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Three Score & Ten - A Voice to the People (Topic Records)
Noel Gardner , October 19th, 2009 08:33

The jacket of the marvellous, LP-sized book (the inside front and back covers of which house the seven CDs which catalogue the 70-year history of Topic Records) claims that said label is the oldest independent in Great Britain. This is in fact characteristically modest – Topic is claimed by many to be the oldest surviving indie in the whole world. Yet this oughtn't be about unnecessary competition based on murky and likely unverifiable records; rather, we are here to laud an imprint that has been of the utmost importance in the survival of the folk music tradition, and indeed its evolution.

Formed as an offshoot of London-based Communist collective the Workers' Music Association, Topic issued its first disc – in the then-standard 78rpm, ten-inch format – in September 1939, pretty much exactly as World War II broke out. (This largely put the brakes on the label until 1947, due to musicians' involvement in the conflict and the low supply of shellac with which to press records.) 'The Man That Waters The Workers' Beer', by Paddy Ryan, is an anti-corporation music hall-derived number from 1939 which forms one side; a rendition of socialist anthem 'The Internationale' by The Topic Singers sits on the flip. For its first decade or so, much of Topic's catalogue consisted of British pressings of Soviet folksong and choral recordings, the influence of the WMA presumably looming large; however, 1950 saw releases by Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl, which can be seen as (part of) the dawn of a new era of folk, and of Topic.

The involvement of MacColl and A.L. Lloyd in the 50s in no way lessened the red hue of its ideology, yet Topic, from here on in, looked more frequently to British traditions and, well, topics in its release schedule. The graduation from 78s to vinyl came in 1956; Topic broke away from the WMA in 1960. It is this decade that accounts for some of their defining signings – MacColl's wife Peggy Seeger, Dominic Behan, Shirley Collins, The Watersons – as well as the seminal compilation of industrial folksong, The Iron Muse, and the extensive Folk Songs Of Britain series. Topic continued to thrive throughout the following decades, an operation that did not need to cater to the whims and affectations of the more 'popular' music industry, but was still run with enough hardy professionalism to give an advantageous home to Martin Carthy, June Tabor, Dick Gaughan, The Battlefield Band and many other high (and lower) profile folkists. Their product, ever since, has both embraced and eluded certain ingrained ideas about the form; they didn't blink as Dylan et al electrified it in the mid-60s, nor did they feel duty-bound to adhere to the staunch purism of many influential names, MacColl included.

And so to Three Score & Ten: A Voice To The People. Discs one and seven are summed up as "treasures from the Topic catalogue" and effectively serve as repositories for tracks that didn't quite fit anywhere else. Highlights of the first: Nic Jones' 'The Humpback Whale', an example of the bridge between the folk traditionalists that Topic gave great voice to, and the innovators who, over the decades, have crosspollinated it with other forms. That the still more influential Davy Graham, who passed away last year, has a track immediately after is doubtless no accident. The oldest recording in this collection, which goes back almost as far as any surviving British recordings, comes from Joseph Taylor and his 1908 rendition of 'Creeping Jane'. And the pervasive influence of music hall on the development of British folk is acknowledged, not for the last time on Three Score & Ten, by Lee Nicholson's 'Rawtenstall Annual Fair' – a Lancashire-centric tale of mild sauce that rhymes "lassie" with "chassis". The seventh casts its net wide, with a clutch of Eastern European, Norwegian and Kenyan ensemble recordings (these being part of the possibly dormat Topic World Series), cuts from American folkists Tom Paley and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and fine 'Worcester City'from Eliza Carthy, one of Topic's most prominent contemporary turns with a keening musical subtlety to her work.

You couldn't get much purer a statement of intent than beginning CD2, England Arise! with a recording of clog dancers – or, indeed, following it with a song collected on travels by two members of The Copper Family, a Sussex clan who have passed the practice of unaccompanied song down through several generations and are an essential cog of English folk. Followed by Shirley Collins followed by Anne Briggs followed by AL Lloyd's 'The Two Magicians' – a fantastical tale of cross-species sexual harassment (look it up, it's highly creepy) dating back to at least 1828. As such, the disc does cash in its chips somewhat early, although solid performances continue to abound, including June Tabor's 'A Place Called England', an anthemic, trumpet-heavy number from a decade ago, and the remarkable quavering voice of Phoebe Smith.

The more well-known Irish folk names didn't really interact with Topic, so most of the performers on CD3 – Ireland Boys, Hurrah – may be new to you. One of the more prominent acts on the disc, the still-active Boys Of The Lough, are in fact Scottish and Ulster, but perform a medley of sorts by two Irish folk icons. It seems unlikely, given their broad political outlook, that Topic were especially mindful of acknowledging Northern Ireland's status as part of the UK; the presence of a track, Dominic Behan's rather wistful 'The Patriot Game', from a 1959 compilation entitled Songs Of The IRA lends this suggestion further weight. On the whole, the Irish contributions are either instrumental (lashings of fiddle, as you might expect) or predominantly vocal, as opposed to the equivocal marriage of the two that anticipated the singer-songwriter boom; for that, we should look to The Chieftains and The Dubliners' emergence in the 1960s.

The Fisher Family, with their quite legitimately rollicking 'Come All Ye Fisher Lassies' – a female-dominated clarion call with an heroic number of seaside town shoutouts – belie the mood and tempo of much of Scotia The Brave, which completes the trio of nationally-themed collections here (an aside: Topic seemingly never made any attempt to document the legions of Welsh folk music, for reasons unclear). The family's own Cilla Fisher, who isn't on the aforementioned rendition, more closely exemplifies matters, with 'Blue Bleezin' Blind Drunk', where a battered wife seeks respite in whisky; she now packs arenas as part of hit family show The Singing Kettle. Dick Gaughan, one of the most forceful socialist voices in folk's history, delivers a polished but worthy 'Erin Go Bragh', nominally Irish as it may be. There's not actually much political content here, which might seem odd from a nation that has leaned left since election time began, but it might be attributable to Scottish folk reaching back a century or more to its rich ballad tradition, which applies to at least half of these 22 songs.

The listener with a non-archival interest in folk will probably have by far the highest recognition factor circa the entirely self-penned CD5, The Singer And The Song. This, too, will probably be the most divisive disc. Primarily featuring songs from the 80s onwards, this frequently means multi-tracked and overly polished or compressed production. It is perhaps cheering that the talents of Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson (whose paternal tribute 'Never Any Good' is one of the most moving turns to be found here) and Linda Thompson can't be quelled by (what may be their own) efforts to reposition themselves as figureheads in a relatively conventional band format.

'The Man That Waters The Workers' Beer', mentioned earlier, is appropriately the first track on The People's Flag , which is given over to the art of leftist protest. This takes in earnest blasts of 'The Internationale' and 'The Red Flag', Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, The Watersons, Richard Thompson, Shirley Collins hating on rip-off butchers, a surfeit of Ewan MacColl and, well, a sexist 1930s comedian saluting the Union Jack. For my money, this may have the highest hitrate of the seven: it covers the most stylistic, if least thematic ground, frequently takes the tack of conveying struggle and injustice through upbeat, anthemia rather than wailing sorrow and, as noted, features many names you can't go too far wrong with.

It's easy to pay lip service to Topic simply for still existing, and some people writing about this label and this collection have done so. Like praising, I don't know, Ken Dodd or Peregrine Worsthorne, one can end up effectively asking, "are you still here?". Certainly, there's no need to pretend the imprint as it exists today is attempting any contemporary wagon-chasing; as a look through the included booklet, detailing Topic's naturally vast discography, will indicate, most of their 21st century output has either been CD reissues or new albums from longstanding artists. The book – 110 pages written with palpable love and rich with information, sleeve art and fantastic archive photos – concludes thus: "The aims and objects of the Workers' Music Association (as published in 1944) still stand as a fair description of the ambitions of Topic Records in 2009." What chance these fellows staying standing until they're the very last socialists in the music biz?