SWEET LIBERTIES: Roots Unearthed, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, November 27, 2015
Six musicians, including the charismatic and mesmerising Martyn Joseph and BBC Folk Singer Of The Year Nancy Kerr, staged this fascinating show, celebrating 800 years of democracy since the signing of Magna Carta and 750 years since the Simon de Montfort parliament. The English Folk Dance and Song Society and the Folk By The Oak festival commissioned songwriters Martin, Nancy, Sam Carter and Maz O’Connor to mark the double anniversary, which paved the way for our hard-fought-for comparative freedom today. The songwriters, accompanied by the lovely Patsy Reid, fiddler with the Scottish band Breabach, and Nick Cooke, melodeonist with the Jim Moray Band, went out on the road for a week-long tour, seven venues including the launch in the State Rooms of Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster, the EFDSS headquarters at Cecil Sharp House in Camden Town, London, the Sage Arts Centre in Gateshead and the Colston Hall in Bristol.
The sextet honoured two martyrs who died for the cause that they believed in, jumping right in with an a capella ‘John Ball’, the Sydney Carter song commemorating the Lollard priest who played a significant role in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and who was imprisoned, hanged, drawn and quartered in the presence of King Richard II. His head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge and parts of his body were sent to four different towns. Martyn hit the nail on the head with his song ‘Dic Penderyn’ – Richard Lewis, a 23-year-old miner who was involved with the Merthyr Riots of 1831. He was wrongly charged with stabbing a soldier, but the people of Merthyr delivered an 11,000-signature petition demanding his release. However, Home Secretary Lord Melbourne wanted a rebel to die as a lesson, and Dic was found guilty and hanged in Cardiff.
Maz introduced ‘Rich Man’s Hill’, one of her meticulously-constructed songs that, combined with her sweet personality and a fetching performance, is a winner; based on the Poor Relief Act of 1601, it addresses inequality between rich and poor to this day. Nancy celebrated the Human Rights Act 1998 with her beautiful song, ‘Written On My Skin’, which she carried off with conviction; the bad news is that David Cameron does not like the Act, and he intends to replace it with the new British Bill Of Rights, overseen by the Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, whose toxic policies led to him being replaced as education minister. The sad fact is that our democracy, our sweet liberties, are being slowly whittled away by new restrictive legislation; The Government is intent on forcing us to pay for information to which we have a right, seriously weakening our national broadcasting system’s independence, undermining our National Health Service, creating a corporate profit-led news agency, shedding thousands of responsible journalists’ jobs so uncaring crooks and bullying mega-corporations need never worry about being called to account, shoring up the broken and totally unfair first-past-the-post voting system… these are unsure and uncertain times, with the added factor of Rupert Murdoch’s sombre shadow, just waiting in the wings for his buddies to beckon him forward. It is a worrying, chilling thought.
The written songs just flowed like a river in full flood. Sam and Martyn duetted on ‘All The Way Home’; inspired by the Factories Act 1833, it tells the story of Thomas Priestley, who walked from a mill in Cheshire to London to see his mother after his finger was cut off by a cotton-spinning machine. Sam took the stage again in the chorus song ‘Our Kind Of Harmony’, inspiring people to sing; Nancy wrote ‘Lila’, which tells the true story of the Suffragettes and the role of women in the abolition of slavery. Martyn scored points with the audience by performing his well-loved ‘Cardiff Bay’, and dedicated his songs to Nye Bevan, the father of our NHS; he really is a remarkable artist, and he deserves to hold his head proudly together with Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Cockburn and other famous songsmiths. A pedantic point is that the three writers referred to England as the sole nation, never mentioning Wales, Scotland or Ireland; but Martyn set the record straight, with a tiny Ddraig Goch flag adorning his microphone stand.
Maz wrote ‘Fair England’, a tribute to Freeborn John – John Lilburne, a puritan who was imprisoned, whipped and exiled for campaigning for what he called his “freeborn rights”. He enlisted as a officer fighting for the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil Wars, but in 1646 he was imprisoned in The Tower Of London for denouncing his former commanding officer. The campaign to free him led to a new political party, The Levellers, who had a strong following in The New Model Army. The Army held the fortnight-long Putney Debates, organised by the soldiers themselves, where they discussed the pamphlet entitled An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right, influenced by Lilburne’s writings – which are still read and followed today.
The band played two items for the inevitable encore; the first was an English polka, with a Nancy quotation from Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution!” Sam closed the show with the slave hymn ‘One More River To Cross’, the whole party joining the chorus in harmony to make a perfect tableau. Cameron may not like it – but the enterprising EFDSS has changed out of all proportion to the plimsoll-wearing tea-dance walkers of 30 years ago, and more power to their elbows.