn from the other creatures with which we share the planet, particularly the Western Scrub Jay, which has been observed to undertake funeral-like behaviour when they encounter a dead bird, no matter what species.
The only songs that I haven't mentioned so far are both contributions from Findlay Napier, Building Ships is inspired by a conversation that Findlay had with his father about the shipbuilding industry and the effects on the wider community when that industry is lost. Finally, Shake The Chains came out of a conversation about the need for a project anthem. Findlay took Shelley's poem The Masque and Marc Maron's words on keyboard activism to produce this song that, if there is any justice, will become a 21st century protest anthem, the memorable words and tune make that almost an inevitability, look out for it being sung on marches and demonstrations near you
A couple of years ago I came across an article in one of the left leaning daily papers arguing that the protest song was a dying breed. At the time I felt that the premise of the article was wrong and this album has only confirmed that opinion. The new compositions on Shake The Chains stand up to scrutiny when compared against their elder brethren showing that the art of the protest song is alive and well. This is a collection of songs that will make you smile, shed a tear, sing and most of all, think. If you haven't already done so, release your inner activist by adding this CD to your collection, you won't regret it.
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