We Shall Overcome - Talking To Joe Solo

"We figured that calling Tories names for five years had just resulted in the Tories getting in…"

On the 8th May Joe Solo and Stephen Goodhall decided to stop the name calling and do something positive. A weekend was picked (2nd, 3rd and, 4th of October) and the call went out to like-minded souls for a few gigs. In a little over two months the initial thought of around twenty had increased six fold across the country and as far afield as North America.

We met for a coffee in Joe's adopted home town of Scarborough on a sunny summer's afternoon looking under Spa Bridge and over South Bay where the next stop would be Northern Germany. Unlike many, Joe predicted a Conservative win: "If anybody asked me what I thought, I thought there would be a slim Tory majority. I get a feeling for what people think, because I ask and they venture forth - you could just tell they were disgruntled with the Tories and equally disgruntled with Labour and when that happens nothing changes. We knew the Libdems were finished - it was about how big the majority."

The thing that first strikes you about Joe Solo is that he is exactly the same when you talk to him as when you see him sat on stage with a guitar in hand, a tambourine strapped to his leg and a maraca in his shoe, when you listen to his show on Radio Scarborough or when you read what he has to say on Facebook - the medium of choice for spreading the We Shall Overcome word. The name came from Tony Wright, leader of Barnsley band The Hurriers and in short time Jamie Bramwell and Matt Hill aka Quiet Loner were on board and the WSO Gang of Five were born.

They have kept the WSO message strong and to the point; anti-austerity and non-party political. The gigs are free, the artists are playing for free, and the venues are putting on the gigs for free. All that is asked is a donation to a local food bank which gives direct, real support to those who most need it - and also causes most discomfort to all the political parties.

I ask Joe what towns were the 'early adopters': "Widnes would have done as that is Ste's (Stephen Goodall) home town, I'm pretty sure that we got Scarborough quite soon after 'cause that's mine. Matt (Hill) brought Glossop in really quickly, Ulverston in the Lakes came in really quickly, Sheffield did as well and London because Thee Faction had a gig in London that they wanted to give us. I think, by the end of the second day we had those." By the end of the first week they had fifty towns and Joe thought they would be lucky to have 130 towns by the end as some would come on but some would fall away.

The conversation moves onto the types of bands who will be playing: "We've gots loads; there's rock, there's punk, there's folk. There's DJ stuff, there's dub, the more we can get on the better. The punks took to it quite naturally because any excuse to have a punk all-dayer and they're away with it! They understood it straight away because that's the sort of thing they've done for years - it appealed to their tribal instincts. Those guys are fantastic as they are networked all over the UK anyway, they're swapping bands and saying 'we're doing this, what about you'. He then adds with a glint and a smile that with punks there is a cut-off point when they won't do it anymore as "the natural punk antipathy to something that is popular will kick so all the others won't do it because they are doing it. I'm surprised we haven't had a 'We Shan't Overcome" because they are, as a friend described 'obstropicant'".

There are other, non-musical, events over the weekend; an art auction, psychogeographical and radical history walks and even snooker "it's getting a message across through media it's not usually associated with. It used to be folk music (that shared stories). You only have to look at the name, but gradually folk, has become gentrified, you can do degrees in it and it's become very much middle class, respecting how tastefully someone plays the violin rather than the guts of the story they were trying to tell." Some of it, I interject, and Joe nods "Some of It, some of it has lost its metaphor. The captain after the whale and the shepherd boy in the field with the lady of the manor, were metaphorical stories from peasants sat around the campfire in days of yore, essentially about getting one over on your boss have become little a little romantic ditty" There's plenty of alternative folk voices out there but's it's not everyone's cup of tea to like that sort of thing." It is hard to argue against the notion that mainstream folk has suffered from gentrification as much as most cities and towns.

Joe considers himself a political, rather than a protest singer as "songs can have a nasty habit of dictating your politics to you - it's very easy to wag your finger … I'm not telling you what to think, I'm telling stories…. This is a story from your history, it's up to you to decide if you are a part of it or not, to question and to think bout where you fit into the scheme of things. Folk music, all music really, because of the shrinking music industry and the over powering x factor set up laying mass culture before you - there's no Top of the Pops, no Peel sessions to get alternative voices out to you."

An hour goes past quickly in the company of Joe Solo. I think of trying to tempt him into another coffee but the half moon tables that were hanging from the railings outside the shop have gone, the chairs are nowhere to be seen and the owner is leaning on the door jamb waiting for us to finish up. Before I hand him our tray and apologise for keeping him waiting - which he answers with a shrug, a smile and a "no problem", there is an attempt to coax out Joe's favourite political songs. He tried deferring for a week, then, quite rightly, said that every generation identifies with someone different, but: "That song, We Shall Overcome for me transcends all those genres and is proof that music can change the world because it has affected so many generations and remains as powerful now as it did then. The fact you can name a movement after it and everybody instantly knows what it is about shows you how powerful that is - so if you get it right and you sing it in the right places, it's a massively powerful force for good. You'll never ever persuade me that music can't change the world because it changed mine."

WSO is the largest independent music festival the country, and quite possibly the world has seen. Thousands are involved, thousands of pounds will be raised, and thousands of donations will be given. All because a couple of people had a bit of a rant on Facebook and a few more and a few more and a few more decided to stop calling Tories names.

John 'The Jacket' Hawes

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