Topic Records, and its huge catalogue of wonderful music, has long had a place in my heart. It was through that label that I first became acquainted with performers such as Martin Carthy, June Tabor, Dick Gaughan and Ewan McColl and it was through them that I learned about the rich history of folk music in the British Isles. In fact, in no small way, this independent record company -- the oldest independent record label in the world -- was hugely important in supporting and spreading the second folk revival of the post -WWII Britain. While the first revival, in the late 19th and early 20th century, focused on and was inspired by rural folksong, the second revival, from 1945 until the late ‘60s, found a large part of its voice in the industrial, working-class areas of the country — miners, shipbuilders, factory workers had replaced the shepherds and milkmaids. And, while Topic was busy recording ground-breaking albums by the likes of Nic Jones and Martin Carthy, it was also recording older and more traditional material in the field.
Which brings me to Voice of the People, a compilation of songs and instrumental music of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The first and largest series is a 20 CD set. While the mainstay of commercial success for the company lay in the sales by their ‘name’ artists, the performers on this compilation were mostly unknown outside of their own small communities. Many went on to be known broadly in the folk community but, with very few exceptions, tended not to be professional performers.
The series, which is organized thematically — Songs of Courtship and Marriage; Songs of Tempest and Sea Battles, Sailor Lads and Fishermen; Tragic Ballads; Songs of Emigration and Exile, etc., — and has close to 500 tracks. The majority of the material is vocal and unaccompanied but there are a couple of CDs devoted to dance music.
In recent years I've not been listening to so much music at home. It seems to already be everywhere one goes, from the gas station to the supermarket, from the restaurant to the airport lounge. So, at home I crave silence more than sound. But when I do listen, I find myself listening to older folk music and finding in it much of what I don't find in a lot of more modern or slickly performed folk music. This is not to be disparaging about new folk music. Some ensembles, such as Deep End of the Ford or The Imagined Village, are making soulful and rich work but both of those ensembles feature artists with a deep knowledge and understanding of the tradition.
For me a song that works is like a hand-written letter from an old friend. Even if the spelling or grammar are a bit dodgy and the writing difficult to read in places, I cherish it far higher than the beautiful prose of someone I don't know. And so it is with these songs and tunes. To listen quietly and with care is to be transported to a vibrantly alive and real place. And while, at first listening, these songs may have an amateurish feel to them, it soon becomes apparent just what wonderful performances they are and how strong the material is.
Among these tracks you'll find a couple of songs that Colcannon has performed, though from different sources -- The Bold Trooper, The Little Drummer -- and many that you may have heard of -- John Barleycorn, Matt Highland, Molly Bawn. And singers like Walter Pardon, Lizzie Higgins, Paddy Tunny and bands such as the lesser-known Britannia Coconut Dancers.
This is a goldmine of wonderful songs and an inspirational reminder of what's important about folk music. If you're not sure that you want to commit to the whole series, there's a compilation with a track from each of the twenty CDs, called The Voice of the People: A Selection from the Series of Anthologies. And, if your appetite is whet, and you can’t indulge yourself with the 20 CD set, be reassured that there are two other series, both on the shorter side, but both equally wonderful.
Here's a youtube of Walter Pardon singing Jack Hall.