A May Day visit today to a second-hand book sale at the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green, where I came across four wonderful political song books.
The most interesting is People's Parodies, published in 1938. The parodies were the work of Rufus Hogg - which might have been a pseudonym for Randall Swingler - with illustrations by the Daily Worker cartoonist, Gabriel. This sort of thing -
I can't imagine the parodies were much sung - but they do raise a smile
And the striking orange cover has a Gabriel drawing of Neville Chamberlain being done over by Mr Punch - who's a pretty boy, then!
At Bath over the weekend, we chanced across a lively demonstration in support of Ukraine and against Putin's war. It assembled in the shadow of Bath Abbey. What a marvellous location for a protest!
The video was filmed from just over the wall in the Roman Baths. How's that for a site with a touch of aggressive imperialism to it.
There were perhaps 500 people present - including a few CND veterans. Some had a connection to Ukraine; most were simply alarmed and appalled by the vicious violence Russia has unleashed on a neighbouring country and the wider threat to peace that comes with it.
The slogans on the home-made placards weren't always sophisticated - but you got the message!
An uplifting moment - towards the end of the rally, the crowd sang "We Shall Overcome", the anthem so closely associated with the civil rights movement in the United States, and then adopted by civil rights campaigners in Northern Ireland and by the peace movement.
It was a nice touch.
This pocket size song book was designed to be taken on the march - it seems to be linked to the Topic Records LP ( remember them!) 'Songs Against the Bomb', released in 1960.
The cover design - by Kit Cooper - is a clever riff on the CND peace symbol in the form of a note on a musical stave. It was published by John Foreman, who styled himself 'the Broadsheet King'. The pamphlet features all sorts of songs, including the work of Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl and Sydney Carter.
'The H Bomb's Thunder' became the unofficial Aldermaston anthem - written by John Brunner, who went on to achieve fame as a writer of science fiction. Don't know it? Here it is -
Some of the songs were stirring, tunes to stride to - others were more reflective, such as Sydney Carter's 'The Crow on the Cradle' ...
... which happily is still being sung, not least by the magical Lady Maisery -
This slender pamphlet finds space for other songs of protest and of salvation - and the inclusion of so many songs written for the post-war peace movement gives this selection a very different feel from the socialist songbooks of the time. And these songs were sung!
Daphne's badges, cards, + a single which never made the charts: Harold Wilson, 'Let's Go With Labour'
The badges and political ephemera accumulated over a lifetime often bear testimony to decades of political striving, campaigning and service. They are the physical manifestations of a vision - of a commitment to social justice and a more equal society.
I am very grateful to a friend, Ruth Hogarth, for giving me these badges and membership cards of her mother's. Daphne Ritchings will be 95 in a couple of weeks time and is now in a home - I asked Ruth to tell me a bit about her mother:
'Both Daphne and my father, Alfred Hogarth, were in politics before they met. My father was active in the anti-fascist politics of the 30s East End under a pseudonym (Peter Hughes) so as not to jeopardise his mother’s business in Bethnal Green.'
'My mother became a socialist I think when she joined the WAAF in 1942. She joined the Labour Party at around that time and has remained a lifelong member - so nearly 80 years. They met when she - a GI bride with a young son and he a married father of two - went to work for him as his secretary after the war.'
'Between them they had seven children (four together) and we all lived in post-war poverty in a two-bed rented flat in London before moving to a new breeze block house in Bucks in the 1950s. It was at that point they both became trade unionists and Labour Party activists - he worked at Battersea Power station and she was a secretary. They both held seats on the local district council at various points during the 50s and 60s. Because of the war, my mother never got an education and, because of children, worked from home until she was 35, doing secretarial work, typing, sewing, childminding, lollipop lady etc. At 35, she became a legal secretary and carried on working in secretarial/PA roles until she retired at nearly 70.
'Later in life she turned from formal politics to protest - CND, Anti-Apartheid, Greenham Common.'
Quite the choice piece among these items is a 45 rpm disc - a 'single' in the parlance of the times - issued by the Labour Party ahead of the 1964 election (which Harold Wilson went on to win becoming only the third Labour prime minister).
This seems to have been the handiwork of Bessie Braddock - and the record has been signed by her, how wonderful! She was a pugnacious figure - the mainstay of the party on Merseyside. She started out in the ILP, was a foundation member of the Communist Party, moved over to Labour and became part of the 'great moving right show'.
Bessie was a formidable personality and campaigner and was once described as the most well-known woman in the country after the Queen:
And if you want to get a sense of the Merseysound Bessie Braddock style - and of Harold Wilson's introduction to it (wisely the A-side) - then give these a spin:
The Shuttle and Cage
Courtesy of eBay - and of the eagle-eyed Alan Dein, historian and broadcaster, who spotted it there - here's a wonderful 1954 book of what Ewan MacColl termed industrial folk ballads. It has a catching cover design (the artist simply signed as 'Brooke'), and was published by the Workers' Music Association - an organisation founded in 1936, when the CP was in its "popular front" stage, and which is still going.
'Few of these songs have ever appeared in print before', says Ewan MacColl in the preface, 'for they were not made with an eye to quick sales - or to catch the song-plugger's ear but to relieve the intolerable daily grind.'
The songs inlcude 'The Colliers' Rant' and three others from A.L. Lloyd's Come all ye bold miners, one song gathered by the legendary Alan Lomax, and several gleaned from weavers, miners and rail workers.
'There are no nightingales in these songs, no flowers - and the sun is rarely mentioned; their themes are work, poverty, hunger and exploitation.'
'Chicken Soup' for the C21 soul
The Royal Court is staging a wonderful production of Arnold Wesker's breakthrough play, 'Chicken Soup with Barley' - first performed there in 1958.
The set, the production, the performances - particularly of Samantha Spiro as the Communist matriarch Sarah Kahn (purportedly based on the author's activist aunt, Sara) - are spellbinding. It's the story, spread over twenty years, of the dissolution of a Jewish East End family, and the disillusion with the communism that they once shared. And the sharpness of the dialogue, often comic, is chicken soup for my soul.
The programme was - I've never come across this before - the play script. Remarkably good value for £3.
The play opens on October 4th 1936, the day of the 'battle' of Cable Street when communists and left-wingers stopped Mosley's fascists marching through London's then largely Jewish East End. The 75th anniversary of that landmark event will be marked later this year.
I hadn't quite appreciated how much political song there is in the opening scenes of 'Chicken Soup with Barley'. The 'Internationale' sung off stage. The household all signing Edward Carpenter's 'England Arise' - once the great English socialist anthem, but now distinctly obscure, so much so that I don't think I'd heard it sung in the flesh before. And there was another song I can't find anything about, with the chorus line of: 'For you are a worker too' - I can see why that didn't survive beyond the 1930s!
What do curators do? It's a bit like asking what musical conductors do. If you are outside the specialism, you don't really know. But you can tell that it makes a difference.
Richard Thompson's curating of the 'Meltdown' South Bank festival has been much applauded. But the evening of political song was a flop. He didn't get that political song is something very different from social commentary, protest, satire. It's about mass movements, and needs to energise - it's about anthems.
Rude Britannia at the Tate Britain has a range of guest curators - lots of great material - but add it all together, and, sadly, you get less than the sum of its parts. The absurd, the erotic, the satirical ... ok, but what's the common thread?
If you want to enjoy it, do what I did - go with an eleven-year-old. His sense of wonder and delight that farting, bums, bad words and bawdiness can be celebrated in the hallowed walls of an art gallery was wonderful. His favourite? The slightly hidden away ante-room of sexual vulgarity. And above all that tin of beans from which a frankfurter kept popping out. Kenneth Williams (who was on a nearby video screen, his dialogue from Carry On Up the Khyber dubbed into Pashto profanities) would have approved.
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