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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Sunday, February 19, 2006
    Keeping folk radical
    "There is no such thing as political murder, or political bombing, or political violence; there is only criminal murder, or criminal bombing, or criminal violence," said Thatcher, as mendaciously as always, trying to deflect attention from her state-sponsored aggression during the Miners' Strike.

    The quote came during the final part of BBC Four's excellent series Folk Britannia, which investigated the links between the political protests of the 1980s and the modern folk revival. Reflecting on the vital contribution of Christy Moore during this period, one contributor said that "This was a time when you could stand up and be counted - from the context of traditional music." Billy Bragg told of how his mobility (one man, a guitar and amp) took him to gigs all over the coalfields of the time and that playing these miners' benefits transformed his mind from a previously Dylanesque politics of "personal transformation" to something far more radicalised.

    One stirring image from the archives featured Arthur Scargill presenting Ewan McColl with a miners lamp in recognition of his contribution to the labour movement. How inspiring to be reminded of the power of a music when it mines the deep seams of a people's hard experience. How good to see this series conclude portraying the current folk scene(s) in such good shape, including a radical tradition quieter than in those heady days but by no means buried.

    One sign of this is the BBC's revival of Ewan McColl and Pete Seeger's 1960s documentary series, the Radio Ballads. These documentaries broke new ground by featuring the the words of the actual participants themselves as recorded in real life; real-time sound effects also recorded on the spot, and McColl / Seeger songs based on the recordings. The BBC calls them 'Masterpieces of radio, weaving the voices of rarely-heard communities with songs written from and about the recorded experiences of the interviewees'.

    "At that time working class voices were virtually unheard at the BBC", says Jimmy Reid, trade unionist, and another Norris Green notable, the journalist Gillian Reynolds said "They broke the mould of radio programmes".

    The original programmes were about railwaymen, roadbuilders, fishing communities, coalminers, polio sufferers, teenagers, boxers and travellers. Radio Two have commissioned a new series, with songwriters of the calibre of John Tams, Karine Polwart, Jez Lowe, Cara Dillon, Ray Hearne, Julie Matthews and Tommy Sands; their subjects are the decline of Sheffield and Rotherham's steel industries, modern stories of people living with HIV/AIDS, both sides of the story of hunting with hounds, the travelling people who run Britain's fairgrounds, sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, and the shipyards of Tyne & Wear and the Clyde.

    Should be stirring stuff, in a really great British tradition. The series starts next Monday.