Reviews

Voice + Vision: Songs Of Resistance, Democracy + PeaceVarious Artists
Album: Voice + Vision: Songs Of Resistance, Democracy + Peace
Label: Topic
Tracks: 29
Website: http://www.topicrecords.co.uk

Political statement and advocacy has always been a key part of the folk song tradition, and Topic Records was founded on exactly that basis, its inaugural (1939) release a 78 rpm disc pairing The Internationale with The Man That Waters The Workers' Beer. The label's subsequent history, although involving much diversifying into most imaginable realms of folk music, has never deserted the cause, continuing to issue, as a integral part of its release schedule, records which either directly espoused political ideals or argument, or which included more than just a token track or two with specifically (or indeed loosely) political content.

This new double-CD compilation certainly exemplifies both elements of its banner title, by employing the voice to empower the vision. And mighty, uncompromising, defiant and articulate voices they are too: an impressive array comprising many of our most renowned musical heroes who over the years have recorded for the Topic label. Inevitably, there's a built-in limitation stemming from use of (and necessary reliance on) the label's own catalogue, but most of the "usual suspects" (and a few less usual ones) are present and correct: Dick Gaughan's iconic account of The World Turned Upside Down kicks off the whole collection, and the procession through times of industrial unrest and social discontent continues in the capable hands (and of course voices) of Ewan MacColl (To The Begging I Will Go), Shirley Collins (Rigs Of The Time), Bob Davenport (Jerusalem), The Oldham Tinkers (Four Loom Weaver), Roy Harris (Poverty Knock), Louis Killen (Black Leg Miner), Paul Robeson (Joe Hill), Pete Seeger (Talking Union Blues), Martin Carthy (Dominion Of The Sword), Martin Simpson (Palaces Of Gold), John Tams (Harry Stone), and Norma Waterson (a truly magnificent a cappella account of Coal Not Dole).

Enterprisingly, though, the selection isn't exclusively restricted to the Topic label's output; half-a-dozen tracks (those by Roy Bailey, Leon Rosselson, Peggy Seeger, Chumbawamba, Banner Theatre and The First Of May Band) have been specially licensed from the appropriate labels or agencies. A further six tracks have been specially recorded for this project, by Fran Morter & Adam Rees, Kiti Theobald, M.G. Boulter, Brian Denny, also Jack Forbes (his own modern shanty Rolling Down The River) and - best of all - Piers Haslam (whose rediscovery of the broadside Free And Easy proves something of a revelation).

It will not escape notice that no fewer than three of the tracks are Leon Rosselson compositions, but I don't suspect any partisanship or ulterior motive in this selection! On the other hand, there will be some listeners who will bemoan the absence of Robb Johnson (or at least any examples of his songwriting) from this collection, and some will doubtless argue the proverbial toss over other specific omissions (did some wag suggest Alex Glasgow's ode to the achievements of Margaret Thatcher?). 'Twas ever thus, however… OK, so this could easily have stretched to a three- or four-disc box-set without diluting or compromising the message. But this is still a priceless collection, one compiled and sequenced (by the below-mentioned Doug Nicholls with the redoubtable David Suff) with an integrity matching that of the individual performances, the writing and the political vision.

The accompanying 24-page booklet usefully gives discographical references for the tracks, and its grand design incorporates a significant essay by Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions, in which (among other things) he sensibly discusses the songs themselves within the wider context of industrial and trade-union history. For the label's artists, too, were always "prophets for better times" - as they continue to be to this day.

David Kidman